Permanence and Change
Advent 2B Isaiah 40:1-11
One facet of life that all of us have in common is the rapid pace of change. We, as human beings, feel that the world around us is accelerating so rapidly, that our world is moving forward at a vociferous rate of change. It is as if this world of ours is a giant gyroscope, twirling, swirling, whirling into its future. For example, we are told that the universe itself is spinning at the speed of light into the infinity of space and our minds are incapable of imagining that fact. Scientists tell us that our earth is rotating on its axis at 1100 miles per hour; that our earth is rotating around the sun at 481,000 MPH; and that our sun and solar system are whirling into space at 57,000,000 MPH. Who computes this data anyhow. We don’t know, but we do know that our world is swirling, twirling and whirling into its future.
Human civilization is changing. In the early 1970s, I knew a man by the name of Dr. George Forell from the University of Iowa. He was one of the finest Lutheran theologians of the past generation. He said that knowledge had changed more in the past fifty years than in the previous five thousand years of human civilization. Human civilization as we know it, is about five thousand years old. But in the past fifty years, there have been more changes in science, technology and the sheer volume of knowledge than during the previous five thousand years. And those conclusions were made before the era of the computer and the Internet.
In my college days, so many years ago, I remember studying my philosophy courses, and I studied the philosopher, Liebnitz. Liebnitz was the philosopher who said that everything was in a constant state of flux, that you can’t step into the same river twice because the waters of that river will have changed. Similarly, you and I cannot step into the same human experience twice because you will have changed and the experience will have changed. We can never go back and recreate the same human experience. Nothing in our pasts can be recreated like it was the first time. You have changed and the dynamics have changed. Liebnitz gave us his memorable line, “The only thing that is permanent is change itself.”
It is not only the universe that is constantly changing. It is not only the human civilizations on this earth that are constantly changing. But our personal lives too are forever changing. For example, when you go back to your hometown, is it the same? No. We go and look for Grandma Jensen’s house in St. Paul, Minnesota, and we can’t find Grandma Jensen’s house. We can’t even find the same street because that whole section of town has become a new freeway interchange. Similarly, I take my kids back to Jackson, Minnesota, so we can all see my childhood grade school. Where Miss Hanson taught me how to read and where Miss Updegraph taught me proper English grammar. That grade school is no longer in existence. The grade school has become a parking lot. So I want to show the children the church in which I was baptized. You know, that church kitty-corner right across the street from our home. You know, the church with the balcony where we and all our friends gathered for worship. You know, that church with the picture up front on the altar, of Simon Peter sinking in the water. But it is all gone now. It is like that old church building has evaporated. Instead there is a new church building, with its sophisticated design of a famous architect back in the Midwest. Your town of childhood has changed also and so has mine.
Or, how many of you have seen pictures of Des Moines, Washington from a hundred years ago? There is nothing that you recognize.
How many of you have seen pictures of Seattle from one hundred years ago. Again, there is nothing that you recognize.
Family systems and our personal families are forever changing. In the old days, marriages were arranged by the matchmaker and marriages lasted a life time. But nowadays, with the prevalence of divorce, mobility, death and birth, everything has changed. For example, your adult child gets married to a divorced person who already has two children and so you become instant grandparents. Your adult child then gets a divorce and you probably lose your instant grandchildren. Besides, the people who are part of your family this year may be different than the family that you had last Christmas. You add a person; you lose a person; family members join and family members leave. Our families are forever changing.
Our bodies are forever changing. Did you know that all of the cells in your bodies change once every seven years? We get a new body once every seven years. That’s good. I have been your pastor now for nearly thirty years and that means I got a totally new body four times in twenty-eight years. I wish one of those times my white hair could have come out black. Our bodies are forever changing and getting older, and so is yours.
I think of that Rod McCuen song. “The old gate is rustin’ in the rain, and children coming home from school, no longer skim their pebbles on the old mill stream, that just beyond the bend became a pool. And we’ve all grown older, come see where we have been, out here rustin’ in the rain.” And we all here are rustin’ in the rain.
The prophet Isaiah was right when he said, “All people are like grass and all beauty is like the flowers of the field. Grass withers and the flowers fade, but only the Word of God is endures forever.”
In a world in which everything is so rapidly changing, on a earth that is revolving around its axis at 1100 MPH and around the sun at 481,000 MPH and into space at 57,000,000 MPH, in a life which is spinning so rapidly forward, in a world in which we are growing older much faster than we anticipate; in a world in which nothing stays the same, there is a deep need in all of us for something to stay the same. When everything around us is transitory, we have the need for something around us to be eternal, permanent and constant. In a world in which everything seems to get turned upside down, we need something which is solid, solid like the rock of Gibraltar. Down deep inside of all of us, we need something that will stay the same.
As we approach Christmas, one of the reasons that we love Christmas so much is because of the constancy of the Christmas traditions. Because of the sameness of so many traditions of Christmas, we have come to love Christmas more deeply. That is, I am sixty-two years old and every single Christmas of mine has had the same elements and I believe that is true for you as well. For example, the Christmas tree. Every year, every single year for sixty-two years, we have had a Christmas tree at our house and I suspect that is true for you as well.
Christmas lights. Every year for sixty-two years, we have had lights on our tree and I am suspicious that the same is true for you.
Every year for sixty-two years, we sing Christmas carols such as Away in a Manger, Silent Night, O Little Town of Bethlehem and many others.
Every year for sixty-two years, we sing the same secular sings such as I Am Dreaming of a White Christmas and Jingle Bells.
Every year for sixty-two years, we exchange presents, and a fun part of Christmas is giving and receiving gifts.
Every year, we have come to church on Christmas Eve for the candle light service.
What I am suggesting to you is that one of the reasons that we love Christmas so much is because our Christmas traditions are the same year after year. And in a world of swirling, twirling, and whirling change, we want something to be permanent. Something needs to be the same. And these Christmas traditions hint at the true and eternal meaning of Christmas.
But what is permanent about Christmas?
Is it the Christmas tree? Well, not really. The shapes of Christmas trees have been changing our whole lives. We all go through the various stages of Christmas trees. Let me explain. When you were growing up, did you have those flocked Christmas trees? My mother, in childhood, used to have a pinked flocked Christmas tree, and you could not see one hint of green needles because the whole tree was plastered with pink floss. Then, the next phase, we went to the natural stage for a while and we went out into the woods and cut our Christmas tree with a permit from the Forestry Department. Then, we went through the stage of going to cut our fresh tree at a Christmas tree farm. Then, we went through the parking lot stage where we went to several parking lots to find the right tree. The next stages are yet to happen to me personally but I am told that these phases will occur. Then you go through the plastic Christmas tree in a box and you take it out and it pops out and unfolds to a perfect Christmas tree with ornaments. Time goes by and then by the end of your life, you buy a little plastic tree that is placed on your mantle and you put one light on it. So the permanence is not in the Christmas tree, but there is a hint of permanence in that it is forever green. The tree is called the ever green, because it is forever green. The evergreen tree of Christmas gives you a hint that God’s love for you is forever.
The permanence is certainly not in the lights that you buy for your Christmas tree. How many strings of lights have you bought for your Christmas trees through the decades? And how many changes of style in lighting have you experienced in decorating your Christmas trees? You go through difference phases of lights for the Christmas tree. All red lights on the tree. All white lights. A variation of colors. Some blinking. Some flashing. You go through this phase where you decorate the whole house. The lights are forever changing, but there is a hint that the light is stronger than the darkness. I have to have the lights on the tree because light is stronger than darkness and hope is stronger than despair. I need the lights every Christmas. The Christmas lights give me a hint of God’s eternal light in my darkness.
Is the permanence of Christmas in the gifts that you give and receive? I will ask the men this question. How many of you men remember what you wife gave you for Christmas three years ago? I knew the answer. None of you. You don’t remember what you were given twenty years ago or five years ago. O, there may be a present occasionally that you remember and often those presents are associated with deep sadness or elation and gladness. This year, I am personally upset that the Coast to Coast store in Des Moines is now closed permanently. I went to that store faithfully every December 24th to purchase a sentimental Christmas present for my wife such as a large plastic bowl, Christmas cookie cutters and a rolling pin. But that store is now closed and I don’t know what to do about my wife’s special gift this year. … But in the exchange of gifts, we are reminded that God gave himself in the person of his Son to us as a gift, and similarly, the best gift is when you give yourself to another. Our exchange of gifts hints at that fundamental truth of giving yourself to another.
Is the permanence of Christmas in the tree? In the lights? In the exchange of presents? I think not.
Rather, from the book of Isaiah, we receive a clue as to where the permanence of Christmas is to be found. Isaiah says, “All people are grass and all the beauty is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers; the flowers fade, but it is only the Word of God which is eternal.
The permanent part of Christmas? It is not the tree. And it is not the lights. And it is not the gifts. What then is the permanent part of Christmas?
It is the Word, the Message from God, the Story. The story sounds like this, “It came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. And everybody went up to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, to be enrolled with Mary, his engaged, who was with child.”
It is the story. The story never, ever changes. The story continues, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you. You will find the babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” You will find the Messiah. You will find the Living God. You will find the Spirit of the Universe, who is wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger as a human being, one of us. And suddenly, there was a multitude of heavenly hosts, saying, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace and good will to all people with whom God is well pleased.”
And when you know the birth of the child for you, you will sing with the angels and you will have the peace of Christmas.
The only thing that is permanent about Christmas is the Word, the Message, the Story. The story that God left his people a sign that they were not alone but that God was with them.
Do you people remember the story about Robinson Crusoe? Do you remember that Robinson Crusoe was in that shipwreck? Robinson Crusoe was all alone, stranded on that island. He wandered all around the island and there was no one there. He wandered around that island for days, weeks, months and he knew he was alone on that island. But one day, he noticed a footprint in the sand and that footprint was not his own. Immediately, Robinson Crusoe knew instantly that he was not alone. Someone else was on that island. The story of Robinson Crusoe is the discovery that he was not alone on that island but that someone else was with him.
Similarly, Christmas is a story of how God left a sign that we are not alone on this island called Earth, that God has left his footprint in the sands of time. Christmas is a story of God putting his human footprint into the Palestinian sands of earth, so that you and I will know that we are not alone on this island called Earth.
In this enormous ever expanding universe, that swirls on its axis at more than a thousand MPH and twirls into space at more that 57 million MPH, we are afraid that the earth is merely an island in the universe and that there is no eternal life, that there is no Spirit of God, that we are all alone on the planet without God.
At Christmas, we have received a message from God, a sign from God that we are not alone and that God has left us a footprint in the sand to assure us that we are not alone. The footprint of Jesus is God’s footprint in the sands of time. When we see God’s footprint in the sands of time, we human beings know that we are not alone on this island called Earth.
What is permanent about Christmas? The Word of God. The story of God putting his footprint into the sands of time. Christmas is the story of God’s intimacy. Christmas is the story of God’s closeness, and nearness and is “with us”. Christmas is the story of God’s closeness, so close that a Christ child is born in our hearts. So close to us that we can see God’s footprints in the sands of our lives. We see the signs of God’s presence all around us because God leaves his footprints all around us.
The year 2000 is only two years past, and the millennium was a great moment in the history of the human race. But the hands of the clock will whirl and swirl and twirl by so quickly and the pages of the calendar will whiz past, ever so fast. Before you know it, it will be the year 3000. And Christmas will be celebrated in the year 3000.
In the year 3000, will they be singing “Silent Night?” Maybe.
In the year 3000, will they be having the Christmas tree, the ever green? Maybe.
In the year 3000, will they still exchange presents. Maybe.
But I guarantee you that in the year 3000, the Christmas story will be the same and the words of that eternal story will continue to be sacred: “It came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world was to be enrolled. And everybody went up to be enrolled, each into his own city. … For onto you is born this day in the city of David, a savior who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you, you will find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” And you are looking for signs in your life and the sign for you is that you will find the babe, you will find the Christ, you will find the Presence of God wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. And suddenly, there will be a multitude of angels and you will join them in singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace on earth.”
That eternal story will continue to be told in the year 3000 AD.
The prophet Isaiah said, “All people are like grass and all beauty is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers. The flowers fade. But the word of the Lord, the story of the God becoming a human being, that story will last forever. Amen.
Back to Top