THE WORD    I Thessalonians 3:9-13  And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before God at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.

MESSAGE       “Mountains and Valleys”             Rev. James Renfrew

I talked with children about the things we do to prepare the way for Jesus who is coming very soon!  Lights, decorations, songs, bells, prayers – they all get the attention of people who are looking for more hope in their lives.

And who doesn’t need more hope?  My cousin Bill sent me a message yesterday that his right eye got blurry all of a sudden, and because his Dad and my Dad both went blind with  macular degeneration, Bill and I often compare notes about our eye health.  So when even the slightest thing goes wrong we go straight to the eye doctor.  So Bill has a procedure on Monday to address this serious problem.  He’s hoping, and I’m hoping, and I hope that all of you are hoping that Bill’s sight will be OK.

I know you all have stories about hope to share on this first Sunday of Advent.  Hopes for health, hopes for justice and peace, hopes for good weather, hopes for children and grandchildren, hopes that we will be able survive the pressures, strains, stresses, obstacles and challenges of our lives.

In his First Letter to the Thessalonians Paul shares his hope that in Jesus Christ love will abound, that God’s love will reach every dark and desperate place as people embrace the hope of Jesus. It’s a beautiful thought, that goes far beyond decorations, cookies and carols, the multiplication of love.  Paul’s hope is not incremental, it is geometric.  Not 2+2+2+2+2 = 10, but 2x2x2x2x2 = 32.  Or think of a checker board.  Put a penny on the first square then add another on the second, and when you get to the last square you’ll have $20.80.  But if you double the amount on each square you’ll get a number so large I can’t even name it:  126,886,932,185,884,164,103,433,389,335,161,480,802,865,516,174,545,192,198,801,894,375,214,704,230,400,000,000,000, 000.

The point of this is not to be stymied by the impossibility of even grasping a number that large, but to anticipate what God is able to do in Jesus Christ, multiplying our hopes off the scale.  This is hope abounding, and this is what Paul wants us to anticipate.  We’re not there yet, but Paul wants us to live as if we have already arrived.  Are you ready to live this kind of hope?

It may be that somewhere on your tree at home is your own personal symbol of hope.  How many have an angel at the top of the tree?  How many have a star?  Anything else up there?  My symbol won’t work at the top of the tree.  It’s too heavy, but I think I’ll put it next to the tree.  Because it’s an unusual symbol for Christmas, I am sure people visiting our house will ask about it, which gives me the opportunity to tell them all about it.

So I brought my symbol of hope to share with you this morning.  Is it a candle?  Is it an angel craft?  Is it a song?  Is it a tree ornament?  No, it’s a shovel.  How many of you have a shovel?  Nearly everybody, great!  But do you usually think of a shovel as a symbol of hope?  I do!  So park one of your shovels next to your tree, too!  Better, yet, park all of your shovels there!

The idea of the shovel comes from John the Baptist, as he announces the coming of Jesus, he tells us how it’s going to happen, and what we can do to help make it happen:   Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth”.  Inequalities and injustices, so often the root cause of violence and war, they are what John the Baptist hopes Jesus will take on.  Not just once, but once and for all.  Smooth everything out, straighten everything out, and if that’s what we hope Jesus will do, then we have to begin doing it.  The left out, the left behind, the rejected, the marginalized, the unwelcome, the forgotten and the lost this is who Jesus is coming for.  The Advent Season and Christmas that we are heading for are not just a confirmation of what we are and what we have, but a profound challenge to the way things are. What better way to demonstrate our readiness for Jesus Christ than by having a shovel close at hand?  We don’t wait for hope, we start working on hope, we become the hope that we desire.  I can’t think of a better tool to accomplish that than a sturdy shovel.