Playing the Long Game (Advent 1)

Isaiah 2:1-5

The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

A man observed a woman in the grocery store with a three-year-old girl in her basket. As they passed the cookie section, the child asked for cookies and her mother told her “no.” The little girl immediately began to whine and fuss, and the mother said quietly, “Now Ellen, we just have half of the aisles left to go through; don’t be upset. It won’t be long.”

Pretend-city-grocery-store.jpgHe passed the Mother again in the candy aisle. Of course, the little girl began to shout for candy. When she was told she couldn’t have any, she began to cry. The mother said, “There, there, Ellen, don’t cry. Only two more aisles to go, and then we’ll be checking out.”

The man again happened to be behind the pair at the check-out, where the little girl immediately began to clamor for gum and burst into a terrible tantrum upon discovering there would be no gum purchased today. The mother patiently said, “Ellen, we’ll be through this check out stand in five minutes, and then you can go home and have a nice nap.”

The man followed them out to the parking lot and stopped the woman to compliment her. “I couldn’t help noticing how patient you were with little Ellen…”The mother broke in, “My little girl’s name is Tammy… I’m Ellen.”


Patience. It has been said that patience is that quality that you admire in the car behind you but can’t stand in the driving in front of you. Many of us learn from our children just how much patience we have.

I wonder how many of us have struggled with patience. For the moment we currently live in is one that seems not to value patience all that much. We don’t like to be told to wait.

Perhaps that is why the Christmas decorations start coming out the day after Halloween. Or why the Black Friday Sales start on Thanksgiving evening these days. We don’t like to wait. And most of the time we don’t have to. So we don’t.5290272595_7ce14ac7e2_b.jpg

But here in this church, we are invited to pause. Advent season asks of us that we resist the temptation to live as though it is Christmas, and instead to take the time to reflect and remember why Christmas matters at all. To marinate in the question:

What would it mean for the Kingdom of God to be born in this world today?

It certainly meant something to the people to whom our Scripture was first written. It is easy to forget, but these words were proclaimed to a people living in deeply uncertain times. The people in Isaiah faced a siege by foreign powers, so they were locked up in their walled city with no food and nobody to bail them out, and they found themselves asking hard questions about who they were as a people of God. And the prophet Isaiah is unsparing—in the verses before today’s lesson, he rips them apart. You have forgotten what really matters, he tells them. You have forgotten justice, kindness, mercy, and peace. You have been impatient in seeking your own well being, and in doing so have neglected the vulnerable, the very people God has commanded you to protect. The mountain of the Lord is coming, he says. But right now, we are in the deep, dark valley.

The people to whom Paul wrote were also facing uncertainty. Remember, Jesus was born into a world where the Jewish people were the vulnerable. And remember, Christ gathered to himself marginalized people—poor, sick, widowed, orphaned, cast out—and promised them a place in God’s Kingdom. In a world where they had no place, no power, no community, he promised them a seat at the table. Christ assured them he was coming back soon, told them to wait and keep watch, but it had been a while since those words were first spoken. The ears who heard them had grown old while waiting, and those that came after that had never laid eyes on Jesus, never heard for themselves, grew impatient. And so the hope that he had kindled in these people was threatened. Was Christ worth waiting for? Would the Kingdom of God ever come?

Time and time again, the people of God have found themselves in moments such as these. Seasons when the future seemed uncertain, when they feared threats from outside their borders, or from within. Seasons when even the most patient among them began to lose heart in the face of injustice. Seasons when the drumbeats of war seemed to drown out God’s promise of peace. Seasons when it became easy to let their fear rather than their hope drive them forward.

A colleague of mine reflected recently that when we live our lives responding only to our fears, we often end up reversing the prophecy of Isaiah. We take our plowshares and turn them into swords, and beat our pruning hooks into spears. We take those things that are meant to build up the body of Christ—words, for example—and in our fear use them as weapons that divide the body of Christ to the point of breaking.

But in Advent we are invited to set down our swords. We are called to remember the Holy One, whose Word became flesh and dwelled amongst us as a healing balm and a Prince of Peace. We are called to remember a God who asks us to let go of our weapons so that we may clasp our hands with our neighbor. We are called to remember that some things, even when we cannot see clearly yet, are worth waiting for. Because God is playing the long game.

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And because God is playing the long game, we are called to resist the temptation of instant gratification. We are called instead to be a people of patience. For one thing we learn in Scripture is that God works through people, and people take time. Prophets like Isaiah don’t happen overnight. Communities don’t form in an instant. Wounds need time to heal. Babies must be carried in the womb long before they can be born. And we are always being born, always in the process of healing.

As we wait and watch for signs of Christ’s coming today, what might it mean to live into patience? To resist the temptation to rush through things, and instead experience this season as valuable in its own right? To remember that some things need time and patience—wine, bread, and babies do not happen in an instant. And Christ, who came to us as a fragile baby, who offered his body as bread and his blood as wine, comes to us still every moment that we choose hope over fear, light over darkness, joy over despair.

Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. -Romans 13:12-14

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Two Hundred Pounds, or What is Precious?

2 Kings 22:1-8; 23:1-3

Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign; he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Jedidah daughter of Adaiah of Bozkath. He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in all the way of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left.

In the eighteenth year of King Josiah, the king sent Shaphan son of Azaliah, son of Meshullam, the secretary, to the house of the Lord, saying, “Go up to the high priest Hilkiah, and have him count the entire sum of the money that has been brought into the house of the Lord, which the keepers of the threshold have collected from the people; let it be given into the hand of the workers who have the oversight of the house of the Lord; let them give it to the workers who are at the house of the Lord, repairing the house, that is, to the carpenters, to the builders, to the masons; and let them use it to buy timber and quarried stone to repair the house. But no accounting shall be asked from them for the money that is delivered into their hand, for they deal honestly.”

The high priest Hilkiah said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the book of the law in the house of the Lord.” When Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, he read it. 


Then the king directed that all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem should be gathered to him. The king went up to the house of the Lord, and with him went all the people of Judah, all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests, the prophets, and all the people, both small and great; he read in their hearing all the words of the book of the covenant that had been found in the house of the LordThe king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to follow the Lord, keeping his commandments, his decrees, and his statutes, with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. All the people joined in the covenant.

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A man was serving the church as a missionary in China. He was under house arrest, when soldiers finally came one day and said to him, “You Can Return to America.”

The family was celebrating, and the soldiers said, “You can take 200 pounds with you.”

Well, they had been there for years. Two hundred pounds. So they got out the scales, and started the family arguments: 2 children, wife, and husband. Must have this vase. Well, this new typewriter. What about my books? What about this? And they weighed everything and took it off and weighed this and took it off and weighed that and, finally, right on the dot, two hundred pounds.

The soldier asked, “Are you ready to go?””

“Yes.”
“Did you weigh everything?”
“Yes.”

“You weighed the kids?”
“no, we didn’t.”

“Weigh the kids.”

And in that moment, typewriter and vase and all became trash. Trash. It happens.

-From Craddock Stories, a collection of stories by Fred Craddock

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G B Farthing and his family, Baptist missionaries in China, c. 1900.

‘Tis the season, it would seem. Some of us are still digesting our turkey dinners, and already the emails and phone calls are flying about: Christmas lists, dinner plans, party invites. And all of it is JUST. SO. IMPORTANT.

Anyone ever just wish in moments like these that you could go back to being a kid? Remember what Christmas felt like when you were little? The countdowns until school is out? The excitement? The sense of complete and utter wonder? The awe and mystery of Christmas Eve? The unfettered joy of ripping Christmas wrapping? The complete and utter lack of dread, or responsibility? I don’t know about you, but I know an awful lot of adults who wish there were a few more weeks before Christmas.

So what is it about childhood? Somehow, Children have it all figured out: that this is a season of anticipation, of hope for the future, of excitement for what is coming. They are counting down, and every day is one step closer.

Like Josiah, the child king, who recognized the importance of the law, kids just get Christmas. They may not know the story so well, but they get the feeling of Christmas: the hope, the joy, the excitement of what is coming.

Because that is what it is folks. We may have smothered this season in Black Friday ads, tinsel, and obligation, but when you get down to it, Christmas is all about anticipation.

Over the last few weeks, we have been talking in acolyte class about this, and we came up with this idea, that there are certain foods that taste like Christmas. And we thought to ourselves, what would it mean to “taste” Christmas on the first Sunday of Advent? To remind ourselves of what we are looking forward to?

And so for first Advent at IPC, we brought our favorite Xmas Food to share in worship.  Cookies, candy canes, Stollen. And we brought it because we hoped that all of those who gathered with us would take a moment, an opportunity during worship, to remind themselves that this season, of Advent, is always looking forward to Christmas: that this is a time to prepare, to remember, and to anticipate.Aqua-and-red-platter-42.jpeg


I have a theory about why we grown-ups have a harder time remembering to hope during Advent. I have a feeling it has something to do with being so busy, or thinking we are. We are always doing something, planning something, preparing something, driving someone, checking emails, filling every moment until there simply is no time left to stop and remember. NO time left to think, really. We don’t give ourselves permission to slow down. We worry that if we do, Christmas won’t happen. Or that it won’t be perfect.

And so there is no time left to ask the questions, like:

Is this true?

Is this real?

Is this what Christmas is really about?

I wonder whether perhaps the greatest gift that we could give ourselves this Advent is the gift of Time and the permission to not be perfect. To choose rest, to choose face time with family and loved ones, to choose quiet and reflection over the seemingly inescapable soundtrack of Christmas out there? To choose to be with those who will support us in that effort so that we can remember together, why this season is so important?

A colleague of mine has suggested that perhaps Advent is the perfect season for fasting. She writes: “The point of fasting during advent is not on what you are giving up, it’s on what you are gaining.” So, for example, fasting from our phones is time to focus on something else. Money we choose not to spend on so many obligatory gifts can be given to a worthy cause. Fasting from television, from shopping, from facebook: they aren’t easy, they are hard. They are disciplines.

But what might we gain? One more afternoon with loved ones. One more opportunity to remember that love isn’t something that money can buy—love looks more like that very first imperfect Christmas in a dirty stable, and it is remembered every time we take time for one another rather than for ourselves.

Love looks like the recognition that all the lamps and typewriters are worthless compared to 200 pounds of children home safe with their mother and father.

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In a head to head contest, the kids always win.

Because that is the lesson of Advent, and the reason for Christmas hope: God spent time with us. In the person of Christ, God came and dwelled, and in his light we found that we were not alone. We were not afraid. We were loved. And it was enough. In fact, it was perfect.