This week's sermon delivered by Rev. Peg Bowman is set against the backdrop of the Advent season. Rev. Bowman's sermon addressed the theme of weariness that pervades the world, drawing parallels between the contemporary global challenges and the historical struggles of the Israelites. She pointed out that this weariness is not a new phenomenon, with similar feelings experienced during the Babylonian exile and under Roman rule in Biblical times. The sermon drew attention to the universal longing for peace and safety amid global conflicts and local crimes.
Rev. Bowman emphasized the essence of Advent, which is about finding hope and joy in a world shrouded in darkness. She spoke about the symbolic meaning of the Advent candles - representing hope, peace, joy, and love - that are lit in contrast to the despair, war, sorrow, and hate in the world. The sermon highlighted the importance of the Advent message in providing solace in today's challenging times, stressing the continual presence of God and the promise of salvation as sources of comfort. Rev. Bowman encouraged the congregation to acknowledge the world's weariness while also embracing the joy and restoration offered by the season of Advent. Her message concluded with a call to recognize the struggles of the present while looking forward to the hope and rejuvenation that Advent brings.
So here we are, the first week of Advent already. It seems like just yesterday we were starting the new school year. The season of Advent is, and always has been, the considered the new year of the church. And one of the authors I was reading this past week was kind of puzzled by the fact that the church would choose Advent to start the year.
He asked, why not Easter, the victory over death? Or why not Pentecost with this baptism of fire, the birthday of the church? With Advent, he said, our new year starts not in victory, but in the shadows of war, sorrow, and hate. And this is exactly where our God of grace arrives. Therefore, on our Advent wreath, we have candles of hope and peace and joy and love to light against the shadows of despair and war and sorrow and hate. We celebrate Advent because it's the time when God defeats the darkness in our world, and that's what the light of these candles shows us.
So it's fitting that our Advent series this year is called A Weary World Rejoices. It's a line taken from the Christmas carol, O Holy Night. And you will see artwork and other things related to that theme throughout the coming weeks. A Weary World Rejoices.
And I think it's an especially good theme for this year because our world really does feel weary right now. We've made it through the pandemic, more or less. There were still caring for a few people that here and there who are still catching COVID. We hear story after story about wars in places like Ukraine and Israel.
Places many of us have friends or loved ones. And we pray for peace, but peace seems very slow in coming. And day after day, we hear about more shootings, and we wonder what it might take to put a stop to that. And in just the past couple of weeks, even locally, there have been delivery truck hijackings and check writing scams.
It's that time of year when money is flowing and people are doing whatever they can to jump into the river of cash and grab a handful as much as they can. Strange way to celebrate the birth of Jesus, isn't it? All of these things weary us. They wear on our souls. And if we happen to be of a certain age like myself and just generally feel tired to start with, or if we are waiting for answers, or if we are waiting for things that we hope will happen, or if we're searching for someone or something we can trust in this world, or if we find ourselves living the same routine day after day after day, and all these things wear on our souls.
They weary us. They make us look to God and say, Lord, how long? The scriptures for today tell stories of people who were also living in weary times. In the passage from Isaiah, the people of Israel have started to come home to Jerusalem after their long exile in Babylon. And they return to Jerusalem to find that the city has fallen into ruins in their absence.
And the people look at the piles of stones and the breaches in the city walls and the overgrown fields, and they feel weary just thinking about all the work that's going to have to be done to make a life here possible again. This was not the homecoming they dreamed of or hoped for. And in the passage from Luke, the people of Israel are living under Roman occupation, which they are weary of. And they are hoping for the promised Messiah, but they've been waiting for so long.
And when the angel, Gabriel, finally comes to Zechariah and says, you will have a son, and he will be great in the sight of God. Zechariah looks at his old body and his wife's old body, and all he can see is weariness. People in both of these passages cry out to God to be present, to be here with God's people, and save us from the pain and the tragedies and the weariness around us. And as for us in today's world, as the Salt Project has said, in an age of struggle and conflict, many people are already in the shadows of suffering and anxiety and exhaustion and grief.
A key message of Advent and Christmas is that such shadows are precisely the place where Jesus comes and where the church is called to go. In this time of year, we are reminded that Jesus is on the way, both in Advent and in the promise of his second coming. God is indeed coming to be with us and to save us from the pain and the tragedy and the weariness of our world. But waiting is not easy.
It's not easy to relate to what Isaiah says to God, or we can actually relate to what Isaiah says to God. He says, that you would tear the heavens and come down. Lord, what are you waiting for? How much worse do things have to get before you step in? And Isaiah's words echo the heart of Psalm 80. Lord, be with us.
Be among your people again. Bring peace. Bring blessing. So looking first at Isaiah, and again, Isaiah's writing during that time when the people of Israel have been held captive in Babylon for 70 years, and that's at least two generations, possibly three.
There are very few people in the crowd listening to Isaiah who are old enough to remember the glory of Israel back when it had a king and a temple. For the past 70 years, Jerusalem has been home to robbers and wild animals, the poorest of the poor. As the people begin to return home, they find that any buildings that are still standing after 70 years, crumbling, overgrown with weeds, anything that was of value long since stolen. And in their grief, could people cry out to God, that you would tear the heavens and come down.
This passage in Isaiah reminded me in a way of something a young adult said to me recently. This person said to me, I wish we had known what life was like when people were safe. And what that person meant was a world like the one that I grew up in, a world in which we didn't have to be afraid of being shot. A world in which people didn't steal a password and empty your bank account.
A world in which people didn't steal identities. A world in which it was safe to walk across downtown Pittsburgh from one end to the other by yourself, even if you were a woman. A world in which it was safe for children to play in each other's backyards or even in the streets like we used to, like come home when the street lights come on, y'all remember that? My friend said, I would like to have known what it was like to live in that world. And I wish they could, I wish young people could.
I wish I could take my grandchildren back to a time like that and let them experience what it was like to be safe. But of course, if we're honest, we know that this world is not a safe place and never really has been. But there was a time when we weren't always worrying. Having to think consciously about your own personal safety 24/7 is wearying.
And so we turn to God and we say, Lord, please forgive where we've gone wrong. Lord, you are the potter, we are the clay. Take us in your hands and work with us. Work out our flaws, work in strength, work in wholeness.
Come set our world to rights. Lord, our weariness has shaken our hope. Let your face shine so that we can be saved. That cry from Psalm 80 is so right on the mark, because this world is beyond our ability to set right.
Being good is not enough, and going to church won't make a change. And no matter how much money we have, we can't fix the problems. We need God. We need God to let his face shine so that we can be saved.
And then we turn to the story of Zechariah, whose name, Zechariah, by the way, means God remembers. How cool is that? God's people are not forgotten. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth are descendants of the ancient priestly families of Israel. They can trace their family tree all the way back to Aaron, who hung out with Moses back in those days.
They've been serving God all their lives. Zechariah has been serving in the temple all his life. And their one great sadness in life is that they were never able to get pregnant. And now they are past childbearing years.
And one day as Zechariah is serving in the temple, an angel appears. Not just any angel, but this is Gabriel, the captain of the heavenly host, okay? Gabriel says to Zechariah, you will have a son, and you will have that joy and that gladness that you have always wanted, and he will be great in God's sight. And most importantly, he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even before birth. Which, by the way, is true, because we hear a few months later, we'll be reading, actually, the next reading, the next block of reading.
When Elizabeth, who is pregnant, meets Mary, who is pregnant, and the baby John leaps in her womb when he hears the voice of Jesus' mother. He knows. Unborn babies, they know things. They know stuff, you know? Anyway, I'm getting ahead of that story.
In this particular moment, hearing Gabriel's message, Zechariah can't believe it. He says, but we're both old. This is something I can relate to. [LAUGH] As a woman in my 60s, I cannot imagine anyone saying to me, you're going to have a baby.
[LAUGH] I mean, I would be stunned, shocked, scared. With all the aches and pains of old age, getting pregnant could be dangerous. And I'm not sure my husband would be keen on the idea either. [LAUGH] So Zechariah says, how can this be so? For those of us of a certain age, doubt and uncertainty have a way of creeping in.
If any of us find that disappointment or disbelief is sneaking up on us, Advent is a good time to bring those things to God. God knows where we are. God knows our physical and spiritual weaknesses. And God can restore hope in us.
As Advent begins, let me ask each of us to give some thought to this question. What weariness, if any, do we carry today? What is it that makes our hearts and our minds and our spirits bone tired? And for anyone who is having a particularly difficult time this year, that's why we're offering the Blue Christmas service. So anyone who wants to be with God at Christmas, but without all the holiday noise, just a quiet time with God. But for the rest of us who are simply weary, how can we rediscover hope? The people at Salt Project say, well, before broken hearts can be healed, they need to be heard.
Truth and the feelings need to be named. We can bring these thoughts and these feelings to God in prayer, whatever they are. We do not need to hold back with God. God knows who we are and where we are, and God knows how to deal with it.
I mean, remember Isaiah and the people of Israel crying out to God, rend the heavens and come down. Whatever it is, we don't need to be shy about telling God our difficulties and asking God for what we need. And for those of us who are not feeling in any way weary or down at this time of year, I'm glad to hear that. Try to spend some time encouraging those who are.
Name the truth, honor the losses, stand in solidarity with neighbors in pain. Be a candle in the middle of the night. When Isaiah cries out to God, you have hidden your face from us, but we are the work of your hand. Restore us, repair the land.
This is the request to which Christmas is the answer. The coming of Jesus, the Messiah. Isaiah calls on God to be God with us, and that's exactly who Jesus is. God's promise is that this dark night will end, and that this weariness does have an end, and that this advent time of waiting will come to a joyous end.
And the answer of Christmas will be the greatest news of joy this world has ever heard, Amen.