If I am honest, 2022 has been a challenging year. So much of it has been joyful and wonderful as I married my wife earlier this year, which has been a big transition. It has also been a year filled with a lot of loss as I have written about here and here. My wife and I are also navigating the challenge of finding a church that fits the two of us as individuals, a couple, our hopes for our family, and my call to ministry. Facing so much transition, loss, and challenge, has opened a lot of doubts, fears, questions, and hurts that have sat beneath the surface of my life, some for many years. These are things to face, own up to, confess, let go of, and forgive so I can grow in my faith. I wrote a little about that challenge as well recently. I feel like I am stumbling into Advent, filled with doubts, questions, and a deep feeling of loss. Advent is a season focused on waiting, waiting for the two comings of Christ. It feels appropriate to reflect this time of year on the many areas of my life I am waiting for the presence of Christ to come and heal.
As my wife and I continue to ponder, discuss, research, and visit churches, trying to discern what kind of Church home we best encounter the presence of Jesus together, I've found myself nostalgic for Liberti Center City and Main Line. I spent three years of my life there, two of which were on staff. As we've listened to pastors in our area preach and then talk about them, often with some critiques, I have found myself missing the preaching of Liberti's teaching pastor, Jared Ayers. Liberti has gone through a lot of transition in staff and now exists in a different form. The Main Line campus is now an independent church. The Center City campus united with another church in the city to form a new two-campus church, Resurrection Philadelphia. Jared now serves as the senior pastor of First Presbyterian North Palm Beach. Going back would not be the same, not to mention we do not live in the Philly area. But as my wife and I continue to discern a church to join, we have begun listening to Jared's weekly sermons from Florida. We have found his proclamation of the Gospel to be just as profound and helpful to the challenges we are facing in our faith as I remember it. I have found three of his Advent sermons this year, in particular, extremely helpful for the doubts, questions, and loss I feel.
In the first sermon, he preached on Isaiah 2:1-5.
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem. "In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!" (NRSVA)
In my life, it feels that there will be no resolution to transitions, deaths, another denominational identity crisis in a life filled with such crises, and a vocational call to ministry that feels as allusive as ever. A passage like Isaiah 2:1-5 feels as if it will never come true. Jared asks, in his sermon, "How do you take this kind of hope seriously?" His answer, "In a word...Jesus." When I heard him say it, it did not feel like the cheesy Sunday School answer it might read on paper. As I listened to him unpack it, he posed a simple question: "Did Jesus die and rise again bodily?" In all my doubts, that has not been one of them. So if Jesus did already historically die and rise again, future hope is guaranteed. New Creation already came in His resurrection. Therefore, it will come in all of its fullness. My focus had drifted to many distractions in my life. The reality of Jesus' resurrection assures me that there is a final resolution to my questions, grief, and wanderings. It will not all happen during this moment in my life or even before the day I die, but it will be there when we all are raised again with Christ on the last day.
In the second sermon, he preached on Isaiah 11:1-10:
A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 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 a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.
As I have witnessed quite a few deaths over this year and have keenly felt the pain of a vocational call to ministry that continues to feel out of reach, I have often asked and questioned why anything we do matters. Do our actions outlast us? Does the work in our jobs add any value to the world around us? Is there a purpose behind getting up in the morning? What will be remembered after our death? Jared highlighted for me that in this passage of Isaiah, the prophet describes Jesus as God coming into this material, suffering world. Jesus made Himself part of the poor, suffering community of human beings and shared it with them and us, even taking on the suffering of sin and death on Himself in the crucifixion. Jared's articulation of Jesus' work in this passage gave me something to focus on amid the depression I found myself slipping into at the end of this year. The world around us matters as it is, marked with sin, suffering, pain, poverty, and loss because it matters to God. It matters enough to God that He walked among it, endured it with us, and rose again to provide the promised hope that one day, all of creation will be marked only by His love without the scars of sin. Our efforts today will not bring the New Creation about, nor do they need to. It is already present in Jesus' resurrection. Our work today is in alignment with what we can be certain of, that the world of the New Creation will know the love, joy, and peace of being eternally connected to God.
In the last sermon, Jared concluded his sermon reflecting on the name given to Jesus in Isaiah 7:14, quoted in Jesus' birth narrative in Matthew 1:23: "'Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel', which means, 'God is with us.'" As Jared wrapped up his sermon, he emphasized how God's presence with us in Jesus was good news to us in specific, concrete situations. At one point, he spoke directly about how I have been feeling: "There are some of you that you're afraid for your future...The mystery of the incarnation is that the Almighty God of the universe actually knows what it feels like to feel helpless and afraid."
Recently, there has been a strong temptation to wonder what God is doing in my life and wonder why, after so many steps alongside Him, the future still feels as unclear as it always has. It is tempting to blame the fears I have for the future on God. It is tempting to be angry with Him for playing what sometimes feels like a cruel game with my direction in life. At Jared's words, I thought of Jesus in the manger, the God of the universe, completely dependent on a mother and her husband for care, protection, nourishment, and a place to sleep. I thought of the God of the universe, kneeling in the Garden of Gethsemane, afraid and in anguish over the path of the Cross He would walk the next day for the salvation of the world. I suddenly realized that I might not know what God is doing in my life. I might not know the next steps. I might be totally dependent. I might not like the path He currently has me on. But God Himself knows what that feels like. In the life of Jesus, God has felt exactly as I do now (minus the giving into temptation, mistrust, and anger). And He felt it on the path to achieving my salvation. I might not know what God is doing in my life, but I can know that Jesus shares this moment of my life too.
Thank you, Jared, for pointing us, for pointing me back to the good news of Jesus, crucified and raised, when I most needed to hear it.
In the comments below, tell us how God is reminding you of Jesus' presence in your life during this Advent season. Also, give Jared's sermons a listen and share with us your takeaways.