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Unwrapping God’s Gift: Everlasting Father

everlasting father 5

(a sermon for December 13, 2015, the 3rd Sunday of Advent; third in a series, based on Isaiah 40:1-11, 28-31; Ephesians 1:3-14 and Isaiah 9:6)

“For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” – Isaiah 9:6

“And he is named… Everlasting Father.”

Let me just say at the outset that of the four names of the Christ child we’re looking at during this Advent series, this one – “Everlasting Father” – might well be the most confusing!  To begin with, Isaiah’s prophecy speaks of a Son being given to us, one who is referred to elsewhere in scripture as the Son of the Most High, the Son of God; so immediately it would seem as though name “Everlasting Father” would apply to God rather than to the Son, who is Jesus!  And moreover, Jesus comes to us as that “holy infant, tender and mild,” a baby that the shepherds found “wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger?” (Luke 2:12)  So what Isaiah seems to be giving us here is the name of a father and a child all wrapped up in one; and that’s… confusing!

And in more ways than one; it also runs headlong into our Christian understanding of the Trinity, in which God comes to us in three distinct ways, as three “persons:”  Father and Son and Holy Spirit.  And once you start talking about the Trinity, you have to start making those very confusing distinctions that can make our heads spin: that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Father… but they are all one God!  But whereas this is an important doctrine of our Christian theology, and it is true that Jesus Christ was the incarnation – that is, the physical embodiment – of God the Father, I really don’t think that this is what Isaiah’s prophecy was getting at!

The fact is, in Isaiah’s time, some 700 years before the birth of this child in the manger, the people of Israel were looking hard for a Messiah who would be for them an “Everlasting Father.”   Remember last Sunday when looked at how this Messiah would also be named “Mighty God,” the Hero who would lead his people Israel to victory; well, “Everlasting Father” is kind of an extension of that: meaning one who would reign over them in their victory; who would protect them and provide for them; who would care for them,  who would have compassion on them and be gracious, merciful and forgiving.  Simply put, they were looking for a Messiah who would love them, lead them, and redeem them in much the same way an earthly father would; but whose love would endure forever!

Of course, as we’ve mentioned before, it’s important to remember that when Israel heard this they were thinking in terms of a worthy successor to King David!  But isn’t it interesting that this description of an “Everlasting Father” for Israel ends up describing Jesus “to a T?”   For what we have here in Isaiah is the promised gift of a Messiah who will be that everlasting father for his people: an enduring, compassionate provider and protector who is the perfect combination of the eternal qualities of God with the human compassion of an earthly father!

By the way, have you noticed over the past couple of weeks that in each of these names of Christ we find a combination of the divine quality of Christ and his human quality?  “Wonderful Counselor,” reminding us that in Jesus Christ, unfettered divine support touches the deepest human need; and “Mighty God,” telling us that in Jesus we find both the power of the almighty and a profound understanding of human sin and weakness; well, now there’s this one who will be called “Everlasting Father,” promising in this holy child a divine love and care after the manner of a loving parent.

Now, having said that, I understand that for a lot of people, maybe even some of you here this morning, this may not be altogether a positive image.  I’m very much aware that this is one of those things that do tend to make the holidays difficult for a lot of people. Maybe you’re hearing all this and you’re thinking, well, I never had that kind of love from my father; my father left my family and me when I was young; my father drank and he was abusive, and believe me, there was nothing at all Christ-like in him!  Maybe some of you never even had a father in any real sense, either literally or figuratively; or, for that matter, a mother or any other kind of strong or positive parental figure!  So it’s all very well and good, you’re thinking, this business of an everlasting father but it all seems pretty empty and more than a little painful to me!

And yes, that may be true for you, just as I also know that there are those of us here who had wonderful fathers but lost them all too soon; and to all of you I want to say I’m sorry for that pain and that feeling of loss.  But here’s an interesting thing about that: the Hebrew word that Isaiah uses for “everlasting” is aviad, which means “advancing in perpetuity,” and actually can be translated literally as “beyond the vanishing point.”  Beyond the vanishing point!  In other words, while earthly fathers are imperfect and make mistakes, while many fall short of being model parents and others are just absent altogether, the one who comes to as an everlasting father is with us way beyond the point where everything and everyone else in the world vanishes, never to be seen again.  Max Lucado says this beautifully in his book, In the Grip of Grace; referring to Paul’s words to the Romans, “If God is for us, who can be against us,” (Romans 8:31) Lucado writes, “God is for you.  Your parents may have forgotten you, your teachers may have neglected you, your siblings may be ashamed of you; but within the reach of your prayers is the maker of the oceans.  God!”  God is for you!

And it’s this same God who comes to us as one who never stops loving us; who never says good-bye to us; who never leaves our side; who never breaks that relationship with us, but who maintains and nurtures what we have with one another… forever.  And here’s the beauty part, friends; this is how God always intended it to be, and that it is this way is God’s great joy!  “In love,” Paul says to the Ephesians in our Epistle reading this morning, “He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”  Now, if that all sounds a bit theological for you, I can give you a three word translation:

God Chose You!

In love and with joy, God chose you, dear friends, and he chose me!  God’s relationship with us, you see, is not an accident of birth or some obscure cosmic happenstance, but the result of incredible loving intent on the part of the divine.  I’m thinking right now of the many families I know who have adopted children.  Anyone who has ever entered into that kind of relationship, particularly as it relates to special needs children, will tell you right up front that there are literally a ton of issues, concerns and challenges that go along it; but more importantly and much more prominently than the so called “problems,” there are incredible blessings, including a family dynamic unlike any other.  I’m remembering a family in a former parish who had adopted a little boy; and sometimes that little boy (who was aware he was adopted) would become very troubled about who he was and where he came from.  But he always found comfort in the arms of his father and mother, and it was because they always told him the same thing: “Never forget, ever, that you’re special because we chose you.”  And friends, we’re special… because by his grace in Jesus Christ, God has chosen us!   As René Schlaepfer has said it:  “When he created you, it was love at first sight; when he adopted you, he said, ‘I will never look away.’”

What an incredible gift God gives us in this one who will be called “Everlasting Father!”  And what a wonderful thing it is for us to know that no matter what our troubles or doubts happen to be at any given time of our lives, no matter how isolated we might begin to feel in a cold, dark world, the enduring truth is that we are loved beyond measure, and we are cared for beyond understanding; even beyond life itself, for the love that we are given from this Everlasting Father will last even unto eternity!

What a Merry Christmas, indeed!

I think I’ve told you before the story of how, when I was probably 19 or 20 years old, out on a hunting trip with my father one very cold, damp November, I got caught out in the Maine woods for a couple of hours after dark. Truth is, I wasn’t really all that far from camp; but as night was descending and was headed back to camp I’d fallen over this blown down alder, and I’d lost my compass and broke my flashlight in the process; so short of wandering around aimlessly in the pitch darkness all night, which is never a good thing to do, I was pretty much stuck!

And the thing is, my father came to get me, Coleman lantern in hand and bringing with him the rest of the guys who were with us on that hunting trip; let me tell you, I was never so glad to see anyone in my whole life than I was to see my father at that moment!  And here’s the part of the story I don’t think I told you: that despite the fact that we were all strong and manly men out there in the wilderness (!) and not given to such displays of emotion, I have to confess that when I saw my Dad, I immediately and without hesitation I just about hugged the stuffing out the man!

In our Old Testament reading this morning we are given the promise of one who “tends his flock like a shepherd: [who] gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; [who] gently leads those that have young.”  (NIV)  That’s a beautiful image, friends; but I have to tell you that for me, when I think of that shepherd or when I consider the ways of my “everlasting father” who is Jesus Christ, in my mind’s eye I almost always have him carrying a lantern.  Because you know what?  The truth is that as I go about this journey of life I find myself meandering in the dark way too many times; enough to know that I need someone who in great and redeeming love will come looking for me; and who will lead me home by his light.

“Do you not know?” says the prophet. “Have you not heard?  The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.  He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.  He gives strength to the weary, and increases the power of the weak.  Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not be weary, they will walk and not be faint.”

This is our gift, beloved.  This child, this one who is born in Bethlehem, who will grow to become our teacher, redeemer, our friend and example; this is the one who shall be called our “Everlasting Father,” and with everlasting love he will truly bring us, as the song goes, “goodness and light… he will bring us goodness and light; ” and truly, wherever the journey of life shall take us, in and through him we will find safety, rest, and comfort.

Thanks be to God for this incredible, enduring gift!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2015  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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A Yearning for Comfort

comforting embrace

“Comforting Embrace” — Koro Arandia

“’Comfort, O comfort my people,’ says your God.” – Isaiah 40:1 (NRSV)

Recently, I was asked if I might step in and lead a brief memorial service for a young couple in our community whose infant son had unexpectedly died at birth.  Given that this family was quite literally aching with grief and had no strong church affiliation, I was glad to be able to offer them some measure of pastoral support; though I have to confess that these kinds of services are perhaps the most difficult of all to prepare and to lead. After all, how does one even begin to console that which is inconsolable; what words of healing and hope can possibly be spoken in a few brief moments that won’t end up ringing hollow in the midst of such deep sadness?

And yet, there is a strong need for us to come together in moments such as these; a yearning, as the liturgy in our United Church of Christ Book of Worship expresses it, to “pour out our grief, release our anger, face our emptiness, and know that God cares.”  This truth was brought home to me in profound fashion as I arrived at the funeral home that evening; for what was expected to be a relatively small gathering of extended family members and a few close friends had become a huge outpouring of love and support for the bereaved parents.  There was a long line of people winding out the door of the very crowded funeral chapel, each one awaiting an opportunity to express their condolences; so many, in fact, that the memorial service itself had to be delayed by nearly a half an hour. And when finally the time came for me to begin, I was immediately struck by how swiftly the room had fallen silent, and how strongly the eyes of all those present were now looking to me to offer some assurance of comfort in the midst of this great loss and, indeed, “the frailty of our own existence on earth;” the kind of comfort that ultimately is not mine, nor the world’s, to give, but which is as real and as true as God’s own word of unending hope.

And it was in that fleeting moment that I was reminded of what this season of Advent is all about.

Each year during these weeks of December, we remember how the people of God, dwelling in a time of exile, despair and seeming hopelessness, nonetheless awaited with great anticipation the promised coming of the Messiah, who is the Christ; and likewise, how you and I are also to be waiting, watching and perhaps above all, preparing for that time when Christ shall return, bringing with him the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom on earth. We sing songs of hope and joy; we pray for peace and renew ourselves to the work of love; and we light candles symbolizing all of these things and more, so that we might be reminded of God’s light forever piercing the darkness even as the tragic events in places like Paris and San Bernardino make us painfully aware of the many ways that darkness seeks to prevail in this world.  Truly, as the song (and Longfellow’s poetry) so poignantly puts it, “for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, goodwill to men,” and we are left yearning for that which will give us true comfort.

And yet, even now, even in the wake of such rampant violence and our own human propensity to respond with anger and retribution, God is there for us with a word of hope; “speaking tenderly” to us with the sure and certain promise of a peace that the world can neither give nor take away, made real to us in the gift of a child who was born – in a manger (!) – to be our Savior, our Teacher, our Friend.. and our Example… as persons and as a people.

Perhaps my favorite quote from the works of Frederick Beuchner comes from an essay in which he writes:

“In the silence of a midwinter dusk there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself.  You hold your breath to listen… The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens.  Advent is the name of that moment.” – from “Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized” by Frederick Beuchner

I like to think that that even amidst the inevitable noise and chaos that always seems to follow the ever-shifting and often earth-shaking events of this present age, there will always be those who will be looking past the darkness and toward the growing light dawn; standing on tiptoes, as it were, so that they might be able to peek just past the next horizon to see what amazing thing God will be doing in the world.  Peace on Earth and goodwill amongst all people?  An end to poverty, hunger and injustice?  Love truly made manifest from person to person, nation to nation?  “God and sinners reconciled?”  It’s all there… all given to us in the sure and certain promises of a mighty and infinitely loving God, and it’s all just about to happen… just wait for it, and be ready when it does!

Indeed, my prayer in this particular season and always is that we will find comfort in what, by God’s grace, is “just about to happen;” and that each one of us will be actively awaiting that advent with prayerful anticipation, with hearts devoted to making it real in the world and in our lives until that moment comes in its fullness.

O Come, o come… Emmanuel.

c. 2015  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 10, 2015 in Advent, Current Events, Jesus, Ministry, Reflections

 

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Sing We Now of Christmas: Where Meek Souls Receive Him Still

9bd6c-ec84b1ed8384eca088(A sermon for December 7, 2014, the Second Sunday of Advent; second in a series, based on Isaiah 40:1-11, 2 Peter 3:8-15a and “O Little Town of Bethlehem”)

Today most of us would likely be hard pressed to recognize the name of the Reverend Phillips Brooks; but back in the mid-19th century, to church goers his name would have been as familiar as, say, Rick Warren, Joel Osteen or even Billy Graham is to us.  Phillips Brooks, you see, was considered to be one of the most brilliant and best loved American preachers of his time.  He was born and raised in the city of Boston, “the ninth generation of Puritan stock” and Harvard educated; and as a young man powerfully pastored churches both in Boston and Philadelphia; but it was his strong reputation as a topical preacher that spread throughout the country in the years during and just following the Civil War: in fact, Phillips Brooks became something of a pastor to the whole nation after he preached to his congregation a heart-wrenching sermon of mourning and healing just following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln that was subsequently printed and widely distributed in 1865, a phenomenon that today is referred to as “going viral!”

It was said of Brooks that he was literally and figuratively larger than life:  he was six foot six and weighed 300 pounds; so not only did that make for an imposing presence in the pulpit, his preaching just seemed to match.  It was written at the time that his sermon delivery “came in lightning bursts,” and he himself used to say that he felt like “he had more to say than time in which to say it.” (I know… “preacher’s problems!”) But Phillips Brooks was also headed toward what you and I today might refer to as “clergy burn-out,” what with his sudden rise to fame and all the responsibility that came with that, and especially given a great heaviness of heart in dealing pastorally with so many of his parishioners who themselves were dealing with the aftermath of the destruction and brutal violence of the war.  It had all become more than Brooks could bear, and late in 1865 he left on a sabbatical in the Holy Land in order to seek some peace for himself and perhaps some measure of healing.

And so it was that on Christmas Eve 1865, Phillips Brooks found himself traveling on horseback from the city of Jerusalem to the “little town” of Bethlehem.  “It is a good-looking town,” he wrote in a letter to his father, though he noted that the streets of Bethlehem seemed rather dark in comparison to the well-lit streets of Philadelphia or Boston.  He also marveled at the fact that there were shepherds in the fields “keeping watch over their flocks” in much the same fashion as they’d done on the night of Jesus’ birth so many years before. It was like he was there, which filled him with an unspeakable awe; and that awe only grew from that moment on.  The night ended with a five-hour (!) service of worship at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which is built very close to the spot where it is believed Jesus was born; and even years later Brooks would tell of how “the whole church was ringing hour after hour with splendid hymns of praise to God.”

But interestingly, the thing about that night that Phillips Brooks would remember the most was not as much in the liturgy and trappings of what must have been an amazing worship service, but in fact “crowd of pilgrims,” who had gathered in and around the church on that Christmas Eve night, and who “with their simple faith and eagerness to share in the ceremonial,” were telling each other with all joy of the wonderful night of the Savior’s birth.  It was an experience that provided both healing and a renewal of Spirit; and with the memory of it still “singing in [his] soul” a year later, it served as the inspiration for a song written for the children of his church’s Sunday School:

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!  Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

With a melody that was composed pretty much overnight by his church organist (!), “O Little Town of Bethlehem” has since become one of the most enduring and beloved carols of Christmas; and I have to say that when I’m planning a Christmas Eve service I always tend to place this song just prior to reading the nativity story from Luke.  The words and music seems to evoke the utter beauty and the wonder of this little, backwoods village of Judea that’s dark and asleep even on a holy night when, by God’s grace and love, the world is about to change forever; and truly, in that regard, it’s a perfect song in describing Christmas itself.  But as the story of Phillips Brooks illustrates, it’s a song that expresses a whole lot more than that.

It’s there in what is perhaps my favorite verse in this song (you’ve probably already found out, by the way, that I have favorite verses in these carols that aren’t necessarily the ones that people remember!):

“How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given!  So God imparts to human hearts the joys of highest heaven.  No ear may hear Christ coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

You see, whereas our experiences may differ widely from those of its composer, most of us, I think, know so very well what it is to carry more burdens on our shoulders than we can possibly bear.  For some, it’s external in nature:  the unrelenting busy-ness of daily life; trying to make ends meet in a crazy economy; doing whatever it is we have to do to care for ourselves and for those around us without drowning in the sheer volume of it.  And for others, it’s an internal struggle:  trying to make some kind of sense of the multitude of inner memories and feelings and festering conflicts that often have a way of getting the better of us.  And the Christmas season, quite frankly, can easily exacerbate all of that: there’s a reason that there’s a sharp rise in things like depression and illness this time of year; it’s because it’s often hard enough day to day simply to cope with all these struggles, much less attempt to do so with all the chaos of the holidays piling on top of it!  The truth is that in some way or another, we all know what it is to carry more of a burden than we can bear; and so to also know this incredible promise that “God imparts to human hearts the joys of highest heaven” is good news indeed.

It’s much the same sentiment as what we hear from the prophet Isaiah in our Old Testament reading this morning, a piece of scripture that’s traditionally read at about this point in the Advent season:  “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins,” because “the Lord God comes with might,” and “like a shepherd, he will care for his flock, gathering the lambs in his arms, hugging them as he carries them.” (The Message)  It’s a beautiful and yes, comforting promise that we’re given here; the assurance that the promised Messiah will come as God has promised.  And yet, as Kay was reading this to us earlier, did you notice how incredibly fatalistic this passage is?

There’s that whole section there that talks about how “all people are grass” that ultimately withers and dies; as “The Message” translates it – and understand, this is the word of the Lord (!) – we are people with love “fragile as wildflowers… if GOD so much as puffs on them.  Aren’t these people just so much grass?”  Wouldn’t you love to see that quoted on a Christmas card… of course, with the added greeting, “with blessings for the new year!”   But it’s true, isn’t it; in this life we do discover that so much on which we cling in this world for the sake of our own security – our money, our power, our place in society – can crumble beneath our feet, and ultimately we wither and fade along with it.  It all seems dark and more than a little foreboding, I know: which is what makes it all the more amazing this promise we have that “the word of our God will stand forever,” and that in every mountain and hill being made low, and every rough place becoming a plain, “the glory of the LORD shall be revealed.”

What we’re talking about here, friends, is the hopeful promise of PEACE:  but not simply peace on earth – although that’s very much a part of God’s promise – but also and most especially peace in the heart:  the peace that passes all our human understanding; the peace that Jesus himself breathed on his disciples; the peace that comes to us when God would “cast out our sin and enter in,” bringing new life with his presence. In the eloquent words of Greg Syler, an Episcopal priest in Maryland, it’s a peace “built by God who is redeeming and renewing and loving and rebuilding this world, brick by brick, community by community, heart by heart.”

And it’s a gift… a gift that’s given silently… “how silently…”  in the quiet movement of God’s Holy Spirit and always; received when meek souls… like yours and like mine… come to the profound yet simple understanding that we cannot carry the unbearable burdens of our lives and of the world by ourselves.  Our peace – the true and lasting spiritual peace that passes understanding – comes when we will open our hearts for “the dear Christ” to enter in, in the guise of this “Holy Child” who was born on that first Christmas night and continues to be born today in every willing heart.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: it’s important for us as Christians to remember that though all around us the Christmas celebration has started in earnest, as believers we are, in fact, Advent people.  And it seems to me that especially now – before we pause to hear the Christmas angels, and before “the great glad tidings tell” – amidst not only the noise of the season, but also in chaos and the confusion of our life’s ongoing journey, now would be the perfect time for us to retreat, prayerfully and purposely, into the stillness of our inner Bethlehem (as our Epistle reading this morning from 2 Peter puts it, prayerfully “waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God:” perchance to listen not with ear with heart for signs of his coming, so that at Christmas – and always – that God, Emmanuel, will truly “come to us [and] abide with us.”

How good it is that we have just such an opportunity for prayer and reflection this morning, as we come to the Lord’s Table to feast on the bread and the cup, and to savor the promise and the reality of his presence in our lives and within our very hearts.

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!  Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light; the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

Let us come to the table, then; and let our thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN.

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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