Sunday’s Sermon: The Beginning in The End

Texts for this sermon: Isaiah 9:2-7 and 1 Thessalonians 5:4-11

This year, we will be using the picture book The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski (ill. byP.J. Lynch) throughout our Advent sermon series. For copyright purposes, I will not be able to share the entirety of that story within the content of these blog posts, but I do encourage you to either check this book out from your local library or purchase a copy for your own personal library. It’s an incredible story with stunning illustrations.

jonathan toomey cover

  • Quick recap of sermon series/Jonathan Toomey’s story up to this point
  • So let’s look in on the end of Jonathan Toomey’s story. – [read Toomey, pt. 4[1], pp. ]
    • Now can you see why this is one of my favorite Christmas stories?
      • Speaks to light shining in the darkness
      • Speaks to redemptive power of love
      • Speaks to hope
      • Maybe not so different from the story of another little boy that we focus on this time of year?
  • Jonathan Toomey begins his story struggling.
    • Surface: struggles with carving figures
      • Getting them “right” in Thomas’ eyes
      • Getting them “right” in his own eyes – That’s where we found him at the beginning of today’s portion.
        • Tries to sketch Mary and baby Jesus – tosses sketches in fire
        • Tries to start carving Mary and baby Jesus – tosses wood block in fire
      • Deeper: struggles with heartache and isolation
        • Feeling defeated/broken down by grief and loss
        • Fear/hesitancy to get close to anyone again – more love = more loss
      • See struggles like this echoes in OT text this morning
        • Speaks of people having “walked in darkness”
        • Is goes on to describe that darkness: The abuse of oppressors and cruelty of tyrants – all their whips and cudgels and curses … the boots of all those invading troops, along with their shirts soaked with innocent blood[2]
        • It’s important to know that Isaiah was speaking God’s word to people in exile → explain Babylonian exile (modern day Egypt east into Iran, northern half of Saudi Arabia all the up into Turkey and just past the northern border of Iran)
          • People who had been yanked from everything familiar to them
            • Culture
            • Worship center
            • Homes
            • Even some families were torn apart.
              • Those taken into exile were artists, thinkers, religious and political leaders  Those whom the Babylonians deemed unimportant and unproductive to society were simply left behind.
            • Imagine the darkness of an experience like that – the loss, the loneliness, the isolation.
              • Times in our lives when we experience darkness
                • Illness (our own or loved ones)
                • Grief
                • Frustration/misunderstanding
                • Depression
    • And though it may be harder to detect, there’s struggle behind our New Testament text this morning as well. – context for Paul’s 1st letter to church in Thessalonica
      • Apprehension/fear over Paul’s extended absence  Paul had set up this church, then moved on as he always did. However, despite numerous attempts, he was unable to return to Thessalonica to check on the life of the congregation that had been established there. And this made them anxious.
      • Serious unease in the face of social pressures and persecution  people (their neighbors? family? friends?) constantly berating them for their crazy, new-fangled faith in that Jesus guy
  • Sometimes it feels like that darkness is going to be a part of our lives forever – like we’re never going to see the light again.
    • Not told how much time passes between loss of Jonathan Toomey’s wife and child and widow McDowell and Thomas showing up on his doorstep BUT given the impression that it’s a number of years  And yet, despite that stretch of darkness, we see a light shine in Jonathan Toomey’s life – a light that comes not simply in the midst of the darkness but by way of the darkness, redeeming the darkness.
      • Toomey not only makes peace with the past but transforms pain of that past into something beautiful – story: Jonathan sat down in his rocking chair and held the picture [of the woman and the baby] against his chest. He rocked slowly, his eyes closed. Two tears trailed into his beard. When he finally took the picture to his workbench and began to carve, his fingers worked quickly and surely.[3]  draws both strength and inspiration from love for wife/child and allows that love to guide but not override his design/the rest of his life
    • Find light shining in both Scriptures this morning, too – light from a couple different sources
      • OT speaks of the Light of Christ: For a child has been born – for us! the gift of a son – for us! He’ll take over the running of the world. His names will be: Amazing Counselor, Strong God, Eternal Father, Prince of Wholeness. … there’ll be no limits to the wholeness he brings.[4]  This is the Christ for whom we wait – the child who will bring …
        • Amazing Light
        • Strong Light
        • Eternal Light
        • Light of Wholeness
        • Think about what we do with the Advent wreath every week. We light a new candle, but we also continue to light the candles from the previous weeks. As we draw closer and closer to Christmas, the light on the wreath grows and grows.
      • NT speaks to Light within each of us: Friends, you’re not in the dark, so how could you be taken off guard by any of this? You’re sons of Light, daughters of Day. … Since we’re creatures of Day, let’s act like it. Walk out into the daylight sober, dressed up in faith, love, and the hope of salvation.[5]  reminds us of our charge, our challenge, and our chance to share that Light with others
        • Let them know where you see the “amazing” in them
        • Remind them that they are stronger than they think
        • Reassure them of God’s eternal love
        • Help them find that wholeness that we all seek
        • Again, we embody this in what we do with our Advent wreath. – Christmas Eve = sharing the light with one another, light that comes from the Christ candle in the middle of the wreath
          • Given more everyday guidance in this in NT text, too: Speak encouraging words to one another. Build up hope so you’ll all be together in this, no one left out, no one left behind. I know you’re already doing this; just keep on doing it.[6]
  • And just as that light continues to grow among us, we watch it grow in Jonathan Toomey’s life as well.  witness the redemptive power of love as that light grows brighter and brighter, stronger and stronger
    • See it in good Jonathan Toomey does with the nativity figures: From the box, Jonathan unpacked two curly, happy sheep because they were with Jesus. He unpacked a proud cow and an angel, a very important angel with mighty wings stretching from its shoulders right down to the hem of its gown. He unpacked three wise men wearing their most wonderful robes, edged with fur and falling in rich folds. He unpacked a serious and caring Joseph. He unpacked Mary wearing a rough-hewn shawl, looking down, loving her precious baby son. Jesus was smiling and reaching up to touch his mother’s face.[7]  This is another one of those passages where I wish I could bring the illustration around for each and every one of you to see.
      • Beauty of the figures, just as the author described them … just as Thomas described them to Jonathan Toomey
      • Beauty of the expression on Thomas’ face
        • Excitement
        • Delight
        • Awe
        • All inspired by Jonathan Toomey’s gift
      • Also see good Jonathan Toomey does for himself: That day in the churchyard the village children saw Jonathan throw back his head, showing his eyes as clear blue as an August sky, and laugh. No one ever called him Mr. Gloomy again.[8]
        • Finds healing
        • Finds joy
        • Finds love
        • Finds hope
        • And in opening himself up in this way again – by sharing his heart and his companionship with the Widow McDowell and Thomas – Jonathan Toomey gives them a gift beyond the beautiful carved figures. Remember, Jonathan Toomey isn’t the only one in this story who’s dealing with loss. We may not be told anything about the Widow McDowell’s late husband and Thomas’ late father, but we can assume that just as Jonathan Toomey’s heart yearns for his deceased wife and child, so their hearts yearn for this unnamed man. → just as they are filling a void in Jonathan Toomey’s life, he is filling a void in theirs
          • Power of love = cannot be touched by genuine, wholehearted love and not be affected by it
        • This is the power of God’s love in our lives as well – a love that heals, that saves, that grows within us and spills out to the people around us. As the poem goes, “Love came down at Christmas, love all lovely, love divine.”[9]  find redemptive power of God’s love in both Scriptures
          • OT: The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. For those who lived in a land of deep shadows – light! sunbursts of light! You repopulated the nation, you expanded its joy. Oh, they’re so glad in your presence! Festival joy! The joy of a great celebration, sharing rich gifts and warm greetings.[10]  Light in the face of darkness! Joy in the face of despair! Love in the face of loss! Hope, hope, hope. This is what God gives to us.
            • Grace upon grace
            • Hope upon hope
            • Love upon love
          • NT: God didn’t set us up for an angry rejection but for salvation by our Master, Jesus Christ. He died for us, a death that triggered life. Whether we’re awake or asleep with the dead, we’re alive with him![11]  Again, light … hope … redemption. The power of Love. In these few simple verses, we find the essence of the gospel, the reason for the season: salvation through Christ who “died for us, a death that triggered life … we’re alive with him!” Friends, this is good news! Amen.

[1] Susan Wojciechowski. The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey. (Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 1995), 26-33.

[2] Is 9:4, 5.

[3] Wojciechowski, 28.

[4] Is 9:6-7a.

[5] 1 Thess 5:4-5a, 8.

[6] 1 Thess 5:11.

[7] Wojciechowski, 30.

[8] Wojciechowski, 32.

[9] Christina Rosetti. “Love Came Down at Christmas,” first published in Time Flies: A Reading Diary, 1885.

[10] Is 9:2-3 (emphasis added).

[11] 1 Thess 5:9-10.

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