Preparing For Christmas During A Difficult Year

Hi friends!  Sorry this is delayed, I had some computer issues yesterday (I think all of my technology is having a pandemic-related meltdown) but I think I’m back up and running.  Here is my sermon, as well as the video from worship!

Advent blessings. <3

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
December 6, 2020

Isaiah 40:1-11

Preparing For Christmas During A Difficult Year

Most people know that I have a strong affinity for Christmas trees.

As in – I have multiple in my house.

Last year I had four.  Our main Christmas tree in the living room, a “Christmas card” tree in our kitchen, decorated as the season goes on by hanging the cards we receive in the mail on the tree (so send me cards, I love looking at them every day on my tree!), a tree in my and Bruce’s room and a tree in Harrison’s room.

I am not sure if this is a regional thing or not, but it is something I picked up when I lived in Georgia.  My friends’ husbands generally do not like me this time of year, because my solution to most of their problems is, “You should just put another Christmas tree up.”

And they usually do.

But if my mark on this world is to encourage the display of multiple trees throughout the Christmas season, I think, in my own way, I am making the world a little bit brighter.  This is the darkest time of year in our part of the world and I do think the lights help.  They brighten up our homes and our streets, they remind us that even in our darkest of moments, light still shines and they help us to hold onto the magic of the season.

And it is magical – even though it is hard right now.

I was having a hard time getting moving on my Christmas decorating this year, to the point where Bruce looked around our sparsely decorated home early this week and asked, “Are we actually going to put up decorations this year?”  I am not really sure what my issue was – probably a combination of pandemic-life, chasing two small children and a busier-than-usual busy season at church.

When I admitted to a friend on Thursday of this week that the only decorations in my house were the ones that I put up for the Hanging of the Greens video last weekend, she reminded me that my son is at the perfect age for decorating – and that no matter how strange it is for me right now, he will still be captivated by the magic of preparing for Christmas.

And that is how Bruce came home from work on Thursday night to find Harrison, me, Adelaide and a significant part of the carpet in my bedroom covered in glitter.

I know this is kind of a strange year and that, for many of us, it is making it hard to get going on some of our traditional preparations for the holiday season.  But I do think that part of our call, as people of faith, is preparing our hearts – and our homes – for the arrival of Jesus, no matter what we are going through.

In fact, when we are facing challenging and turbulent circumstances, I think the call is that much greater.

This morning’s scripture reading comes from the book of Isaiah, which is kind of a composite work of multiple prophets who ministered throughout different periods in Israel’s history.  The book is traditionally split up into three parts – chapters 1-39, 40-55 and 56-66.  Our passage (40:1-11) comes from that second section, referred to as Deutero-Isaiah.  This second section of Isaiah is attributed to an unknown prophet that lived in Babylon during the Babylonian exile.

Now, context is important here; and in so many ways – even though this was written around the 6th century BCE – I feel like these words are so relevant to where we are in this pandemic.

Scholars believe that this section of Isaiah was written to the Israelites towards the end of their exile in Babylon, which lasted about 70 years.  We are about three-quarters of a year into a global pandemic that has turned our world upside down.  But the reason I keep saying that there is hope and that we need to keep the faith and that we can do hard things is because our ancestors in faith have done hard things before us.  Israel was in exile for 70 years and they kept the faith and saw themselves to the other side.  And so I know things are really hard right now, but there is promise in scripture that hope is real and that it is worth holding onto.

And this promise is here, in these words from the prophet.  This section was meant to console the people of Judah, promising their release from exile and their return to their homeland.  So when the prophet says, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” it is almost as if he is saying, “Better times are coming, but you have to be ready.”

Now I do believe that better times are coming, partially because of my faith in God, but also because of my faith in science and the conversations surrounding vaccine rollouts over the next couple of months.  And so I believe that these words are so relevant to us right now, because they remind us that we cannot be passive bystanders this holiday season.  I know things are weird this year, I know a lot of our traditions have been put on hold and I know there will be a lot of heightened grief and anxiety when most of us are used to feeling joy and excitement throughout the Christmas seas.

But what cannot and will not be taken from us is this story – this magical, lifechanging, hope-giving story.  And our hope in Jesus Christ means that we have to prepare for the arrival of the Christ child, even if we are just not feeling it this year.

And we do this because we believe these words of the prophet that when we get to that high mountain and lift up our voices with strength, we, too, will hear these words and see that they are true:  “Here is your God.”

Advent is about waiting for the arrival of Emmanuel, God with us.  And so, as Christians, we prepare ourselves for that moment; we prepare ourselves for God.  We prepare our hearts and our homes – whatever that looks like for us this year, whether it be halls that are fully decked or a single candle that we light every night – knowing that we will, as the prophet says, be fed like a shepherd feeds their flock, gathered, like lambs, into their arms, carried and led gently to safety.

I know that things are really hard right now.  I know that we are entering into a season of this pandemic where it might get worse before it gets better.  I know that our Christmas celebrations might not look we are used to and, quite frankly, what we want them to look like.  But God has not forgotten about us.  Our cries for Emmanuel – God with us – will be heard.

So let us prepare for that moment.  Let us prepare ourselves to be released from the bonds that are holding us captive right now.  Let us no longer be passive observers as we await for the arrival of Emmanuel, but active participants who are preparing ourselves for that moment.  Let us prepare our hearts and our homes for the Advent and Christmas seasons.  Let us shine light into the darkness of this moment in time.  Let us get up to that high mountain, lift up our voices with strength and have no fear.

Because God is with us.

This promise will be fulfilled.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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The Choice To Follow God

Well friends, it has been quite the morning here, at church.  There was an earthquake this morning and then the internet cut out at church mid-scripture, causing us to re-start the feed twice in order to resume worship.

I’m fairly certain the Apostle Paul never had to deal with these problems.

Anyway, I pieced together the two different livestreams and here we are.  Here is the text to my sermon, as well as the video of today’s sermon.

Peace be with you, friends

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
November 8, 2020

Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

The Choice To Follow God

The story of God is a story about people; and it is a story about those people making choices.  Choices to follow God, choices between right and wrong, choices that affect not only themselves, but also the people around them – the Body of Christ, as we understand it – choices that define not only their generation, but also the generations that are still to come.

The same is true today.  We choose to be here.  We, as God’s people, choose to enact our faith.  We choose to do church.  We choose to follow God even when that is not the easy choice or the convenient choice or the popular choice.

More relevant to this moment, in this time of social distancing, we choose to enter this virtual worship space, even though it would be really easy to just do something else during this 10:00 hour.  But we choose to be here.

This morning’s scripture reading comes from the Book of Joshua, which is in the Old Testament; it is part of the Deuteronomistic history.  This history tells the story of Israel from the conquest of Canaan to the Babylonian exile.

Essentially this whole Deuteronomistic history is a story about people and the choices they made; it is a story about Israel’s choice to follow God, even when that was not the obvious choice or the safe choice.

Specifically, the Book of Joshua tells the story about the Israelites crossing the Jordan River to take over Canaan.  The Israelites are listening to Joshua, for whom God is speaking to.  And this land, this land they are seeking to conquest, is land that was promised to them by God in Genesis.

And so the Israelites are making a choice.  They are making a choice to listen to Joshua.  They are making a choice to follow God, even though the road ahead of them might not be an easy one.  They are making a choice to abandon their former lives and the gods they and their ancestors served and step out on faith – together – and believe in the hope of God’s promise.

This morning’s scripture brings us into a covenant ceremony that Joshua is presiding over.  Joshua has gathered the tribes of Israel and brought them to a place called Shechem.  Here they are renewing the covenant their ancestors made with God.

“Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel,” Joshua says to the tribes.  “Long ago your ancestors … lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.  Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through all the land of Canaan and made his offspring many.  Now therefore revere the Lord, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.”

In other words, Joshua is gathering the people of Israel and saying, “Friends, God is reminding us of where we came from and also of God’s faithfulness throughout the generations.  And God is asking us now to love and serve God with honesty and with loyalty.  God wants us – God needs us – to step away from our former lives and be faithful to God.

As Christians, of course, this story is eventually woven into the narrative of the Body of Christ.  And so we read these words not only as a call to follow God, but also as a call to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  And so when Joshua says to Israel, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him,” this is a challenge to us today to make that same choice.

To choose God.

To serve God.

To proclaim and live out the Gospel.

To uphold that Greatest Commandment that we talked about a few weeks ago to love God and to love the people around you.

To do church, even in those moments when it is hard.  Because that is what those who came before us did to lay the foundation that we stand on today.  That is what Abraham did, as Joshua says here in this passage.  That is what the Israelites are doing in this passage, as a part of this covenant ceremony.  That is what the disciples did, when Jesus called them to abandon their lives and follow him.  That is what the apostles did, as the early Church was called into being.  That is what the founding members of this church did nearly 300 years ago.

And that is what those who will come after us need us to do today so that they can continue to do this work and to tell this story in their generation.

The people could have said no, right?  They could have said, “You know what?  We do not need to be here.  We are just going to go back to our former lives because that feels safe and that feels easy.”

But that is not what the people of Israel said.  The people of Israel said yes.  The people of Israel said, “We are witnesses … the Lord our God we will serve, and him we will obey.”  The people of Israel, knowing God was asking them to do a hard thing, renewed their covenant with God because they believed that, with God’s help, they could do hard things.

And the same is true for us today.

It was a very long week in our country.  We have a new President-Elect and an extraordinarily divided nation.  And regardless of whether the candidate you voted for won or lost, the message I want you to hear is the same:  We have so much work to do.

The story of God is a story about people; and it is a story about those people making choices.  Choices to follow God, choices between right and wrong, choices that affect not only us, but also the people around us – the Body of Christ, choices that define not only our generation, but also the generations that are still to come.

And so we have a choice to make.  We can choose to turn away or we can choose to turn to God.  We can choose to stay divided and hate each other or we can choose the much harder task to find unity in Christ.  We can choose to come together and follow God.  We can choose to worship God and enact the Gospel in real and powerful and lifechanging ways.  We can choose to forsake the lives that are comfortable to us and, instead, commit to be all in to the lives God is calling us into.

The story of God is a story about us; and it is a story about this moment in time, about our generation and the choices that we are making.  It is a story about the church – both our beloved church in the village and also the wider Church – that has an uphill battle to climb as we seek to bring healing and wholeness to a very broken world.  It is a story about individuals whom God has called; individuals who wake up every day and choose to follow that call.

This is the time of year when our church typically shines; we create magic as we gather people in our building and on our property for Trunk or Treat, the Bazaar, Homeless Awareness Weekend, Hanging of the Greens, holiday concerts, our Christmas Pageant, Christmas Eve worship services, New Year’s Worship Brunch and Star Sunday.  This is the season where people, who otherwise might not have walked through our doors, come to our church and experience the Gospel in motion and the radical hospitality of a church family that loves to welcome newcomers into their midst and they are forever changed.

And church – we are still going to do all of these things.  It is going to look different this year.  But I have said it before and I am going to say it again:  Our church is not closed.  We have a lot of work to do; the story of God still needs to be told, we just need to find some different ways to tell it right now.

And we have to do it, because, now more than ever, the Gospel needs to be heard.  Now more than ever, God is calling us.  Now more than ever, God needs us to choose to follow God, to do church and to be the hands and the feet and the face and the voice and heart of Christ to our community and to our world.

And it might at times be hard or logistically complicated.  But we can do it.  Because what do I keep saying?  We can do hard things.

My friends, it is time to make a choice.

So may we, like the Israelites, bear witness to our choice to follow God.  May we, too, promise to uphold this covenant and remain faithful, worshiping and serving God.  May we, too, renew the ancient covenants made by those who came before us so that we continue to lay the strong foundation for the generations that are still to come.  May the story of us be one of tenacity, of gratitude, of service, of obedience, of faithfulness, of hope and of choice.

And may it begin with that choice to follow God.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

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Stretch Out Your Hands

Hi friends!  It is Rally Day at RCC and even though we have not yet re-gathered in person, we are very much excited to kick off the program year!  Our worship began with some really special gathering music – our choir recorded an anthem in their homes and then Nathan compiled it together. There are also images from our first ever Drive Thru Communion, which we hosted last week, included at the end of the music – and a welcome from my family!

We ventured into the Old Testament this morning – one of my favorite stories from Exodus.

Enjoy …

***

Sarah Weaver
Rehoboth Congregational Church
Rehoboth, MA
September 13, 2020

Exodus 14:19-31

Stretch Out Your Hands

We are going to do something a little bit different today; we are going to hang out in the Old Testament.  We have spent a lot of time in the New Testament lately; in the Gospel of Matthew and Paul’s letter to the Romans.  These two books of the bible have been so good for us as we have been reminded about God’s goodness, the promises of hope and grace and also the realness of love.  They have also commissioned and challenged us as a church, about what we can do during this time of uncertainty.

However this week, I felt drawn to the Old Testament, particularly to this passage of scripture, from the 14thchapter of Exodus.

I have to be honest; one of the reasons I love this story so much is because I associate it with a really good memory.  When I was a first-year seminary student, an animated movie version of the Ten Commandments came out and it was in theaters when my seminary friends and I were studying Exodus – which is where the story of the Ten Commandments is – in our Old Testament class.

I mean, what were the odds?

So – like the really cool biblical scholars that we were, a group of us decided to go out one Friday night to see it – and, of course, critique its biblical accuracy.

Now before you say, “Oh Sarah, but you probably ruined all the other movie-goers experience by critiquing the entire movie,” have no fear – we were the only ones in the theater.

Apparently that is not how the rest of Atlanta wanted to spend their Friday night.

Anyway, the movie was terrible; the animation felt about as good as the animation for Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman, both of which came out in the 60’s.  But there was actually something very endearing about how they played out this particular scene, the parting of the Red Sea (or the “Sea of Reeds” as it actually translated too, which we so obnoxiously pointed out that day in the theater).

It’s not that the animation was any better when Moses parted the seas; it actually felt like the Israelites were walking through the big exhibit at the Georgia Aquarium.  But there was this sense of safety and amazement when the seas parted and the Israelites began to journey through it.  It is almost like they knew they were going to be okay; that they were going to make it to the other side and that the Egyptian army following them would be stopped.

In the movie, there was a sweet moment where a little girl got separated from her parents because she stopped and stuck her face into the water to see the fish.  Moses then scooped her up and carried her to her parents, who, at this point, were frantically looking for her; Moses was laughing and said, “She wanted to see the fish!” (quite frankly sounding more like what I think Santa Claus sounds like and less like Moses).

To be clear, I do not think this is actually how this all happened.  But there is something really comforting about a story that reminds us that even when we are faced with an enormous obstacle in front of us – like a body of water – God can intervene and lead us to safety.

This morning’s scripture reading comes from the Book of Exodus, which can be found in the Old Testament – it is the second book in the bible.  There are two narratives in this book – the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage and God’s covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai (and, of course, the instructions and laws that follow).

The name, Exodus, is derived from Greek; and it refers to that first narrative – the liberation of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage, which can be found in chapters 1-15.  The passage we are looking at today – 14:19-31 – is at the end of this narrative.

You can look at the Book of Exodus in two ways:  The first as a continuation of the story of Jacob and his clan in Egypt, which began in Genesis and the second as a distinct account of Israel’s formation and the ensuing covenant God makes with them.[1]  Either is fine; I think for our purpose of trying to see how these words and this story apply to us today, it is helpful to look at Exodus as this distinct account; to think about God’s covenant with Israel then and therefore God’s covenant with us, today.

We pick up the story today as the Israelites are approaching the Red Sea.  Now, these Old Testament stories do tend to get a little long, which is why we are not looking at more of this narrative, but I do think it is important to at least remind ourselves of what happened immediately prior to this passage.

So Moses had led the Israelites out of Egypt; the journey was long and arduous and the Egyptian army was actually following them and starting to starting to close in on them as they approached this, seemingly, impassable sea.  And so the Israelites started to question Moses, which you do not necessarily blame them for.  But then God told Moses to lift up his staff, to stretch his hand over the sea and then to divide the sea so the Israelites could travel through it on dry land.[2]

And he did.

And they did.

And once they were through then God told Moses to, again, stretch out his hand over the sea to bring the waters back down so the Egyptians would not be able to pass through and the Israelites would be able to continue their journey safely.

What I love about this story is not that it reminds me of the Georgia Aquarium (although that was one of my favorite places to go when I lived there), but that it proves that no obstacle is too big for God to intervene.

This story reminds us that God can do the impossible; it shows us that nothing, not even an impassible body of water, is too big for God to intercede with a solution that we never could have come up with on our own.

In so many ways right now, it feels as though every day we are approaching a new sea that needs to be parted.  And some of this is covid-related, but some of it is not, because even without the pandemic, life is hard.  We are constantly faced with obstacles that we have to figure out how to get over, around, under or through and so often we stand in front of them and think to ourselves, it is not humanely possible to do this.

And you know what?  You’re right.  It is not humanely possible.

But that is where God comes in.

We are up against some really big obstacles right now – in our personal lives, in our life at church, within our community and certainly throughout our country.  And many, if not most, of them, I do not have solutions for; I do not necessarily even have good ideas, either.

However – isn’t that where faith comes in?  Are these not the moments where we have to stretch out our hands and put our faith and our trust in God that the seas will part and that we, too, will be delivered to safety?  Are these not the moments where we have to believe that it is not by our own human flesh, but there but by the grace of God that we will find ways over, around, under and through these obstacles.

Last week we hosted our first-ever Drive-Thru Communion.  We had never done this before; there was no tradition or precedent for us to follow.  We wanted to honor the sacredness of the sacrament, but also needed to ensure we were complying with state regulations and public health recommendations.  Truth be told, a few weeks ago we had no idea what we were doing.  It seemed like we had come up against an impossible obstacle.

But we put our faith in God, stood in front of that sea and stretched our hands over it.

And it parted.

And we stepped forward onto dry ground.

And it was good.  And it was holy.  And 55 people were able to come to this table we created in our driveway and receive grace in abundance as they shared in the meal.

Friends, I know the obstacles in front of us seem large and impassable right now – reopening schools, putting out wildfires, bridging political divides, reconciling systemic racism and inequality and putting an end to this pandemic.  This does not, of course, include the obstacles that we, as individuals and families face in our personal lives.  A lot of things feel impossible right now.

But God is in the business of the impossible – the impassable.  God parted those seas and brought the Israelites to safety and we have to believe that the same will happen to us, today.

So let us, like Moses, put our faith and our trust in God.  Let us approach obstacles not with fear and trepidation, but with confidence and hope.  Let us stretch out our hands and believe that God is going to part those waters and bring us safely to the other side.

Thanks be to God!
Amen.

[1] The HarperCollins Study Bible, Revised Edition. Copyright © 2006 by HarperCollins Publishers. Page 83.
[2] Exodus 14:10-16

 

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