Isaiah. 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

I’m beginning Advent and still full from Thanksgiving. Today I’m giving thanks for our gifts. Many of these are your individual gifts, but I’m especially thinking in terms of our life together as Hope Community Presbyterian Church. We’re blessed with abundant food and generosity, with hospitality we shared last weekend and today. A thoughtful, principled approach to the faith. Quiet, committed prayer support. A spiritual openness to many visions of God, and a space that symbolizes God’s presence in this community – and there’s a big ministry to be had in that combination. We have the ability to recognize God’s people and serve them across lines of class, race, and belief. I give thanks for these gifts that make us uniquely who we are.

But having gifts isn’t always enough. It can be hard to live them out. We live in a changing world, in a landscape unlike what we once knew. The demographics of our community and the social place of the church are changing. We’re often captive to worries about money, facilities, and membership numbers; we may be cut off by age, physical disability, or mental illness. What would God want from us? Even God himself seems absent in the face of these changes, not to mention the news of violence, friends’ health troubles, or just the Christmas shopping bustle. Our resources and our social world change, but human needs remain – what are we to do?

During my first half-year living in Cambridge, MA, I had a crisis like that. I was a good Iowa boy who cared about other people, but I knew the city rules about dealing with panhandlers and people with mental illness. What’s more, there were too many to do anything about, when I passed 50-100 homeless people each morning. Finally I came to a discussion group and asked, what’s a world-aware Christian to do? One friend said that when it got to be too much, she had bought a fast-food lunch for someone. It was a small gesture, but it helped her keep a sense of her humanity. Churches in Cambridge do emergency work and advocacy too. None of us is quite solving the problem of homelessness any time soon, but I sat with the question long enough in that foreign land that I learned from it.

Israel found themselves there in exile, away from their land, captive to a foreign power, wondering if God had forgotten them. But Isaiah was praying there – hoping there – looking for something new from God. He knew that even when human faithfulness fades (and it does), God is faithful forever. He was called to proclaim that good news aloud. Israel was unable to return from exile by their own power, but it’s not ours to do alone. God has plans to rearrange the world to make a home with us. Knowing God’s presence is freedom from exile in itself. And eventually Israel did return from exile and rebuild its ruined cities.

The Advent season also hears Isaiah’s words telling of God’s faithfulness in Christ’s coming – long ago in Jesus, and continually in the life the Spirit makes real in us. The exiles had returned, been conquered again, and lost hope again. Then God returned definitively and took on human life among us. In that life, God would speak with power to command freedom from the powers that bind. The power of freedom comes as gentleness, as it heals and cares for people. Christ’s power eventually comes on us, the Spirit lives on in us, and Isaiah calls Jerusalem “up a high mountain” to proclaim the news they just heard. Advent won’t be complete if we just wait for Jesus to be born two thousand years ago, because God’s faithfulness chooses to be revealed in us again.

How is that true? When do we best proclaim Christ’s coming? How do we embody Christ’s love for each person in the world? How do we open a sacred space and time for others? How do we teach each other (especially our children) to pray? What if we share this set-apart place for healing, service, and worship? What happens when we give away our excess with the trust that God will provide? What abundance does Christ’s dawning light reveal?

What gives you great hope for the gifts and ministry we share?