Advent sermon: Holding Out Hope


Text used – Isaiah 35:1-10

For the last few weeks, the weather – both snow storms and dangerously frigid temperatures – have caused us to cancel our worship services. This sermon was preached a few weeks ago on the 3rd Sun. of Advent.

  • I want to tell you about an incredible children’s book this morning. Fletcher and the Falling Leaves by Julia Rawlinson[1]
    • Fletcher = little fox who loves his very favorite tree
    • Beginning of the book: The world was changing. Each morning, when Fletcher bounded out of the den, everything seemed just a little bit different. The rich green of the forest was turning to a dusty gold, and the soft, swishing sound of summer was fading to a crinkly whisper. Fletcher’s favorite tree looked dull, dry, and brown. Fletcher was beginning to get worried. → You see, being a very young fox, Fletcher doesn’t understand about fall – about how grass and flowers and even big, beautiful trees have to lose their color and vibrancy in order to hibernate for the winter and be reborn in the spring.
    • Fletcher’s first go-to = his mom
      • She tells him “Don’t worry, it’s only autumn.”
      • Fletcher relays this message to his tree: “Don’t worry, it’s only autumn. You’ll be feeling better soon.”
    • But then Fletcher’s big, beautiful tree begins to lose its leaves … and Fletcher is frantic
      • Starts with just one leaf → Fletcher catches it and does everything he can to put the leaf back on the tree
      • Next day = strong wind → Fletcher rushes to his tree to find many branches bare and leaves swirling everywhere → Fletcher tries to retrieve all these leaves so he can return them to his tree
        • But to his great dismay and consternation, Fletcher isn’t the only one gathering up these fallen leaves.
          • Excited squirrel gathers them for its winter nest → Fletcher’s response: “Help! Help! The wind and the squirrel are stealing our leaves!”
          • Overjoyed porcupine rolls in them – leaves stuck to its quills are insulation against the coming winter cold → Fletcher’s response: “Help! Help! The wind, the squirrel, and the porcupine are steading our leaves!”
      • Quick respite: flock of birds hears Fletcher’s cries, gathers up all the fallen leaves, and returns them to the tree → Fletcher, exhausted from his physically and emotionally taxing morning, thanks the birds and falls asleep under his beloved tree
      • But as Fletcher sleeps, the wind continues to blow, and once again the leaves fall to the ground. When Fletcher finally wakes up from his nap, his tree was entirely bare … all but one leaf.
        • Fletcher climbs tree to hang onto that last leaf
        • Clings to branch and holds the leaf firms in its place on the tree
        • Great gust of wind bounces branch → And in that jolt, the final leaf pops free and flutters in Fletcher’s paw.
      • Fletcher = devastated
        • Very carefully carries the leaf home
        • Makes a bed for the leaf next to his own and tucks it in for the night
        • Spends all night long sadly thinking of his once-beautiful tree
    • Now, that’s not quite the end of the story, but I’m going to leave it there for now. Because, after all, it is Advent, and this year, we’re listening through the voice of Isaiah and his anticipatory hope.
      • Already talked about how we are waiting in anticipatory hope for the Light of the World to come → what started as a faint glimmer = dawning brighter and brighter, stronger and stronger every day
      • Also talked about how absurdly and illogically powerful hope is → how hope blooms bright and wild in the unexpected story of Mary and Joseph and the manger as well as in our own unexpected stories
      • Today: talk about those times when we hold out hope → 3 very different ways that we do that
        • “Hold out hope” by holding it at arm’s length → keep it ever-so-slightly distant from us because hopes that go unrealized/unfulfilled can be so incredibly painful
        • Opposite: “hold out hope” by clinging to it → by embracing the faintly-possible in the face of the highly-improbable (what sometimes can seem more like the impossible!), investing our whole selves and hearts into our belief
        • “Hold out hope” in a manner of pride and declaration → similar to the way children hold out their latest creation
          • Pick Luke and Ian up at Amy’s – first thing they have to do is show me (at the top of their lungs!) their latest crafting creation or coloring sheet → giant smiles on their faces, excitement exuding from every part of them
  • Looking at Is text for today
    • Is gives plenty of scenarios that seem challenging at best = the kind of scenarios that make us want to hold that hope out at arm’s length because no good can truly come of such a bleak situation
      • Text speaks of deserts and dry land and the wilderness, weak hands and unsteady knees, “those who are panicking,”[2] those who have lost their sight and their hearing and their ability to walk and to speak, the burning sand and thirsty ground, fools and predators, grief and groaning → all struggles and pitfalls to which we can relate
        • Plenty of people we know and love around here make their living farming – threats of too much rain or too little rain, even too much snow or too little snow to melt in the spring = always on their minds → What will the fields look like this year? Too wet? Too dry? Full of too many weeds? Too many aphids or corn borers or some other kind of blight?
        • Plenty of people we know and love struggle with health issues – always make hope both problematic and paramount at the same time
        • Plenty of times when we feel like the fools and the predators are all that line our paths – threatening and intimidating, misleading and distracting, challenging and impeding us at every turn → affects all aspects of our lives
          • Personal lives (relationships)
          • Work lives
          • Spiritual lives
    • But even though it mentions all of these terrible scenarios, our Isaiah text this morning is a text of joy-filled hope – text: The desert and the dry land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom like the crocus. … Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be cleared. Then the lame will leap like the deer, and the tongue of the speechless will sing. … The burning sand will become a pool, and the thirsty ground, fountains of water. … A highway will be there. It will be called The Holy Way. … Even fools won’t get lost on it; no lion will be there, and no predator will go up on it. … Happiness and joy will overwhelm them; grief and groaning will flee away.[3]Isaiah is truly holding out hope, clinging to it and encouraging the people to do the same, even in the midst of all the challenges that they face – betrayal, war, oppression and all of the emotions that those bring: fear, uncertainty, shame, sadness, doubt. Isaiah is reminding the people that even when they are faced with the worst of circumstances, God is with them. God is their strength and their renewal. God is their source of security and joy.
      • Hear Is encouraging them in this belief – text: They will see the Lord’s glory, the splendor of our God. Strengthen the we hands, and support the unsteady knees. Say to those who are panicking, “Be strong! Don’t fear! Here’s your God, coming with vengeance; with divine retribution God will come to save you.”[4]
      • Same God for whom we wait today → Advent = time of waiting for Christ
        • Waiting for the birth, yes → But this emphasis is a liturgical and theological development that has only happened in very recent history – within the lifetimes of nearly everyone in this room, the exception being the youngest children.
        • Waiting for Christ to return → Now, I know this is something we don’t often talk about in the [PC(USA)/UCC] because we trust that Scripture tells us that we aren’t meant to know the day or the time of that return, and that’s okay. We aren’t consumed by trying to figure it out – to pinpoint all the details (the who, what, where, when, how, and why of Christ’s return), but in the face of all the challenges and fears and uncertainties that surround us, we hold out hope that indeed Christ will return one day.
          • Say it every time we celebrate communion: “Whenever we eat this bread and share this cup, we proclaim Christ’s death and resurrection until he comes again in glory.”
          • Powerful hope
          • Strong hope
          • And yet it can be a hope that, like many, grows more and more difficult to hang on to the longer we have to wait. → Advent = time when we lean into and live into that hope a little bit more as well
    • And in the end, just like a proud little kid with his latest art project, Isaiah hold out that hope for all to see and to cherish – text: The Lord’s ransomed ones will return and enter Zion with singing, with everlasting joy upon their heads. Happiness and joy will overwhelm them; grief and groaning will flee away.[5] → Being overwhelmed by happiness and joy were about as far from the minds and lives of the Israelites as they could possibly be at the time. But Isaiah not only clung to his anticipatory hope, he shared it. He declared it boldly, without apology and without shame. He held out this hope for a people who were hurting and a nation that was reeling – a light in their darkness, a stream in their wilderness, a Holy Way for those feeling lost and alone.
      • Our call today as well → to hold out the good news of the coming Savior, the one who was born and the one who will return in glory – to declare boldly, without apology and without shame our hope in Emmanuel, God With Us
        • Remind our broken and hurting world happiness and joy are not lost
        • Remind our broken and hurting selves that with God With Us, grief and groaning will indeed flee away
        • Audacious hope – takes guts
        • Anticipatory hope – takes patience
        • Active hope – takes movement (being the hands and feet of God in this world → living out that hope)
      • Scholar: We still live in that in-between time, as this prophet’s people did. We are asked to take heart. God will come and save; we will find our Holy Way toward home, and our mouths will be filled with no more sighing, only singing.[6]
  • Fletcher’s initial hope was that his tree would “get better” – that the effects of autumn would miraculously be reversed and that his beloved tree would return to its former green and luscious glory. It was a hope for what he knew. For what was familiar. For what was comfortable. But as I said before, we left off the end of the story.
    • Ending: At dawn Fletcher tiptoed outside. The wind had finally stopped blowing, and the air was cold. The moon still hung in the clear sky and pale stars glimmered. As he came to his favorite tree, Fletcher saw a magical sight … The tree was hung with a thousand icicles, shining silver in the early light. “You are more beautiful than ever,” whispered Fletcher. “But are you all right?” A tiny breeze shivered the branches, making a sound like laughter, and in the light of the rising sun, the sparkling branches nodded. Fletcher gave his tree a hug. Then he went back to the den for a nice, warm breakfast.
    • Fletcher never expected that in the face of such loss, he could find such beauty. As he mourned for what was, he never dared to hope that there could be something even more beautiful in store for his beloved tree. And yet, in that moment, Fletcher’s eyes were opened to a world of possibilities – a whole new hope for the wonder that his tree could be. Friends, let us go out into the world this morning with eyes opened wide like Fletcher’s – wide to the possibilities of God’s immense and powerful hope in this world, holding that hope out before us with giant smiles on our faces, overflowing with excitement for how in can change our own lives as well as the world around us. Amen.

fletchers-treeIllustrated by Tiphanie Beeke

[1] Julia Rawlinson. Fletcher and the Falling Leaves. (New York, NY: Greenwillow Books), 2006.

[2] Is 35:4.

[3] Is 35:1, 5-6a, 7a, 8-9, 10b (emphasis added).

[4] Is 35:2b-4.

[5] Is 35:10.

[6] Stacey Simpson Duke. “Third Sunday of Advent – Isaiah 35:1-10, Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 54.

Sunday’s sermon: An Illogical Hope


Text used – Isaiah 11:1-10

  • I’m going to start this morning by reading you a story.
    • That made sense, right? Totally rational? Completely logical? Easy to follow and 100% understandable? Right? … No?? Well, shoot.
      • Explain spoonerisms: a verbal error in which a speaker accidentally transposes the initial sounds or letters of two or more words, often to humorous effect → Or, in this case, not-so-accidentally.
      • But let me ask you this: Despite all the goofy words and the crazy phrases, did you understand what I was saying? Did you fall into a rhythm of listening that let you hear through the illogical to the message underneath?
        • Sort of like when you’re watching a movie when all the characters are speaking with an Irish accent or an Australian accent: takes a while for your ear to adjust to what you’re hearing, so you have to really pay attention for the first 15 mins. or so – by the end, you have no trouble understanding them
        • You see, that’s the thing about this time of year – the hope, the amazing in-breaking of God into our day-to-day lives in the form of this little baby, the story of Mary and Joseph and all their trials and tribulations that lead up to that night in a Bethlehem stable, and all the centuries of waiting and wanting that lead up to it. Centuries of prophecies. Centuries of expectations. Centuries of anticipatory hope. All for this one little child … who is, indeed, God With Us. Crazy, right? Totally irrational? Completely illogical? Difficult to grasp and 100% perplexing? Right? Well, shoot. … That sounds just about right.
  • Walking through Advent this year with the prophet Isaiah
    • Context reminder: prophet to southern kingdom of Judah during time of war, oppression, and betrayal
      • Judah compelled into shaky alliance with Assyria → Assyrian army turns around and attacks Judean capitol of Jerusalem
      • Isaiah speaks words of promise
        • Promise of God’s care
        • Promise of God’s guidance
        • Promise of God’s presence with the people of Israel
        • Promise of salvation to come
      • Isaiah’s words = words of anticipatory hope
        • Hope that cannot be realized in the here and now
        • Hope that must be held and cherished, sheltered and nurtured → Think of what it’s like to try to start a fire in a firepit. You’re outside, and sometimes, the elements are less-than-ideal. First, you have to make things ready – build the logs up, find some good kindling (somethings that’s dry and that will burn easily), and position everything just so. Then, you have to light the kindling. The flame is small at first, meager and vulnerable and liable to go out at the slightest hint of neglect. But you protect that little flame. You shelter it with your hands and your body so the wind doesn’t blow it out. You feed it more twigs and kindling, and you watch it grow. You watch it strengthen and intensity as it first catches the twigs, then the little sticks on the logs, then the bark on the logs, and finally, the entire log structure that you built is glowing with warmth and light. So it is with the hope that Isaiah presented to the people of Israel. It was tenuous and fragile when he first spoke the words. The elements surrounding them – the cruel and oppressive Assyrian army, the utter uncertainty of their future –threatened that hope. And yet Isaiah’s words continued to stir in them, to grow and flourish within their hearts as a flame grows and flourishes in a firepit – bringing light to the dark times, warmth to the desolate times, and hope to the times that seem utterly hopeless.
          • Anne Lamott: “Hope is not logical. It always comes as a surprise, just when you think all hope is lost. Hope is the cousin to grief, both take time.”
  • Today’s Scripture reading
    • Isaiah’s words of anticipatory hope this week seem especially illogical and absurd – text: The wolf will live with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion will feed together, and a little child will lead them. The cow and the bear will graze. Their young will lie down together, and a lion will eat straw like an ox. A nursing child will play over the snake’s hole; toddlers will reach right over the serpent’s den.[2] → Sounds. Crazy. Right?? I mean, this goes against everything in nature – predators gently and peacefully lying down with their prey, eating not the prey itself but what that prey is used to eating (bears munching on grass and lions scarfing down straw). And little children playing with snakes?
      • Not the happy, harmless little garter snakes that we all see in our gardens over the summer – Heb. = “cobra or asp” → Scholars have narrowed it down even further to a particular species: the Cerastes cornutus, the Horned Viper. This is a highly venomous snake that still lives in northern Africa and the Middle East.[3] This is not the kind of snake that the traveling zoo guy is going to bring to the summer library program! It is dangerous. It is volatile. And according to Isaiah’s prophecy, this is the snake that the “nursing child” and the “toddler” will play with. Logical? Not so much. The protective momma in me wants to say something a lot stronger than that … but we’ll leave it at “not so much.”
    • Craziness of Isaiah’s prophecy illustrates just how amazing, just how topsy-turvy, just how extreme, just how illogical hope in God actually is → I’ll tell you what, though: it’s a good thing we’re in church, and it’s a good thing we’re in the midst of Advent because nothing about this faith, nothing about this season, nothing about the birth of God in human form makes sense. So we’re in good company.
      • Hope in a God we cannot see or hear or touch → by today’s standards, a God we cannot prove
      • Hope in a tiny baby born not into power and prestige but into a stable and straw – hope that this baby will save us all
        • Words of the angels to come: For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.[4]
          • “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name, it’s a title – Gr. “Christ” = “Savior” → So the one to bring salvation will be born into a position that couldn’t be more humble, more out-of-station, more common and ordinary. And yet, oh, how uncommon and extraordinary this Christ Child will be.
            • Is speaks to that this morning, too: A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots. The Lord’s spirit will rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and understanding, a spirit of planning and strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord. He will delight in fearing the Lord. He won’t judge by appearances, nor decide by hearsay. He will judge the needy with righteousness, and decide with equity for those who suffer in the land.[5]
              • Words of audacious hope in Isaiah’s time – time of oppression and betrayal
              • Words of audacious hope in time of Jesus’ birth – time of injustice and corrupt leadership
              • Words of audacious hope in our time, too – time of serious social inequality and a whole new set of injustices, time of both extreme need and extreme greed, time of unrest, time of uncertainty
  • Today: inhabit a world that can sometimes be bent against hope
    • World that values reason and logic
      • Facts and figures
      • Scientific studies
      • Expert opinions
      • And don’t get me wrong, all those things have their place. If I find myself down at Mayo facing some sort of illness or medical problem, I want all of those things. I want facts and figures. I want scientific studies. I want whatever expert opinions I can get because I want to be informed to the best of my ability about what’s going on in my life and in my body. But I also want hope.
    • World that seems to place immense significance on soundbytes and shock value and sensationalism
      • News stories
      • Tabloid fodder
      • Internet sensations
      • Talk radio
      • There are all of these outlets that try to shock us into submission with the opinions and beliefs that they’re trying to sell. They bury us in words and word and more words about how terrible this person is or how criminal that person is, how scandalous this event was or how out-of-whack that situation is. The sensationalism dulls our senses until we find something to spark us back into ourselves.
        • Hope = that spark
          • Hope in humanity
          • Hope in God’s goodness and ultimate purpose in this world
          • Hope in grace
          • Hope in forgiveness
        • Cling to Is’ anticipatory hope: The earth will surely be filled with the knowledge of the Lord, just as the water covers the sea. On that day, the root of Jesse will stand as a signal to the peoples. The nations will seek him out, and his dwelling will be glorious.[6]
    • In the face of all that the world elevates and treasures, we celebrate a story that makes no sense – a story of ultimate power born into ultimate destitution, a story of people coming to pay homage not to a king in a fancy palace but a child in a feed trough surrounded by animals and straw and cow pies and camel spit, a story of angels singing and God With Us and incomparable grace and anticipatory hope. It’s a story that makes no sense … and thank God for that!
      • Madeleine L’Engle: This is the irrational season / When love blooms bright and wild. / Had Mary been filled with reason, / There’d have been no room for the child. → Sometimes, we just have to make room for the irrational, the unreasonable, the audacious and the uncommon and the extraordinary. We have to make room for illogical hope because there is no other kind. If hope were logical, it wouldn’t be hope. It would be reason. I would be planning. It would be check lists – something we could work through step by step in a sensible and intellectual way. But the beauty of hope is that it flies in the face of all that! It blooms bright and wild in the face of statistics that tell you things should be otherwise. Hope blooms bright and wild in the face of past circumstances that should teach you to expect loss or failure or fear. Hope blooms bright and wild in the face of naysayers and straight talkers who do their darnedest to keep your feet on the ground. Hope blooms bright and wild in darkness, in challenge, in fear, in uncertainty – in all those places when we need it most. Because in those places is God Emmaneul – God With Us. Amen.

[1] found at

[2] Is 11:6-8.


[4] Lk 2:11 (KJV).

[5] Is 11:1-4a (CEB).

[6] Is 11:9b-10.

Dec. 2016 newsletter article

Earlier today, I was looking for an Advent calendar that we could start using with Luke and Ian. They’re 3½ now, and I think they’re at that age when they could really have fun with the whole idea of counting down to Christmas.

You would think that a decent, reusable Advent calendar wouldn’t be a difficult thing to find.

You would think.

But all I seemed to be able to come across were countdown calendars with Santa and Rudolph or snowflakes or snowmen or all about brightly wrapped presents.


Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m as much a fan of the “magic of Christmas” as the next person. I appreciate the joy and wonder Santa brings to children. I remember it fondly myself and look forward to watching that same joy and wonder in my own children’s eyes. Trust me: this is not an anti-Santa rant.

At the same time, we cannot deny that the consumerism of the holidays has exploded. Many of the craft stores have had holiday decorations and supplies on their shelves since before Halloween. Many of the major retailers have had their Christmas accoutrements out since the day after Halloween. And while there are some businesses who have vowed to remain closed on Thanksgiving Day so their employees can spend time with their loved ones, there are plenty of other stores who are open all day Thanksgiving Day. Just so we can buy more stuff.

As I sit and write this article, I keep having the words to the holiday classic “It’s Beginning to Look A Lot Like Christmas” running through my head:

It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas
Ev’rywhere you go,
Take a look in the five-and-ten,
It’s glistening once again
With candy canes and silver lanes that glow.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,
Toys in ev’ry store,
But the prettiest sight to see
Is the holly that will be
On your own front door.

For so many, that is what Christmas looks like – gifts and toys and shiny packages and reindeer and red suits and twinkling lights.

And there’s nothing wrong with those things.

But they’re not the only thing.

There is a baby.
And a manger.
And a scared new mother.
And an overwhelmed father.
And a city too full to give them a proper place to stay.

There is a group of shepherds.
And angels.
And glad tidings of great joy –
A pronouncement of salvation …

Hope …

Possibility …

“Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger. Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward all people!”
~ Luke 2:10-14


A Savior is coming – God With Us. God really and truly with us … up on the mountain tops, down in the dirt, laughing and crying, wondering and worrying, bringing Light and Love and Peace.

Pastor Lisa sign