Today’s sermon from Isaiah 63:7-9
Have you heard of a thankfulness pumpkin? I learned about them a few years ago. Individuals and families would take a pumpkin and transform it into a rustic and interactive centerpiece for their tables, by writing things they were grateful for, on the pumpkin with a permanent marker during each day of November.
We got our plastic thankfulness pumpkin for 99 cents at Kroger after halloween, and had a wonderful time filling it with our thanks- Scott Boulevard Baptist Church family is one of our gratitudes. Why did we have such an enjoyable time doing this, even looking forward to writing on our thankfulness pumpkin? Could it be because gratitude, and giving thanks tunes our hearts to God’s presence and provision in our lives? For me, the answer is yes.
And on this last Sunday of 2019, I am inviting us to give thanks together, for the blessings in our lives and in the life of our church over the past year. Gratitude, an attitude of being thankful, helps us to recognize God at work in our lives, the community around us, and the world. It does not, however, belittle or negate real pain and troubles; grief, sorrow, and the sheer exhaustion of being a human being in an increasingly dark world.
In fact, being thankful for things in our lives- particularly during the holidays of thanksgiving and Christmas which largely revolve around family and togetherness, often pricks the scars of old wounds of grief and loss, reminding us of things that have been, people we have loved and the impact they’ve had on our lives. We find ourselves at times during this season, in the midst of a flurry of of joy to the world, bloodied by fresh reminders of pain and loss.
The reality of our human-ness is that suffering and death remain a part of life, even with the birth of Christ and the presence of God among us. We live complex lives in which gratitude and despair, sorrow and joy, want and abundance can, and often do, coexist.
The common thread in this tapestry of human emotions held in tension with one another, is hope. Hope that is found in knowing that while we will experience suffering and pain, and death and loss, Immanuel, God with us moves with us. The movements of the symphony of each life of God’s beloved children, are wrought with a range of experiences.
The tempo, the rhythm of our symphonies, is marked by the presence of God with us as the music of our faithful trust; through praise and thanks swells into joyful “hallelujahs” and fades into whispers of “Lord have mercy, hear my prayer,” and “how long O lord.” Our lives become a masterpiece that bears witness to the presence of a faithful God in the lives of God’s messy, grateful people.
On this first Sunday after Christmas, we continue in joyful celebration at the news of God’s love made flesh in Christ the Lord; and we come ready to end one year and move into another. We come to honor the past- both the wholeness and brokenness; we come to be in the present carrying our joy and pain together, and we come to dream for the future recognizing both anticipation and fear.
The words of God through the prophet Isaiah help us honor each of these things, with grateful hearts that long to be filled with hope for beautiful things in the year ahead. “I will recount the gracious deeds of the Lord…” These are the first words uttered after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
Spoken to a devastated people who can all but reach out and touch the chilly absence of God as if it were a piece of ice; by a hollowed out prophet trying to cling to hope, these words are full of meaning in an empty wilderness. The way out of this wilderness, says the prophet, is gratitude by way of remembering. These people have forgotten the presence of God among them feels like; they’ve forgotten how it feels to know that God is at work in the world around them.
The way forward for them, as it has always been in their cultural practice of worship, is remembering and giving thanks. For many of them, their faith has been formed and shaped through stories – the stories of the oldest among them, who have kept them tethered to an identity as God’s chosen people and to a steady practice of devotion which involved both individual disciplines of prayer and scripture study, and worship in the temple.
A temple that is no more. How will they worship, with no place to call home? And how will God be among them with no temple throne on which to sit? The what if’s swell and magnify, the sorrow grows and soon, the presence of God among them is a distant memory; a faith fable of old that offers little more than a foggy attempt at comfort and hope. “Remember”, says Isaiah, in a joyful tone that doesn’t fit what the people are feeling about their lives and their God.
The earlier words of the prophet about God’s anger at the people’s rebellion are tempered with a call to remember the goodness of God amidst God’s palpable absence. The prophet reminds the weary people that it was no messenger or angel, but God’s presence that has always carried the people through.
Isaiah spoke of the presence of God in a time of war, devastation and desperation. Jesus was born into a time of greed, when a power hungry ruler sentenced children to death in his quest to find and destroy Jesus, the great threat to his power. We are reminded every day that elements of both these worlds are alive and well among us.
We can also be reminded every day through the words of the prophet, Isaiah, and the birth of Jesus the Christ, that God is with us. Immanuel journeys alongside us – and in fact has never left us. This is a reminder that we need to individually and as a congregation put our trust in God to be faithful in leading us forward as God has been faithfully leading this church throughout her history.
We are apprehensive about what lies ahead, but we also have hope for greater ministry, and fresh encounters with the presence of God. This is where we find our meaning, and this is how gratitude turns to hope. Whatever our circumstance, we can always trust that God’s presence is there to carry us through.
Last Saturday was the winter solstice; the day of the year with the shortest amount of daylight, which also makes it the longest night of the year. In some cultures, the winter solstice is celebrated as a time for rebirth and renewal. For people grieving at the holidays, it is often a time of somber reflection, or of just sleeping the long night away in hopes of a new and brighter tomorrow.
Whatever these days following Christmas bring for you: freshreminders of loneliness when family has gone, glimpses of the frailty and fragility of life, or a renewed hope for better days ahead;remember today with the prophet and the people of old, that after we have survived our longest nights, the mornings following the winter solstice get a little brighter each day.
Remember with the shepherds and the angels, that after the birth of Christ, our hope gets a little brighter each day. As we end this year and look toward another, let’s do so with thankful hearts poured out in gratitude to a God who is near, a God who is with us, a God who holds all our joy and pain and journeys with us from our longest nights into our brightest mornings.
Glory be to God.