Sunday, November 29, 2020
First Sunday of Advent
Scripture: Psalm 130 & Hebrews 6:19-20
Rev. Troy Hauser Brydon

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Jim Morris was a great baseball pitcher in high school. He was good enough to get drafted in the 1982 draft by the New York Yankees, but he turned them down to take care of a sick family member. A year later the Milwaukee Brewers selected him, and he signed with them, only to languish in the minor leagues with several significant arm injuries. By 1989, he had enough. His dream to pitch in the Major Leagues was over. His arm was in terrible shape.  He recalls, “I woke up with my arm at a 90-degree angle and my arm was purple….I had numerous surgeries and never recovered….They cut 85% of my deltoid out of my shoulder and told me I could never pitch again.” Morris retired, moved to Texas, got his degree, and became a high school science teacher. He also coached the baseball team. Before he took over, the team had won only one game in each of the three previous years. At his first practice, only eight players showed up.  The team lost its first two games of the season. Morris gave them a pep talk, asking them about their hopes, dreams, and goals. One of them asked, “Coach, what’s your dream? We think you still want to play.” Morris laughed it off. He was overweight and only had 15% of his shoulder muscle left. The players made a bargain with Morris. If they won the district championship, Morris would go to an open tryout for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. He agreed to it, thinking this was totally impossible.  But, his players rallied and won districts, so Morris kept up his end of the deal. He showed up to the Rays’ tryout. The person checking Morris in asked which of his children were trying out. “Just me,” Morris responded. “I made a promise to a bunch of kids….It will be embarrassing – you’ll have a great laugh.” The Rays gave him the last slot of the day. Morris’ first pitch sailed over the catcher’s head. He saw the scout shaking his radar gun, as though it was broken. They ended up having him throw 60 pitches that day. The scout came over and told Morris his first pitch was 94 mph. Morris had hit 98 during the session – 10 mph faster than he had thrown in the minors.  Morris ended up pitching in the minors for three months, and then, at the age of 35, the overweight science teacher made his Major League debut in Texas, with his players in the stands. Morris went on to pitch for two seasons before going back to the classroom.  Hope is an amazing gift. It can sustain a person through a lot of difficulty. Jim Morris had hope, but what I love about this story is others had hope for him. Some of that hope he received from his players who believed for him when he couldn’t believe in himself.  This is a common refrain for me as your pastor, but in a long, hard year like this one, I think it bears repeating. The Christian faith is honest about suffering. The Bible provides words that help us in our grief. It does not trivialize or even try to explain sorrow. We worship Jesus, who entered into the darkness and brokenness of this world – born to a poor, common Jewish family living under the rule of the Roman empire. From birth, Jesus knew suffering. At death, Jesus knew suffering. And he is with us in our own sorrow as we turn our lives towards Advent this year.  The psalms are one of those places in the Bible where this honesty about our emotion – both grief and joy – are very present. We’ve heard from Psalm 130 today. It’s a psalm of ascent, which means it was written for people going to worship at the Temple. (The Temple was considered the highest point in their world, so you would always ascend to the Temple when you went to it.) What’s interesting to me is that this psalm of ascent is more accurately described as a psalm of descent. The poem begins, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord.” From life’s lowest point, from the situation I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, I cry out to God for help.  Friends, it has been my experience that it is rare that we want to ascend to worship God when life is at its worst. More often, we can’t bring ourselves to worship; we fear others will see us in our weakness, don’t we? Yet, especially in this season where COVID has taken away in-person interactions at the church and even in homes for Thanksgiving, I want us to know that this is precisely the time for us to come to worship – even over the internet or just reading sermon manuscripts – because the God we know in Jesus Christ knows our suffering, hears our prayers, and gives us hope for a new day.  It’s not easy to do this, of course. “The depths are at once the place where we need to trust in God the most and also the time when doing precisely that is the hardest,” writes one interpreter. In the depths things get real, which is painful for sure, but the hard work in the depths gives us a lifeline out of them.  This psalm continues, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope; my soul waits for the Lord more than those who watch for the morning, more than those who watch for the morning.” I love that the psalm repeats itself. It’s something I’ll do when I’m at a loss for other words or when I need to emphasize something. In repeating “more than those who watch for the morning,” it’s as though the psalmist is beating on the doors of heaven itself calling out, “Do you hear me? I’m waiting! I’m hoping! But the night is long, and I’m not seeing any daylight left!” Yet, in the repetition of the prayer, the psalm is reminding all of us of the truth that God is in charge and receptive to our prayers.  Maybe we’re feeling like this psalmist as we head into this strangest of Advents. The days are short. We just had Thanksgiving without our loved ones in our homes to keep each other healthy. Now we stare down “the most wonderful time of the year” stripped to its bare essentials. We’re in the depths. Out of the depths we’re calling to God, “We’re hoping there’s a better day, Lord! We’re looking for you! Help us to see you!”  Hope. It’s something we’re clinging to as we enter Advent. The coming weeks will not be the way they were last year. Many things we love – Christmas parties, family gatherings, large worship services – are just not possible this year. If you’re anything like me, your schedule has opened up significantly. Perhaps out of these depths we can see this as an opportunity to get back to the basics with this season. I feel like this season usually happens to me, but this year, I want to be intentional about the movements of Advent and Christmas. Even with heavy hearts this year, I pray that you will take the space you have in your calendars to observe a Holy Advent. I pray you’ll engage in the simplicity of the story of Jesus being born to Mary, entering the dark night as the light that overcomes the darkness. I pray this will be for us the most meaningful Advent you’ve ever experienced because it’s coming to us in the midst of such a hard time.  Our brief text in Hebrews offers us a unique image for thinking about life now. It begins, “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.” It’s the only time in the Bible the image of an anchor appears, and strangely enough, it connects with worship, which is an anticipation of eternity. Anchors belong on ships, and they have the purpose of keeping the ship in one place while the waters around the ship are in constant motion, trying to drive the ship elsewhere. Yet, Hebrews calls it an “anchor of the soul.” It’s an anchor that is a lifeline for us. Jesus is this anchor. He has come down to earth from heaven (something we are anticipating once again this Advent), given us this lifeline, and returned “behind the curtain,” that is he has gone into the dwelling place of God, which is heaven. Jesus is our hope, and he is a sure hope, even in the most troubling of times. He knows the glories of heaven, and yet he came into our midst, knows our sorrows, has given us this lifeline, and is now firmly established in the place where we will someday ascend – heaven. He has done it. This is sure. So, even out of the depths of life now, you can cry out, “Help!” and know that Jesus has given you the lifeline and promises rescue. Watch for him – like the watchman waits for the morning.   “The God who makes unbreakable promises will certainly keep them.” It’s why we talk about Jesus Sunday after Sunday, year after year. It’s why a regular connection to worship matters. It is training ground for eternity and a weekly interruption of our lives that get dragged down by all of our burdens. Jesus is an anchor for the soul. Secure. Solid. He will not fail. As we started thinking about Advent this year, we kept dwelling on hope. We need hope right now. That word reminded me of one of Emily Dickinson’s poems that begins,  “Hope” is the thing with feathers – That perches in the soul –  And sings the tune without the words –  And never stops – at all It’s such a beautiful image. Before we had children, Jess and I had two parakeets – Sydney and McKinley. They were a funny, joyful addition to our lives, but, man, could they be noisy. We had to learn how to put them to sleep because if there is light, they were singing away. So, we’d cover their cage when the sun went down and remove that cover when we got up. The thing with birds is that they could sense the sunrise, which foiled our plans to sleep in. Like the bird in Dickinson’s poem, our birds would sing their tunes without words and without ceasing. They remind me of our psalmist calling out at night, waiting for the dawn. Perhaps the little bird perched in the soul of the psalmist was what kept him going when he was in the depths.  Friends, this Advent, let’s be hopeful. Let’s have our hope firmly rooted in God’s promises to us in Jesus Christ. Let’s let our souls sing in anticipation of the coming Son. And where anyone is struggling, let’s lend our hope to others, just like the baseball team did for Jim Morris, urging us all to carry forward to a new and better future. This is the hope of Advent. May our souls be singing, even in the depths, as we anticipate the coming of a new day.