Sunday, December 31, 2023 – Christmas 1B

Category: Weekly Sermons

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25,4:4-7; John 1:1-18

The Rev. Candice B. Frazer

When I was nine years old, Mount Saint Helens erupted. I remember seeing the explosion on the nightly news and hearing my parents talk about it. I was concerned for the people who had died and the animals and plant life that were now gone. I heard the scientists talking about how the top of the mountain sunk when the volcano exploded and that the ash and lava had discharged over several miles destroying acres of forest. Prior to the explosion, Mount St. Helens was a picture perfect mountain with a snow-covered peak. There were elk in the forests surrounding it as well as lush valleys and rivers with flora and fauna. Frogs and toads lived in the mud and lake bottoms. People owned vacation cabins in remote areas and some lived there all year long.   

As scientists monitored the mountain in the months, weeks, and days prior to the eruption, they noticed the significant number of earthquakes that continued to register in the area. They were able to warn people to leave but how do you tell animals or protect plant life. The scientists who entered the blast zone following the eruption had little hope and were already making assumptions about recolonization by plants and animals from nearby areas and how long it might take. But they were very wrong.

Within ten days of the blast as scientists, including ecologists, walked through the destruction and felt overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the devastation, they stepped out of the helicopter, looked down, and the first thing they saw coming up through the ash was a fireweed shoot. The second thing they noticed were all the insects—beetles and ants—crawling around. The things that lived in the ground, burrowed beneath the surface of the chaos, had survived. Gophers and frogs and toads and fungi were alive and getting on with the business of starting over. One of the scientists was quoted as saying, “I love epiphanies. We think we know. We are going to go out here, it is a moonscape, everything has been destroyed. And then WHACK. OK, we were totally wrong. What brilliant scientists we are. I love that kind of thing.” It was a powerful moment of discovery, in part due to the nature of that discovery; it was also a recognition of the awe-inspiring power of creation and Creator.

For as the earth brings forth its shoots,

And as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up.

So the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise 

To spring up before all the nations.

When we fear the worst possible scenario or allow our anxieties to play out in a chorus of what-ifs in our head, we become imprisoned in false realities and leave little room for possibility. Our hopes begin to diminish, and we lose focus on all that God has to offer us. This was true not only for the scientists studying Mount St. Helens, it is true for us, it also true for the Israelites of Isaiah’s day.  

The book of the prophet Isaiah describes a world in which the Israelites lived through constant turmoil for three hundred years culminating in the Babylonian captivity and exile. The Temple has been destroyed and those in the elite and ruling classes of society have been dispersed throughout the Babylonian Empire. It has been a time of suffering and sorrow, and many have felt abandoned by Yahweh and believe that the end of all things is near. Isaiah is the first to introduce the apocalyptic genre though it is not simply a story of destruction, it is one of trust in the renewal and perfection of all things. By the time we reach chapters 61 and 62 that we read today, the Israelites have come full circle, returned to Zion which will now be named Jerusalem, and rebuilt the Temple. Isaiah’s words of destruction and comfort as he called the people to renewed faith and trust in God are now words of praise and thanksgiving for all that God has done for his people in keeping his promise of salvation.

The prairie gofers who survived the volcanic explosion acted as tills turning the soil as the plowed new tunnels and tracts. They mixed the volcanic ash with fertile dirt buried below. Flora and fauna sprouted from roots remaining in the earth which helped improve the soil quality and began to attract elk and beavers and birds back to the mountain. The elk broke up soil with their hooves and fertilized it. The beavers helped the streams to regain health. The birds built nests and filled the air with song. The ecosystem was quick to reestablish itself and fill the blast zone with life. It is a testament to the tenacity of life and the resilience of creation. It is a testament to the power of God.

Isaiah encourages us to rejoice in God with our whole being. Reminding us that, just as the earth is recreated after disasters such as Mount St. Helen’s, so too does God clothe us in the garments of salvation and righteousness after disaster befalls us. Suffering is never the end. The worst possible thing that could ever happen is not the last thing that will ever happen. As much as we like to think the end is near, we are closer to new creation than final destruction. One only need look around at the world to see the truth of that. The problem is that we would rather rely on fancy beliefs that look for signs of the end times than trust in the signs of God’s presence and grace.

Another one of the scientists who has studied the effects of the volcano on the ecosystem surrounding Mount St. Helen in the past forty years since its eruption talks about how we should think about the mountain. He says first, “don’t say that the mountain is recovering—because it will never return to what it was before. Rather, it is busily making something entirely new.” And second, in response to questions about what we might learn from the experience and its aftermath, he says, “Well, if this were a theatrical production, this would be act one, scene three in a multi-act play.” The drama unfolding on Mount St. Helens will continue to unfold for thousands of years.

In Mount St. Helens, God is doing something new just as he did for the Israelites of Isaiah’s day. It is not a recreation of the old, though it is a vindication of God’s people that shines out like the dawn, like a burning torch. It is the light that shines in the darkness that the darkness cannot overcome. It is a faith that is grounded in trust of something more than what we think we know or even believe. It is what God has done at Christmas by sending his son, “the true light, which enlightens everyone, [and has come] into the world.”