Sermon by Pastor Christopher Nelson

As many of you know, between college and seminary, I lived in Boston, MA, and for several years worked for the Music Emporium- a shop which specialized in selling fine new and vintage acoustic instruments- guitars, banjos, mandolins and the like.

Given our reputation as one of the “prime” places for folk music in the city, I suggested we start a music school. We set about recruiting teachers and setting up classes.

One of the larger new classes was “Singing for Non-singers,” taught by the most patient woman in the history of the world. She promised that by the end of the eight weeks, everyone in the class would be able to sing a song of their choice, and that it would be recognizable. All of these people had been told they couldn’t sing, or knew they couldn’t sing, and oh my goodness, they were right! Once a week, this group of twelve would gather in the front of the store after closing, and work hard, first, simply hearing and matching pitch.

I was in the back, and the sounds were- charitably speaking- well, I finally understood the definition of “caterwauling…” I was in turns, in pain and laughing hysterically- and from time to time, I would call my friends and hold the phone just above the counter so they could share in the fun. I recognized the songs people were trying to sing because I often knew the words, but if there was a melody, it was unrecognizable. I thought there was no way the teacher would ever fulfill her promise…

We are in week two of our Advent Sermon series, “What are you getting for Christmas?” Last week, Ben got us off to a great start with “The Gift of Power” that we receive from God- the power to become children of God, and the ability to change the world around us with that gift.

Today, we receive the gift of a promise, and I thought of that class immediately, and of the teacher who made such an absurd promise to that class of non-singers…

Because the gift we receive- the promise we receive- is that God will be among us- personally, leading us into God’s future, “like a shepherd, gathering his lambs into his arms, and gently leading the mother sheep…”

We look at our time- the chaos,  the discrimination, the violence- another act of terrorism, this time in our own country, perpetrated by a couple who left their six month old baby with her grandma, to slaughter the father’s co-workers… Does that make any sense to you?

How long, O Lord, do we have to wait for this promise- this future of your presence and rule? We get impatient! And the tendency- throughout history- can be to try and bring in that future on our own, without God, with often disastrous results! How many wars have been fought; how many innocents slaughtered have been in God’s name, trying to bring in a particular vision of “God’s Kingdom?”

So jump back with me, some twenty-five hundred years or so, to our text…The people of Judah have been in exile for some seventy years- taken in chains to Babylon, their city Jerusalem destroyed, and even worse, their temple burned to the ground!

In those days, the people believed that if God’s house was destroyed, then the invaders’ god was stronger than the local god- and that the local god had been defeated, and was dead…

This “defeated God” was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who had promised them that they would be forever blessed by God and be a blessing to others; that their descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky… This was the God who had promised that a king from David’s family would ultimately rule in Jerusalem- promised- and still the people were taken off to exile in Babylon…

I’m not sure “impatient” comes close to describing the exiles- devastated would be a better word- or disillusioned… And yet, something amazing happens while they are there.

They don’t lose faith; they don’t lose hope in the promises of God.  In fact, their faith in God’s future is strengthened. They do the work that God has given them to do during that time; they are God’s presence, God’s people, to each other, and to their wider community throughout the exile, and God uses them!

If we had the time, I could show you with a walk through more of Isaiah. This is what happened: instead of believing that God has been killed by the Babylonian god, the people come to believe that God is not one of many gods, but is the ONLY God; we see the development of monotheism! We see the beautiful hymn of creation that is Genesis 1 composed…

We see their trust and faith that God will bring them home- and in our text, that faith, and the promise begins to unfold! They’re going home!

And the language! We recognize it, of course- it’s used by the authors of the Gospels to describe John the Baptist- it was used by Handel in the Messiah (And the Glory of the Lord Shall be Revealed, O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion)… It’s wonderful, powerful language to describe what God is doing and what God will do!

I love the middle part, which Brahms used in his Requiem: “A voice says, ‘Cry out! And I said, ‘What shall I cry? The people are grass; their constancy is like the flower of the field… The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever!’”

Don’t miss this: it’s not about us; it’s not about you. We can’t do this by ourselves!  It’s about God, and God’s promises! And, we learn once again, that God works in God’s time for God’s future to unfold…

Unfolds in the returning of the Exiles, in the rebuilding of a shattered land… Unfolds in the promised birth of a baby- a baby whose birth we celebrate in a few weeks…

I think back to the time of Jesus’ birth, and it was every bit as difficult then as it is now, if not more so, in so many ways- there was political oppression and unrest, hunger was always just around the corner, even a sore throat or a cough could be a potential killer- and yet throughout the Gospels, we hear Jesus as the Promise that God has made to you- and to me…

Jesus enters our world as a baby- like each and every one of us has. He shares in all that life brings, joys and sorrows both. With his life- his teaching, preaching and healing, he shows us God’s love in the flesh. He shows us God’s plan for how we are to live- that we are to love each other the way he has shown love to us- that we are to take the love beyond us, just like he did, in our care for those around us- the hungry, the poor, the unloved and the lonely…

And Jesus is willing even to suffer the death every human faces on a Roman cross. On that cross, Jesus takes on everything that separates you and me from God and from each other, and in his resurrection on the third day, Jesus shows you and me that his love is eternal- that nothing, not even death can take that love away, now or ever…

Jesus promises that you are secure in his love today, tomorrow, and always. And Jesus invites you to walk into that promised future boldly- living as his disciple- caring for the people he cares for, loving the people he loves- and living out his words with our lives, even “loving those who hate you…”

The promise unfolds in our lives together, as we serve God together; as we are the presence of God to and for one another and our world!

The weeks passed in that class at the Music Emporium, and over time, I heard something amazing start to happen. People who had no clue what pitch was, were beginning to hear and match it with their voices. Songs- real songs started wafting through the store- and where the people had been shy, or embarrassed, there was laughter, encouragement, and a community was forming.

And by the end of the class, all twelve people had stood in front of their peers and sang the song they had chosen at the beginning. Maybe not the best singers ever, but the songs were clear, in tune- and these non-singers could sing… Now for those of you who think you literally can’t sing, I want you to know that with a gifted teacher, you can learn, if you take the time and make the effort. I’ve seen it happen…

The teacher made a promise, and it was kept. It happened over time, and with the faithful practicing of the people to whom it had been made… It’s how God wants to work with you- and with me…

And for all of us who are looking to live God’s love; God’s promise, becomes concrete in our actions. Each and everyone of you has a gift for sharing God’s love as you serve others…

Let me close with some suggestions- and I am sure that with very little thought, you can come up with more yourself:  stop by the Alternative Gift Fair in the Gallery. You can make a huge difference in the lives of people who have next to nothing, while sharing with a loved one that you think they’re important enough to have a life changing gift made in their name. That is living the Promise…

Sponsor a child in India through Lutheran Partners, or in Ethiopia through HMCHA: around $300 a year pays for room, board, books, clothes, and provides the real possibility of a life freed forever from grinding poverty!

Let me suggest a special gift right now for the people living in Tamil Nadu. Chennai, where the Park Town School is located, is literally under water after heavy, heavy rains!

Take the insert from your worship folder home, and pray for the people listed. They will know the care, concern and support that come from our community of faith. Follow the devotions there this week, too; you will grow closer to God, and know God’s presence in new ways!

Will you bow your heads and pray with me: Loving God, help us always to remember that you are the God who makes and keeps promises; that your promises for our daily lives and for our futures can be trusted. Then, send us out into the world you love, refreshed by the Body and Blood of our Savior in the bread and wine we are about to receive, to live and be your promises to the people you bring us each day! In Jesus’ Name! Amen.