Sunday, December 16, 2018

Skin-to-skin—a sermon for Advent 3 (Jeremiah 31)

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Skin to Skin
Jeremiah 31.1-25
16 December 2018, Advent 3

At that time, declares the Lord,
    I will be the God of all the families of Israel,
        and they will be my people.
The Lord proclaims:
The people who survived the sword
    found grace in the wilderness.
As Israel searched for a place of rest,
    the Lord appeared to them from a distance:
I have loved you with a love that lasts forever.
    And so with unfailing love,
        I have drawn you to myself.
Again, I will build you up,
    and you will be rebuilt, virgin Israel.
Again, you will play your tambourines
    and dance with joy.
Again, you will plant vineyards
    on the hills of Samaria;
    farmers will plant and then enjoy the harvests.
The time will come when
    the watchmen shout from
        the highlands of Ephraim:
“Get ready! We’re going up to Zion
    to the Lord our God!”
The Lord proclaims:
Sing joyfully for the people of Jacob;
    shout for the leading nation.
Raise your voices with praise and call out:
    “The Lord has saved his people,
    the remaining few in Israel!”
I’m going to bring them back from the north;
    I will gather them from the ends of the earth.
Among them will be the blind and the disabled,
    expectant mothers and those in labour;
        a great throng will return here.
With tears of joy they will come;
    while they pray, I will bring them back.
I will lead them by quiet streams
    and on smooth paths so they don’t stumble.
I will be Israel’s father,
    Ephraim will be my oldest child.
Listen to the Lord’s word, you nations,
    and announce it to the distant islands:
The one who scattered Israel will gather them
    and keep them safe, as a shepherd his flock.
The Lord will rescue the people of Jacob
    and deliver them from the power of those stronger than they are.
They will come shouting for joy on the hills of Zion,
    jubilant over the Lord’s gifts:
        grain, wine, oil, flocks, and herds.
Their lives will be like a lush garden;
    they will grieve no more.
Then the young women will dance for joy;
    the young and old men will join in.
I will turn their mourning into laughter
    and their sadness into joy;
        I will comfort them.
I will lavish the priests with abundance
    and shower my people with my gifts,
        declares the Lord.
The Lord proclaims:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
    weeping and wailing.
It’s Rachel crying for her children;
    she refuses to be consoled,
    because her children are no more.
The Lord proclaims:
Keep your voice from crying
    and your eyes from weeping,
    because your endurance will be rewarded,
        declares the Lord.
    They will return from the land of their enemy!
There’s hope for your future,
    declares the Lord.
        Your children will return home!
I hear, yes, I hear Ephraim lamenting:
    “You disciplined me,
        and I learned my lesson,
    even though I was as stubborn as a mule.
Bring me back, let me return,
    because you are the Lord my God.
After I turned away from you,
    I regretted it;
    I realised what I had done,
        and I have hit myself—
    I was humiliated and disgraced,
        and I have carried this disgrace
        since I was young.”
Isn’t Ephraim my much-loved child?
    Don’t I utterly adore him?
Even when I scold him,
    I still hold him dear.
I yearn for him and love him deeply,
    declares the Lord.
Set up markers,
    put up signs;
    think about the road you have traveled,
        the path you have taken.
Return, virgin Israel;
    return to these towns of yours.
How long will you hem and haw,
    my rebellious daughter?
The Lord has created something new on earth:
    Virgin Israel will once again embrace her God!
The Lord of heavenly forces, the God of Israel, proclaims: When I bring my people back from captivity, they will once again utter these words in the land and towns of Judah:
The Lord bless you,
    righteous dwelling place,
        holy mountain.
Those who live in Judah and its towns will dwell together with farmers and shepherds. I will strengthen the weary and renew those who are weak.


A few months ago, I gave the elders some homework. Each of them was given a slip of paper with a book of the Bible on it, and they were to read that and then come back to the next Kirk Session meeting to discuss what God might be saying to us here at St. John’s in 2018. Some people were assigned to read the first half of Exodus, others were assigned to read the first half of Acts, some were given half of the gospel according to Luke, and some the other half. Some were assigned to read Esther, which caused some consternation as it wasn’t a well known story, and some were to read Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Some read sections of Isaiah, and some read sections of Jeremiah. When we then came together last month to discuss what we thought God was saying to us today in his word, among the things that came out was the bit of Isaiah we heard last week about even those people who have been outcast for so long that they believe themselves inferior will be gathered in, because God’s house is for all people, not just for some, and this bit of Jeremiah, from the section called “the scroll of comfort.” 

Remember the prophets we have read during Advent originally spoke to people for whom the world was all changed, and the familiar and comforting seemed far off. Their longing for the way things used to be was matched only by the anxiety of their present circumstances. They were waiting for something they weren’t actually certain of, but cautiously hoped for nonetheless—that God, who had abandoned them, might remember them again and bring them home.

What we find in Jeremiah’s scroll of comfort—right in the middle of his book that is often hard to read, maybe even verging on depressing—is even more than the people could have hoped for, actually. 

While they wanted to be taken back to the way things used to be, God offers something even better: a good, joyful, loving relationship between God and humanity. Even from the distance we have put between us, God says across the wilderness “I have loved you with a love that lasts forever”...and then the crucial words: “I have drawn you to myself.” All that feeling of being alone, uncertain, far away, is taken care of by the God who closes the gap and brings us together. From the ends of the earth, different types of people, different abilities and stages of life, different experiences in the land—all will be gathered in from the ends of the earth, and God will lead us on smooth paths by quiet streams. God will be like a parent, caring for us so closely, giving gifts of life and abundance beyond our imagining. 

It’s a beautiful promise. “Their lives will be like a lush garden, and they will grieve no more. I will turn their sadness into joy, and I will comfort them. I will shower my people with my gifts.” On and on God speaks, describing the good relationship between us. This is the relationship God longs to have with us, and that God is insistent will happen. And notice that all the action here is on God’s side. God will initiate this new closer relationship. God will cross the wilderness to show us grace. God draws us to himself. God comes close to us, like a parent to their first born child—imagine what that looks like, a parent and a baby. The mother picks them up, holds them close, skin to skin, looks in their eyes while feeding them, takes care of every need. That’s how close God promises to be with us. Even when we don’t hold up our end of the bargain, God still says “isn’t Ephraim my much-loved child? Don’t I utterly adore him? I yearn for him and love him deeply.” There is nothing we can do to lose God’s love...and God has decided to do something new, something no god has ever done before: to come so close that we are skin-to-skin. 

What is it, then, about this scroll of comfort that speaks to us today? What is God’s word to us, in this place, in this time?

It’s easy to say that we still need the reminder of God’s unfailing love. We do, of course. In a world scarred by hate, living in constant war, and embroiled in more than enough uncertainty, God’s love is a constant, whether we see it or not. It is the good news that people need when they are leaving everything in search of safety, when having crossed the desert or the ocean they are then faced with fear and anger and hostile policies. It is our relationship with God that will sustain us as we finally deal with the reality of decades of church decline. It is God’s relationship with us that brings us hope, and calls us to responsibility, in the midst of a changing climate and all that means for those who live on this planet with us. It is God’s relationship with us that challenges us in a world where creating an us-and-them, deserving and undeserving, insider and outsider, is a strategy that wins elections by causing worry about scarcity and difference.

But what, specifically, is God saying to us, here and now? 

In these 25 verses, the most common words are God saying “I will” do something. But then the next most common words all have the same root. Ten times in 25 verses, one particular word appears. God does something, and then this word is used to characterise the response, the type of relationship that we will have with God. 

So often I think we have thought of a relationship with God as being something solemn, requiring great commitment to silence and particular types of prayer, and a set form of worship that we take very seriously. The stereotype of a very spiritual person is someone who seems to have a great well of inner peace. The church has been a place for recognising our sinfulness and hearing about all the ways we need to do better, and our worship has been orderly and careful and often somber and restrained.

Yet the word most used to describe this new, good relationship between God and humanity It is all over this passage of Jeremiah! Joy, jubilant, rejoice, laughter, voices raised in praise! 

What if this is God’s word to us today? God says, I have loved you with a love that lasts forever, and drawn you to myself, skin-to-skin. And we respond with jubilation! Can you imagine a relationship with God that is marked by rejoicing? A church that is known to be joyful? A way of life that could be described with joy-words more than any other words?

Near the end of today’s reading God says “think about the road you have traveled, the path you have taken...and then follows that up with “I have created something new on earth.” 

Think about the road we have travelled...a road of hope and despair, of success and failure, of love and loss and anxiety and wonder. Our paths may have meandered a bit, or sometimes gone straight by places where we ought to have turned aside to see, or even occasionally led us exactly where we wanted to go. But whatever the path, wherever we have been and whatever we have done, God is still right there, our closest relationship, taking us on a new road. And that road will take us from mourning to dancing, from tears to laughter, from scarcity to abundance. Jeremiah says there will be tambourines, singing and dancing! He was obviously not a Presbyterian. And yet perhaps that is indeed the word for us today: that it’s okay to let some of those things from our past path stay there, as we walk God’s new path into good relationship. And that relationship with God brings us great joy...and our joy should be contagious. Not just for us to feel happy, but to share with all those whom God is gathering in. 

The Lord has created something new on earth—a good relationship that can never be destroyed, for it is based on God’s unfailing love for us, God’s constant presence with us, skin-to-skin, God’s refusal to allow separation between us, Immanuel, God-with-us...and for our part, we get to be joyful, jubilant, dancing and laughing, raising our voices in praise. Rejoice! Scripture says to us. Let your heart be glad, and let your joy bubble over for the world to see and join in.

May it be so! Amen.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

For a Good Reason—a sermon for Advent 2 (Isaiah 42 & 56)

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
For a Good Reason
Isaiah 42.1-9, 56.1-8 (CEB)
9 December 2018, Advent 2

But here is my servant, the one I uphold;
    my chosen, who brings me delight.
I’ve put my spirit upon him;
    he will bring justice to the nations.
He won’t cry out or shout aloud
    or make his voice heard in public.
He won’t break a bruised reed;
    he won’t extinguish a faint wick,
    but he will surely bring justice.
He won’t be extinguished or broken
    until he has established justice in the land.
The coastlands await his teaching.
God the Lord says—
    the one who created the heavens,
    the one who stretched them out,
    the one who spread out the earth and its offspring,
    the one who gave breath to its people
    and life to those who walk on it—
I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason.
    I will grasp your hand and guard you,
    and give you as a covenant to the people,
    as a light to the nations,
    to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison,
    and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon.
I am the Lord;
    that is my name;
    I don’t hand out my glory to others
        or my praise to idols.
The things announced in the past—look—they’ve already happened,
    but I’m declaring new things.
    Before they even appear,
    I tell you about them.

The Lord says:
    Act justly and do what is righteous,
    because my salvation is coming soon,
    and my righteousness will be revealed.
Happy is the one who does this,
    the person who holds it fast,
    who keeps the Sabbath, not making it impure,
    and avoids doing any evil.
Don’t let the immigrant who has joined with the Lord say,
    “The Lord will exclude me from the people.”
    And don’t let the eunuch say,
        “I’m just a dry tree.”
The Lord says:
    To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
    choose what I desire,
    and remain loyal to my covenant.
    In my temple and courts, I will give them
    a monument and a name better than sons and daughters.
    I will give to them an enduring name
    that won’t be removed.
The immigrants who have joined me,
    serving me and loving my name, becoming my servants,
    everyone who keeps the Sabbath without making it impure,
    and those who hold fast to my covenant:
    I will bring them to my holy mountain,
    and bring them joy in my house of prayer.
    I will accept their entirely burned offerings and sacrifices on my altar.
    My house will be known as a house of prayer for all peoples,
        says the Lord God,
    who gathers Israel’s outcasts.
I will gather still others to those I have already gathered.


Last week I mentioned that Advent is an already-not-yet season, a time when we wait for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, for the coming for God-with-us into the world, and also recognise that God is with us even now, while we wait for Christ to come again. Though we are waiting, some of us patiently and others less patiently, we know that we are not alone while we wait. And though we are waiting, we also know that we are not meant to simply sit back and do nothing until God either fixes or destroys the world. The waiting of Advent is about preparation, about participating in something God is already doing in the world. The word Advent actually means “coming” or “arrival” or even “beginning.” These few weeks before Christmas are not just a time for buying presents or opening little doors looking for chocolate, it’s a new beginning, every year, as we live into the story of God in Christ.

The people who first heard the prophet Isaiah were fairly certain that they were in fact alone. They had spent years in exile, and a whole new generation had been born there, far from home, without any of the markers of God’s presence that their parents and grandparents had relied on. Yet even there, even to people who believed themselves abandoned, even in a place that was a wilderness away from everything comfortable and familiar, God spoke.

Can you imagine a world that has changed so drastically, so quickly...a world where everything felt uncertain, where young people grew up not knowing the religious traditions that used to be common, where some in the community wanted nothing more than to go back to the way things were before, and where others were insisting they had to look forward, where there were different foods available, and people who spoke different languages walked in the streets outside, and families no longer looked quite like they used to, and the government was a bit unstable, and everyone outside the church thought we were just an antiquated and boring old group with beautiful things but no real purpose?

We don’t have to use much imagination, do we?! The land seems strange, and we don’t know how to adapt, or even if we should adapt, and we are anxious about the future.

Then and now, God is this close: “I will grasp your hand” God says. What if God is really close enough to grasp us by the hand? 

This bit of Isaiah is spoken to the people of Israel, feeling alone and afraid and far from everything they knew...and to us, the Church, the community of God’s people, sometimes very far from everything we used to know. God says: “you are the one I uphold, my chosen, who brings me delight.” God says “I have put my spirit on you.”

Often we now read this as being about Jesus, which, of course, it is. Jesus is the one on whom God’s spirit rests, anointing him to bring good news to the poor, sight to the blind, light to those who live in the shadows. Most of the words of the prophets had a meaning for their own time and a meaning for the future...but that is not to say there is no further meaning beyond that fulfilled in Christ. 

One of my dear friends is a rabbi, and I asked her once what it meant to be waiting for the Messiah. She said “to say we are waiting for the messiah is to say that the world is not as it should be, and we still have work to do to prepare.” Remember, the word were originally spoken as a commissioning to the whole people...that could again be true.

God says to the people, then and now: “I, the Lord, have called you for a good reason.” When God created this community, God already had a role in mind for us. It wasn’t a haphazard accident, God called this community together for a good reason. God calls the Church into existence, gathers us for a purpose, and gives us all we need to fulfil that purpose, if only we will see and pursue it.

The next words after “I have called you for a good reason” are the key. “I will give you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to lead the prisoners from prison, and those who sit in darkness from the dungeon.” 

Notice God doesn’t say “I give you as a sign of my covenant”—God says “I will give you as a covenant.” The servant of God, whether we read that as Christ or as the whole community of God’s people as this was originally written, is the covenant. God’s faithfulness is all wrapped up in human skin. And we are called, for a good reason: to be a light, to help people see, and to set them free.

God is right in saying this is a new thing. Even now, three thousands of years later, and after nearly two thousand years of celebrating Christmas, we still can’t entirely wrap our minds around the idea that the community of God’s people might just be the place of continual divine incarnation, that we might be the continuation of God’s covenant call—that God wasn’t only in Christ, but continues to live on in his Body. Just as the people waiting in exile three thousand years ago, we long for days gone by—days that we look back on with deeply rose-coloured glasses, forgetting the part we played in creating the situation we’re in—while feeling a bit adrift. 

The second part of today’s reading is a reminder that then, as now, one of the ways people tried to get back to the way things used to be is by cracking down on rules they’d once followed....but God is doing a new thing. So the immigrants, and the eunuchs, and others who were outcast because they did not look the part, did not say the right words or have the right accent or the right skin colour or the right language or the right money, are exactly the people God is gathering in. Isaiah tells us that the rules were so long-ingrained that immigrants and eunuchs had come to believe themselves that God excluded them. The fancy term we use for that now is “internalised oppression”—when people in oppressed groups actually believe themselves inferior, because they have taken in all the stigma or fear or hatred that others have put on them. We see it in the suicide rate among LGBT teenagers, for instance, or in the ways girls approach STEM subjects as if they are somehow inherently less good, or in the people of colour who believe their only place in society is in kitchens and corner shops, or poor people who don’t believe themselves worthy of help or of a treat or of love.

But God has a new thing to say. To those who have been kept separate, to those who are looked down on, to those who believe themselves inferior, God says: what matters is not the outward signs of your body or your language. You belong here. All who seek are included, regardless of their qualifications. God’s house is for all, no exceptions, and God is even now gathering more people in. 

And so the cycle begins again, right? God gathers us...for a good reason, to give us as a covenant, a light, a healing presence, liberators. And then more are gathered...for a good reason, to be a sign that God’s faithfulness is not restricted to the few, that God’s presence is not only for those who remember how things used to be, not only for those who can say the right thing or behave in exactly the same way, but for those who are near and far away, from east and west and north and south, everyone whom the Lord our God shall call. 

George MacLeod once said “the church is a movement, not a meeting house.” I think Isaiah would agree. The place where God dwells is not in the Temple, but in the people, and so we are never alone. The servant is the covenant. The church, the Body of Christ, is the continued incarnation. And even now, God is gathering still others, and has a role in mind for us to grow into as a community.

This Advent, this season of waiting and preparing for a new beginning, God is doing a new thing, right here, close enough to take us by the hand, calling us to be a movement, not a meeting house, for a good reason: to be the Body of Christ, light in the world, offering healing and freedom to all, not just some.

May it be so. Amen.