And There Was Light

We’re at the season when the days are slowly beginning to lengthen. Perhaps this is a good time to review this book which I read in October. I did not finish the review then, even though I quoted the book in several sermons. This is my last review of the year! On the COVID front, I am still testing positive, but feel great although I do tire easily.

On Sunday (as I am not preaching this week), I will post the review of 53 books read during 2023. This is one of the best books I read during this year, the other being Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on UkraineIt’s a hard pick between the two books. I recommend both. One enlarges our view of the world and our understanding on what is happening in Ukraine. This book provides insight into our own national challenge. Race is still the proverbial “elephant in the room,” in American politics. 

Jon Meacham, And There Was Light: Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle 

(New York: Random House, 2022), 713 pages (37-page prologue, 421 pages of text, 225 pages of notes on sources and bibliography, an index) plus 16 inserted color plates. 

This is an excellent book that needs to be read and studied by Americans today. Meacham provides a biographical portrait of Lincoln, with an eye on the President’s struggle during the Civil War. He also delves, as much as one can, into Lincoln’s private faith that allowed him to continue in his position while the nation was being tested and as he endured personal tragedies including the loss of children and the challenges of an unstable wife. A politician who had served in the state house and one term at the Capitol in the House of Representatives, Lincoln seemed unsuited to lead the nation through our most trying hour. He also was a flawed man, hating slavery but not necessarily believing in equality of the races. But Lincoln was able to draw from his experiences and find the strength to become what many historians believe to be the best president in America’s history. 

This book builds on Meacham’s earlier book, The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. In the Soul of America, the author drew heavily around Lincoln’s first inaugural address. In this book, he begins with Lincoln’s second inaugural address, which is often considered the most theological of all inaugural addresses and was given just weeks before Lincoln’s assassination. In both books, Meacham does more than write about the past. His writings provide insights for our nation to move forward, even when deeply divided. Meacham see’s Lincoln as a providing a path, one in which we hold tightly to what is good and nobly while also being gracious to our enemies. 

The Election of 1860 and 2020

Meacham provides a detailed account of the events between Lincoln’s election in 1860 and his inauguration in March 1863. Some of the details are eerily familiar. Vice President John Breckinridge, who had just been defeated by Lincoln in the general election, oversaw the counting of the electoral votes on February 13 (this was before the inauguration was moved to January). As with January 6, secret forces gathered in Washington hoping for a coup and to make Washington the capitol for the Confederacy. Like Mike Pence, Breckinridge, who would later become a Confederate General, did his duty.  Furthermore, General Winfield Scott, the hero of the Mexican War, ordered troops into Washington to quell any attempt to overthrow the government. The electoral college votes were counted without trouble. The next step was the inauguration itself. As Lincoln moved from Illinois to Washington by train, there were plans to assassinate him enroute. Secrecy and security prevented it from occurring. 

I couldn’t read the accounts of what happened between the election in November 1860 and the inauguration without being reminded of January 6, 2020t. It has been shown that the events on that day were not spontaneous but planned. I found myself wondering if those behind January 6 had studied what had happened in 1861 and attempted to “correct” the mistakes of those who had attempted to keep Lincoln from the presidency.  

Lincoln’s theology

This volume is steeped in theology. On the one hand, this seems strange as Lincoln never joined any church. His background was Baptist and Presbyterian, but he also read widely including the Unitarian Theodore Parker. It appears that as President, Lincoln became surer of his faith. His discussions and friendship with the Reverend Phineas Densmore Gurley of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church helped the President see God as an agent in the world. Gurley comforted the Lincolns at the death of their son, Willie, and was present at Lincoln’s own death. In seeing God as active in the world through humanity, yet God’s providential will being at times hidden, Lincoln developed a trust that helped him moved from one who attempted to keep the Union together to one who sought to end slavery. 

Recommendations

I hope this book is widely read. As a nation, we should learn from Lincoln’s struggles. 

I have come to appreciate Meacham’s writings over the past decade. Along with this book and The Soul of America, I have also read two other biographies by him: Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush and American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.

Christmas on the Blue Ridge

This will go down as a strange Christmas. Christmas Eve is always rushed. This is especially true when Christmas falls on a Sunday, which means I have two messages to prepare… This year, I thought I would get ahead of myself. Partly, I was forced to because the guy who tapes the sermon for Mayberry Church was leaving town for the holidays. So I taped the sermon on Tuesday. Because he was traveling and a number of people in the church had come down with COVID, we took precautions and wore masks or stood (as with the taping) on opposite ends of the sanctuary.

Then I woke up on Wednesday, feeling congested and not very well. I tested myself. After almost three years of avoiding the virus, I was positive. The quarantine started… Thankfully, my library (and visitor guest room) is almost done in the basement, so I moved down stairs). I would not be there for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day (which I never got around to preparing a sermon for). I am thankful for many people who stepped up and help make sure worship will continue.

Then there’s this bomb cyclone that much of the country faced over the past two days. Last night, when I went to bed, the temperature was at -2 with winds gusting. This morning, I got up at 6 AM and the temperature was -6, with the winds sustained around 18 mph and gusting much higher. Lots of people lost power. For a time, it was questionable if we’d have the service at Mayberry tonight, as their power was out, but it’s come back on. The power is still out at Bluemont Church and Appalachian Power doesn’t think they’ll get it back before tomorrow night, so we cancelled the Christmas Day service that was to be held there…

As for COVID, I was very congested for the first two days. Now, I don’t feel bad, but will abide by the recommended quarantine. I hope I’ll be back to normal next week. Here’s the sermon I was going to preach tonight. Instead, it will be shone to those who brave the cold on a big screen TV.

Have a Merry Christmas everyone!

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry Presbyterian Church
December 24, 2022

Isaiah 9:2-7

Homily taped at Mayberry on Tuesday, December 20, 2022

This evening, I’m drawing my homily from a well-known passage from Isaiah, one often read during the Christmas season. As I have been reminding you through Advent, the first 2/3s of Isaiah is filled with judgment with a few kernels of hope sprinkled in. We’ve been looking at these passages of hope. This is another one of these passages. As we’ve just past the winter solstice with the longest night of the year, it’s good to be reminded that darkness never has the final word.  Read Isaiah 9:2-7.

###

Benighted is a word that is often used by mountaineers. It refers to getting caught in the darkness when climbing or hiking.[1] Generally, one doesn’t plan to get caught out like that, but I often go out for a walk as the sun sets, so that I might hike back in the night. I love watching the light fade from the horizon and the stars to pop out in the sky as I acknowledge each constellation as old friends. If I’m walking back up Laurel Fork Road, some of the hayfields allows for long views off the west and in the winter, I can see lights twinkle at Crooked Oak and toward Hillsville. I take comfort in these lights, knowing they represent homes where people are warm and safe.

It’s a little more troubling to hike at night when there is no light. I’ve been caught a few times like that, when it’s dark and you can’t see more than a few feet ahead. Once, in a backpacking trip in Yosemite, I’d walked out to a ledge about a half mile from where we’d camped to watch the sunset. I stayed a little longer than planned and was making my way back in the dark. Suddenly, a bear coming down the path in the other direction, stood up in front of me. It was as startled as me, and thankfully took off in another direction. Darkness can be scary. 

Without vision, there is no comprehension of what’s out there, what’s around you. It’s all about what’s with the next step or within our reach. You walk slower and try to avoid running into things. It can be scary. We become confused and find ourselves lost. We’re become anxious and apprehensive, as I was the rest of the way back to my camp. 

This is the situation Isaiah addresses in this oracle. People walking in darkness, living in a land of absent of light. Tonight, millions of people in Ukraine live in darkness because Russia constantly bombards their electrical grid in an attack of civilians. Those civilians could identify with those whom Isaiah addressed in this passage. We’ve all dealt with similar darkness during ice storms. It’s frightening, but Isaiah offers hope. There is a promise of light filling the land. The light brings joy, there is a renewed confidence. As with the breaking of dawn, things are changing.  

We take light for granted. We flip the switch and like magic, light appears. We are troubled when the power doesn’t work, which is why many of us have generators. Candles and flashlights just don’t do it for us anymore. Especially now, at the time of the year when the nights are at their longest and the air is cold.

Yet, despite the easy availability of light, we still suffer from depression and want. The metaphor of darkness still applies to us as we worry about the present and fret over the future. We need to hear and experience Isaiah’s words again. 

This passage of Isaiah, possibility originally written for the birth of one of Jerusalem’s kings, offers hope to a people oppressed.[2] As a nation, Israel and Judah stood at the crossroads of mighty nations. In world affairs, they were a pawn, in the middle of a chessboard, with the powers of the Fertile Crescent on each side. The dark pieces of the chessboard could have been Egypt and the white pieces could represent a variety of nations (Assyria, Babylon, or Persia) depending on the era of history. Sitting in this crucible, Israel always felt insecure. But at the time of a new king there would be hope that alien rule would come to an end and their enemies would be defeated as the new king restores the prominence of Israel to what it had been under David. It would be centuries before Jesus’ came, fulfilling this prophecy.

In verse 4, Isaiah recalls the victories of Gideon at Midian, where he led the Israelites into battle. Over 32,000 Israelite men responded to the call to arms to save their nation, but God had Gideon whittle down the number of soldiers. In the end, he kept a force of only 300 who slipped into the Midianite and their allies, the Amalekites, camp and routed them. With just a handful of men, but more importantly with God’s help, they were victorious over a much larger army.[3]The promises in our passage all link to God working to end their oppression as God had done in the days of Gideon. This leads to verse 6, which is perhaps the most hopeful verse in scripture, where Isaiah’s oracle announces the birth of a child. But sadly, no such king was born during Isaiah’s era.

The early church quickly realized how this passage applied to Jesus, whose birth we celebrate tonight. Jesus came in humility, yet had the authority of God, was God with us. Jesus offers us a new way of enjoying peace. Of course, his reign hasn’t been fully realized and there are still those who oppose his kingdom, but his victory over evil and death has been won on the cross and it’s only a matter of time. For as we celebrate his birth, we also long for his return and the everlasting kingdom.  

On these dark winter nights, when you see lights glimmering in the distance, think of the hope we have in Jesus, the light of the world. As we heard earlier this evening from the prelude to the Gospel of John, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”[4]

There is a legend that one winter, the great church reformer, Martin Luther was walking in the woods at night. There was a cedar tree frosted with snow on a hill above. As he looked up at this sight, he could see the stars flickering behind and through the branches of the tree. He was so moved that he had a tree cut down and brought inside his home and decorated it with lights to recapture the glory he’d witnessed. This season, I hope you can capture that same glory when you look at the lights all around us and be reminded of the hope we have in Jesus Christ, whose birth we celebrate this evening. For in Jesus Christ, born of Mary, God came into our world and lived among us, showing us how to live, and reminding us that we’re not alone. We should no longer live in the fear of the darkness, for unto us a child has been born….  Amen.  


[1] This word came from a Twitter post by Cian McCarthy: https://twitter.com/arealmofwonder/status/1605101212554117120

[2] For a more fuller discussion of this passage as an enthronement oracle, see Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 1:12, Old Testament Library, Second Edition, John Bowden, translator, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 210-214.

[3] See Judges 7.

[4] John 1:5.

A decoration on my tree

Silent Night and Christmas Celebrations

Below is an article I wrote a few years ago and reworked for local newspapers for this year. This is going to be a Christmas to remember for I tested positive for COVID this morning. I had already recored my Christmas Eve homily which hopefully can be shown as I will still be in quarantine this weekend. I have spent the past three years trying to avoid this, but it finally came home with me. Thankfully, so far, it’s like a sinus infection with my head feeling like someone stuff a bale of cotton in it. I hope you have a Merry Christmas and stay warm (as it promises to be cold here this weekend).

Silent Night, Holy Night
All is calm, all is bright… 

My Christmas tree

       Of all the Christmas Carols, Silent Night is perhaps best known. The carol which is often sung in candlelight at the end of Christmas Eve services is over two hundred years old.

         On Christmas Eve 1818, Austrian pastor Joseph Franz Mohr was frantic. The Salzach River had flooded and the waters seeped into the church organ. With his evening service approaching and no musical accompaniment, he wasn’t sure what to do. But he remembered a Christmas poem he’d written a few years earlier. He took the poem to his friend, Franz Xavier Gruber, who also served as the church organist and choir director. In a few hours, Gruber was able to put music to the poem and that evening in St. Nicholas Church in Oberndorf, Austria, Mohr and Gruber, accompanied by a guitar and a local choir, sang “Stille Nacht,” as it’s known in German, for the first time. 

         Slowly the carol, which is so loved today, became better known. After Christmas, Karl Mauracher was hired by the church to repair the organ. While working on it, Mohr sang the song to him. Obtaining a copy, Mauracher shared the carol with other churches as he traveled around maintaining organs. In 1831, the song was sung at the Leipzig fair, where it received wider attention. In time, minor changes were made to the words and composition to create the arrangement we know today. The music was first published in 1838.

         As German-speaking immigrants made their way to America, they brought the carol with them. It was first published in the United States in the 1849 Methodist hymnal. The translation that is most popular today was made by John Freeman Young when he was the Episcopal priest at Trinity Church in New York City. He published the carol in 1863 in a collection of Sunday School songs.

         As the carol become more popular, no one seemed to know who had written it. It was often thought of as an unknown work by one of the great composers, perhaps even Mozart, Haydn, or Beethoven. Mohr died in 1848, before the carol become known world-wide. Shortly before his death in 1863, Gruber shared the story of the carol’s history, but many doubted the story. Decades later, a hand written copy of the hymn was found. After extensive examination, it was found to be written by Mohr and on the top right of the page he’d written “Melodie von Fr. Xav. Gruber.” The story was authenticated.  

         Silent Night grew in popularity around the time that Christmas, as we know it, was becoming popular in the English speaking world. Two centuries earlier, the Puritans banned Christmas in both England and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Although the ban ended following the restoration of the monarch with Charles II in 1660, for decades it wasn’t seen so much as a religious holiday as it was an opportunity for drinking and revelry. One of George Washington’s great victories in the Revolutionary War can be credited to the American’s lack of celebration of the holiday. On a cold Christmas night in 1776, Washington was able to move his army across the Deleware River and attack the German Hessian troops fighting for the British. These troops, who were staying in Trenton, New Jersey, had spent the evening celebrating. They were taken by surprise. 

          However, on both sides of the Atlantic, Christmas celebrations began to change in the 19thCentury. In America, the publication of Clement Clarke Moore’s, “The Night Before Christmas,” along with the writings of Washington Irving brought Christmas customs back into the minds of the people. About that time, large numbers of German immigrants began to flow into the country bringing Christmas customs with them. In England, the publication of Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol,” linked the holiday with doing good for the less fortunate. The marriage of Queen Victoria to Prince Albert, a German, also brought German Christmas customs to England. In America, Christmas trees, which were first noticed in the homes of Pennsylvania Dutch in the early 1800s, became an accepted part of the holiday by mid-century.   

         In 1914, almost a hundred years after the carol was first sung, much of the world was bogged down into a war that had begun in August. In the trenches on the Western Front, German and English soldiers huddled inside cold and wet trenches, sniping at each other when someone raised a head. Both sides would charge the other line, only to be cut down by machine gun fire and mortar barrages.  Between the lines was no-man’s land, where barbed wire had been strung and corpses laid on the frozen ground. As Christmas 1914 approached, a storm brought more freezing rain and snow. Pope Benedict XV had called for the observance of a Christmas truce, an idea ignored by the leaders of both sides. It was looking to be a bleak Christmas.

Bluemont Christmas Ornament

         On Christmas Eve, however, the weather changed. The clouds disappeared and the moon lighted the darkened landscape. Then, at various pockets along the lines, the German soldiers decorated and lighted trees and placed them along their trenches as they began to sing, Stille Nacht. While the language may have been foreign, the tune was familiar to many of the British soldiers who sang “Silent Night” back to the Germans. Other carols were sung. In places along the trenches, soldiers called for an informal truce and began to move out into no-man’s land to greet those they were trying to kill only hours earlier. The soldier’s shared drinks and exchanged candy and food. On Christmas Day, a couple of impromptu soccer matches occurred. The dead were able to be retrieved and buried. Sadly, this truce didn’t occur along the entire line, but was common along the section where the British faced the Germans.

         The Christmas truce of 1914 was a brief respite in a terrible war, partly facilitated by a popular carol that both sides knew. Sadly, it would be the only such truce during the war. In 1914, only four months into the war, most were still hoping for a quick victory. By Christmas 1915, there were millions more dead soldiers and civilians. As the war raged on, it became uglier as new weapons such as tanks, airplanes, and poisonous gas were utilized, each side trying to gain an advantage. 

Bluemont Christmas orament

         This beloved carol still brings peace to the hearts of those who sing it. Its beginning reminds us of how that which rises from difficulty, such as Saint Nicholas Church having no organ, can have a profound impact on the world. The carol, as it brought together the soldiers of two warring sides during that First World War, reminds us of the possibilities for peace that come when warring sides take a risk and see the humanity of their foes. It is my hope that in this holiday season, when you hear or sing this carol, perhaps while holding a flickering candle in church at night, that you will experience peace. 

         If you do not have a church home, I invite you to join us up on the Blue Ridge Parkway at one of the Rock Churches this Christmas. Christmas Eve services will be at Mayberry Church, just south of Meadows of Dan at milepost 180, at 6 PM. On Christmas Day, we’ll celebrate Christmas at Bluemont Church, at milepost 192. 

Bluemont and Mayberry at night

God Believes in Us

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
December 18, 2022
Isaiah 7:10-16

Sermon recorded at Mayberry Church on Friday, December 16, 2022

A thought at the beginning of worship:

You know, it’s tough being a Department Store Santa. Thankfully, most of the kids are good when they crawl up onto the chubby old man’s laps. Santa listens to their wants and desires for Christmas. But some lists breaks Santa’s hearts. Others, who come with a list that rivals the one their mom has for the grocery store, reminds Santa of how greedy some kids can be. And then, sometimes a kid pulls his beard to see if it’s real. 

And then there is Scottie. At eleven, almost twelve, he feels he’s too old for Santa. But he’s his mom’s last kid and she wants one last photo of him on Santa’s lap. Scottie doesn’t like it when his mother orders him to climb up in the Old Man’s lap. 

Santa doesn’t relish the thought much, either. Especially because Scottie was big for his age and had a few extra pounds to boot. But Santa has a job to do. He lets out a hearty “ho-ho-ho” and welcomes Scottie, asking the boy what he wants for Christmas. Instead of answering, Scottie looks Santa in the eye and says, “I-don’t-believe-in-you.” “That’s alright,” Santa says. “I believe in you.”[1]

I believe in you

“I believe in you.” That’s what God says to us and to all humanity.  

God believes in us even when we have our doubts. And when we least expect it, in the darkness of a depressed Palestine, God enters our world as a child. God believes in us, a truth that should empower our lives with meaning and conviction. 

Before the reading of today’s scripture: 

We’re again looking at hopeful passages found in the first half of Isaiah during this Advent season. Today’s passage is problematic. It seems odd for this passage to relate to this season. However, this reading (or verse 14 of the reading) is tied to the Christmas season thanks to the Matthew’s gospel.[2] It’s made even more famous by the rousing singing of altos in Handel’s Messiah: “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel, God with us.” If God is with us, it sounds like God believes in us, doesn’t it? But it’s also a frightening thought. God being with us also brings judgment, as this chapter of Isaiah shows.

An odd passage for Advent?

As I said, the Isaiah passage from where this verse which brings so much meaning to Christmas seems quite odd for the season. After all, Isaiah deals with international politics and who’s aligned with whom. And we have a king, Ahaz, who fails to take God’s advice. If you read on to the end of the chapter, God judges the king for following his own way and not the ways of God. 

Take time this afternoon to read this chapter. There are some hidden meanings behind the “hair cut” the king receives in verses 20.[3] Again, in Isaiah, as we’ve seen all along in Isaiah, the prophet ties judgment and hope together. It seems an irony, but perhaps Matthew understood this for after telling of Jesus’ birth, he follows that hopeful story with that of another king. Herod finds the hope of a child too threatening and seeks to destroy him.[4].

Hope and Judgment.

Hope and judgment? How do we respond to the hope that God is with us? Is it good news or do we fear the judge?

Read Isaiah 7:10-16

Background info on Ahaz.

Ahaz, the king Isaiah confronts in today’s passage, isn’t a model of faithfulness. He’s remembered as one of the worst kings—one of the most idolatrous—in the history of the Hebrew people. His history is somewhat scattered. It must be pieced together from several books within scripture as well as from Assyrian sources.

World politics 2700 years ago

It seems Judah, some 700 years before Christ, found herself besieged by the combined forces of her northern cousins, Israel, and the Aramean or Syrian kingdom. Israel and Syria allied in an anti-Assyrian pact. Assyria was the unquestionable world power for several centuries during. Israel and Syria joined together to fight her dominance. Judah did not enter this pact; she was attacked because of this.

Ahaz, the king of Judah, calls on Assyria for help. The Assyrians attack Syria, which relieve Ahaz forces. After the capture of Syria, Ahaz meets with the king of Assyria in Damascus, and they set up a pact. The Assyrians would not conquer Judah, but the little state would become a vassal under the mighty Assyrians. Ahaz, the king, pledged his loyalty to the king of Assyria.[5]Can you keep Syria or Aramean, Assyria, Israel, Judah straight? Complicated, isn’t it? World politics always is.

Ahaz’s real sins

Had Ahaz just forged an alliance with Assyria, he might have been okay. But his loyalty went beyond a military alliance. While in Damascus, Ahaz eyes an Assyrian altar. It must have been pretty fancy because he orders his chief cabinetmaker to build one to put into the Jerusalem temple. Furthermore, Ahaz robs the temple of some of its treasures to pay tribute to the Assyrians. Ahaz seems to have a thing for the idols of Judah’s neighbors, preferring them over the God of Abraham. Many of these idols he places in the temple, too, making it into a pagan shrine as opposed to a place focused only on the worship of Almighty God. 

Today’s text

Now, with that background, let’s look at the text. The Lord tells Ahaz he should ask of the Lord whatever he needs. Ahaz refuses, telling Isaiah that he’s not going to put the Lord to the test. We’re told in Deuteronomy not to test God.[6] If we just read this verse, it sounds as if Ahaz faithfully tries to live by God’s commands. But, as I have shown you, history tells us otherwise. Ahaz isn’t going to test the Lord, even when given permission, because he has a bunch of other gods upon whom he can call. Perhaps this resulted in Isaiah’s sarcastically response in verse 13, “Is it too little to weary mortals that you weary my God also?”

God with us through a child

Isaiah’s use of “my God,” points to Ahaz’s faithlessness in the God of his ancestors. But God is not going to be unfaithful, Isaiah proclaims. God will come to this people. A young woman is to give birth to a child named Immanuel. The Hebrew word translated as young woman means a girl or maiden, someone entering the age for marriage. 

There’s a lot of confusion around this word. As I said, in the Hebrew, the word is for a young woman of marriageable age, but when the Isaiah was translated into the Greek, the words used was for a virgin. And that’s what is in our mind as Matthew quotes, not the Hebrew text but the Greek Septuagint.[7] This led to the veneration of Mary in the medieval world. And thanks to Matthew, along with Handel’s wonderful oratorio, becomes entrenched in our mind with Christmas. 

The real miracle in this prophecy 

But the real miracle here is not with the woman. I suggest the scandalous miracle is with the child. God comes to us in an infant. That’s the meaning of Immanuel. God is present, in person, in this child wrapped in swaddling clothes in a manager.[8]

You know, God could have washed his hands of Judah because of Ahaz. If God would be like us, the king’s unfaithfulness would be enough to find some new folks for the chosen people. But God doesn’t work that way. God remains faithful. As I said at the beginning of today’s worship, God believes in us. God believes in us so much that he sent his only Son.[9] God’s desire to be in relationship with us is so great that we’re given chance after change to get it right. God was willing to give Ahaz another chance. He didn’t take God up on the offer, but that was his decision. And in Jesus Christ, God offers the world a new way of being. 

Where do we see God’s presence? 

During the Advent season, we should think about where we see God’s presence in our lives and in history. Are we looking in the right places? Who’d expect an infant from a young mother to make such a difference?

In the 1975 movie, “Love and Death,” Woody Allen’s character says, “If God would only speak to me—just once. If He would only cough. If I could just see a miracle. If I could see a burning bush or the sea’s part. Of my Uncle Sasha pick up the check.” If only… We understand these feelings. An unambiguous sign from God would certainly be appreciated.[10] Instead, we’re to take hope form the birth of a child.

The season of expectant waiting.

This is the fourth and last Sunday of Advent. We now have four candles burning in our wreath. Advent is the season of expectant waiting. In Isaiah’s day, they longed for safety from invaders, someone strong and bold, yet Isaiah promises hope in a child. A child doesn’t come with armor and a spear. One must wait, as God’s people waited for a Messiah and as we wait for his return. 

Prison and Advent

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian killed by the Nazis just a few weeks before the end of World War Two, wrote in prison shortly before Christmas 1944, his last: “Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent. One waits, hopes and does this, that, or the other—things that are really of no consequence—the door is shut, and can only be opened from the outside.”[11]

Bonhoeffer is right. Only God can come to us. Our sinful natures are unable to transcend the divine. We must depend on God to open the door… But don’t despair. Remember, God still believes in us. That’s the good news. God enters our world through Jesus Christ and ushers in his kingdom which is demonstrated when one of us accepts his rule over our lives. Christ has come and we should see evidence of his presence in one another as we gather to worship and to do the work to which we’re called. 

Conclusion 

And Christ will come again. Until then, the question we need to ask is, “Will we be ready?” Or will we be like Ahaz and, in the meantime, run off after other gods? God believes in us. Will we believe in God? Amen. 


[1] This story came from an the old ECUNET internet bulletin board. I first told it on December 20, 1998, changing the kid’s name to Scottie to pick on Scott Burns, one of the great jokesters in the congregation I served at the time (Community Presbyterian Church, Cedar City, Utah). A year earlier, we had moved into the new church. When the building was dedicated, we hung in a hall 8”x10” photos of pastors who had served the church. At the unveiling of these photos, Scott created a special “photo” of me. It was poster sized. He’d taken a rather unflattering picture of me, at church camp that summer, sleeping in a hammock. It seemed only right to name the kid after him.

[2] Matthew 1:23

[3] See the footnote for this verse in the New Interpreter’s Study Bible (2003). Dehairing describes destruction as in Ezekiel 5:1-4. 

[4] See Matthew 2.  See also Scott Hoezee, “Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 18, 2022: Isaiah 7:10-16” at https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2022-12-12/isaiah-710-16-3/.

[5] Background information on Ahaz from the Anchor Bible Dictionary and John Bright, A History of Israel (1959, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), 291f. 

[6] Deuteronomy 6:6.

[7] Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12, The Old Testament Library, 2nd Edition, John Bowden, translator (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 154. See also Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah Updated Edition (New York: Doubleday, 1993), 145ff.

[8] Luke 2:12.

[9] John 3:16.

[10] Donald W. McCullough, The Trivialization of God: The Dangerous Illusion of a Manageable Deity (Colorado Springs: Nav Press, 1995), 119. 

[11] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (NY: Collier, 1953), 135. 

After sunset, last Tuesday

Advent, Poetry, Essays, & Riding the Rails

Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ 

(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018), 406 pages including Biblical references

A few weeks before Advent this year, I began reading this collection of essays and sermons. However, I quickly learned I was already behind the curve. For Rutledge, the Advent themes begin on All Saints Day adding another four weeks to the season we generally think of as the four Sundays of preparation for Jesus’ birth.

The Christian year begins with Advent, but her sermons include the end of the old Christian year and the beginning of the new. This is the season of judgment, the return of Jesus, the end of the age, the need to be ready, to repent, to wait patiently. In writing about Advent and with a host of sermons that she preached during this season of the year, Rutledge reminds us that we’re not as good as we think we are and our need to depend on God. Her sermons are filled with reminders that evil is real and there a real battle going on in both the world and our lives. She warns against a Christianity that thinks we must make the right decision (accept Jesus) and not have to deal with the reality that there is an enemy of God, Satan. Her sermons are a call to action. 

Sermons that tie into what’s happening in the world

Karl Barth is often quoted as saying we are to preach with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. Rutledge, a student of Barth (along with Calvin and others), displays this wisdom. These sermons, delivered from the mid-70s through the first decade of the 21st Century, display keen insights into the events of the world: terrorist attacks, Rwandan genocide, the Gulf War, the Iraqi War, the Bush/Gore election, school shootings, Emmanuel AME shootings among others. I have never had the skill or maybe I lacked the boldness to directly include such topics in my sermons, often choosing to address them in prayers. The sermons are pastoral. Imagine preaching an ordination sermon the weekend after the Sandy Hook school shooting in a neighboring town. She handles the scripture, the charge to the pastor, and addresses the situation with grace.

Rutledge is a master wordsmith

Rutledge is well read, both in the discipline of theology as well in literature. Her sermons are steeped in scripture, which allows her to interpret the events happening in the world along with insights from theology and literature. She draws heavily on the poetry of W. H. Auden and T. S. Eliot.  The combination results in convincing essays and sermons that give her listeners (and readers) much to ponder.  While Rutledge (taking her clues from scripture) doesn’t provide an answer to the reason evil exists, she also doesn’t deny or diminish evil’s powers. But she reminds her readers of God’s greater power and love and leaves us with hope. While there is a lot of darkness in her sermons, there is also the anticipation of light (which is what the season of Advent is about).

Rutledge is an Episcopalian and one of the first women ordained into ministry by the Episcopal Church in the United States. 

I recommend this book for both Christians and those who might be skeptical that the Christian faith has little to say to today’s world. 

Paul J. WillisSay This Prayer into the Past: Poems 

(Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2014), 100 pages.

This is a delightful collection of poetry from Willis, an English professor at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California.  I purchased the book from the Calvin University bookstore when I was there in early October. I had met the author though Calvin’s “Festival of Faith and Writing” workshops. Once, when I lived in Michigan, I encouraged him to stay a few days afterwards to do a poetry reading at Pierce Cedar Creek Nature Center south of Hastings, Michigan. It was early April 2012. On the morning of the reading, I took Willis on a hike on the trails around the property. That evening he read a poem he’d worked out while hiking that morning titled, “Skunk Cabbage.” An edited version of that poem is in this collection. 

Nature plays a prominent role in Willis’ poems. Many of these poems he locates in various places in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and Pacific Northwest. Faith and scripture references also abound in these poems, as well as the theme of fire. This collection was compiled after the author lost his home to the 2008 Tea Fire that devastated areas around Santa Barbara. I recommend this collection of poetry. 

Skunk Cabbage

Brian Doyle, One Long River of Song 

(New York: Little Brown, 2019) 251 pages.

This is a delightful collection of essays by the late Brian Doyle. I heard so much about him at the HopeWord Writer’s Conference this past spring and this is my first of his books to read. One Long River of Song is a book to be savored and read slowly, over time. This book spent a couple of months on my nightstand and whenever I didn’t have anything else to read, I’d read from one to a half-dozen essays before bed. Some made me tear up, others brought laughter.

All these essays provide the reader something to ponder. Each essay stands on its own. Doyle handles diverse subjects, from how he learned humility to how to write the “perfect nature essay.” There is an essay on the school shooting, a somewhat fictional account of William Blakes trial, on otters and wolverines and the human heart (that maintains a 4/4 beat). Doyle, who was Roman Catholic, explores the church and the meaning of faith. As the essays come toward the end, they tend to be more and more about death, but even here there is wonder.

This collection was published by Doyle’s wife after his death in 2017. I recommend it! 

Carrot Quinn, The Sunset Route: Freight Trains, Forgiveness, and Freedom of the Rails in the American West 

(2021, Audible Books), 9 hours and 27 minutes. 

Someone had suggested that I read Quinn’s book, Thru-Hiking Will Break Your Heart. In looking up that title, I realized she’d written another book about riding the rails. I have done long distant hiking, but have never hopped a train. However, the lure has always been there, so I decided to start with this book. While there is a lot about catching trains and how to hide from the railroad police (who are not like the railroad bulls of the 1930s), this book is Quinn’s “coming-of-age” story. While I didn’t want to stop listening, it was hard to listen to much of Quinn’s story. Yet, she needs to be heard as she is not the only one to grow up in such difficult circumstances.

I found this book to be a cross between Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and Chad Faries, Drive Me Out of My Mind which I read in early 2020. Like Faries’ experiences, I found myself angry at Quinn’s childhood. No child should have to live in such a manner. While such an upbringing has helped make her who she is, I worry about other kids who didn’t make it.

Review of The Sunset Route

Quinn flips back and forth, from her adventures on a train to growing up with a mentally ill mother in Alaska. Her mother believes she is the Virgin Mary and often has weird visions. At times, unable to hold things together, her mother would forget to file for welfare and Quinn and her brother along with their mother would be homeless. It was a difficult as she learns at an early age to forage food from dumpsters. In her teens, she is taken from her mother and sent to her grandparents in Colorado. Then she runs away. She becomes a part of a drug and alcohol-free anarchist community and learns about riding rails. As she rides the rails, she reads Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, a book I read when I hiked the Appalachian Trail. 

It appears to me that throughout her life, Quinn keeps trying to find love and failing. Her mentally ill mother can’t love her. When her mother is sick, she says terrible things to her children. Her estranged father has abandoned the family and while he brought her a plane ticket on one occasion, isn’t able to show love to someone he abandoned as an infant. Her grandparents don’t know what to do with two teenagers when all the rest of children have grown. When her brother becomes an addict, there is another rift from one she had been able to depend on. And then there are the relationships to others, mostly to other women but also to men. While Quinn doesn’t find love, there are a few bright moments in her life when someone helps her out. 

At the end of the book (which has a big gap of the time when she hiked long distance trails) she seems to have come to peace with her situation. She and her brother have reconnected, as they both shared a terrible childhood. She even tries to find her mother, fearing that she might die in the cold in Anchorage. 

Recommendation

While many will find this book difficult to read. But stories like these need to be heard because so many of these stories are not heard and are hidden from society. 

Train Station in Iowa.

Hope in the Desert

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
December 11, 2022
Isaiah 35

Recorded at Bluemont Church on Friday, December 9, 2022.

At the beginning of worship

There is a wonderful little book filled with wisdom titled, Jacob the Baker. When teaching his fellow bakers, Jacob holds up his fist and says:

The fist starves the hand… When our hand is made into a fist, we cannot receive the gifts of life from ourselves, our friends, or our God. When our hand is closed in a fist, we cannot hold anything but bitterness. When we do this, we starve our stomachs and our souls. Our anger brings a famine on ourselves.[1]

Think about it. Harboring bitterness only intensifies our despair. We need to make the best of all situations. 

Advent, as the days grow shorter, is a time of darkness. We might wish this time to quickly pass, but I suggest instead we seek God in such times. For only when we stand with open hands to receive the Lord will we be ready to be shepherded into a better place.

Before reading the scripture:

We’re again exploring a hopeful passage from Isaiah. This book forms the centerpiece for the Old Testament’s concept of a redeemer God. This is the God we meet fully in Jesus Christ, but the theological foundations for Christ’s work is set forth in Isaiah. Today, we look at the 35thchapter, which contains a hopeful vision. 

Many scholars suggest chapters 34 and 35 should be read together even though they seem to be contradictory.[2] Chapter 34 deals with God’s judgment on the nations, with Edom particularly selected for condemnation. The land becomes a wasteland inhabited by wild animals. This desolation is followed, in Chapter 35, with the promise of God’s restoration. By the way, blending judgment and hope is something Isaiah does well.[3]

Read Isaiah 35

Life in the Desert

Life in the desert is precious. Everything fights for its share of water. Savage animals live in the desert; they must be that way to survive. They’ve adapted to the climate. The sidewinder rattlesnake jumps sideways as it makes its way across hot ground while only exposing a limited portion of its underbelly to the baking rock. Other snake who slithers on the ground can be quickly fried. They only come out at night and quickly find shade when the sun blazes. 

Cactus is another example of unique survival. It’s a plant that stores up water and then defends its stash with sharp points. Everything competes for moisture.[4]

Fear of the desert

Many people are apprehensive about the desert. Back in 1988, when I moved to Virginia City, Nevada, I worried about driving across the 40-mile desert. I had read horrible accounts of what wagon trains endured crossing this parched land.[5] And it didn’t help any that I picked up a nail in a tire in Elko. Was this an omen? Thankfully, I was able to get the tire repaired in Lovelock, Nevada and made the trip without any problems. 

Without air conditioning, water purification systems and deep wells, life in the desert is precarious. Today, it’s a bit easier, but you still don’t want to run out gas or water or with a flat tire. 

In the days of Isaiah, the desert was even more hostile. Yet that’s where Israel finds herself, in the desert. Before looking at the 35th chapter, let’s take quickly review the 34th Chapter. As I’ve said, the two appear to be one unit. 

The Judgment of Chapter 34

In the 34th Chapter, judgment has descended upon the world. Everything is affected. In the first four verses, we read of those slain by God’s anger. In verse five, we learn that Edom, a neighbor of Israel’s, is especially singled out for the harshest treatment. God’s wrath continues till only wild beast, demons, buzzards and the like, inhabit the land. The world is now a desert; it’s an inhospitable wilderness. There is no hope on the horizon.

Metaphorical deserts

So far, I’ve spoken about literal deserts, something that not all of us will experience. Those of us who do experience a real desert, will probably do it on our own free will and prepared. So, let’s think about deserts metaphorically. Yet, sooner or later, all of us will find ourselves in such a place. 

Life becomes a struggle. We question what purpose life serves. It could be the evaporation of a career that seemed so promising. Or the unraveling of a marriage upon which we’d placed our hopes and dreams. The death of a parent, a child, or a close friend can bring about such feelings. Or our health declines, and things just don’t seem to be getter better. At such times, we enter a desert. We question if it’s worthwhile to continue to search for something that will quench our thirst. There’s no joy and no hope, only despair. Been there yet? Most of us have at least tasted a part of what I described. We’ve been there at the situation Isaiah explains in the 34 chapter, where hope seems as distant as a shower of rain in the summer desert.

But then we open the 35th chapter, which begins in the wilderness, and something strange happens. The wilderness and dry land we’re told are glad, the desert rejoices, flowers bloom abundantly. 

Death Valley in bloom

Occasionally, in late winter, Death Valley, one of the most inhospitable places in America, is transformed into a blanket of flowers. I once saw it in its full glory. This miracle last only for a week or two. It only occurs maybe once a decade, during a time where significant rain falls in December and January. Soon afterwards the flowers bloom, Death Valley resorts to its natural state. Everything dries up. 

Isaiah and the desert blooming

I expect Isaiah experienced such wonder. He knew how things can change quickly. He knew how the desert can bloom and be transformed into a garden—how seeds lie in wait for a thirst-quenching rain. And Isaiah uses this vision to remind his readers that God does wonderful things. It’s not all judgment and despair. God works best in our wildernesses—transforming a barren landscape into one of life! Out of the crucible of judgment God leads his people. 

Christ brings hope

This poem of Isaiah, which speaks of God’s people returning to Zion, foretells of Christ’s coming into a world without hope and reversing the fortunes of those with the least amount of confidence—the blind, the deaf, the lame. Water appears as springs bursting forth in the desert, again reminding us of the living water Jesus promises.[6]

A highway to paradise appears. A safe road with no nails waiting to puncture a tire. Those willing to leave their past behind move into God’s future are invited to journey upon it. Even fools, we’re told, won’t get lost on God’s Road. They’ll be no danger lurking at the edges. Lions won’t prowl. Remember, as I pointed out last week, the Assyrians were identified as a lion. But in this new Eden, ravenous beasts will stay away from those “ransomed” by the Lord.  

No reason to despair in the desert

The message of this passage is that being in the desert is no reason for despair. It’s in the desert we experience the full joy of our God. If we have such an outlook on life, such expectations, desert places won’t seem so frightening. Instead, we can enter such landscapes with a hopeful anticipation on what God can do for us and through us.  

God can speak in the desert

Terry Tempest Williams, a Utah author who writes about the land, says this about desert:  

“If the desert is holy, it is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred. Perhaps that is why every pilgrimage to the desert is a pilgrimage to the self. There is no place to hide, and so we are found.”[7]

Williams is onto something. When we are in the desert, be they real or metaphorical, we are exposed. We find we must depend upon the other and upon God. It may be that the desert is the only place quiet enough for us to hear God speak. When things go well, we’re too busy to be bothered. But when things fall apart and there’s no place to turn, then we hear. These are the moments God might speak to us. The desert helps us define what’s important.

Keillor’s story of life after a desert experience

Garrison Keillor, in his book Wobegon Boy, tells John Tollefson’s story. A cheerful young man, he leaves Lake Wobegon for the glitter of New York. John rises to the top, managing a public radio station and, with a friend, opens a restaurant. He’s got it all, it seems. Then comes the desert. He’s fired. The restaurant fails. You’d think his cheerfulness would wane, but during this desert time he realizes what he wants. For the first time in his life, he makes a commitment to love. The book ends happily with his wedding. John’s desert clarified his understanding of himself. [8]

We can’t just depend on ourselves in the desert

Ultimately, the desert reminds us that we can’t just depend upon ourselves. We must depend upon something greater, upon God. In Sacred Thirst: Meeting God in the Desert of our Longings, Craig Barnes points out that if we try to take care of every situation we find in our deserts, we’ll quickly burn up. We learn in the desert that Jesus, not anything we can do, is the answer.[9]

When we’re in a desert, we find we must listen and accept help from God and others to find the way out.  

While I don’t wish adversity on anyone, during such times if we choose, we might experience God. That’s the hope of Christmas. Don’t fear the deserts that may be before you, instead look at them as opportunities. Expect great things from our God. Amen.


[1] Noah BenShea, Jacob the Baker: Gentle Wisdom for a Complicated World (NY: Ballantine, 1989), 27-28.

[2] Christopher R. Seitz, Isaiah 1-39: Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 236.

[3] I was reminded of this reading Fleming Rutledge’s sermon on Isaiah 64 and 65 titled, “Advent on the Brink of War” in The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 307-309

[4] For a good understanding of water in the desert, see Craig Child’s The Secret Knowledge of Water (Sasquatch Books, 2000). 

[5] The summer before moving to Nevada for a year as a student pastor, I worked at a camp in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho. One of the books I read that summer, in preparation for going to Nevada, was Sessions S. Wheeler, The Nevada Desert (1971, Caldwell, ID: Caxton Printers, 1972). Chapter 2 is titled “The Dreaded 40 Mile Desert.” This is a section of land between Lovelock and Reno (the Humboldt Sink and the Truckee River) where there is no water to be found.

[6] John 4:10, 7:37-38. 

[7] Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (New York: Vintage, 1992), 148.  

[8] Garrison Keillor, Wobegon Boy (New York: Viking, 1997).

[9] M. Craig Barnes, Sacred Thirst: Meeting God in the Desert of our Longings (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), see especially Chapter 5.  Barnes draws heavily on the story of the Samaritan woman at the well found in John 4.

The desert blooming.
That’s me standing in Death Valley in early March of 2005.

Learning more about a favorite holiday nut

Lenny Wells, Pecan: America’s Native Nut Tree

The book, a container of my pecan granola, and my breakfast bowl.

(Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2017), 264 pages plus color plates of illustrations.

Growing up in North Carolina, I remember pecan trees on my great grandparents’ farms. Pecans were often linked to Christmas. I would find nuts in my stocking along and we’d eat pecan pies, sweet potato casserole with a pecan topping, and blueberry salad with a pecans and cream cheese topping. I assumed pecans were native to the area and used, along with everything else on the homestead, to provide a mostly self-sufficient estate. In reading this book, I learned otherwise.

Pecan expanding range

While Pecans are native to the Americas, their native range was somewhere along the Mississippi River, up to Missouri and Illinois, and along riverbanks in Texas and the north half of Mexico. Yet, no one is really sure where they originally developed. Pecan nuts may have been transported by humans and planted (or accidentally dropped and planted) even before the European conquest of the New World. This could have broadened their range.

The widespread planting of pecans in Georgia and the Carolinas began in the 19th Century. By the end of the 20th Century, one can find the tree growing across the southern half of the United States (from the Atlantic to New Mexico), along with places in South America, Australia, the Middle East, and China.

History of Pecans

Wells documents pecan history. The nut was a food stable among Native American tribes and helped keep lost Spanish conquistadors alive. They have even found their way into space as a snack for astronauts. Thanks to the marketing skills of Karo corn syrup, pecan pies are now a holiday staple in many parts of the country. However, pecan pies are like creamed spinach, taking something healthy and making it unhealthy. But with the extra sugar (and bourbon and butter and other things that go well with pecans), they are one of the healthiest nuts available. 

Diversity within the trees.

Pecans are grown in the wild, in backyards, and in large commercial orchards. And planting a nut one is not sure of what kind of pecan will grow as nuts from the same tree may produce different results. The only way to insure you are reproducing a particular tree is grafting. Pecans are also one of the most diverse trees with lots of subspecies. This diversity protects the nut from disease.  Wells outlines the growth of the pecan industry, the challenges of raising the nut, and how such orchards and nuts can be good for the environment and our bodies. 

Humorous anecdotes

This book is well written and contains numerous wonderful stories about those who have been involved in the pecan business. He also provides many humorous anecdotes, such as the businessman who gave out a prize for the largest pecans, as a way to find valuable trees to reproduce. Visiting the winning tree on a riverbank in Texas, he found most of the limbs cut off. Locals cut the limbs as ways to harvest the nuts. That story seems like a metaphor for much of human development. And it rings true of those big-headed Texans. While Wells discusses technical aspects of growing such trees, such as grafting and soil types, he conveys scientific information in a manner that a lay person can understand. 

There’s more I’d like to know

Upon finishing the book, I wanted to know more. Wells never mentions pecan as a wood product, yet it’s a rich and beautiful wood that can be used as veneer for plywood and for gunstocks. Maybe my wondering about alternative uses for the tree makes me a bit of heretic, for Wells has dedicated his life to the nut.

I am also curious about the relationship between the pecan and the American Chestnut. A blight wiped out the chestnut in the early 20th Century. Both trees provided nuts for pioneers in addition to providing a cash crop for those welling to gather and sell such nuts. Wells does discuss the relationship between pecans and hickory and walnuts. To modify a pecan for swampy soil, graft a pecan scion to a water hickory stock. Finally, I would have liked to have seen a list of the major types of pecans and their characteristics. Wells mentions dozens of varieties and it was hard to keep them straight. One variety, the Cape Fear, I was especially curious about as my great grandparents’ farms were in the Cape Fear River basin. 

An additional recipe from me

At the back of this book, Wells includes some recipes. I’ll add my recipe to the mix as I eat a 1/3 cup of this every morning in a bowl of fruit and homemade yogurt. 

Homemade Granola 
3 cups finely chopped pecans
6 cups old fashion oats
¾ cup of olive oil
¾ cup of maple syrup
2 tablespoons of vanilla
1+ tablespoon of cinnamon 
1+ tablespoon of sea salt

Mix in a large bowl until everything blended. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Split the mix and spread over the parchment. Bake at 325 degrees for 20 minutes. Stir the mixture and return to the oven for another 20 minutes. Store for 3 months in a glass sealed container. If storing longer, place the granola into storage bags and freeze. 

A shoot from a dead tree & the peaceful kingdom

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
December 4, 2022, Advent 2
Isaiah 11:1-10

At the beginning of worship: 

I can’t imagine what these mountains where we live looked like at the beginning of the 20th Century. In the mix of the trees were chestnuts, giants that grew straight. Chestnuts provided not only strong and rot-resistant wood for building, but they also gave an abundance of nuts. Our pioneer ancestors would gather them for eating. Furthermore, they were a cash crop that could be sold to supplement one’s livelihood. By the mid 1920s, long before any of us were here, they were gone. 

A fungus introduced in the United States in 1904, when some Asian chestnuts were brought to New York, spread into the American chestnut population. An estimate of 4 billion chestnuts trees died in the Appalachian Mountains alone. It is thought that one in every four hardwoods died. But still, in places, from old chestnut stumps, new growth sprouts. The sprout grows tall and straight. It looks promising. But before it matures, it too succumbs to the blight. Hopefully, one day, scientists can find a way for these trees to dominate the landscape once again.

A shoot for a stump

A shoot coming up from the roots of a dead tree is a sign of hope, as we’re going to see in text today. Advent is a season in which we are reminded that we live in a world that’s not our home. Our world is like a stump, in need of new life. We long for a better home, which will require God’s invention. God can do things that has mostly alluded scientist for the past 100 years—giving growth that continues from a stump that appears dead. As followers of Jesus, hold on to this hope. 

Before the reading of Scripture

Today, I’m going to read two passages of scripture for the sermon. The first is from Matthew’s gospel, in which we hear that madman John the Baptist rail against the people of his day. John knew something was happening and he wanted people to prepare by repenting and changing their ways. John speaks to our world today, and the need we have to prepare ourselves for God’s coming. I’m not going to say much about John in the sermon, but let’s hear his words and be reminded of the type of world in which we live. Are any of us fully content here? I hope not. I hope we long for a better world. 

We get a glimpse of this better world my second reading from Isaiah. We hear of a shoot growing from a stump and catch a vision of life as God intends. 

Read Matthew 3:1-12 and Isaiah 11:1-10

Edward Hicks

You know, sometimes artists appear to be in a rut. Think of Monet and his 250-some paintings of water lilies. Another such painter is Edward Hicks, a 19th Century Pennsylvanian artist whose favorite subject was “The Peaceful Kingdom.” Hicks painted an untold number of canvases that depict the scene we just heard from Isaiah. All the animals are at peace: predators and prey, along with children and snakes. The National Galley in Washington, DC have several of Hick’s paintings. If you are there, check them out. While you can look at his paintings in a book or on the internet, there is something about seeing it in person. 

Hicks’ mother died when he was 18 months old. Being unable to care for him, his father shipped him off to friends who raised him. Then he moved into a coach makers home, where he worked as an apprentice. He became known for his illustrations on the side of the horse drawn carriages he painted. This resulted in people asking him to paint furniture and signs. He was later given commissions for paintings to decorate walls. 

Depicting Biblical Scene

Hicks joined the Quaker Church. This created a tension with his art because Quakers were plain folk who shunned art for art’s sake. He then began to use art to interpret scripture, especially the peacefulness sought by Quakers. This is when he began his lifelong obsession with “The Peaceful Kingdom.”[1] I wonder if Monet and his waterlilies and Hicks and his peaceful kingdom were attempts to get it right. By painting the same scenes over and over, were they striving for perfection? It will take a lot of work to achieve such a kingdom. In fact, we can’t do it ourselves. Only God can bring such a kingdom about. 

The curse of Genesis 3 is remove

But just because we can’t, by ourselves, bring such a kingdom about, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about it. Instead, we should mediate upon it, and ponder how we might help demonstrate the kingdom to the world. In doing so, we instill hope. Our passage from Isaiah showsthat the curse of the fall, from Genesis 3, has been removed. In the curse, the woman’s and the serpent’s descendants are to be in constant battle. Humans stomp on snakes while they bite at our heels.[2]But in Isaiah, and in the paintings, a child is safe around a poisonous snake. 

Now, I know my mother thoughts of heaven would be a warm place without snakes. She was afraid of them and didn’t want us to have anything to do with them. But perhaps this idea of the child and the snake being together is an example of how, in heaven, we’ll get along even with our enemies. 

Animals living in harmony

Furthermore, in this scene, as I’ve said, we have the predator and the prey lying together. Woody Allen once quipped, “the day may come when the lion will lie down with the lamb, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.”[3] Like the child, the ancient enemies in this imagined world are no more. No longer do the weak have to be concerned about being consumed by the powerful. Predators and bullies and rouge nations are no more. Everyone looks out for everyone else. That’s the Christian hope. We won’t be able to do this on our own. We’ll have to depend upon God. Thankfully, we worship a God of miracles who sent his only Son into our world. And that child, born in Bethlehem, gives us a vision of the kingdom that is coming. 

Two parts to this reading from Isaiah

There are two parts our reading from Isaiah. I’ve discussed the second one first. But let’s go back to that shoot growing from a stump which reminds me of the chestnut tree. The stump of Jesse represents Israel at a time when it was united between the north and the south and it’s greatest king, David, the son of Jesse, ruled. By Isaiah’s time, David had long returned to the earth. His united kingdom had split and those in the northern half were about to be consumed by the Assyrians, the raging lions as they were known, which gives us a new insight into the tamed lions in the second half of this reading.[4]

But for Isaiah and his contemporaries, with David a distant memory, things didn’t look good. And soon, things would get worse. But our God is a God of justice and miracles. God can bring a sprout out of a dead stump and send a Son to save the world. 

The Almighty prepares the righteous king

God prepares the righteous king proclaimed by Isaiah with wisdom and knowledge and the fear of the Lord. He’s able to judge, not by sight or ear, but by righteousness, granting justice for the poor and oppressed. The lion that was Assyria will not always be on the prowl. The predators who bring danger, whether wild animals or unscrupulous business leaders or rouge nations, will be destroyed or tamed. And God’s king will rule fairly. But that’s still in the future. 

The hope of a new world

Today, we live in the world much like that which John the Baptist condemned. But it won’t always be this way. Jesus has come to save us from our sin. Jesus will come again to rule. We need to prepare ourselves for what God is doing and be ready. We need to do what we can to herald the new world that’s coming. Remember, the old saying, “it’s always darkest before the dawn.” Hold tight and trust in God. Jesus has come and will come again. Have hope, as we long for the day of peace promised in Isaiah. Amen. 


[1] For more about Hick’s and his paintings, see https://artandtheology.org/2016/12/06/the-peaceable-kingdoms-of-edward-hicks/  

[2] Genesis 3:15. See Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12: A Commentary, John Bowden translator, (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1983), 260.

[3] See Scott Hoezee, “Isaiah 11:1-10” at https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2022-11-28/isaiah-111-10-3/

[4] Christopher R. Seitz, Isaiah 1-39, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993), 106.

The tree at the Garrison’s home

The Peaceful Kingdom & the Importance of Children

This is a talk I gave to the Kiwanis Club of Skidaway Island on December 14, 2017. There were three of us. who gave a short talk on the holidays. The other two were Lutheran and Jewish. That’s why I began by poking fun at my colleagues at the head table.

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An occupational hazard of being a Presbyterian minister is that its hard to stand before a group of people to talk without focusing on a Bible passage. It’s what we do. If I was a Lutheran from Minnesota, like Jason, I’d probably be touting some made-up virtue of godless-Vikings. I’d insist the purple color of Advent is deeper than its liturgical meaning.[1] And if I was Jewish, I’d be thanking God for yamakas, like Rabbi Haas wears. I don’t understand our God. Robert has nearly a full head of hair and has to hide it. Me, well, I’m just trying to figure out how to make such a head covering a part of my religious tradition.  

My Bible verse for the morning comes from the Hebrew portion of our Bible…  See, Robert, I’m trying hard to earn one of those caps.  Isaiah 11:6-9:

 The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
    and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
    their young shall lie down together;
    and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
    and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
    on all my holy mountain…

From Wikiart.org “The Peaceful Kingdom”. Edward Hicks, 1780-1849

The painting I displayed on the screen was based on this verse in Scripture. The artist, Edward Hick’s painted over a hundred variations of this painting. Hicks was a 19th Century Pennsylvanian artist and he titled this work, “The Peaceful Kingdom.” With so many paintings of the same subject, you’d think he fell into a rut. But he was a Quaker, and in addition to oatmeal, peace is something they do a better job striving for than most of us. The passage captivated Hicks.Highlighted in each piece is a child (or in some cases, children) along with the animals depicted in the poetry of the prophet.  

         And a little child shall lead them…  

Often, I think, we hear this passage and think we’re to follow that child. However, that’s not the point. The child in Hicks’ painting as well as the one referred to in Isaiah is leading wild and dangerous animals. In our world, the parents of such a child would be charged with neglect. Who let’s their children play with wild animals? Our world is too violent, too dangerous, as was Isaiah’s. The prophet’s vision, his longing, is for the peaceful kingdom to come about, and that’s something only God can instill. For Christians, we see this beginning with a child born in a manager. We are to follow thia child when he’s no longer in swaddling clothes, but crowned in righteousness, as we work to protect children and strive for a peaceful world as envisioned by the prophet. We have our work cut out for us.

For Christians, Christmas remains a season for children.  My best memories of the season is as a child. I didn’t have to worry about sermons back then. What few gifts I had to give were homemade and, I can assure you, a parent’s love is greater than a child’s skill. So, for a moment, think about the holiday when you were a child.  

How about that time you bravely climbed up into Santa’s lap and boldly told him you’d been a good boy or girl all year.  And remember how the old man in red could still be heard laughing as your mother dragged you out of the store?  

Or how about your first candlelight service on Christmas Eve, the mystery of the evening and the joy of the music filling the hour. Think about how especially proud you were when you were first able to hold a lighted candle by yourself. I know I thought I’d made the big leagues. And then, because we live in a fallen world, think about how you realized you could tip the candle just right and wax would drop, missing the guard, and plop on your sister’s hand she unsuspectingly rest it on the rail of the pew in front. I don’t know about you. I was married and with kids before my mother trusted me with another candle. One of the congregations I served must have heard of my sin and insisted on using battery powered candles. 

Think of how excited you were as a child to wake up on Christmas morning and discover the treasures left under a tree. In my family, there were three of us and we’d have to all be ready at the same moment to enter the living room where the loot had been stashed by St. Nick. We never understood how he managed this since we didn’t have a chimney. 

What we did have was a Super 8 motion picture camera and my dad wanted to capture all the action. We enter the room together, only to be hit by the flood lights with an illumination of a small nuclear explosion. The camera recorded us raising our hands over our bleached faces to shield our eyes. It would be another thirty minutes before our eyes adjusted enough to make out what was under the tree. But it was a magical day and we completely overlooked our parents’ exhaustion. (I never could understand why they didn’t go to bed like the rest of us on Christmas Eve.)

And those carefree Christmas Days were special. We’d play with friends and cousins, trying out everyone’s new toys. Early in the afternoon, we’d be called to a feast with an insane amount of food, which none of us were interested because we’d already been into the stuffing (that is the candy stuffed in the stockings Santa left).

That child born in Bethlehem serves as an inspiration for those of us who strive to follow him. And years later, when he was grown and wandering around the backroads of Galilee, calling the disciples and others to follow, Jesus reminded them (and us) of the importance of childhood. Jesus encourages us to hold on to the awe and innocence of a child, telling us that in order for us to enter the kingdom of Heaven, we must come as one.  

As Kiwanians, I know you’re about helping children make and experience such memories. During this season, I encourage you to watch the children and capture some of their excitement. Then, hopefully, you’ll be inspired as Kiwanians to continue the kind of building, Kiwanis is known to do with children around the world. Until God ushers in that Peaceful Kingdom, we have work to do.  Thank you. 


[1] Just in case you didn’t get my reference, look at the color of the Minnesota Viking uniforms.

Advent 1: A Call to be a Blacksmith

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
November 27, 2022
Isaiah 2:1-5

Sermon recorded on Friday, November 25, 2022 at Bluemont Church

At the beginning of worship:

I started reading Fleming Rutledge’s book, Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ a few weeks ago. In one of her essays, she mentioned how she experienced Advent as a child. Rutledge is an Episcopalian, and they have a much stronger Advent tradition than most Protestants. But her childhood experience struck home with me because I’m old enough to remember when they first introduced an Advent wreath in the Presbyterian Church we attended. 

This happened in the late 60s or maybe 1970 or 71. It was before I entered high school. We even had a workshop to make Advent wreaths for our homes. We would read a devotion and light candles before dinner. The problem with those wreaths is that the candles were so small, they became a fire hazard well before Christmas.  

Advent: life before Jesus

But what struck me about the Advent of childhood, as I and Rutledge experienced, is that we were encouraged to think of the world without Jesus. We were to imagine living in the first century before the common era and contemplate what it would have been like to have no hope because Jesus had yet to come. This makes Advent void of Jesus.

But Advent is about Jesus. Jesus, who descends from God, who was there at the beginning of creation.[1] Advent is also about God’s intention for the world as we look to Jesus’ return. As Rutledge writes, “Advent faces into death and looks beyond it to the coming judgment of God upon all that deceives, twists, undermines, pollutes, contaminates, and kills his beloved creation. There can be no community of the resurrection without the conquest of death and the consummation of the kingdom of God. In those assurances lies the hope of the world.”[2]

Before the reading of scripture:

This season of Advent, I’ll focus on readings of hope from the prophet Isaiah. As a prophet, Isaiah speaks of judgment, but also of hope. His judgment passages seem to go on and on but mixed in are bits of hope. Our passage this morning from the second chapter is wedged in the middle of Isaiah’s opening oracle of judgment. 

The first three chapters of Isaiah deals rather harshly with God’s chosen people. They have rebelled against God. Zion is to be desolate and trampled on by foreigners. Judah and Jerusalem will suffer because of their arrogance. They have ignored their covenant with God. Judgment is at hand. But amid these oracles of judgment, we also get a glimpse of hope. God is doing something new. And for that, we can rejoice.

Read Isaiah 2:1-5

Have you ever wondered what heaven will be like? I am sure most of you have, but what kind of vision do you have for heaven? 

Is our heaven hopes like Bunyan’s?

Last week, I wove into my last sermon on the Lord’s Prayer pieces from John Bunyan’s classic, Pilgrim’s Progress. When Christian crosses over the river at the end of his pilgrimage (the river representing death), he’s met on the opposite bank by messengers who lead him up to gate of the Celestial City. There, people wear crowns and fancy gowns. Inside the city, the streets are paved with gold. Everyone sings praises to God and rejoice in his arrival. 

Perhaps something like this is your idea of heaven? But I’m not sure. I’m too much like Mark Twain. He wondered why, if heaven was just singing hymns, anyone would want to go there. Especially someone who couldn’t stay away in church on earth, why would they want to be involved in an eternal hymn-sing.[3]

Isaiah’s vision of the life to come

Isaiah, in the middle of prophecy of judgment, gives us a different vision of the future. This is a vision of Zion, and one that I can buy into, a vision of peace. From Isaiah we have those comforting passages about the lions and lambs and wolves napping together,[4] along with this passage where instruments of war are transformed to tools of peace. The world is restored to its original intention. We’re back in the Garden. This passage which focuses on Zion is my hope for the world to come.

Zion

Zion was a narrow ridge which contained the oldest part of Jerusalem. The name became attached to the city and to the hill upon which it sat. But in time, because of Jerusalem’s importance and the with the presence of the temple, Zion came to be understood more theologically than geographically. Zion is where God reigns.[5]

Our passage envisions the day when this will come to pass. The judgment promised in the chapter 1 and later in chapter 2 will have passed. The earth has been purified. Now that God has assumed his throne on Zion, it’s the highest mountain. 

In a literal understanding, this doesn’t make sense. Zion wasn’t a tall mountain. It wasn’t even the highest mountain around, there are many much higher to the south. Jerusalem itself is at roughly 2500 feet in elevation, about the same as we are here. But in our scripture, Zion is the highest peak. Either there are some unique geological changes occurring, or more likely Zion seems the tallest peak because we’re dealing with theology and not geology.  

Zion’s importance isn’t because of its physical height but because it is the Lord’s house. It draws people from all nations who desire to learn more about God’s ways. Zion becomes a center of learning, for out from it comes God’s word. Israel was to be the light to the nations.[6] Isaiah foresees Israel fulfilling this calling.

With-me

In verse 3, we see that in this new age of which the prophet envisions, the “With-me” principle works! Do you know the “with-me” principle?  It was a concept taught by Stan Ott and Lee Zehmer at our “Centered and Soaring” event earlier this month. The with-me principle involves us, when doing something with or for the church, inviting another to join us. Come “with me,” we might say. In Isaiah, we learn that people invite others to go with them to the mountain of the Lord, to learn of God’s ways. I can’t think of a better reason to invite someone along then to learn about God. We learn together!

Or course, some of this has already happened. The disciples, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, headed out into the world with the Great Commission. Their marching orders was to make disciples and to baptize them and to teach what Jesus taught.[7]And they went two-by-two. Jesus showed them God’s ways. Jesus then calls his followers, promising to show us the way back home to the Father.[8] But showing the world the way home is just a part of what Isaiah envisions in chapter 2. 

A message for the United Nations

In verse 4, we have a passage known beyond scripture. Even by those with little Biblical knowledge have heard about beating instruments of war into farming implements. You find these words chiseled into a wall across the street from the United Nations. Silently, as Fleming Rutledge images, it reads of beating swords into plows as it mocks nations that go to war.[9]

God’s view extends to the entire world

Looking at this passage, we see this is God’s kingdom. And God’s domain isn’t just for one nation, but the entire world. As judge, God settles disputes. There will be no more war or rebellion. God does this, but look carefully, God doesn’t do this all by Godself. God calls on us to participate. He hands us a heavy apron and calls us to become blacksmiths. How are you at swinging a hammer or heating up a forge? Ever see yourself working in a blacksmith’s shop?  See, there’s going to be a need for more than choir members in heaven! For some of us, this is really good news.

Converting the tools of war to instruments of peace

Notice the text says that God’s judges while they (think we) beat the swords into plowshares. The tools of war are repurposed so that they become instruments of peace and prosperity. Swords become plows; spears refashioned into pruning hooks. As a friend suggested in a sermon: tanks become John Deere tractors, gun barrels are fashioned into posts to hold grapevines, while missile silos find a new life as wheat silos. And the Pentagon, what to do with it? It can be converted into the world’s largest Food Court.[10]

Today, as we continue to read about the war in Ukraine, along with other places in the world like Somalia and Ethiopia, wouldn’t a little peace be nice? War brings destruction and famine, which is not God’s intention for the world. War is a sign our sinfulness. God desires us to live in peace, but a peace that involves more than the absence of war. A peace based on justice (which is why God serves as judge). And this is also why God sent his son into the world, to be born in Bethlehem. 

Bethlehem: The House of Bread

Did you know that Bethlehem means “the House of Bread.”[11]God desires the world’s abundance be used to feed everyone. And while war continues to exist in the present, there will come a time in which God will intervene. Peace will be established, and justice will reign. This is what we hope for when we pray, Come, Lord Jesus, Come. We long for the day when, instead of spending our resources on artillery shells, which only destroys, we invest in feeding and caring for people. 

We’re always in Advent

You know, Advent isn’t just four Sundays before Christmas. In a way, the church exists in Advent. Ever since the first coming of Jesus, we long for his return to consummate God’s kingdom. Until then, we hope and pray for his return. As Paul teaches, communion, or the Lord’s Supper, celebrates Jesus’ return.[12]We strive to live in a gracious manner that shows the world kingdom values. And we share this hope with others, as we invite them to catch a glimpse of the vision the Bible gives us of the world to come. 

Our hopes and fears…

As the Christmas Carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” reminds us, “Our hope and fears of all the years are met in thee (or Jesus).” Place your hope in Jesus. Yes, we live in a world of war and hate, but it’s not the way God intends. Imagine a world without war. Pray and do what you can to make this world a better place. Help create a small place where we can display Kingdom values. Invite others to also dream and vision a new future. 

And perhaps we should all learn some blacksmithing, just to be ready for when Christ returns. Amen. 


[1] John 1:1-3, 1 Corinthians 8:6, Colossians 1:15-17, & Hebrews 1:1-2.

[2] Fleming Rutledge, Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 22. 

[3] I think Mark Twain said this in his Letters from Earth, of which I no longer have a copy. 

[4] Isaiah 11:6, 65:25

[5] See “Excursus: Zion in Prophetic Literature and the Psalms” in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 960-961. 

[6] Isaiah 42:1, 6; 49:6; 51:4; 60:3.

[7] Matthew 28:16-20.

[8] John 14:6-7.

[9] Rutledge, 208-209.

[10] This came from Neal Plantinga, and was cited by Scott Hoezee in his commentary on this passage: https://cepreaching.org/commentary/2022-11-21/isaiah-21-5-3/

[11] ibid.

[12] 1 Corinthians 11:26.

The blacksmith’s hammer is a prop for the sermon (and a way to threaten those who sleep)