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Isaiah 11:1-10; Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19; Romans 15:4-13; Matthew 3:1-12
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
December 8, 2019 –Second Sunday in Advent
John the Baptist appears suddenly in the gospel account from Matthew. He comes at a time when both kingdoms, north and south, have been overrun more than once. God’s chosen people, with only a brief respite, have been vassals of Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome for the last 600 years.
It is a time of national despair and a long season of spiritual darkness.
Not only are the people not ruled by God, they are dominated by the forces of this mortal realm, earth… foreigners and heathens.
Now take a couple of seconds. Open yourself to what worries you today...what is bad that you cannot control It is happening.
Next: Imagine being without hope for 600 years.
They believe that the Prophet Elijah will return before God’s promises to Abraham are restored to them and the Promised One appears, so they wait, keeping the faith…with hope…and holding onto hope… with faith.
Then a prophet does appear. They know he is a prophet because he wears animal skins and eats raw food and calls the nation to repentance. “Make straight ways for the Lord!”
Open your lives…your hearts and your minds and your doors…to the One who is coming. So they do, and John baptizes them, taking away their sins and the sins of the nation so that they…and the nation can be redeemed…have free will to worship their God.
This second Sunday in Advent is about hope…that the light will break into the darkness. We are not talking about the darkness of the season, but it is appropriate that we take time in this season to do our long thinking backwards and make our long-term plans for the rest of our lives…as we wait for the light to shine in every corner of our hearts.
Hope arises from trust and trust comes from the steadfast love of God for all God created, as we did in our Call to Worship today, as Isaiah called Israel to do, and as John gave them a reason to believe.
One of my favorite movie stars is Peter Sellers. He was a funny man in a very serious way. He played three major roles in Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, but the character that most of us remember him playing was Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther series.
Clouseau was a bumbler who did everything wrong by the world’s standards, and got it all right in the end. His last movie, Being There, was a lot like that, too, with a twist.
He is an ‘exceptional’ man who is taken in by a rich man as a baby and he has never been permitted to leave the house. He works in the garden at the house…until the old man dies.
The old man’s suits fit him perfectly so he looks like a million dollars as he steps out into the world in the blighted downtown area of Washington in the late 1970s.
Through a series of coincidences he ends up at the home of a billionaire and when he tries to tell everyone what his name is, he says he is ‘Chance’… what the old man called him…and he is a gardener. He becomes, in that moment, Chancy Gardener.
The billionaire, played by Melvin Douglas (who is also in his last movie) deeply appreciates the easy, natural, peaceful sensibility in his simple answers…based upon his profound understanding of the work he has done in the old man’s garden.
The billionaire takes him to a meeting with the President of the United States and he impresses the President with the same deep understanding of how to keep the garden healthy.
When asked how he would confront a slowdown in the economy, he replies, “So long as the roots are not severed, all is well and all will be well in the garden. In a garden, growth has its seasons. There come spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.”
This steadfast optimism inspires the President to go on television and quote him, saying further, “Let us not fear the inevitable chill of storms and winter. Instead, let us anticipate the rapid growth of springtime. Let us await the rewards of summer. As in a garden of the earth, let us accept the times when the trees are bare as well as the times when we pick the fruit.”
We are anxious creatures and the people who want to sell us something or want us to keep watching the channel we are on know that. They tell us the world is ending and we are not going to be ready unless we keep watching their broadcast. They have never spent time in the garden of their lives.
John the Baptist is more like Chancy Gardener than Steven Bezos. You don’t have to stay tuned, but you need to get your mind and your heart right…here… in the garden. John wasn’t lifting his voice to his people to profit, but to give them something…hope.
It’s like the story about the glass of water. The optimist says it is half full. The pessimist says it is half empty. And the social engineer says the glass is twice as large as it needs to be.
Hope is a powerful thing to have. When the glass is half full we are not confined in our thinking to what the problem is and whose fault it is.
Suddenly, we can see ways we can make things better, we become agents of random kindness, and we can inspire everyone we meet…so long as their hearts and minds are open, too.
Isaiah is empowering the people of his day, too, with his assurance that someone from David’s line will once again sit on the throne of Israel. It has been a long time and it will be an even longer time, but what can we do today but to make things better. What are you going to do about it?
We remember the spring and summer in the winter…and we make sure the roots in our garden are strong. Then we trust God to do the rest.
So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.
I met a woman by the name of Edith Potts when I served at Huntley. She was one of the worker bees, always in the kitchen or serving or doing what needed to be done.
About a year after I got there, her cancer came back. I asked her what hymns she wanted sung at her funeral. She didn’t know the songs but she knew the people: four guys from Custer.
It occurred to me that we shouldn’t wait until she died to have the celebration…because a friend of mine once told me I shouldn’t give money to a jazz weekend in Shelby when I died. I should do that now.
That came back to me in that time and we celebrated her ministry when the band could get there, the first Sunday in March. It was a great celebration with people from all over the Huntley Project coming to honor her…before she died.
It was communion Sunday so I gave a four year old girl the loaf, put Edith next to her and set the cup on a table on the other side of Edith.
It was simply what might work, but people had to tear off a piece of the loaf, step past Edith, and dip it into the cup.
The first person got past her, but the second one grabbed Edith and hugged her and told her she loved her. The whole church erupted with the passion of the first Sunday in Lent…late winter…almost spring.
It was so uplifting, in fact that Edith didn’t die in a few weeks or couple of months. We celebrated her life on November 6, 2002.
As I got to know her better, she talked about her life, but she kept coming back to her third son Cliff who had contracted polio when he was about 12 years old. The doctor told her to take him home and make him happy because he was not long for this world.
She rejected the doctor’s advice. She refused to see the glass as half empty. The roots in her garden had not been severed and she and her family nurtured their Cliff with all the love they could find.
Cliff did his part, too. She kept saying, “Cliff did this” and “Cliff did that” and “Cliff wonderful and amazing things.”
Cliff got a master’s degree in counseling, in fact, and became one of the most effective gardeners of his clients’ souls of any counselor in Billings. He was in a wheelchair that he drove around by blowing in tubes by the time I met him.
He learned to paint pictures by holding the paintbrush in his teeth. Here is the one his mother loved most, and the family gave it to me after she had passed on.
But the great gift that he gave me was a phone call the day before his mother’s funeral. He told me the story of being diagnosed with polio, but he saw things a little differently from Edith.
He told me, “She did this” and “She did that” and “She did more than anyone else could have imagined.”
The truth of the matter, I think, is that both Edith and Cliff did things no one else would have thought of, because of the love they had for each other.
It was love that did it all. Neither of them saw their own effort, but only the effort of the other.
They inspired each other…not with a glass that was half full…but with a cup that overflowed with love and joy in every way it could. It was like the love that Isaiah had for Israel, the love that John the Baptist had for Israel, and the love that God showers down upon us every minute of every day…and especially at Christmas.
Paul sees this clearly as he writes to us today. “The Scriptures were written to teach and encourage us by giving us hope. God is the one who makes us patient and cheerful. I pray that God will help you live at peace with each other, as you follow Christ. Then all of you together will praise God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Paul does not have hope because of his great education or because of his many accomplishments that made him a rising power in the midst of the Pharisees. He had hope because he met his Lord and savior and served him with all the love in his heart…and inspired those around him…and all who read his letters… to do the same thing.
I have seen the same thing happening before my eyes right here in this little church that could. A team packed care packages here on Monday for college students about to take final exams. It made them happy.
Susan Kuhlman opened our fellowship hall last Saturday night to give the cast of this year’s Nutcracker a place to have their cast party. That made her happy…and made our little church a happy place at a happy time in a happy village.
We threw open our doors on Thanksgiving to anyone in the community who wanted to come to dinner. We spread hope all over the village with that act of radical hospitality. And we all had a wonderful dinner.
We do this…and more…because of the one who first loved us. It is a gift that we have received freely…and we can only hold onto it by giving it away. Then…we refresh it.
Imagine a world where everyone understood that as we have come to experience it…as a church…blessed by the Word…and the joyful acts of people who know hope…even in the midst of life’s many challenges.
It’s like Chance the Gardener put it, in his simple, joyful way: “A garden needs a lot of love and a lot of care, and if you give your garden love things will grow, even though some things must wither.”
May the Holy Spirit fill you with hope.
O Lord, what is it that you want to do in the world through us… through me…this day? Amen.