Communion Meditation delivered by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, Sr. Minister, The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Advent II, December 7, 2003, dedicated to the memory of Dorothy Wilson, to the Rev. Genet Soule and the students, faculty, and staff of the CUE Seminaries and always to the glory of God!

"Desert Prayers"

Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3: 1-6

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Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and salvation. Amen.

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Please, close your eyes. Listen to the words of the prophet Isaiah crying in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight the pathway for our God. Fill the valleys. Lay low every mountain and hill. Smooth the rough ways. Make the crooked places straight. And all flesh shall see the salvation of God" (Isaiah 40:3-5).

Please, open your eyes. Could you see the transfigured space of the desert? Could you see in your minds' eye a landing strip for the Lord laid out in desert terrain? Through the eyes of nomadic desert dreamers, this vision must bring the solace of heaven. No more steep sandy climbs, no more knee-tearing descents, no desert terror of bandits and wolves. The revelation of God brings an end to terror, an end to the world's unknowns, an "end to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" (Mr. Shakespeare).

Isaiah 40:8 continues, "the grass wither, the flowers fade, but the Word of God will stand forever." In other words, whatever else we get attached to in this life, whatever we possess, the stuff of this world will not sustain us forever. Only the Word of God sustains us forever. Only God remains when the terrain of the rest of our lives changes.

Is that the comfort you came for today? To know that everything, in its season whithers, perishes, and passes away? I believe the comfort for "my people" (to paraphrase Isaiah) comes in the unending power of God to sustain us in desert times. But, certainly, these texts don't end in their challenge to us. John the Baptist picks up where the prophet leaves off saying, "You sons and daughters of snakes! Who told you to run away from the ultimate destruction of God?" (Luke 3:7, as written by Clarence Jordan in The Cotton Patch Gospels). Upon hearing these words, I feel a bit like Scrooge standing beside the Ghost of Christmas Future, "Tell me, are these things we see visions of that which will be or might be?" Tell me, Lord, are we merely grass withering and flowers fading? Are we snake children? Are we simply running from ultimate destruction? Or are the Old and New Testament prophets speaking of a future that might be? Tell, us, O Spirit, that our future has more hope and peace then this!

Into this textual mix steps the Apostle Paul, offering prayers that soothe our desert wonderings. His comforting words are written to reach into our collective soul. Paul writes, "I thank my God every time I remember you, constantly praying with joy in every one of my prayers for all of you because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now" (Phil. 1:3-5).

Paul's prayers are deep, heartfelt, and prophetic in a pastoral sense. He prays that the church's love for one another will continue to increase. He that prays that their capacity for mutual commitment to one another will be reinforced "with knowledge and full insight"( 3:9). He hopes, through his prayers, that they will never stop improving their knowledge and deepening their perception. He prays that a fellowship of love, refined with discerning knowledge, will give them a capacity "to learn by experience what things really matter" ( vs. 10 - REB).

Through the power of prayer, Paul visualizes a fellowship which is both loving and discerning. Paul prays that God will create a community of faith informed by both the head and the heart. It is not insensitive, but neither is it naive. It is a tough-minded community through which the believers will all emerge "pure and blameless . . . as a harvest for the righteousness of God coming through Christ Jesus" (Galatians 5:22).

These are desert visions of prophecy and declaration. These are pastoral prayers of head and heart which seek to up-build a community of determined joy and love. But what do desert visions and pastoral prayers mean for us as we continue on through this Advent season of preparation?

Perhaps Charles Dicken's A Christmas Carol Ghost of Christmas' Future is an apt figure for us to pay attention in the midst of this season. His silent, haunting, frightening visage simply points and never speaks. In a textual sense, the prophets Isaiah and John, and Apostle Paul do the same. They point to a future which might be, not one that will be. They call people of faith to repent and change. They call communities of faith to create a better way by determining what is best, what is holy, what is righteous, what is just.

Perhaps, our purpose in this season is simply to "Clear a space for God." Amidst all of our buying, making, wrapping, and packing in this season, we often fail to clear a space for God. And we know how to clear a space for others. Many of us have experienced clearing spaces in our homes for children who are coming to us through adoption or birth. Some of us have cleared a space for our parents, or had occasion for our parents to clear a space for us. Some of us have cleared a space, for nephews and nieces or grandchildren moving under our roof in times of transition or need. Clearing a space means getting rid of some things. It means deciding what has to go first. What is it that is taking up too much room?

In my family's Advent wreath this season, we have placed an orange. I suggested in my most recent Pastor's column, that we all place an orange in the advent wreath. (Now if we weren't so busy and had time to read the newsletter, I wouldn't share this story again, but . . . ) In the newsletter, I told the story of Rose Schultz who, as a child growing up in post-WWI Germany, only received a piece of candy, a handmade gift, and a fresh orange each Christmas. She never had an orange any other time of the year. Rose found that the orange reminded her of the preciousness of God's gift of Jesus Christ. The orange reminds me of our need to make a space for God in our family. Simplicity and splendor in expectation and wonder.

What is it that you are waiting for this Christmas? It is true that most of us are waiting for something. If not the desert in the highway or the day of the Lord, we are waiting for true love, the return of health, a job that excites and challenges us, a house to call home, peace in our families, peace in our nation, and in the world. Most of us are waiting for something better that we cannot name. As in the words of Isaiah's prophecy, a voice says, "Cry," and we say "What shall we cry?" The crying words escape us. All we know is that there must be more and better than this. That is what makes Isaiah and John our brothers in faith: they too yearn for something better they cannot name. (Barbara Brown Taylor, "Saving Space," in Mixed Blessings, Cowley Publications, Boston, Mass, 1998, p.42).

But, like Paul, we have encountered the living God in Christ. We have a clue as to what we are waiting for. The question we live with, is "Will we clear a space for the living, crying God?" Will we make room for him? I don't expect on this day, that you will have all the answers. After all, isn't this season about clearing space for him? But, I do believe that in the desert spaces of our hearts and minds, our prayers will be answered. Given time, I believe each of us will find a way to clear space for the coming of God in our lives. For now, it is enough to clear a space at Christ's table and await the Advent of communion before us! Amen.

Copyright 2003, The First Congregational Church

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