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Do Not Fear — Isaiah 35: 1-10

My time as the pastor of Cameron Presbyterian Church is coming to a close.  What follows is the sermon from this past fourth Sunday of Advent.  I have two more sermons to preach for my church, one on Christmas Eve and one final sermon on Sunday, December 26th…my last Sunday.  I will post my Christmas Eve sermon here on the blog but I am debating posting my final sermon.  It may just be too personal to post.  Thanks to all of you, near and far, who have been following our blog.  Dan and I definitely plan to keep the blog up and running and will post our sermons, theological reflections, and random musings in our new positions at Monmouth College in Monmouth, IL.  May God’s peace be with you all as we celebrate this holy season and move into our new year full of new beginnings….

“Do Not Fear”

Isaiah 35: 1-10

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

December 19th, 2010 – Fourth Sunday of Advent

We live in frightening times.  People are afraid.  People are anxious and afraid for their children.  People are anxious and afraid about their jobs.  People are anxious about losing the life that they have self-constructed and they are afraid because they know that the loss of these things is inevitable.[1] We live in frightening times.  But it’s not just these times…because we humans are also timelessly afraid of death and of loss.  We are timelessly afraid of the stranger.  We are timelessly afraid of those who think and act differently.  We are timelessly afraid of change.  We are timelessly afraid of all that we cannot control, of all that is beyond our human power.

Alyce McKenzie, in a sermon on fear, suggests it’s a good practice to name our fears, to name the knots that fear has balled up in our stomachs.   Illustrating this point she tells the story of Gary.  “Gary is a computer analyst in his mid-forties and he has been married and divorced twice, most recently about three years ago.  For about a year he has been dating a wonderful woman…named Gina, also divorced and with an adorable seven-year-old daughter she is trying to get full custody of.  Gary and Gina came to me [McKenzie writes] last winter and asked if I would marry them at the end of April.  Our counseling and wedding planning were going along fine until, along about mid-March, Gary began to develop a case of very cold feet.  When he shared this with Gina…instead of getting angry, she suggested he go away for a daylong retreat to be alone with God and himself, to get clear about things.  Gary started driving with no particular destination.  He ended up at a beautiful site near Lake Texoma.”

“[Gary] got out of his car and began to walk [McKenzie continues] to soothe his jangled nerves, to center his thoughts on God.  He sat down on a bench that overlooked the lake and he tried to unravel the knots in his stomach.”

“As he stared out at the lake…it became clear to him that there were three knots in his stomach, and each had a name.  One of the knots was his fear that he would just keep repeating the same relationship mistakes.  The second knot in his stomach was the fear of the chaos and pain that could come from the custody battle facing Linda.  And the third knot in his stomach was maybe the hardest, knottiest of all:  it was the fear that maybe he was just not worthy of another person’s love and was destined to have to face his future alone.”[2]

McKenzie concludes her illustration by suggesting that it is wise to take some time, to find a quiet spot and get some focus on our fears.  Name the knots in your stomach.  Name that which is physically causing you stress and anxiety so you can bring it into proper perspective.

Do your knots hold the names of the people you are worried about?  Spouse.  Parent.  Child.  Sibling.  Is your knot named after your marriage?  Is your knot named after your uncertain future?  Is your knot currently on a moving truck to Illinois with all your worldly possessions?  Oh….I need a minute….

Focus on your fear.  Name your knots.  And then hear these words from the prophet Isaiah.

Strengthen the weak hands,

And make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

Be strong, do not fear!

Here is your God.[3]

Perhaps the most pervasive command in all of scripture is, “Do not fear!”  From cover to cover our scriptures proclaim, “Do not be afraid.”  When the glory of the Lord shone around those shepherds and an angel appeared, they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid!”  And Jesus constantly encouraged his disciples not to live in fear.  He constantly encouraged them because they were constantly afraid.  When he decided to go to Jerusalem, the disciples were afraid and begged him not to go.  When he was arrested, they all fled in fear.  After his crucifixion they cowered in fear in a locked room.  And when a few of them ventured to the place of burial early Sunday morning and found the tomb empty, the encouraging words came again: “Do not be afraid!”[4]

The bible tells us over and over again not to be afraid and it does so because fear is the enemy of life.  John Buchanan, in an article on this passage, writes, “Fear is such an enemy of life.  It’s hard to love when you are afraid.  It’s hard to care passionately when you’re afraid.  It’s impossible to be joyful about anything when you are afraid.  Fear limits life, constrains life, pollutes life.  Fear can be a good thing when it alerts us to danger.  But…when fear becomes overwhelming….it takes over.”  Living in fear is not really living.  Fear is not life-giving.  So the bible tells us over and over again, “Do not fear.”

Of course, this is easier said than done.  We do, after all, live in frightening times.  There is much to be afraid of.  So how do we escape being ruled by our fears?

At a preaching conference I recently heard Dr. Craig Barnes speak about fear and about how we might escape it.  Dr. Barnes wisely said that the only way to get rid of fear is to be loved out of it. Think about it, he said, you can’t argue anyone out of their fear.  You can’t rationalize them out of it.  The only way to get rid of fear is to be loved out of it.  When your little child wakes up in the middle of the night terrified and screaming because there is a monster in his room, you don’t get up and go to his door and say, “Now Isaac, we’ve talked about this…there’s no such thing as monsters and they certainly don’t live under your bed.”  No!  Barnes’ said.  You rush into the room and pull Isaac into your arms and you love him until he’s no longer thinking about monsters but instead about those loving arms that are embracing him.[5] Again, the only way to get rid of fear is to be loved out of it.

Dr. Barnes’ words were very wise.  And they are good for us to hear especially during this season of Advent.  I recently read a devotion that suggested that—just like we give up something for Lent each year—that we give up fear for Advent.  Give up fear?  Is that even possible?  Well, perhaps it is when we consider what all we are celebrating.  During Advent we prepare ourselves for the birth of the Christ child, for the birth of Emmanuel, or God-with-us.  During Advent we remember that God loves us so much that God chose to be incarnate, that God chose to be flesh with flesh, that God chose to live with us, to live among us, and to live among all that frightens us.  During Advent we remember that God risked everything, entering our scary and frightening world as a vulnerable newborn baby.  God did this, God took this risk so we could feel and know and experience the embrace of God’s amazing love.

The great poet Madeleine L’Engle writes:

This is no time for a child to be born,

With the earth betrayed by war & hate

And a comet slashing the sky to warn

That time runs out & the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born,

In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;

Honour & truth were trampled by scorn—

Yet here did the Savior make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?

The inn is full on the planet earth,

And by a comet the sky is torn—

Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.[6]

We live in frightening times.  There is much to be afraid of.  And our fears certainly could rule our lives.  But this Advent, perhaps we could give up that fear.  Perhaps we could give up our fear because God has heard our terrified screams, has come rushing to our room and is here to love us out of our fear.  God is here to pull us into God’s arms and to love us until we’re no longer thinking about monsters under our bed, but about those loving arms that are embracing us.

Strengthen the weak hands,

And make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are of a fearful heart,

Be strong, do not fear!

Here is your God.[7]

Now to this loving God, be all honor and glory, thanksgiving and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] Dr. Craig Barnes at the Lectionary Homiletics 2010 Conference in Nashville, TN.

[2] Alyce M. McKenzie, “Novel Preaching,” (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY, 2010), pgs. 127-128.

[3] Isaiah 35: 3-4

[4] John Buchanan, “Preaching the Advent Texts,” in Journal for Preachers, Advent 2010, pg. 11.

[5] Dr. Craig Barnes, from his lecture at the May 2010 Festival of Homiletics in Nashville, TN.

[6] Madeleine L’Engle, “The Ordering of Love,” (Waterbrook Press, Colorado Springs, CO, 2005), pg. 155.

[7] Isaiah 35: 3-4

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Come!–Isaiah 2:1-5

Grace and Peace, everyone.  What follows is the sermon from the first Sunday in Advent.

“Come!”

Isaiah 2: 1-5

Rev. Dr. Teri McDowell Ott

November 28th, 2010 – 1st Sunday of Advent

We aren’t surprised anymore when the Christmas catalogs start arriving in our mailboxes pre-Halloween.  I read recently that retailers count on the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas for something like 90% of the year’s profits.  So they begin earlier each year.  “By Labor Day a few store window displays include holiday items.  By Halloween more reds and greens, golds and silvers—and by mid November the Christmas holiday is in full swing.”[1]

Christmas is in full swing…out there…but in here we are just beginning to prepare.  Advent is our time to prepare, to slow down, to pay attention, and get ourselves ready for the big event that will come….but in here it won’t come early.  We’ve got some work to do first.

I think the reason why the retailers are successful in selling Christmas so early, though, is because we are ready.  We are ready for something big.  We are ready for something magical.  We are ready for something beautiful.  And Christmas is all of this wrapped up in shiny paper with a big red bow.  We yearn to escape the mundane, everyday routines of our lives.  We yearn for a holiday moment that will sweep us off of our feet so we can forget…so we can forget the stress….so we can forget how exhausted we are…so we can forget our disillusionment and cynicism and despair…so we can forget the darkness and believe in the light, even if it is just for a little while.

Escaping reality every once in a while is a healthy practice, I believe.  I like to escape reality by diving into a really good book.  Reading really takes me away…sometimes so much so that I have to force myself to put the book down because unbeknownst to me the dirty dishes have piled up and the kids don’t have any more clean clothes to wear. Dan likes to escape (or turn his brain off…as he says) at the end of the day by watching his favorite sports teams on television.  I know some of you escape to your gardens, or your sewing, or on your motorcycle, or working on that old car you’ve got in the garage out back.  We all need to escape the realities of life every once and a while.  We all need to take a break in order to recharge our batteries.

But the escape promised by retailers at Christmas seems to take a different tone.  Subtly and (perhaps) subconsciously the retailers tap into our yearnings and our desire to escape and sell us their version of that which is big, and magical, and beautiful in the form of baubles and bows, sugar and spice, toys and trinkets, and anything else that could be marketed toward this end.  And for a little while the retailers version of Christmas works.  When we eat that eggnog frozen yogurt available for a limited time only, we enjoy it.  When the balance on our credit card exceeds its rational limit, we brush it off saying to ourselves, well it is Christmas after all.  When Martha Stewart or Rachel Ray or Oprah Winfrey wave their magic domestic wands and give you all sorts of new ideas of things to cook and decorate and make merry this year, you dive in to all the holiday preparations with enthusiasm and gusto.  But eventually…after indulging yourself on all that this retail Christmas has to offer…you come up for air and realize life isn’t any different, you aren’t any different, and that Christmas didn’t take you where you really yearned to go after all.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I love all the trappings and trimmings of Christmas as much as you do.  I love how we make this season special with our gifts and our decorations and our yummy treats.  But I also know that if we expect anything deep, or lasting, or soul-satisfying to come out of this retail Christmas, then we are kidding ourselves.

But Isaiah….Isaiah offers us something altogether different.  First of all, Isaiah doesn’t offer us the chance to escape.  Instead, he confronts us with the reality of our world head on.   Before we get the chance to duck out to our garden, or bury our head in a book, or mesmerize ourselves with all the twinkling lights on the Christmas tree, Isaiah paints a picture for us of what is not, by revealing what is to be. Isaiah paints a picture for us, a futuristic picture, of the Lord’s House as the highest of all houses; a house to which all the nations stream, a house to which all people stream in order to learn God’s ways.   The people learn God’s ways in Isaiah’s vision and so they beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.  Nation no longer lifts up sword against nation.  Violence has come to an end.  The people are at peace.  And the yearning for something big, something magical, something beautiful has been satisfied….deeply satisfied.

But by revealing such a picture, by presenting such a beautiful vision, Isaiah makes us take a good hard look at ourselves and our world and confront the reality that we are far from what God intends for us.  We are not a people at peace.  We have yet to beat our weapons of destruction into tools of construction.  We have yet to learn God’s holy ways.  We have yet to place God’s House at the top, at the highest of all places.

On September 9th, 1997 a giant crane cut through the Washington, D.C. skyline and lowered a four-ton sculpture onto a permanent cement base.  The title of this sculpture was “Guns into Plowshares.”  The sculpture consisted of 3,000 handguns welded together to form the distinctive shape of a steel plow blade.  The artist, Esther Augsburger and her son, worked for two and a half years with the Metro Police Department of D.C. molding together handguns that had been surrendered by local residents.  Augsburger’s intention was to persuade people through art to stop killing each other.  So has it worked?  Well, gang members did gather around the plow to discuss making peace on D.C. city streets.  But they soon walked away from the effort, unable to let go of certain grudges.[2]

Isaiah confronts us with this reality, with this failure, with this thwarting of God’s ways. And by doing so Isaiah taps into our yearning for that which is big, and magical, and beautiful and he makes us yearn all the more.  He makes us yearn for God’s vision to become our new reality.  He makes us yearn for the miracle that might bring God’s vision about.  He makes us yearn for all our yearnings to be satisfied.  And he does this because he wants us to want this vision so bad that we are willing to work for it.  He wants us to want this vision so bad that we are willing to change for it.  He wants us to want this vision so bad that we are willing to walk in the light of the Lord in order to bring it about.

“The late Joseph Sittler, who taught theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School, once wrote, ‘I do not believe we are in a very good situation historically.  I do not believe our relationship to the earth is liable to change for the better until it gets catastrophically worse.  Our record indicates that we can walk with our eyes wide open straight into sheer destructiveness if there is a profit on the way…But (Sittler says) I [still] go around planting trees on campus.”[3]

Isaiah confronts us with our own reality in order to build a fire under us and motivate us to do something about it; to work for God’s future; to plant some trees; to sow some seeds of peace; to feed some hungry children; to love our enemies and our strangers.  Walking in the light of the Lord is hard work. To hope for God’s new reality is to throw our whole selves into the struggle to realize it.

Outside of the United Nations building in New York City, there is another sculpture entitled, “Let Us Beat Swords into Plowshares.”  It was a gift from the then Soviet Union in 1959.  The bronze statue depicts Isaiah’s vision with a figure of a man holding a hammer in one hand and, in the other, a sword which he is making into a plowshare.

In the shadow of this sculpture’s image, people gather within the United Nations building to work for peace.  Just this past week people have gathered within this building to discuss and work for peace in the Middle East, to discuss and work for peace in Africa, to discuss and work for the end of violence against women, to discuss and work for peace all across the globe.  Isaiah’s vision inspires them each and every day.  And this Advent, Isaiah’s hope is that it will inspire us as well as he bids us to, “Come!  Come!  Let us walk in the light of the Lord!  Come!  Let us walk one step at a time, one foot in front of the other towards this vision of hope.  Come!  Let us plant some seeds of peace.  Come let us sow some seeds of love.  Come let us feed some hungry children.  Come let us satisfy our deepest of yearnings by doing God’s holy work. Come!  Let us walk in the light of the Lord until God’s vision is our vision, God’s hope our hope, God’s reality our reality. Come!  Come!

Christmas is in full swing…out there…but in here we are just beginning to prepare.  In here the season of Advent and the prophet Isaiah point us toward our future and inspire us to the work that will get us there.

Now to the God who motivates us to work toward this new reality, be all honor, and glory, thanksgiving, and power, now and forevermore.  Amen.


[1] John Buchanan, “Preaching the Advent Texts: Hope, Peace, Courage,” in Journal for Preachers, Advent, 2010, pg.8.

[2] Peter W. Marty, Wake-up Call (Isaiah 2:1-5; Matthew 24:36-44), The Christian Century, November 16, pg. 21.

[3] John Buchanan, “Preaching the Advent Texts: Hope, Peace, Courage,” in Journal for Preachers, Advent, 2010, pg.9.

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