Isaiah 7:10-16 & Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
One of my favourite Christmas memories is of Christmas Lunch held in the hall at the Baptist Church where I spent most of my childhood. It was a lunch put on by a good number of the church folk where around 60 people largely from the local area came and could enjoy a wonderful Christmas meal in the presence of the good company of others. The tables were always set beautifully with table cloths and decorations and there was a full cooked Christmas meal laid on including Christmas pudding and custard, It was wonderful! I can still remember the faces of a good number of the regulars who came each year. There was Paul who looked a bit rough, often turning up in what looked like the same clothes he’d been wearing since last Christmas, and who was never far from a bottle of beer. And Anne, who was and had been confined to a wheelchair her whole life with various things and people effecting her health and well-being. From the church I remember the Miller family who were good family friends with kids our age and the Shakespeare’s who were also good family friends. The Baptist minister is also firmly etched in my memory – Darcy – a rather tall and round man. An ex policeman whose voice was suitably big enough to match his physical presence in the room – it was always his job to slice the meat…
I pondered this week why it is a favourite memory. I think it is because we were there as friends and familiar faces, joining together for a purpose. This was a meaningful event for all who were involved and all who simply turned up. I think it is a favourite because many of those who were there would have otherwise been on their own. In this there was connection and a little bit of making this day better because of it. I also think it was because we as kids there simply just had a good fun time running around the place and eating delicious food… though we also I think, just felt like we were a part of the whole thing. I hope you have memories like this of your own? Favourite Christmas memories that linger as a gift in your mind, giving meaning and fulfilment to you as you look back on them.
I, at the moment, am also looking forwards to Christmas coming. For us it always starts with making sure everyone is up and out of bed before gathering around the tree and giving each other our gifts, then we usually move onto breakfast where we light a candle and begin the day as we intend to move through it, gratefully, and by eating far too much! We then will come here, and join together in our Christmas Day service before heading home for what this year has ended up being a quiet gap in the middle of the day. Hopefully it is warm, and we might go to the school pool, and take the dog and try and wear her out before heading home to prepare the evening meal for 13 of us as our extended families come and join – including the new two month old cousin. I hope as well as recalling favourite memories you too can look forward to Christmas this year.
In our looking back and in our looking forward I wonder though if it is easy for us to forget the realities for some that make this time of year hard. I imagine the Community Christmas Dinner when I was young didn’t go down without some stressful moments and some comments along the lines of, ‘we’re not doing this again…’ let alone the reason we were doing it in the first place; the fact that there were significant numbers of those on their own in our area. And I think it is easy to get caught up in the glitter and tinsel and lights in the shop windows all too easily forgetting that for many people this Christmas coming, perhaps like many before it, is not an easy time to be in. There are those young and old who will be on their own. There are those who perhaps have recently become a widow or widower and so looking forward to Christmas is met with thoughts of the first one without… There are families who struggle to make ends meet at normal times of year, let alone with the pressures of this season. The City Mission is expecting 700 people to its Christmas Dinner this year and I read this week of a church in Gisborne who have linked with a few community groups who are doing a similar thing; they are expecting around 200 people to turn up. And we have what are normal everyday struggles that seem to become much larger at this time like ongoing EQ battles, battles with illness and treatments, violence, the oppression of different cultures and beliefs… these of course are just New Zealand examples.
The Christmas Dinner at that Baptist church when I was young and the remembering of what the current situations of some are, to me encompasses both the realities that Christmas has and perhaps some ideals of what Christmas for us as followers of Jesus means. God came, and lived among us. Christ is present with us and Christ is to be found in all places, especially in places of hardship, poverty, need of any sort, in places of injustice, and yes in all the weird and wonderful parts of our lives too. And we as the church, as the body of Christ in the world, well we get to join in with making this Christ visible wherever we go.
We respond to God’s movements in worship here today, the last Advent Sunday before Christmas, and we have lit another candle. The candle of Love. “The fourth candle is the candle of LOVE. Jesus is our LOVE. He is with us always and loves us unconditionally through all the events in our lives – in birth and death, in joy and sorrow. We light this candle for LOVE.” (Advent Candle Lighting words that we have been using this year). It seems to me quite fitting that love comes last before the Christ Candle next week. Love it seems to me encompasses all of these other themes too – if God is love, and if Christ is the visible presence of that, then it makes sense that we would get hope, joy and peace all caught up in it and happening too.
In the Scriptures we have coming to us today the prophet Isaiah speaks of the sign that God will give, the messiah who will choose good over evil as if it is instinctual, like his first impulse is to choose good. And we have a cry from the Psalmist for restoration, of returning once again to be at home with God. Restore us! Return life to us because then we shall be found in your way forever.
I kind of like that Psalm 80 in particular has come to us today. This Psalm comes at us in Advent, not as expectant hope, confident in the coming joy, in the movements of peace, but rather as an example of real desperation, a cry to God who seems distant, if not absent! This indeed names the realities that even during this season there are those who do not feel God as present, those that despite summoning all their energy do not expect God to come and bring any sort of hope. It is in a way an agreement that not all is right. But in all this it does not give over to despair, as if this is the last word. It appears to be built on the hope that God will hear and act and build up those present, and in this it makes change possible. In reading this Psalm as we focus on the coming of Christ, the light coming into the darkness; perhaps as we take the incarnation seriously, that God did indeed come as one with a name and a face in Jesus, then Christmas marks a time when God indeed heard the cries of despair and came to us in solidarity to share in that despair, in that suffering, and to join in the necessary protest against violence and injustice in all their many forms.
So, here on the fourth Sunday in advent we acknowledge that not all is well, even in this season of joy and sharing, giving and receiving. And in our naming the darkness that is still present perhaps we can indeed join our voices with the Psalmist: Restore us Lord… let your face shine… And as we say this together with many others throughout time and space in light of Christmas we are reminded that when injustice is present, it is our calling as Christians to lament… to grieve with those who grieve, to be alongside those who suffer, to empathise, to act in solidarity with and to walk alongside those who struggle. And we are reminded in the light of Christmas that God still hears the cries of protest and acts, and in that action love arrives. Perhaps some questions for us to keep in our hearts as we go around madly running our last minute errands this week could be along the lines of: Where do we see that love has been neglected? Where do we notice fear? Where do we see lives lain to waste by the school playground bullies that never grew up? Where do we notice those who need a bit of extra help in simply living from day to day? Who knows, this Psalm as a prayer for restoration might just be what we personally need this Christmas too. Can we think of things in our lives that need restoring – that need to be ‘called back’? Is there any part of our various communities that need wholeness? That need joining back to the rest of us? In Advent it is perfectly fitting that we call on God to restore – to come again and return things to wholeness. The heart of this Psalm encourages us to lament and encourages us to draw alongside the suffering we see in the world to express our grief and agony over the way some things are. And we direct our gaze towards the God who indeed draws alongside us and ultimately restores all in all.
As the body of Christ in the world we have a purpose to take notice of where God’s present feels like it is absent. We have a reason to express our anger and grief but also to participate in actions towards others and indeed ourselves that demonstrate that Christ has come, and will continue to come. The Prophet Isaiah named a coming Messiah and in Jesus this vision was fulfilled. We can read this on our side of history and see that this was the sign that God provided to the world. A sign that said, ‘Yes, I will restore it all. See, I am here among you, I am joining with you, and you are not alone.’ In Advent as we both celebrate the wonderful things and lament the still present darkness I believe that the sign of the gift of God, the sign of Christ’s continuing arrival is the many pockets around the place where we see good as the choice over evil. I believe this is the evidence of love arriving and making its home in us for where love takes root in our lives we embody the advent of Christ in all we say and do…
Christ has come, Christ will come again. I’m looking for ways to join in and make that the reality that people see. I wonder if this is a good way to be in this season. Ever grateful for the gifts we receive, for the threads of God’s presence with us throughout our lives. Grateful for the times we look forward to spending among family and friends. Grateful for resources that make things possible. But, also on the lookout for those who could do with some love directed their way this season. “Restore us, O Lord God of hosts; let your face shine, that [all] may be saved.”