Preparing with Hope

Preparing with Hope

The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was descended from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.

Once when he was serving as priest before God during his section’s turn of duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord to offer incense. Now at the time of the incense offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified, and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.” Zechariah said to the angel, “How can I know that this will happen? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” The angel replied, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. But now, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur.”

Meanwhile the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering at his delay in the sanctuary. When he did come out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He kept motioning to them and remained unable to speak. When his time of service was ended, he returned to his home.

After those days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she remained in seclusion. She said, “This is what the Lord has done for me in this time, when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.”

Luke 1:5-25 (NRSVUE)

In today’s scripture reading, we heard about Zechariah preparing the sanctuary with incense, and as he did, an angel appeared to give him some pretty amazing news. The angel told him that his wife Elizabeth, who had previously been barren, would conceive and bear a son, and they were to call him John.

Now, if you have never heard this story before, this infant, John, would become John the Baptist, or John the Baptizer, and he would spend his life encouraging people to make straight their paths, to turn away from sin, and to be baptized in the Jordan river as they get ready for the coming of the Messiah!

Well, today, we are going to prepare our sanctuary for the coming of the Messiah too, as we prepare and decorate for the coming of Christmas. Now in our tradition, we don’t use incense to sanctify and purify our space, like our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters do, but we do decorate with symbols that help to remind us of the season and to deepen our spiritual experience.

We begin the season of Advent by opening our hearts to make room for hope and new possibilities because, just like with the unexpected good news of the baby that the angel Gabriel shared with Zechariah, if we keep our hearts open to new possibilities, we too can experience amazing things.

Over the next few weeks of Advent, we are going to hear several stories about angels who appeared in unexpected places to everyday ordinary people like you and me, bringing good news to encourage them and to assure them of God’s goodness and grace. As you hear these stories week after week, I hope that you will be able to open your heart to the possibility of more HOPE, more PEACE, more JOY, and more LOVE in your life. One of the ways that we are going to experience that is by hearing the inspiring stories of angels appearing to ordinary people like you and me, and then we are going to go out into the world to be angels in the lives of others. Because the story of Christmas is not just a story that happened more than two thousand years ago. It’s a story that continues in us year after year when we decide to share more HOPE, more PEACE, more JOY, and more LOVE with the world, remembering Emmanuel, which means God chose to come and be with us. So friends let’s begin to prepare our hearts as we sing together “O Come O Come Emmanuel.”

Often when we think of Christmas decorations, we think of evergreens. Among ancient Romans, evergreens were a symbol of peace, joy, and victory. Early Christians placed evergreens in their windows to indicate that Christ had entered the home. Holly and ivy, along with pine and fir, are called “evergreens” because they never change color. They are ever-green, and ever-alive, even in the midst of winter. They symbolize the unchanging nature of our God, and they remind us of the everlasting life that is ours through Jesus.

In the book of Isaiah, chapter 60, verse 13, we find these words: “The glory of Lebanon shall come unto you, the cypress, the plane, and the pine, to beautify the place of my sanctuary…” Friends, as we begin to beautify our sanctuary with greens, let’s sing together “O Come All Ye Faithful.”

Though the idea of making laurel wreaths out of greens goes back to the ancient Romans, the custom of bringing a Christmas tree into our homes began in the sixteenth century in Germany. During this period, pruning the tree was a part of the preparation process. Tree limbs were often cut off in an attempt to make the tree look more like a triangle, which is a symbol of the Trinity, but they were also trimmed to be more uniform in shape or to fit into the room where they were going to be. Instead of throwing the trimmed pieces of greenery away, the excess pieces were woven into wreaths because this was a time when everything was used, and nothing was wasted. The Christmas wreath tradition quickly began displaying a never-ending circle that reminds us of the endless love of God. As our wreaths are hung, let us sing together “Away in a Manger.”

Poinsettias didn’t arrive in the United States until the nineteenth century. The plant is named for the first U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Dr. Joel Roberts Poinsett, who introduced the poinsettia to America in 1828.

Does anyone remember anything else that happened in 1828? That’s right, 1828 was Lso the year our present sanctuary was built. And though I would love to believe that there were poinsettias on the altar here in Oldtown on that first Christmas that they celebrated in this sanctuary, it sounds as though the poinsettia didn’t really catch on here in the United States until the beginning of the twentieth century.

But what does a poinsettia have to do with Christmas? Many believe that the poinsettia is a symbol of the Star of Bethlehem that led the three magi, or wise men, to the place where the Christ child was born.

A Mexican legend tells of a young girl who was very poor and could only offer weeds as a gift to Jesus on Christmas Eve. As the story goes, when she brought the weeds into a church, they blossomed into the beautiful red plants we know as poinsettias. They are often referred to as “Flores de Noche Buena” in Mexico, which means “flowers of the holy night.” As our poinsettias are brought in, let us sing “We Three Kings.”

Now we have several nativities here in Oldtown that have been donated by families over the years–some big, some small, some fancy, and some quite simple. The word “nativity” means “birth” or “birthplace,” but when we refer to the “Christmas Nativity,” that usually means the entire story of Jesus’ birth. Some say that the baby was born in a barn, or a cave, a lean-to shed, or a stable. But to be honest, exactly what the space looked like isn’t as important as what happened on that night so long ago when Jesus was born in a humble place, surrounded by animals, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and placed in a manger of hay. So as our nativity is set, let us sing together “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

We have one final symbol to put in place, and that is our Advent wreath. Like nativity sets, advent wreaths can look very different, but the idea behind them is usually the same. They usually hold five candles, three of them either blue or sometimes purple, one pink candle to represent Joy, and one center white candle representing the Light of Christ. Each week as Christmas comes closer, we light a new candle, bringing even more light to the dark world that we live in. On Christmas Eve, we light the center candle, which represents the birth of Jesus and the Light of Christ coming into the world.

Today, on the first Sunday of Advent, we light our candle of hope. So I would like to invite today’s acolyte, Josh, forward with his sister Megan, to light the candle of HOPE. And as Josh and Megan do that, I have a question for all of you. If we are going to go out into the world to be angels of hope this week, what kinds of things might we do?


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