It's good to be back with you all today, on this first Sunday of Advent...the Sunday of Hope. It's also the first Sunday of our Advent Series...Angels Among Us. Now let me just say up front..this is not a sermon series on "angelology" or the theology of angels. We aren't here to explain how angels may or may not be at work in the world...nor are we going to try to define their appearance -- other than to say that the angels of the scriptures most likely did not resemble did the angels hanging over my shoulder. I mean, think about it, every single time an angel shows up the first words out of his mouth are usually "Do Not Be Afraid". There must have been something about their appearance that was frightening. But for this series, none of that really matters. Our focus here is on angels as messengers...usually bearing startling news. Maybe that is another reason why angels always open with "Do Not Be Afraid"...because whatever they were about to say was going to rock someone's world. That was certainly the case for Zechariah when the angel Gabriel shows up in the story.
However, before we get to the actual story, there have been several of you asking what I did during my vacation...which was actually a stay-cation during which Rob and I had grand ideas about completing a number of projects around the house. Well...let's just say that Rob finished several projects...but I, on the other hand, did not. In fact, aside from the time I spent with the kids, and a few odd and end errands, I pretty much only did one thing during my vacation. I watched Hallmark Channel's Countdown to Christmas nonstop. And...if I was feeling particularly sentimental, I would flip over to Hallmark Movies and Mysteries and catch one of their Christmas homecoming tear-jerkers. You might think I'm exaggerating, but you can ask Rob. If we were not doing something specific, I was curled up watching Hallmark and dreaming of the perfect white Christmas.
Most years, I get to take in a few of the movies, but this is the first year that I have literally binged-watched them for two weeks. Now, before you think I've completely gone off the deep end...let me tell you why I can't seem to get enough Hallmark Channel this year. Let me just say, it's not the storylines or the acting that keep my attention...it is the escape! Hallmark movies are the perfect escape from the real world. And, I don't know about the rest of you, but here lately I have felt an increasingly strong need to escape reality.
I mean think about it. There's never threat of nuclear war with Korea in a Hallmark movie. And all those people gathered at the town tree lighting ceremony (and there's always a tree lighting ceremony)? They aren't worried about the ramifications of a 400 page tax bill that appears to favor the wealthy being passed in the middle of the night with only two hours to read marked up copies. No...the closest thing to political agenda in a Hallmark movie is whether the big corporation will put the local cookie-maker out of business. (Spoiler alert, they always join forces and save the town from financial ruin). And...thanks be to God...neither Angel Falls nor The Bramble House, The Mistletoe Inn, or the town of Evergreen...have never ever faced a single opioid overdose. Those who are sick, injured, in a coma or have amnesia from falling on the ice...they all get well. You get the picture...in Hallmark movies, things always have a happy ending. People welcome the stranger, feed the hungry and care for the poor. And of course, they fall madly in love...with the person they least expect.
So who wouldn't want to binge on this feast of avoidance?
The problem with the Hallmark Channel is that as soon as the television is turned off for the day...the reality of the world in which we live pretty much hits us square in the face. And...it can be very disturbing at times: the violence..the poverty...the injustices...the natural disasters...and yes, the divided politics. Now, I know...I know...no one wants to hear this kind of stuff in December...I get that. Especially after hearing such beautiful music from the Madrigals...or seeing the Christmas decor. Believe me, I understand. Heck, I'm all for skipping the sermon and watching a Hallmark movie on the big screen.
But the truth is folks, even people of faith are not immune to the pain and suffering and heaviness of heart that the brokenness of this world creates. It's real. It's unavoidable. It's disheartening. But...it does not have to suck the hope, peace, joy and love out of us.
I think that is why Advent is such an important part of the Christian calendar. It is the annual reminder that we are not alone in this mess. Advent not only leads up to Jesus' birth, it celebrates the truth that Christ came to earth to walk with us. He came to reveal God's love to us...to offer us the peace of forgiveness..the joy of purpose...and...well...the hope that our lives can feel like a Hallmark movie on the inside, regardless of our circumstances. Well...maybe not a Hallmark movie per se, but a life where the reality of the outside world does not have the power to disturb the peace of Christ that is in us.
Advent is also intended to be a season of intentional waiting -- we are waiting for Christmas to celebrate Jesus' birth...we are waiting for the Christ child to be born anew in hearts...and on a grander scale, we are waiting for God to "create a new heaven and a new earth" and for Christ to come again to establish the full reign of God throughout all of creation. It's an odd in-between time...waiting to remember what has already come, waiting for what comes to us now, and waiting for what is to fully come someday.
But here's the thing about that waiting. It's not meant to be a "sit around and wait for something to happens" kind of wait. It's not a bury your head in Hallmark movies until it all gets better kind of waiting either. No, it's meant to be an active kind of waiting. Actually, active and participatory. In other words, we are called to be a part of bringing about the thing upon which we are waiting.
If we passively wait for circumstances outside ourselves to change in order to feel hope, peace, joy and love in our lives...we could be waiting in misery for a very long time. More importantly, as Rev. Marcia McFee says when we wait passively, we rob ourselves of the chance to have those things in our lives right now.
Folks, we really do have a choice in the matter. We can fret about the way things are or we can fly in the face of fear and make different things happen. We can wait around for someone else to make the world a better place...or we can choose to participate in God's plan to bring about his kingdom, now, on earth as it is in heaven.
The stories we will use this year during Advent have a couple of things in common...angels bringing a message being one of them. We will also see that the angels invite...as if there is a choice... very ordinary people like you and me to join in God's plan. Basically, each week the angel brings a message that says, Hey...you...God is doing something and you are meant to be a part of it. Do not let your fear or your insecurity or your shame or your vulnerability get in the way.
Hear that church? When the angel says, "Do Not Be Afraid" he also talking to us...laying the ground work for us to get busy doing the work that has been laid before us - bringing Christ message of hope...and peace...and joy...and love to a world that desperately needs to experience them.
This week...our Advent invitation is to bring messages of hope - not the hope that is just wishful thinking...but the hope of our faith...the God is in this so I know it will happen, kind of hope. Advent hope. Hope similar to what we heard in the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth. The hope that two ordinary people - albeit from priestly lineage - were chosen by God to be part of the salvation story. Hope that was exhibited when Zechariah and Elizabeth resisted fear and trusted God instead...even in the midst of uncertainty. And of course there is the hope that comes from knowing that John's birth fulfilled prophecy which means that God has a bigger over-arching story for all his people.
Today the Advent candle reminds us that we, too, have also been given the same kind of assured hope. A hope that rests in the birth of a savior...a hope that is found in the promise that God's justice and mercy will prevail...that God is with us - always. Our hope is found in the truth that the compassion of Christ is more powerful that any division that humankind can create. Our hope is strengthened by knowing that where the Spirit of the Lord is, there too will be the fruits of love, peace, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And where they are not present...there is always the hope that the grace of God can transform.
Friends, rather than give in to the culture of fear, which by the way, is the fuel that generates despair...the absence of hope...rather than getting sucked into that downward spiral...rather than burying ourselves in denial of the real world...or just giving up on it altogether and waiting to get to heaven...we are called to be messengers, angels of #morehope now.
And just what does #morehope look like? Well, first and foremost, what it does not look like is fear! Hope is moving forward in the face of fear. Hope is not crossing our fingers and making a wish. Hope is being sure that God will be faithful and keep his promises.
Wherever we see Christ at work...we see hope.
There is hope in a man refusing to let his cancer diagnosis steal his joy.
Or, a woman's voice being heard after years of harassment.
We see hope manifest in a team of basketball players wearing jerseys with positive messages on them in order to do their part to help heal the division in our nation.
As well as in a group from right here in Lebanon that is currently working to help restore an area of Puerto Rico after the hurricane.
Hope also looks like a group of faith leaders committed to reading 2000 verses of the Bible about poverty and justice in the halls of Congress.
Or a group of 3-4 who pray together every Wednesday for a revival among Christians in Lebanon.
Or a group of churches coming together to share cheer with local first responders.
Or a perfectly timed tweet of Amos 5:24: But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
And then there's my personal favorite this week...hope looks like Phil Tyree and Todd Spennaberg and their Lebanon Chatter. Well, not exactly Lebanon Chatter...in fact Lebanon Chatter can be very disheartening. The hope is in a special FB page called Lebanon Chatter Community Chest. After seeing someone criticized for asking for help online, Phil and Todd started the Community Chest page as a safe place for people to ask for assistance. I believe they are helping change the conversation about what it means to show compassion to those in need...and that is clearly a hope-filled thing!
Folks, Advent reminds us that there are signs of hope all around us...signs of Christ's compassion...and mercy and grace being lived out...signs of people refusing to wait passively...signs that love is trumping fear...every day.
And unlike a Hallmark movie...this hope does not go away at the end of the day. This hope is in Christ...and that makes it eternal.
So, as you journey through Advent...look for promises of hope...share these promises of hope with others...become an #AngelAmongUs bringing messages of hope to the world.
And while you're at it...make time for a Hallmark movie...you'll be glad you did!
Have hope...and give all glory to God. Amen.