Always and Without Ceasing
First Baptist Church Laurens
November 25, 2018
This past week, I enjoyed reading an entertaining seasonal article on Christmas trees. According to the research cited in the article, the most expensive day of the year to buy a Christmas Tree was this past Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. So, if you bought a tree on Friday, I apologize, I should have given you this pertinent information in last Sunday’s sermon and saved you a few extra dollars which I am sure you would have in turn given in the offering plate!?! I also found it interesting, according to the same article, to know that the most expensive state for buying a tree is California while the cheapest is North Dakota though once you spend the money to get to North Dakota and back from Laurens, I am sure that would offset the savings. The cheapest day to buy a tree? Well again, according to the same research, that would be December 24th at less than half the price it would have cost to buy a tree this past Friday. But, while waiting until Christmas Eve may save you a few bucks, it may not increase your standing with the rest of the family! (Here’s The Busiest Day to Buy a Christmas Tree and When They’re Most Expensive, Ethan Wolff-Mann, finance.yahoo.com, November 24, 2017)
I share this little insights about buying a tree to say that many of us, including my own family, are already hard at work or finished with decorating for Christmas as Thanksgiving Weekend is one of the most popular times to begin getting into the spirit of the Season. Already, and even though it is still November, as the sun begins to set in Laurens you can see countless signs of the season in home windows, on the town square and through the little Charlie Brown trees that are beginning to mark the edges of front lawns lining West Main. These lights and seasonal decorations remind us of the light of Christ that shines in the darkness and of the hope of salvation that comes to our dark world through the coming of the baby Jesus.
Yet, in spite of all of the decorations, the darkness that all of these Christmas lights seek to overpower is equally real Did you realize that Christmas comes at the very same time that we live through the darkest days of the year? Its true. This year, the day when we will have the least light and therefore the most night will fall on Friday, December 21 only a few days before Christmas.
This battle between the light of Christmas and the darkness happens in many of our lives during these last days and weeks of the year too. It is the Christmas season and we know that we should be happy, joyful and hard at work embracing the peace of Christ and the wonders of the season but it is not always the easiest thing to do. For so many of us, Christmas is a hard time and this is true for lots of reasons. For some of us, it will be the first Christmas without a parent, a spouse, a child or a friend. We have lost them this last year and Christmas won’t be the same without them. For some of us, we will spend Christmas alone because we are the only one left or because of broken relationships. For others of us, our finances are not what we wish they were and we will struggle to give to our children or grandchildren what we would like. For others of us an illness has come that has totally altered our life and how we feel. For still others, these are just busy days at work, with our family schedules or with other things we are involved in and we feel like we are in survival mode not celebration mode. We see the lights, hear the carols, notice the smiling children but the darkness seems to be creeping in and we are already struggling not to let it take over.
If this is us, Isaiah 40 is for us right now – this Christmas. Isaiah 40 comes at an interesting point for the Israelites. Historically, we think the setting is somewhere at the end of the period of time in which the Israelites were in captivity in Babylon. The Babylonians have been taken over by the Persians and the Persians are getting ready or have just allowed the Israelites to go back home. But, it is with a mixture of emotions. Yes, the Israelites feel the joy of freedom, the joy of going home, the joy of life back in the place where they were from and the chance to start over. But, it was not all rosy and hopeful. The Israelites leave captivity not sure how to feel about God. Yes, they had been delivered but many of the Israelites felt they had been abandoned by God in that they were taken into captivity to begin with and likewise because they had been kept in that foreign land so long. Further, once they got back to Israel, their homes, towns and temple were in ruins. They didn’t have the money, resources and the people with which to recreate what they once had. In turn, as they kept comparing where they now were to where and what they once had been, it was disheartening and depressing. Like you and I at Christmas, they wanted to be hopeful and joyful but their sadness, cynicism and depression just kept trying to take over.
In the midst of this, Isaiah encourages them with two basic yet important thoughts. First, God was with them and would not abandon them even in the realness of their sadness and depression. Second, God would get them through it.
God was with them and God is with us. Here is what we must always come back to as people of faith. Even when life is hard, even when times are challenging, even when it is a struggle to embrace the Christmas spirit, God is still here. This is one of the key principles of this season. We worship Emmanuel which means God with us. Emmanuel, who does not necessarily take away all of our trouble, but Emmanuel, who is always with us in the midst of it. As vs. 28 of our passage says, “the Lord is the everlasting God…He does not grow faint or weary…” God is faithful and faithfully present.
I have started noticing something as Christmas begins to draw near. There are a few houses on my early morning walking route that leave their Christmas tree lights on all night. So when I come their way early in the morning, before the sun is up, I see their Christmas trees in the window, with their lights still burning. Now, I don’t know if this is the safest thing to do, leaving the lights on all night, but, I like it. And, I like what it reminds me of each morning – God’s faithfulness. In the night, in the rain, cloudy or clear, calm or stormy those lights still burning all the night gives way to day reminding me that God does the same. God doesn’t fix it all but God is with us. God’s light never goes out even when it is awful hard to see.
This faithfulness of God gets us to the second basic point from Isaiah 40 – because God is with us, God gets us through it, whatever it might be. Verse 31 is the amazing conclusion of Isaiah 40. It is so beautiful, so encouraging that we can miss its message as we get caught up in its poetry…”but those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not grow weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
The Hebrew implication of the word that we translate as renew is that of an exchange…in essence, through God in our lives, God renews us by exchanging our limited human strength for his divine strength. In these good yet challenging days as we pray, are faithful to worship, sing the hymns of the season, engage in the life of faith, care for others- through it all, God exchanges our strength for his own if we are patient.
In turn, according to the text his strength gives us the power to soar, the power to run, the power to walk. These are three unique ways, yet similar ways, of continuing on. Isaiah here is very honest. Sometimes the divine strength helps us to soar and to live and rise above it all unaffected by the dark feelings of this season. On other days, the divine strength helps us to run. In those moments life is hard, overwhelming but manageable and we find that second wind of a runner to continue strong even in the midst of it. Still at other times and occasionally most of the time, we feel the weight of life and yet the divine strength keeps us standing, upright, able to walk and to keep going even if it takes everything we have got to simply put one foot in front of the other. Soaring, Running, Walking – all moving forward at different speeds and in different ways yet all ways of getting to the other side of all that life brings our way. Whether we soar, run or walk the truth is it doesn’t matter as long as God’s give us the strength we need to get through it.
Over 25 years ago, I went on a trip with a group to Switzerland. All my life I had been a fan of the famous Swiss Army knife and while I was there I bought one. It is a big Swiss Army knife with all sorts of gadgets including among other things a small saw, phillips and flat head screwdriver, a corkscrew, toothpick, magnifying glass, pliers, a file, etc. For 25 years, that red knife with all its gadgets has been a faithful friend not always giving me the same thing but nonetheless the needed thing in the moment.
That is what God does. God gives us not the same thing but the needed thing. Sometimes God helps us soar, sometimes run and sometimes we just have the ability to walk. But whichever God gives in the moment, it is enough to get us through life’s hard places and life’s moments where hope and despair seem to be the strangest companions of all.
And so again this Christmas, in the joys and challenges, heartaches and hopes, laughter and tears let me assure us – God will give us what we need to get through and to reach the manger of Bethlehem where we too can again bow at the feet of the baby of Bethlehem and rejoice. Some of us may soar there, others of us may run there and for many of us it may take all we have this year just to walk there, but, getting there, that will be enough. Amen.