Well, here we are on the Third Sunday of Advent, a little less than two weeks before Christmas. It’s an unusual year to say the least, but we’re making our preparations as best we can: hanging the decorations, sending gifts, making tough decisions about how we will spend Christmas.
I hope you have been preparing your spiritual side as well. Worshipping together like this is one of the ways we do that. We at Knox Church have prepared a number of opportunities for spiritual nurture this season. Nevertheless, for some of us, it’s been hard to get immersed in the things of Advent; I know that, and I’ll share a way it’s been hard for me.
One of the commitments I made this month is to attend an Advent Bible Study with some other ministers; we meet every Monday afternoon via Zoom. Last week a question came up, “How are families in your congregation doing with Advent?” One of the ministers on that call spoke up rather quickly and confidently, an older pastor who I suspect doesn’t have small children at home. She said, “The families in my congregation are doing just fine with the practices of Advent. At least the families who are being intentional about it.”
It’s a good thing I was “muted” because I laughed out loud. Intentional about the practices of Advent? This year? I’m the pastor of a congregation; I’m supposed to be a spiritual leader, by example; and I’ve been feeling like a real failure when it comes to family practices of Advent.
Not just lately, but months ago my children lost interest in virtual church—right as the fatigue of virtual school set in. The family Sunday School resources we get from Knox in the mail are terrific—as often as we do them; but sometimes I can’t get my kids excited about anything that sounds like more school with dad. As for the in-person family activities we held at Knox in the fall, I know they were awesome! But my kids missed both. On one of those Sundays Teddy had a runny nose and the day before the other one Charlie threw up, and you don’t go to a church activity these days if you’ve got illness in your house. So, I’ve been feeling like a bit of a failure this Advent when it comes to religion in the home. I don’t know what kind of parents that other pastor has in her congregation, but they must be doing a better job than me.
I share those confessions openly because these are hard times, and I think it’s important to name that, and give ourselves a little grace and forgiveness where we need it. This is a good season to spend some time sharing good news and even small victories wherever we can. We need to encourage one another.
The Prophet Isaiah was especially good at this. I suspect some of us think of the Old Testament prophets as finger-wagging lecturers, telling people all the things they’ve done wrong. In fact, on many occasions prophets were the ones encouraging everybody else. They had a way of naming the hardship they saw people experiencing, and reminding them that God was on their side, hard at work leading us to better days ahead.
So in today’s lesson, Isaiah says to them:
“[The Lord]… has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…
3 …to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.”
Isaiah knew that his people were struggling and needed some good news—and he gave it to them.
No question about it, 2020 has been a difficult year, and the hard news continues to pile up. And yet, I won’t say I have been surprised…but I have been deeply moved, so see the ways our church has risen to this year’s challenges. And I want to remind you of some good news.
Throughout 2020, we’ve acted in new and creative ways to bring vital worship to our community, and we are so blessed that so many of you have continued to participate.
We’ve kept making music, to the glory of God. Singers who thought they could only sing shoulder to shoulder have learned to do it at 10 feet of distance, wearing a mask, and even online. We’ve commissioned two new choral anthems and were graced by new compositions by our own members for the Fresh Spirit service.
We began a new prayer ministry, called Abide, to pray for one another. One of the people who joined that ministry said she was inspired to do it because years ago she received a card from our Wednesday morning prayer group. That’s a powerful witness to the legacy of those Wednesday morning pray-ers, many of whom have been sheltering in place since March. God is still working through you.
In a year when news of racism in our country has been so deeply troubling, we discovered a regrettable story in our church’s own history. Instead of ignoring that story, we stepped toward it, confessed it, gathered to talk about it, and have started a Racial Justice Ministry so that we can build on the good work that is at the heart of our church.
We’ve rediscovered the gift of our outdoor spaces in 2020, meeting for worship and education, safely enjoying our new courtyard area, and offering art displays and prayer opportunities to our neighbors as they pass by. I keep receiving messages from people I don’t even know. They thank us for encouraging them in their faith in these times when they need it so much.
Over at Third Presbyterian Church, for years they’ve dreamt of a safe place for children to play. In 2020 that dream became a reality with a new playground, basketball court and community garden. The neighbors tell us that just to walk by and see it is a reminder that their neighborhood matters. Knox was able to be a part of making that happen.
Our children keep learning the Gospel and our youth program continues to thrive. In times when young people are so starved for connection with one another they’ve logged on or masked up and sat at a distance, and youth attendance has actually grown this year.
In a time when there is deep need in the community around us, our mission giving has gone way up. Mostly through special appeals for our mission partners, the money we send out the door has gone up this year by more than 50%. And that’s to say nothing of the mask making, and the sandwich making, and the food deliveries, and the hygiene products, and backpacks and Christmas gifts you have sent. Thank you.
When we stop to think about it—when we name the hurt of these days, but also spend some time giving thanks for the good news—we realize that in all kinds of ways, we are still God’s people.
After that clergy Bible study this week, I joked with a friend about my reaction to that other pastor and the “intentional families” in her congregation. He laughed and said he suspected plenty of faithful families probably looked a lot more like mine this year. And he gave me a manageable, doable challenge; I want to share it with you. “Just do one thing,” he said. “Do one thing for Advent—and remember it’s never too late to start. Choose one thing that works for you or your family for Advent and try to get that one thing done, and then see the beauty in the small stuff.”
We have been doing some things, my family. We keep reminding our kids that these weeks before Christmas are the Sundays in Advent—waiting not just for Santa, but for Jesus to come. I play lots of Christmas carols in the house—not just Rudolph and Frosty but Hark the Herald and Away in a Manger. I remind them of the Christmas stories in the Bible and give them little quizzes along the way: “What were the three gifts, again?” “Why did they have to lay Jesus in a manger?” I don’t ask these questions because these details are the primary articles of faith, but because I believe there is value in Christian children knowing the stories.
Maybe this is our one thing: we made our ornaments for the big prayer tree in the Knox courtyard. We reminded our children that they are fortunate, and they got out their markers and made prayer ornaments remembering people who are homeless and hungry. We walked down to church with our ornaments, pushing and shoving all the way because that’s our love language these days. One at a time, I lifted them on my shoulders so they could hang their ornament high on the tree, and while I had them stranded up there, we said a prayer together. After that, we ran around the courtyard like animals and one of them had a small meltdown when he decided the hot cocoa was too hot. It was a great night.
All around us in the church courtyard that night were the beautiful decorations that had been prepared by Knox volunteers. Garland along the railings; little white lights, which remember the oil lamps of ancient days, a glowing mantle of brightness on the walls of our church, God’s house, standing against the darkness of the street beyond. The Prophet Isaiah said this is what God means to give us: “…a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit…” This is what God is doing.
During this year of being physically apart, one of the Knox members we have lost was Barbara Kautz. Gone on to glory at age 96, Barbara joined Knox Presbyterian Church in 1957. Up until just a couple of years ago, Barbara and her husband Walter were still in worship every Sunday. Barbara spoke to me after worship every week. She was a woman of strong opinions who knew how to dig in her heels, but many weeks our conversation was a testimony to the human ability to change. She told me more than a few times how strongly she had opposed the Fresh Spirit service until it began…and now she couldn’t imagine Knox without it. It’s good to be reminded, in these days of uncertainty, about our capacity to change and grow.
Barbara used to talk to me about a variety of subjects—sometimes she’d be full of praise and other times, quite pointed in her critiques. But the common thread was the ending, always the same, always shared with love. Each week, I knew our conversation was at an end because she would look me in the eye, smile and wink, and would say: “Be of good cheer.” And as quickly as she had appeared, she was gone.
These are difficult days. The darkness often seems to be gathering and the threats and disappointments are all around us. But we will never be abandoned, for God loves us. And our God expects no perfection from us, just hope, and a willingness to keep on going. There are signs of hope if we are willing to look for them.
Be of good cheer.