Dec 5th: "Close to Home: Laying the Foundation"

 

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The First United Presbyterian Church of Loveland

“Close to Home: Laying the Foundation”

Rev. Amy Morgan

December 5, 2021

First Reading:  Philippians 1:3-11

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. I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. It is right for me to think this way about all of you, because you hold me in your heart, for all of you share in God’s grace with me, both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel. For God is my witness, how I long for all of you with the compassion of Christ Jesus. And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best, so that on the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God.

Second Reading:  Luke 1:57-80

Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. Her neighbours and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

On the eighth day they came to circumcise the child, and they were going to name him Zechariah after his father. But his mother said, ‘No; he is to be called John.’ They said to her, ‘None of your relatives has this name.’ Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him. He asked for a writing-tablet and wrote, ‘His name is John.’ And all of them were amazed. Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. Fear came over all their neighbours, and all these things were talked about throughout the entire hill country of Judea. All who heard them pondered them and said, ‘What then will this child become?’ For, indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.

Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke this prophecy:


‘Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

   for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a mighty saviour for us

   in the house of his servant David,

as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

   that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.

Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,

   and has remembered his holy covenant,

the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,

   to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,

might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness

   before him all our days.

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

   for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

to give knowledge of salvation to his people

   by the forgiveness of their sins.

By the tender mercy of our God,

   the dawn from on high will break upon us,

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

   to guide our feet into the way of peace.’

Over the past several months, and especially in the last week, I have learned the tremendous importance of laying a good foundation. In July, we had new flooring installed in part of our home. The installer was apparently new to this work, and the company hadn’t adequately estimated the amount of prep work that would be needed. This resulted in the new floor separating and breaking, and just the past week, the entire floor had to be re-installed. 

But this time, the installers spent more than a day laying the foundation. This type of flooring, it seems, requires that the floors be very flat and even. In an older home like ours, this meant a lot of leveling and building up was necessary. And the result is a lovely, level floor that will – hopefully – grace our home for a long, long time. 

Before this project, I never would have given a thought to what was underneath the floors in my home. Floors are something we walk around on all day and pay no mind to. But the last few months have opened my eyes to not only the importance of our foundation, to the complexity of it. 

In our Advent theme, Close to Home, today’s focus is on laying the foundation. We heard a story that we don’t often think about, since it only comes around once every three years in the lectionary. Advent typically features John the Baptist as the wild wilderness prophet preparing the way of the Lord, laying the foundation for Jesus. But we don’t often explore the importance or the complexity of that foundation. 

Part of that foundation is laid in this story when John is named, well, John. Zechariah had been commanded by an angel to give his son this name, which in Hebrew means, “graced by God,” or “God is gracious.” In Jewish families, it was expected that children would be named after their relatives. A first-born son would almost always be named after his father. So the community finds John to be a very curious choice. In fact, they are amazed. This is extremely out of the ordinary. Because what this does is remove Zechariah from the center of John’s story. It uproots long-held traditions of the whole community. It throws out cultural norms and familial power structures to lay bare the centrality of God’s gift of grace, God’s gift of life. 

In preparing our new floor, the first thing that had to happen was that the old floor had to be pulled up. This sounds simple enough, but in our entryway and kitchen, this became a serious undertaking. Because there wasn’t just one layer of flooring. We pulled out the wood to discover a layer of plywood. Once we wrested that up, we discovered linoleum flooring that was the glory of the late 1970’s. Staples had to be pulled out one by one, and some segments of the linoleum had to be removed. 

Deconstructing old foundations is one of the most difficult parts of laying a new one. Expectations, power structures, traditions, and relationships all reinforce what is already there – even if it is worn out and not very attractive. It is easier to leave it be than to do the hard work of tearing it up. And there are usually multiple layers to grapple with. Sometimes the task is tedious and detailed. 

Which is why we are so reticent to do this work. We would rather keep things as they are, even if we know they aren’t working that well. Our threadbare ideas and worn-out systems continue to undergird society because we are too tired or frightened to pull them up and replace them. Or we’re comfortable with our dilapidated designs and doctrines because they are what we know. And who among us wants to be thrown away and replaced? We value the old foundation because we are the old foundation. 

But we also know we are worn out, even crumbling in places. And we are neglecting to lay a foundation for the generation to come. We need the courage of Zechariah to remove ourselves from the center of the story, and to name God’s grace in the lives of those who are coming after us. 

And we can draw this courage from the knowledge that after the difficult work of deconstruction comes the hopeful work of rebuilding. 

The floors in my home were covered in a cement-type mixture that was spread over any area of the floor that wasn’t perfectly level. It was astonishing to discover how much one level of a home could slope and dip. In the end, more than half the floor was covered in this leveling foundation. This material had to dry and be sanded and sometimes applied in several layers. It was a major undertaking. 

Zechariah participates in this rebuilding process. As his tongue is unloosed, he speaks of all the slopes and depressions in the life of his people and lifts up how he sees God at work through his son. He names the fear and oppression, the enemies and those who hate them. And he claims God’s redemption, salvation, and mercy. The foundation Zechariah begins building stretches across generations, from Abraham and David to John and Jesus. He makes a smooth, level, solid foundation for John to build on. 

Even when we tear up and throw away layers of old foundations, there is still something underneath that remains. It may be imperfect, but we can work to smooth it out, to connect what is good and solid about the past to what is good and hopeful about the future. But we must be willing to see where things are uneven, unjust, unwell. We must name the fears and oppression, the enemies and opposition. We may have to smooth over some relationships and be willing to bury things that were once glorious but are now ghastly – like 1970’s linoleum. This is a task that takes time, and effort, and maybe more than one try to get it just right. 

But once it is finally done, once our foundation is set, and level, and smooth, and solid, then we can create something new and wonderful. My new floors look glorious. I hope you’ll all stop by sometime to see them. They transform the whole space in a way I never imagined something as unromantic as flooring could do. 

Zechariah laid the foundation for his son, John. But he knew that John was laying a foundation, too. He was laying the foundation for something truly glorious and transformational. 

“By the tender mercy of our God,

   the dawn from on high will break upon us,

to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

   to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Jesus – his life, his teaching and ministry, his death and resurrection – is the dawn of a new creation, light in our darkness, our guide toward peace and abundant life, now and always. But he rests on the foundation of those who prepared the way, who held out hope for the Messiah, who passed the faith down from generation to generation, and, when the time was right, had the courage to remove themselves from the center of the story and build a good foundation. 

When you walk in our home, it looks nice and new. But I have a much deeper appreciation for this floor than for any other I’ve ever walked on. That appreciation goes way beyond how it looks or feels. I know all the layers that had to be removed. I know that the foundation is good and solid. I know that it has been made level when it started out uneven. 

I’m grateful for my new floors, but I’m even more grateful for all of those who have laid a foundation for me in my life. The people who set aside their long-held traditions to try something new. The people who believed I had something of value to offer the world. The people who blessed me in my endeavors. 

But as I look around the world today, as I talk to my son and to the other young people in our church, as I listen and read about what the next generation is experiencing, I fear we are failing to lay a good foundation for them. Our society is fracturing and buckling because we have continued to layer on expectations and judgments, power structures and political dysfunction, despair and disillusionment instead of getting out of the way and helping smooth out a solid foundation. 

What kind of foundation are we laying in the spiritual home of our kids? Who are we telling them they are? What are we telling them they can be? What are we showing them they can expect from life? What vision are we casting? What blessing are we offering? 

I encourage all of us to consider Zechariah’s blessing, the foundation he laid for John, who laid the foundation for Jesus. Take time this week to compose your own blessing for the next generation, and share it with a child, a grandchild, a young person in this church or this community. Think about how you can take yourself out of the center of their story and name where you see God’s grace at work in their lives. 

For my part, this is my blessing, for my child, for all our children – in this church, this town, and this whole world: 

God is bringing life out of death, every single day. 

The death is sad, and awful. It’s unfair and cruel. The death is real. It is the enemy. 

It’s the parent who doesn’t see you; the friend who betrays you; the disappointment that undoes you; the insecurity that haunts you; the anger that eats away at you; the pressure that overwhelms you; the fights that exhaust you. 

It’s the actual death – of a grandparent, a pet, a classmate, a friend. 

But do you know what? God hates the death as much as you do, maybe more. It is God’s enemy, too.

But instead of sitting there seething, or apathetically scrolling through TikTok, God is doing something about it. God has been working on this a long time. And God isn’t done yet. 

I collect old things from our family. Great-grandma Knight’s bible. Great-aunt Mable’s typewriter. The family china. My dad’s rocking chair. It’s just stuff, but it reminds me that others have paced these floors, worrying about death, hoping in God. They smooth out the foundation that has been laid for me. 

So I want you to know that I worry about the death. And I hope in God. And those things are not inevitably connected. Nor are they mutually exclusive. 

What I do know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, is that you are the most tangible and unavoidable measure of God’s grace. You are the sign that God is bringing life out of death. You are a gift, just because you are alive. We do not deserve you. But you have been gifted to us anyway. You are a grace. 

Praise be to God. 

And you, child, with all the love that created you, will help create a world more beautiful than we can imagine. Your life has not been easy. And yet, you have the capacity for kindness, the courage to show compassion, and the power to forgive. 

And so, you will usher in the light, carrying forward the dreams and hopes of all who have laid a foundation for you. You will be a bearer of peace and a worker for justice. You will not let death have the final say. You will see where God is bringing life out of death, every single day. And you will live without fear, live in love, live with hope. You will lead the way for all of us.

Let’s go. 

Amen. 

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