Sunday, December 25, 2011

You have a personal message waiting

The Original Word is reissued in a new edition, bound in flesh and blood -- and swaddling bands... a sermon for Christmas Day

Christmas 2011 • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.

When I was working on the 150th Anniversary history of Saint James Church, I had a good deal of material at my disposal. One of the most important resources was the 100th anniversary history, the “gold book” as it used to be called because of its cover. Actually I had a copy of this book from long before I came to be Vicar at Saint James Church, left to me as a bequest from my brother-in-Christ William Bunting, who served over at Saint Andrew’s Church in the east Bronx for over thirty years.

The only problem with this “gold book” is that it is what historians call a “secondary source.” The authors of this book handed along to posterity their own understandings of all that went before, tinted by the views of what was important to them at the time they wrote Even concerning its own time, the 1950s, it turned out not to be a reliable source for me today, as folks were so accustomed to things of their own time — the 40s and 50s — they did not think it important to record them, since “well, everybody knows that.” So, fifty years later, some important information was no longer recoverable to me, now, because everybody back then, knew it at the time and no one thought it was necessary to write it down.

Fortunately, the “gold book” was not my only source: I also had the parish records at my disposal. In the safe there were old papers and documents, what historians call “primary sources” — records from the actual times that things happened. And these records bear the mark of personal testimony and connection. Among them are letters from young soldiers serving in the First World War, writing from the horrors of the trenches to their priest back home in New York. There is the pencil entry in the parish record book, of the burial of the curate’s wife with no further comment — and it was only through correspondence with her great-granddaughter (now that’s a real primary source) that I discovered that the reason for the silence was the fact that she had taken her own life.

There are the more prosaic items like the last cancelled check to Tiffany & Co. to pay for the Saint Augustine and Monica stained glass window, probably the last surviving work of the great artist Louis Comfort Tiffany, or the receipts of sixty-five years earlier from the quarry for the very stones that form the walls of this church, signed and approved by the head of the building committee, Mr. Gustav Schwab.

And the difference between the secondary documents like the “gold book” and the primary sources like these handwritten notes, is that the primary materials speak for themselves, while the later records come second-hand, with interpretation and editing, and most importantly, omissions.

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John opens his Gospel with an affirmation that the Word was God and was with God at the beginning. This is the Original Message — the first “text,” if you will — that God spoke to creation, the Word through whom all things were made, the source of light and life, the primary source of all that is, but at that point seemingly distant, past and inaccessible to us in the present day. In between come the messengers, such as the Letter to the Hebrews refers to — the secondary sources — most importantly John the Baptist, who comes as a witness to testify to the light, and John the Evangelist, another testifier. But then, surprise surprise and Merry Christmas, the Word becomes flesh: not the secondhand word of a transcribed or translated message, but the Original Word itself, coming with all the power that it had in the first place: the primary source issued in a new edition, bound in flesh and blood — and swaddling bands.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews affirms this, this distinction between the secondhand word from the prophets, to the word of the Son himself, the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. This Jesus, this Son of God, this Messiah is no mere messenger: he is the message!

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Yet still, John tells us, some turn away — the Word comes to his world which owes its existence to him, yet that world refuses to know him. He comes to his own, but his own people do not accept him, or at least not all of them. Those who do, who accept the message, the powerful message, the personal message who has been waiting to be delivered from the beginning of time, waiting for the moment the right instant when it is meant to be spoken — those who accept this message, who believe in his name, receive power themselves to become children of God.

This is the miracle of Christmas, that the power and the person of God became a human child so that we — we might through him — become children of God. He came to us, not through interpretation or translation, not through secondary sources or a third party, but directly and personally. The Original Word, the Original Text, appeared in a new, living, cloth-bound edition — a Christmas present for each and every one of us. As the great old hymn says

He sent no angel of his host
to bear this mighty word,
but him through whom the worlds were made,
the everlasting Lord. (Hymn 489)

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Beloved, we have a personal message waiting. He’s been waiting for two thousand years, for us. Let us, once again, open our hearts to receive him, open our minds to learn from him, open our eyes to behold his light, which enlightens everyone who will receive him and believe in his name, even Jesus Christ our Lord. O come, let us adore him.+


Merry Christmas?

Word of a birth at the end of a war... a sermon for Christmas Eve 2011

SJF • Christmas Eve • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
The yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.

Merry Christmas! I say that especially this year because our readings this evening put me in mind of the soldiers returning from their service in Iraq, able to spend Christmas with their families at the end of this long war. Other members of the armed forces remain in danger, in Afghanistan and other troubled parts of the world, and they remain in our prayers as well. God give them a moment’s peace, even in the field, to pause and listen for the angels’ voices.

We tend to look back at the first Christmas through the lenses of sentiment and sentimentality — the memories of our own childhoods blending with the borrowed traditions of Victorian England and the New York Knickerbocker Dutch. Christian though we be, and as closely as we hold on to the mystery of the Incarnation, in our culture we cannot ignore the jolly old elf Saint Nicholas — even though, as history tells us, he was a Bishop and not an elf at all, jolly or otherwise!

The plumes of steam rising from pots of hot cider or from wassail bowls may fog our glasses’ lenses; the twinkling lights obscure or distract our vision, and the jingle bells impair our hearing — all the stuff of the secular Xmas may make it hard for us to see the somewhat stark realities of that first Christmas of long ago, and of the long stretch of years leading up to it.

During the Sundays of Advent we heard readings from the book of the prophet Isaiah, from those long years of preparation; and we pick up with him again tonight. He sets the theme of a new deliverance coming at the end of another war: a time when the people enslaved and oppressed are set free, the yoke from their shoulders and rod from their back is removed.

It is a vision like something out of the end of the siege of Stalingrad — the Nazis have retreated in defeat and the victors are sorting through the plunder: scavenging the abandoned tanks and weapons for ammunition; stripping the bodies of the dead soldiers of any valuables; the piles of discarded and abandoned boots and uniforms are used to light bonfires not just for celebration, but to keep warm in that hard Russian winter.

And into this scene out of a war movie there comes word of the birth of a child: an amazing child, a wonderful child; a child who is not only a child, but the son of God, the Prince of Peace.

When we turn to our Gospel reading the scene shifts, but not really all that much. Perhaps no longer quite the time of war or open warfare, as it is a time of peace. But it is a political peace in a very political world — a world of governors — even of places like Syria, much in the news even now — and emperors of Rome, and a worldwide census mandated and decreed by Imperial authority. If it is a world at peace during the time of Caesar Augustus it is only because Caesar has conquered that world and enslaved all of its peoples under the yoke of Roman rule, and the rod of his authority —it is peace at a price.

And again, into this less than perfect world, there comes the announcement of the birth of a child — not by a prophet speaking to the returned soldiers or the liberated captives, but by a host of angels speaking to shepherds out in the fields by night keeping their flocks.

Just as we can romanticize and sentimentalize Christmas, we can do the same to these shepherds. Lets first of all note that the gospel tells us that they were terrified. Wouldn’t you be? It’s the middle of a cold, dark night — dark as it could only be out in the country in the days before the lights of cities robbed us of the ability to see the stars. You and your fellow shepherds are out in the fields keeping watch over a bunch of sleeping sheep; it is quiet as only it can be out in the country where no traffic or elevated trains rattle down the street or planes fly overhead. You huddle down to keep warm with your blanket wrapped around you, probably half sleeping — for let’s be honest: I have no reason to believe that night-watchmen were any more likely to be able to keep awake all night back then than they are now — especially outside in the dark and the cold and the silence.

And into that cold and into that darkness and into that silence there suddenly breaks forth out of the heavens the glory of God and a company of angels. Who wouldn’t be terrified?

And so just as Isaiah’s announcement of the wonderful child comes into the midst of a war-torn scene, so this announcement by the angel of God comes in a time imperial power, mass migration of peoples to comply with the mandates of that power, and a terrifying message bursting upon an unsuspecting group of poor shepherds living out in the field, minding their own business, the sheep-minding business.

The message is that the child has been born, a Savior and Messiah, the child who is also the Lord. This is a message such as we long to hear at the end of another war, in another time when the powerful rule the world and most of us have to obey their demands and pay their taxes; when we must be registered and counted — even in a land as free as ours, where the political season and the campaigning, like the Xmas season itself, seems to start earlier and earlier each year, and where we cannot miss the fact that we appear to be appreciated more for our ability to vote than for any other exercise of our citizenship.

Yet this same message is the message we long to hear: of the end of war, of liberation of captives and an end to oppression.

And you know what? We have heard it. It is the Christmas message: not just a promise made to Isaiah or a revelation to some shepherds, but the same word brought to us through the proclamation of this gospel: Isaiah promised, the angels sang, Christ came, and Christ comes still — here, and now, with and among us as surely as he came to Bethlehem in Judea; with us in our hearts as surely as he was in the manger; with us in our hands as we hold the sacred bread that is his Body, just as surely as this newborn body was held in Mary’s arms.

“Christ is born today” — and every day — at the end of a war, in a time of peace; when shepherds watch and night-watchmen sleep; when emperors rule and candidates hustle for your votes; when the skies are silent and when they rumble with the flights of helicopters and jetliners; when the night is dark and when it glows with Christmas lights — or dazzles with the light of the heavenly host. This night, this very night, the wonderful child, the Lord Jesus, is born anew: O come, let us adore him!+


Sunday, December 18, 2011

Angelic Greeting

The drama of the Angelus... a sermon for Advent 4b



SJF • Advent 4b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth...
Because Christmas falls on a Sunday this year — next Sunday — our Advent season is unusually long, and includes a full week between this, the last Sunday of Advent, and Christmas Day. But even a week seems far too short to jump from our Gospel account of the angel’s visit to Mary in Nazareth, to the birth of the child, conceived in that instant, in Bethlehem of Judea. And of course it is only the fact of liturgical time travel that gives us this drastically shortened one-week pregnancy. If we look back to March 25, the full nine months prior to Christmas Day on December 25, we will find this same gospel passage proclaimed on the feast of the Annunciation, where it most properly belongs. Still, every three years we get to hear this gospel on the last Sunday before Christmas — as a reminder of the momentous choice made by God, and the equally earth-shaking response made by Mary.
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Wrapped up in this gospel scene is another sort of Christmas present. Here it is that we find the origin of the prayer that many know by the name, the Hail Mary — or its Latin form, Ave Maria. It is also known as “The Angelic Salutation” because the angel Gabriel is the one who gives us the opening line of this famous prayer, right there in our gospel today, although we heard it in a more modern translation: “Hail, Mary, full of grace; the Lord is with you.” (We will get to hear the rest of this prayer on the Sunday before Christmas next year, when we hear of Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, who says, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”)
Those two Scripture verses formed the original version of the Hail Mary as it was prayed for many centuries. (The part asking Mary to pray for us sinners now and the hour of our death was added by the Roman Catholic Church at the time of the Reformation.) The original form of the prayer comes entirely from the text of Scripture and is focused on grace and new life rather than on sin and death.
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And it is, after all, to that upbeat focus that this holy season calls us: it is the season of grace and new life. Now, there’s obviously much more going on in this gospel passage than just the angel Gabriel’s initial greeting. That is just what starts the encounter off, and the angel goes on to respond to Mary’s perplexity at the greeting, and further perplexity at the further explanation.
I’d like to look at this little scene of grace and new life through the lens of another prayer to which it gave rise. This prayer has formed a part of Christian culture for several centuries. It is connected with, and includes, the Hail Mary, but it plays out the whole scene as a kind of dramatic dialogue. It is a prayer that formed part of the daily life of many Christians, as they paused in the morning, and at midday, and dusk, quietly to recite this prayer to themselves as they heard the church bells toll. There was a time when it was commonly recited in many churches, including this one, but I think fewer and fewer have retained the memory of this pious and once popular devotion. You may know it by its Latin name, the Angelus, and you’ll find it printed on the last page of today’s bulletin, at the end of our worship, together with Millet’s famous painting of two farm-workers pausing in the field at the end of day to say the prayer together. We will use it today at the end of our worship as a prayer and a blessing.
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The prayer takes the form of a miniature three-scene drama in three couplets. The drama moves from the grace of invitation through acceptance and into its completion with the celebration of new life — much like those three readings from the book of the prophet Isaiah I spoke of on the last three Sundays.
The first couplet introduces the theme: greeting, grace and conception, setting the stage for what is to follow. The second, and pivotal, couplet represents the real drama in the story: as Mary accepts the angel’s news and what it might mean for her. In spite of her perplexity and confusion, she puts her whole trust in God, that God would not ask of her anything that she ought not do. Even knowing the impossibility of bearing a child while still a virgin, even knowing how the tongues would wag when an unmarried woman began to show her pregnancy — still Mary accepts God’s invitation and presents herself as open to the possibility: of becoming the mother of the holy child who will be known as the Son of God.
The final couplet, from the prologue to John’s Gospel, shows the completion and accomplishment of what has come before. Through Mary’s willingness to say Yes to God, Yes to the angelic greeting, the Word of God — the second Person of the Trinity, God from God, Light from Light, purely spiritual as God is Spirit, from before time and for ever — enters the world of matter and energy, and is made living, breathing, pulsing flesh, to dwell with us human beings as a human being. The life of God takes on human life.
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We observe this drama especially at this time of year, as we move from the invitation of Advent into the remembrance of the Incarnation on Christmas — in this last week of a short pregnancy from conception to delivery.
But this prayer, this Angelus, for many years served as a three-times-a-day reminder to people around the world, with the ringing of a church bell at morning, noon and dusk, to pause and remember and give thanks for this great mystery. I understand that the Irish radio still broadcasts the sound of the Angelus bell three times a day for the same reason, and perhaps you’ve heard the church bells ringing in your neighborhood from time to time that pattern of three times three, followed by nine bells during the saying of the final prayer. We will end our worship today with this traditional prayer, as a blessing and a reminder.
But I ask you not to let this be the only time you remember and give thanks for the mystery and blessing of the Incarnation that we will celebrate next weekend. Even if you do not hear the Angelus bell ring in the morning or at noon or at the close of day, let this sentiment stir in your heart, to give thanks to God, to the angel, and above all to Mary, for saying Yes to God when God asked of her a perplexing thing. May we too, always and everywhere, say Yes to God and serve him with such open, willing hearts, even when he asks a hard thing of us. Let our souls, like Mary’s soul, be the sanctuary of God, ringing bells or not, every day and every hour of our lives.+

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Arrival

The good news of Messiah, among us to inspire us to work his will. — A Sermon for Advent 3b

SJF • Advent 3b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

Over these first three weeks of Advent we have been hearing readings from the prophet Isaiah. And as I have said, they form a sequence almost like “ready, set, go.” The first showed Isaiah asking God why he did not show himself, and challenging and imploring God to do so. The second announced that God was indeed soon to show himself, and that unmistakably. And in today’s reading — a reading which, as we know from the gospel of Luke, Jesus identified with and proclaimed in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth — in this reading the presence of the Spirit of God is formally announced: “The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me...” It is good to recall that the Hebrew word for one who is anointed is Messiah.

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God’s promise is fulfilled in this prophecy. and it is a time of great rejoicing and celebration. The imagery is that of people getting dressed for a wedding. The groom puts on a garland and the bride dresses herself in her finest jewels. These are not things one does long in advance of the event — these are the outfits you put on only on the day of the wedding itself, like the tail-coat and the wedding dress. That is how we know that the great day has arrived — and when we see the bride and the groom so attired, we know that it is already here.

But note that even these fine outfits are but a shadow of the glory of the garments of salvation and the robe of righteousness with which God will clothe his people for the celebration of the Lord’s arrival. Not just the bride and the groom, but all the guests at the wedding banquet will be gloriously dressed. It is clearly something to rejoice about.

And so Saint Paul continues that word of rejoicing, urging those to whom he writes to rejoice always, to give thanks in all things, filled as they are with the unquenchable spirit of God and sanctified by the God of peace to be kept whole and sound.

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And yet... and yet. The arrival that Isaiah appears to celebrate did not come in the time of Isaiah. It happened centuries later in the time of John the Baptist. Isaiah’s words about the arrival of the Spirit of God were prophetic — even though, fired up with the sense of God’s imminent arrival, it seemed almost, almost, as if it was happening even then. It seemed that God would break through that very day, as if the bride and groom rose from their slumber and dressed for the wedding that would take place that very morning.

So eager were the people for this arrival in the days of Isaiah, and in the days of John the Baptist, that they looked for any clue, any sign, that God and his Messiah had come. You can see that in the grilling to which the priests and Levites subject John the Baptist. The arrival of the Messiah is so close that they almost feel that they can reach out and touch him — but as John assures them, he is not the one. The time is not yet, though as the song says, “soon and very soon.” John sets the stage, even quoting the prophet Isaiah, casting himself in the role of the one who cries out in the wilderness the very same words of preparation that we heard on the first Sunday of Advent — “make his paths straight.” He is coming.

And it is notable that someone else quotes from Isaiah — not just quoting but actually reading, as I said earlier. And that is Christ himself, who, when he was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah to read in the synagogue of Nazareth, found the very passage we heard this morning. And he not only read from it about the spirit of the Lord God and the anointing that would proclaim the Messiah — he not only read from the scroll but declared that it was fulfilled, then and there, in their hearing, in the presence of all who heard him read it. It was a proclamation that Messiah had come.

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Soon after, John the Baptist, believing but no doubt wanting to be assured, sent messengers himself to Jesus to ask if he was indeed the one — much as others had sent messengers to John to ask if he was the one! And Jesus gave to John’s messengers an answer similar to the one John gave to those who sought him out: look at what I am doing. And in Jesus’ case, he once again cataloged those evidences of God’s presence similar to the promises made in the passage from Isaiah: sight to the blind, healing to the disabled, release to the prisoners and captives. To comfort John with the assurance that Christ was indeed the one who was promised, he did not engage in a point by point Scriptural argument, but displayed his works of power — the power of God’s presence at work in him and through him, performing the signs of liberation that the prophet had promised. The evidence of God’s arrival is God’s work. This isn’t talk any more, but action.

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And God wants the same from us — action. It is very easy to talk about how much we love God, love the church, love our fellow Christians. But God wants more than talk: God wants us to put our hands to work as well. God wants us to proclaim in word and deed that same message of deliverance from bondage that Isaiah preached, that John the Baptist promised, and that Christ at the last brought into being. We live in a world that is still full of brokenhearted people — disappointed in their hopes and frustrated or maligned in their efforts to be and to do all that God intends for them. We live in a world that is still oppressed and hungry for good news; a world that is held captive by lust of possession that still works desolation, binding those enthralled by wealth and fame in chains — that while they seem to be made of gold, are cold iron underneath and weigh them down to the depths.

We live, in short, in a world that desperately needs to hear the proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favor, of the Lord’s forgiveness, of the Lord’s deliverance, and above all of the Lord’s arrival.

Will you do that? Not only in word but in deed? Will you proclaim with your lips and in your lives that God has come among us, and is among us still. Will you proclaim that Jesus lives, and that he reigns in your hearts and strengthens your hands to do his will? Will you follow up that proclamation with the hard work that shows that you mean every word you say, that what you proclaim with your lips is what you live in your lives? We, like John, may not be worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. But we can, like John, proclaim, and by our actions certify, that God is with us, acting through us, mighty in power and strong to save: even Jesus Christ our Lord.


Sunday, December 04, 2011

Getting Ready

Isaiah's theme of preparing the human landscape... A sermon for Advent 2B

SJF • Advent 2b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.

We continue on this second Sunday of Advent with readings from the book of the prophet Isaiah. As I mentioned last week, these readings do not appear in our week-to-week worship in the same order as they do in the book of the prophet. But they do fall into a logical sequence as we’ve been reading them through the course of Advent and as we shall continue, almost as logical as “ready, set, go.”

Last week we heard Isaiah’s lament that God had abandoned and forgotten his people. We also heard his challenge to God to reveal himself, to tear open the heavens and come down, to shake the mountains and boil the sea if need be — to make himself known so that the nations might see, and tremble at his presence.

And today we hear word of God’s response. If, as I said last week, the initial appeal is like an injured child calling out for its mother to come and help, then today it is as if we hear the voice calling from the kitchen — I’ll be there in a minute!

God instructs the prophet to give the people a word of comfort, a word of assurance: God is most definitely coming and wants the way prepared, cleared, leveled out, all obstructions removed and a new four-lane highway built right through the desert so that God’s glory will be unmistakable when it is revealed, “and all flesh shall see it together” — as the text made unforgettable by Händel’s music puts it.

And there is a musical quality to this text today — just as last week we heard a dialogue, a duet of call and response between the prophet and God, so too in the midst of this text today there is a short interlude in the form of a duet — and I’m not going to try to sing.

The voice of God commands the prophet to cry out; and the prophet responds, “What shall I cry?” He then begins to fall back into some of that language of despondency and despair that we heard in last week’s reading. Shall I, the prophet asks, state the obvious: that people are as mortal as grass, as transient and frail and ephemeral as the flower of the field — living for a day or two and then parched by the heat of the sun or withered by the blast of a winter wind? Is that what God wants me to say? Where is the good news in that?

And in response, God orders not just the prophet but Zion itself and the holy city of Jerusalem to stand tall and proud and lift up voices full of strength as would a herald of good tidings, fearlessly crying out: Here is God! See, look! God is coming, the good Shepherd who will gather up the lost lambs, and lead the mother sheep.

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Today’s theme, then, is the primary Advent theme of preparation for the coming of the Lord. The apostle Peter reminds us that the coming of God will be sudden and unmistakable and that we are called to wait for that day, always being ready, always prepared by living lives of peace and purity and patience. And John the Baptist, while dressed in the costume of Elijah, fulfills the promise of Isaiah. He is the one who appears in the wilderness to call out for preparation — and indeed he does prepare the people with a baptism of repentance, to turn them back towards the place from which God will come, and the assurance that he is only the messenger and not the one for whom the promise was given; he is not the Messiah. No, he is not worthy even to take off the Messiah’s shoes, and while he has baptized with water, to prepare the people, the one to come will baptize with the Holy Spirit.

The preparation we are charged to undertake — as Isaiah makes clear — is a very personal preparation although Isaiah describes it in geological if not cosmic terms. The mountains that are to be removed and the valleys filled in to level out the way for building that four-lane highway for God’s coming are obstacles to us as much as they are to God. From the mountain of pride to the valley of despondency, these are obstacles that block God’s very entry into every human heart.

For that is where God seeks to enter in — through the empty desert of our needs and wants, past the fields of wilted grass and faded flowers of lost hopes and disappointments, filling in our deepest sense of inadequacy and weakness, as well as trimming down our pride and false self-sufficiency, leveling it down to size — past all these obstacles and impediments God seeks us out and bids us prepare for his coming by doing all we can — God giving us the power — to turn to him in faith, in hope, and with love.

For it is faith, as Jesus assured us, that can move mountains, even towering mountains of pride. It is hope that can guide us through the darkest valley, even the valley of the deepest sense of abandonment and despair, even the valley of the shadow of death. And it is love that will inspire us with the power of God’s own Holy Spirit to mount up on Zion and through the gates of Jerusalem to cry out to our beloved, Come, Lord Jesus Bridegroom, come! The Bride is ready. We have flung wide the portals of our hearts; Lord Jesus, enter in!+