(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on December 4, 2016)
Yesterday we got our Christmas tree.
We’ve been going to the same place over in Sherwood since 2005, just a little red house with a field of trees behind it. We found it randomly, and now it’s our tradition. One of the things I love is the little walk along a tree-lined lane to get to the field of Christmas trees; each year, that walk is where Christmas seems to begin for me.
The same people have owned it the whole time we’ve been going. We started bringing our dog Jack in 2007, and one of the daughters at the house loves animals… and loves Jack. One year Elaine left her gloves at the tree farm, and Kari, the daughter, saved the gloves with a little note that said “Jack’s mom”! And then she remembered to give it to us the next year!
That’s when we really started bonding. We emailed back and forth the year Hayley was in India to share blog posts, and last year I gathered all our years of tree pictures and sent them to her. We got our pictures on their wall when I did that! She was so excited to see how much their little tree farm had been part of our family life.
You can see Hayley wasn’t with us again this year, as she’s staying in Scotland for Christmas, where she’s attending St. Andrews University. But since I’ve collected all those pictures, this morning I can just start clicking the little button, and you can watch the Koskela family go backward in time…
Time is truly an amazing thing.
Look at the changes in our daughters! Think of all the changes in our world during these years. I’m always a bit nostalgic at Christmas time, and this year being my last Christmas as pastor here is more so.
Here we all are in 2002, the first Christmas here after you hired me. Look at us! Look at me, 34 years old, clueless about how to serve this church. Seriously, what were you people thinking taking a risk on that kid?
So much has changed, for us, for the church, for the Yearly Meeting, for the world. I’m so grateful for all the ways you’ve shaped the five of us.
Think with me about some of the differences between 2016 and 2002. No Facebook, no Twitter, no smartphones. The Lord of the Rings movie trilogy wasn’t even finished, and neither were the Star Wars prequels! We were only on The Two Towers and Attack of the Clones.
American Idol was a brand new show. Pierce Brosnan was still James Bond. Beyonce was still in Destiny’s Child with no solo records to her credit. Here at NFC, we printed all the lyrics on paper instead of having a projector. Only Steve Fawver and I from the current staff were on staff in 2002. Nolan had never even played a bass in 2002!
On the scale of a normal human life, 14 years is a good chunk of time.
It’s almost a generation. It’s 30% of my life so far. If you take just the adult years of the average American’s life, 14 years is about a quarter of it.
But on the scale of history, it’s just a blip, isn’t it? In the span of God’s eternal existence, 14 years doesn’t make much difference at all. In fact, I’ll go out on a crazy limb here and say the good news of God in Jesus Christ hasn’t changed at all in those 14 years.
I changed my plan for what to share today.
I went back 14 years ago, to my first year here, and looked at what I preached on the 2nd Sunday of Advent. It was from Isaiah chapter 40. Turn with me there, would you? I’ll read the first 8 verses, and then we’ll read together verses 9-11.
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling:
‘In the wilderness prepare
the way for the LORD;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’
A voice says, ‘Cry out.’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
‘All people are like grass,
and all human faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the LORD blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.’ (Isaiah 40:1-8, TNIV)
Let’s read together.
Leader: You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain.
All: You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout,
Women: lift it up, do not be afraid!
Leader: Say to the towns of Judah,
All: Here is your God!
Leader: See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him.
Men: See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.
All: He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young. (Isaiah 40:9-11, TNIV)
Here’s how I set the scene back in 2002:
“Israel was at a place of complete emptiness, complete hopelessness. Their nation had ended. Many people had been exiled. Their temple had been desecrated, and the new world powers viewed Palestine simply as “spoil” for their own use. There was no hope for renewal. They had sunk so low, it was impossible to envision any possible way toward becoming a nation again. Their hopes and dreams had been crushed so much that they weren’t even sure that God could do anything for them.
Isaiah 40 is a major shift in the book of Isaiah. After words of judgment and punishment, this chapter is a new word of hope, a sign of God’s healing. Something new was coming! God’s arrival would make new ways in the desert, straight paths that would shine forth God’s glory, so that everyone could see.”
Today, just like at many times in human history, we need these words of hope.
We need to hear God speak comfort to us, speak tenderly to us. We need God to come with power to make a straight path through our wilderness, to level the rough ground, to plow down the mountains in our way!
We need something greater than human promises, something more lasting than our fleeting lifetimes. This is the promise of Isaiah 40, that reminds us in verses 6-8 that God isn’t like us frail and fleeting human beings. God’s word, God’s love, God’s promises endure forever!
14 years ago, I said this promise was for all of us. I said:
“[Maybe you think that] your life is in too much turmoil to imagine God making things better. This passage may be true for others, but not for you. If that is how you are feeling, you are in exactly the same place that Israel was. Everything they had from God had been taken away-their power, their king, their land, their place of worship, their special relationship with God. It was all gone, it was hopeless. But still this hope of God’s power comes through.”
I believe more strongly than I did then that God’s grace and love, God’s forgiveness and healing power, are available to every person on this planet!
Our circumstances and our actions, no matter how bad they are, have no ability to scale back the loving power of God. One of the reasons people keep reading the book of Isaiah is to remind ourselves of God’s love, forgiveness, and power. One of the reasons we still gather as the church of Jesus Christ is to share with each other how God is working in us.
I like how I said it in 2002:
“We all have different experiences of God. One of the most important things we do as a church is to tell each other our stories. We tell each other what God has done, where God has shown God’s power in our lives. It helps to hear that from others. We need to have evidence from people that we know that if we turn our lives over to God, God has power to act.
For me, the very fact that my family is here in Newberg is a testimony to the power of God. One year ago, as we were considering coming back to NFC, I didn’t think it would be possible. God’s activity through the process of discernment is for me a testimony of God’s power to act.
I trust God. I trust God to be able to truly be in charge of all the world. I believe in a very tangible way that God has power to act. And I’m just one voice with one experience of God. We’re sitting in a room FULL of people, many who have had powerful experiences of God’s activity in their own lives. God can and does work in our world today. God is not finished yet.
God wasn’t finished with Israel, and these words gave them hope, hope that led them to wait expectantly for hundreds of years to see this messiah, this promised one from God who would flatten the hills, raise the valleys, and smooth the plains with his coming.
We celebrate Jesus’ birth as God’s act of mighty power in our world.”
God is not finished yet!
However dark the world looks, it’s tough to measure up to a destroyed kingdom with people exiled to foreign lands. But God wasn’t finished then. God promised Jesus, the Savior, the Messiah, the Shepherd. We celebrate Jesus’ birth at Christmas because we believe it to be God’s demonstration that God can and does act in this world. God is not finished yet!
I remember how much I trusted how God had led us to NFC in 2002. We knew God had led us, and that secure knowledge has been a bedrock, a foundation for us in these 14 years. It’s good for me to remember how that sustained me through so many times that I’ve been scared and confused and unsure since then.
I can rest in the confidence that now that I sense God’s release from the call to be here, God is not finished yet! God is not finished bringing hope and a strong foundation in my life.
God is not finished yet! Not with all of you either…my goodness there’s no way!
Here is our God, friends!
Look at these words from thousands of years ago: “the Sovereign LORD comes with power…reward is with him.” For thousands of years, God has shown that intervening power.
Here is our God, friends! “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”
Me back in 2002:
“The image is a powerful one-a loving shepherd, caring for the flock. A picture of God hugging us, carrying us, leading us to places where we will be safe and well-fed.The image of God here in Isaiah is of a God who holds us safely and warmly in the palm of God’s hand.
God does act. God does have the power to do something in the world and in our lives. And God uses power gently. Like a loving shepherd caring for lambs, God uses power in ways that keep us safe.”
This is our God.
This is who I’ve always wanted to point people to. The God who speaks tenderly, but can tear down mountains and level the rough ground of our lives.
This is our God…The God who doesn’t fade or wither, but who endures forever and ever and ever, the God who is not finished yet!
This is our God! The God who comes with power AND who gathers the lambs close, carries them close to God’s heart.
This is our God, the one I’ve trusted most of my life, the God I’ve always wanted everyone to know and love and experience. Friends, our God has not gone anywhere. God has watched empires rise and fall, people love and hate, cultures oppress and liberate. This is our God, and God isn’t finished yet!
If there’s one thing that 48 year old me is drawn to more than 34 year old me, it is to be drawn back to the majesty of our Creator.
There’s always this difficulty with our finite human minds, the inability to grasp all the paradoxes and tensions God holds together. 34 year old me always gravitated toward the tender God, as a sort of correction of the harsh, far away, powerful God I was taught in my youth.
But as I get older, I am able to see more of the picture…and I’m sure I still have much more to grasp. Today, 48 year old me will finish by reading further than verse 11, and remind us of just how incomprehensible our Great Creator is. Look with me, beginning in verse 12.
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand,
or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens?
Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket,
or weighed the mountains on the scales
and the hills in a balance?
Who can fathom the Spirit of the LORD,
or instruct the LORD as his counselor?
Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him,
and who taught him the right way?
Who was it that taught him knowledge,
or showed him the path of understanding?
Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket;
they are regarded as dust on the scales;
he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust. (Isaiah 40:12-15, TNIV)
And then these famously beautiful words of hope and strength, beginning down in verse 28.
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31, TNIV)
Friends, this is our God!
The everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. God will not grow tired or weary!
And God is not finished yet! God gives strength to the weary, increases the power of the weak. And we who hope in the Lord will renew our strength. We will soar on wings like eagles; we will run and not grow weary; we will walk and not be faint.
Take heart! Have hope! This is our God, now and forever.