I think this is a wonderful story on how something wonderful can come out of tragedy. I could not imagine learning that my daughter died, let alone at the hands of a drunk driver, let alone in a far off and distant country. Yet this family decided to do something out of their grief. They knew the need in Armenia before their daughter’s death. To think they knew nothing of her six years worth of work would be silly. But it was because of their grief that they became more passionate about those children in Armenia. It was then that they started to collect coats in Carrie’s name. It was then that they started to take five trips over there and gave out coats to eleven remote villages and warmed up 400 children’s lives. It was their grief that stirred them into action and their action that made Carl say, “I could feel Christ’s presence and that is a wonderful feeling.”
As we approach the last part of the Advent season we are reminded that what happens on Christmas, the incarnation of God, God putting on flesh, is transformative to the human race. We will hear more about this next week but the fact that God is born in human form completely changed the course of human history. Nothing was the same after Jesus came. On some level many people believed in this but they were expecting a different type of Messiah. They wanted a militaristic ruling Messiah but instead they received a suffering servant. Instead they received a Messiah that lived into this passage from the prophet Isaiah.
It is in this passage that we hear some echoes from last’s week passage which was twenty some odd chapters before this one. Isaiah is once again letting us know that what is will not always be. There will be a change coming. Something will happen in the world that “bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to comfort all who morn and restore places long devastated, and renew ancient cities.” (mixed parts of Isaiah 61:1-4) On this third Sunday of Advent, when we light the candle that represents Joy we find it in the knowledge that the one who comes and can do all these things has already blessed the earth with his presence and all of this is now possible. It is no longer prophesy but reality.
In the lectionary texts this week the Psalm is Psalm 126. It is only six verses long but as most Psalms do, it gives a link to the emotions many of us feel. Here are the first couple of verses, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’” The psalmist states that when the Lord restores the fortunes of Zion it will be like a dream. When God raises people out of the ashes, many of them would have told you they only dreamed of being on the other side of the tragedy, dependency, or conflict they were in. If you asked Carrie’s parents when they were first dealing with her death if they expected to be fulfilled in following her footsteps and helping the children she held close to her heart, they would have probably said you were crazy. But now they look with great joy upon those five trips as life changing moments for both them and the church they are a part of.
Joy is something deeper than happiness. Joy is rooted in a firmer foundation than simply being happy. I am happy when my coffee pot has fresh coffee in it in the morning. On Wednesday I was heading out to come back here to practice with the Men’s Ensemble and I yelled to Campbell as I walked out the door, “I love you.” She yelled back, “I love you more!” I am still overjoyed by that comment coming out of the mouth of a two year old. Fresh coffee is fleeting but an honest, visceral and smiling “I love you more!” from my daughter is pure joy.
The epistle text for today comes from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians which starts with these two words, “Rejoice always.” Once again, this seems to grow out of the idea of joy. You can only rejoice always if you have joy, happiness only equals rejoice occasionally. Going back to what the Psalmist, when we realize God’s transformative work in our hearts, when we have that joy bubbling in us, “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”
There was a cantankerous, crabby old man. His neighbors avoided him. His four boys moved away from home as soon as they could. You get the picture. His poor wife was longsuffering in her presence. One night he went to bed and just slipped away. His four boys were called in. What should they do? "He was hard to live around, and no one could get along with him, but he was our pa. We owe him a decent burial, out in the meadow beyond the field."
So they went out to the barn and found some boards and made a casket. They put the box on their shoulders and carried it out past the barn. As they passed through the gate, one of the boys bumped into the post and this caused them to drop the box. The casket broke open and the cantankerous, crabby old man sat straight up. He had only been in a very deep... sleep!
Well, life got back to normal. He lived two more years, just as ornery and mean, cantankerous and crabby as ever. The boys could go back to their homes, but his poor wife had to stay with him. Then one night he went to bed and just slipped away. His four boys were called in. What should they do now? "Well, he was hard to live around, and no one could get along with him, but he was our pa. We owe him a decent burial, out in the meadow beyond the field."
So they went out to the barn and found some boards and made a casket and put the old man in it. They put the box on their shoulders and started out of the house. And as they did their mother, the old man's wife said, "Boys, when you get out by the barn...be careful going through that gate.”
Doesn’t laughter bring joy to the soul?
The theme for this week is Family and the question that we are asked is who is in our family. We have those people we call family that we have no choice in. We are born into a group of people and for better or worse they are our family. There is the family you are married into. You have a little more choice over that but still not as much. Then there is the family of our neighbors, friends, classmates, colleagues, and Facebook. These are the ones we get to choose. They are the ones we welcome in because we like them not because we were born into relation with them. As we approach this Christmas time we approach a time when we are with family the most.
Christmas is on a Sunday this year and many of you will stay home because you feel it is better to be at home with family on that morning than in church. You are not alone. I know churches that are canceling services on that morning in order for people to simply stay at home and enjoy their families. What family will we spend time with on Christmas, our relatives or our chosen families? And do either of those look like the family of God?
Our closet family are the people we want around us for major life events. We want them there to enjoy our life moments because they are important to us. We invite them over for holiday dinners, birthday parties, and graduations. We surround ourselves with these people, the family members, because we are built up, encouraged and full of joy when they are near us. This got me thinking, who did God invite to his major life moments? The first people who were there to witness the savior of the world being born were not the rich and famous but shepherds.
We have this preconceived notion of what shepherds were. This is what we think of [<---] when we think of shepherds. We think of the nativity shepherds all dressed up and looking all cute. But this looks nothing like the shepherds of the ancient Middle East. They were the blue collar workers of the day. Think about it for a little bit. Have you ever smelled sheep before. Not the best fragrance yet that is probably what people who watched them all day and night eventually smelled like too. Here is a picture of what a current Middle Eastern shepherd looks like. [----->] This is probably closer to what the people who first witnessed the birth of Christ looked like. They looked dirty, smelled like sheep manure, but that is who God invited. The most modern day equivalent I could think of was coal miners. Coal miners are probably dirtier but [---->] is this a person you want sitting at your table on Christmas morning?
When Jesus was starting off his ministry he eventually made it back to his home synagogue. They asked him to speak and he stood up and opened up the scriptures to this section of Isaiah. He read the four verses we read and then he sat back down. He began to preach and he told the people he grew up with, who knew him as a baby, who probably watched him grow up his whole life, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” They were completely upset. They were so upset that they attempted to throw this child they knew for the past thirty years off a cliff.
One of the commentaries I read this week said that they were upset because what Jesus implies when he starts to preach on this text is that the promise that Isaiah gives is intended for those outside. The brokenhearted, those who mourn, those who are blind, and held captive are outside the walls of the synagogue. They are the Gentiles, the rest of the world, and God wants them to come to know the work he is doing through Jesus Christ.
We get the joy of being witnesses to God’s love, compassion and concern. We see people, know people and are people who have been transformed by this incarnate God. We come to church to praise God for this transformation and to feed off the hope, peace and joy we remind ourselves about during this holy season. Yet we also are reminded that the Church is the only institution that exists for those who are not apart of it. We exist for those who are not here, who haven’t started coming, who are outside these walls and need to hear the promise found in Isaiah, the promise fulfilled in our Savior Jesus Christ.
What we have to be careful with is the turning into a Nazareth Church. They hear the message strait out of Jesus’ mouth and they attempted to throw him off a cliff. We need to be willing to participate in the ‘Good News.’ We need to be willing to preach the good news to the poor, bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim freedom to the captives and rebuild and renew what has been ruined by the world. That is the work that God is doing in this world and as followers of God we need to have our hands dirty by doing the same thing. Carrie’s parents understood that and got dirty passing out coats, boots, and hats to 400 cold children halfway around the world.
We have the pleasure of doing this on Christmas Day. Thomasville Medical Center is extremely excited that we are willing to come over on Christmas Day and do the exact same service we would do if we had it in this building. The only difference is we are doing it there instead of within these walls. I have no clue if any of the patients will make it down or if any of the staff will find a moment in their busy day to participate. But we will be there to share and to be a “garment of praise” for people who are away from their families on this holy day of celebration. We will be there to be imagebearers of God who can do a little to “bind up the brokenhearted.” Yes, it is different. Yes, we will be surrounded by Christmas Trees instead of these four walls, but we will be stepping out and sharing the joy of Christ with others. We will be opening up who we call family that day and accepting those who God holds closest to his heart. I pray that at the end of that service we can look at each other and say the same words that Carl said in the video, “I could feel Christ’s presence and that is a wonderful thing.”
And all God’s people said, Amen.