Sunday, December 8, 2013
Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-6a (CEB)
Comfort for God’s people
Comfort, comfort my people! says your God
Speak compassionately to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended, that her penalty has been paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins!
A voice is crying out: “Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God! Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened. Uneven ground will become level and rough terrain a valley plain. The Lord’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together; the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.” A voice was saying: “Call out!”
The traditional themes of Advent are:
Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love…Last week we started our Advent series with “Expectations”…HOPE implies EXPECTATION. Today we encounter the theme of “Acceptance.” Isaiah’s text challenges us to discover what that really means.
Isaiah comes to us this morning speaking the words God has told him to speak…“Comfort…the penalty has been paid.” “Comfort”…What a great word…It feels good just to say the word…We all identify in some way with the concept of “comfort food”…Who doesn’t like to be “comfortable”? And, this time of year we love to sing “tidings of comfort and joy!”
Now, Isaiah is speaking to the Israelites in Babylon, letting them know that their time of exile is over and the Lord is sending them home. For us, the message is that our time living in darkness is over because Jesus has come to bring light to the world. For both sets of readers, the message is that God desires to comfort his people, even when we wander away or turn from him. For all of us, God seeks to remove whatever stands between us and blocks our way to him. Last week I said that “Advent” means the coming or arrival of something very important. It is also a time of preparation…of waiting for that arrival…Waiting is a challenge…it goes against our desire for instant gratification and our natural impatience…We don’t like to wait…on line…in traffic…or even for the results on The Voice…We want everything right now…We want God’s promise and we want it now. How might we better ACCEPT God’s will for our lives rather than our own? How might we better “wait upon the Lord”?
Waiting is hard, but it gives us the opportunity to think about what we really want…It also leaves us open to the temptation not to wait for what is already on the way. Sometimes along our journey we stumble into a wilderness…Isaiah speaks of wilderness as a metaphor for the things that caused the Babylonian exile in the first place…Jerusalem prospered through wickedness, oppression, lies, and injustice…They ignored the prophets’ calls to repent and they suffered the just punishment of God when the city is conquered and destroyed. Isaiah cries out that the people have cleared the way for God’s blessing by finally repenting of their sins. The Gospels connect this prophecy to John the Baptizer as the “voice who cries out, make a straight path for the Lord…” John uses this metaphor to communicate the need for spiritual growth and healing…His command to “repent” literally means to change, to turn around, to make right…The geographic metaphor of the wilderness suits this concept well. Today we may ask ourselves how this metaphor applies in our own lives…Is John describing your heart as an uneven, hostile place for God to dwell? Do we seem like rocky crags or soft pathways? Do we demonstrate a barren wilderness or a peaceful pool? What in our lives would Christ have to walk around if he came to us right now?
When we remember the wilderness journeys in the Bible we might ask: “What happens in the wilderness?” Think about the Israelites wandering for forty years. They suffered and yet they learned to rely on God for everything. They grumbled, but they finally received God’s law. When they accepted God’s authority and let him be in charge, they were led to the Promised Land.
Think about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness…Sometimes deep spiritual transformation takes place when we are at our lowest point…Wandering in our wilderness may lead us to understanding and real blessing from God. Jesus ultimately accepted the “cup” that God offered him and all that meant for his life.
Think about people who are new to our community or new to our country…Consider those who are homeless and living on the margins of life this season…These are our sisters and brothers who are in the wilderness as well…The Good News that Isaiah calls us to proclaim is God is here. God is present. God is reality.
Here we encounter another understanding of the word “acceptance”…We are challenged to accept the things we cannot change and move forward as best we can, trusting in God’s plan…Many people approach the holiday season feeling broken as they remember the past or lament what could have been…Christmas can be a difficult time of year for people you know because of their own unmet expectations or the consequences of their choices. As we move closer to the Nativity think about Joseph…His expectations for the life he had planned are shattered in an instant…Yet he accepts what God has brought into his life and opened himself up to increased faith during an unbelievable situation. Think of Mary as her life is turned upside down and her expectations are set aside completely…She accepts God’s call and sets herself up for heartache and sacrifice we cannot imagine. Now think about the wilderness settings that exist throughout our own community…Imagine what expectations are being set aside…Think of what some people are being asked to accept. What word might God speak into these situations? What vision might need to be seen so that they might move toward acceptance? How might you help someone build new expectations out of their wilderness experience?
“Acceptance” – acceptance of God as the one in charge leads us to believe that we must accept God’s plan for us even when we don’t understand the plan or like it very much. Like Joseph and Mary, all of us are faced with moments in life when we have choices to make. We may either choose to accept or reject what comes our way…Often, the easy way out is to reject the plan, to walk around or away from what we face…Imagine arriving at the family Christmas gathering to find that one relative who struggles with addiction or who has hurt you emotionally in the past…You know their story…You’ve heard it a hundred times before…And you don’t buy their false promises of sobriety or their crocodile tears of remorse…But, they are walking toward you and you have a choice to make…Do you walk away? You are out Christmas shopping or hurrying to yet another party…You’re in a hurry, running a little late. Then you see them…the homeless couple in the cold with their cardboard sign…Your eyes catch their eyes…You see more than just another homeless couple…What do you do? There’s a new family visiting church…but they are different from us…They are a little rough around the edges…In broken English, they tell you they are hungry, homeless, and new in town…You are skeptical…Are they working the system? We think of all the reasons why we cannot help, but feel something tugging at us as we walk away. What now?
Joseph accepted the challenge and found a way to grow in faith and love. How is God calling you to grow? Who is God calling you to accept? “Acceptance” is a much bigger word than I first thought. Accepting God leads us to many more opportunities to accept people and events as we pass through the wilderness of our lives. Accepting others leads to opportunities to grow.
Let us pray…How many hurdles I see between us, Lord. My weak ravines need filling; my proud peaks need leveling. So many rocks need to be removed to make my repentance real. Help me make these rough places a smooth path on which you can walk unhindered. O what a gracious Lord you are to make it your goal to soften a heart like mine! Amen.