“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”
This morning’s lessons are full of great and powerful images. Many of the phrases from today have appeared in works of art of all types such as poetry, paintings, and cantatas, throughout time. Let’s listen to a few of these images again.
From the Old Testament: “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together.” And the psalm: “He shall come down like the rain upon the mown field, like showers that water the earth.” The epistle: “May God grant you to live in harmony with one another, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” And then from the gospel we hear from the eccentric John the Baptist: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And these are just a few of the gems we have heard this morning. I want allow those images and that poetry to spin in the air a bit today, but before I do that I have a quick side bar.
I have a close friend who is a textile artist. She is well known professionally for her weavings, rugs, wall hangings and tapestries. For close friends she also makes scarves and stoles and even socks! She has a fine eye for creating beautiful things from wool and linen. Her reputation is built on large pieces of bright, vibrant colors whose subject matter is often taken from nature.
I am fascinated to watch her work. Her sketches are very basic, without detail, and she says this is because the work will have a life of its own that will become apparent as she weaves.
She uses a modified Navajo technique with a vertical loom. Hers goes from ceiling to floor regardless of how large the finished piece will be. She works from the backside of the loom and has a lot of space to move around on that side. The finished or front side of the loom faces the wall and is not easily accessed. I say this because what one sees as she works is not at all what the finished piece will look like. As an untrained person what I see of a work in progress, is a gray fabric backing with some muted colors of yarn or thread. I can rarely pick out the design or even lines of color. To me, all of her pieces look similar from the back, grey and muted and flat.
I am always surprised and in awe to see the finished product which just comes alive with color and design. It is truly amazing; up close the wide variety of colors and textures stand out but step back and get away a bit and you see the entire picture. This always elicits a wow moment for me and I wonder, how did she do that? The answer of course is she is an artist with a gift not everyone has. She sees with her brain and heart long before I see with my eyes.
If you have ever looked at the back of a woven carpet you might have had a similar experience. The backside is dull and difficult to discern one pattern from another. But when you look at the front the design comes alive; the beauty jumps out.
I was reminded of my friend’s talent this week as I read an essay written by Jane Williams. Ms. Williams is a respected British author who has taught at Trinity College, Bristol, and King’s College, London. In this essay Ms. Williams likens God’s work in the world to a major tapestry with God as the weaver. We rarely see the full picture from the front-side of what God is doing in his creation. Most often what we see may be grey and dark.
Occasionally we will get a glimpse from the front. We may see a corner or a bit in the middle or have some vague idea of what is going on but generally we see this long after God has made it. We discern it by looking at the past and reflecting on how God has put the parts together.
Ms. Williams makes the point that looking at scripture in total, we can see the pattern of what God has done. I quote from her:
“If you see Jesus in the context of all that God has done in the past, you see the skillful weaving fingers of God, always building the diverse threads into a lovely pattern, and you see that all the pattern coalesces around that central figure of Christ. If you stand close, the colours around Christ blaze out, startlingly bright and new; if you stand back, however, you can see the reds and purples of his life gradually building, dimly traced, in the earlier pattern too.”
Jesus was and is and always will be at the center of God’s work and sometimes we have glimpses of that. The season of Advent is a time when we have the opportunity to understand it more clearly.
When we look at this morning’s lessons together as a part of a whole, and use our imaginations a little we see some of the weaving that God has done. And continuing with the metaphor of a tapestry, taking advantage of our time perspective, when we look at the front side of that weaving, we can see the pattern. We can see how God’s work does revolve around His son, always. We can see the vibrancy of God’s creation from this perspective, while in the moment of its happening we may only see from the back, the greys and muted, flat colors.
So let’s look at these lessons to see the thread throughout. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah uses the future tense in speaking of the one, the messiah, to come. “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him.” That word “shall” repeats throughout the passage. “Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist.” “The wolf shall live with the lamb; the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” And so on. In the Gospel, John the Baptist uses the present tense, “This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke.” Paul refers to the past through Isaiah and John the Baptist to strengthen his point about now spreading Jesus’ redemption to the Gentiles, to enlarge the receivers of God’s grace. Paul tells us the one who has come is now for everyone. “In him the Gentiles shall hope.” Jesus is at the center of each of these lessons this morning. First as the predicted one and then as the one who came to redeem the world.
In him the Gentiles hope. Paul uses the word “hope” multiple times in today’s passage. When he speaks of hope, though, he does not use the word as we might in everyday language: “I hope the Illini will win”, or “I hope this cancer treatment works.” For Paul hope does not mean a random chance or the last resort. Rather Paul uses the word hope in a way we might better understand as “trust”. Listen to the last sentence of this passage from Romans again, May the God of trust fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in trust by the power of the Holy Spirit. To hope for God’s promises is to trust totally in him.
One of the great gifts of Advent is to allow us to have glimpses of this tapestry that God has made and is making, to see it from the front side and to see that all of it revolves around God’s son, Jesus. What a wonderful full and bright tapestry it is with every color uniting in beauty with Jesus at the middle. And together those around Jesus are using one voice to glorify God. We look at this with awe and amazement. And probably as we look we also have some humility. What God has created shows his determination to save human beings.
There have been so many people throughout history who are a part of this creation. Such a great cloud of witnesses have glimpsed this weaving and are a part of it.
Where might we be in this weaving? Are we merely observers of the beauty? No, we, currently living human beings are in this tapestry also. Perhaps we might be just a small speck, a few pieces of yarn, with a tiny space to fit into it. Or perhaps we fill more of the space. While this in itself may seem overwhelming, the point is we are a part of God’s work. We are there as a beloved part of his creation. Not only does God desire us to be in his work, God needs us; he uses us to help Him bring everyone into this glorious tapestry. We hope, as St. Paul uses the word, we trust, in God’s love as we share that love with others. We trust God to make it right.
Let me quote again from Jane Williams, still using the metaphor of God as weaver, “God does not drop threads, even if we, who are supposed to be helping him, keep pulling the pattern into the wrong shape. God still works our blunders into the pattern and even uses them to point up the figure of Jesus in the middle.”
What a magnificent set of lessons today! Their powerful images have inspired artists throughout time and they remind us of certain truths. God is faithful to us throughout history. God is persistent in finding us and loving us and forgiving us and redeeming us. In this magnificent season we have the chance to see the big picture, God’s big picture, as we prepare for the celebration of the birth of his son, Jesus, and prepare for that same Jesus’ triumphant coming again.
Thanks be to God for his glorious Gospel and for this wonderful, holy season of hope. Amen.