Sunday, December 11, 2016

Third Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146
James 5:7-11
Matthew 11:2-15

A highway will be there, a road, and it will be called The Holy Way.

We have been doing an ongoing study in our adult Sunday school class about the character of God as revealed in the Old Testament and fulfilled by Jesus in the New Testament. We have learned about how necessary it is to know and understand the Old Testament stories to truly know and understand Jesus Christ and His saving work. One of the topics we discuss last Sunday was how the Messiah would be lifted up. It was promised in the story of the snakes during the Exodus in Numbers 21:6-9 and then show how Jesus was lifted up in John 3:14-18.

The first question we asked about the story from Numbers was, “Why didn’t God just get rid of the snakes?” We all pretty much agreed that snakes are yucky and life would be so much better without them. In the story, the snakes were biting and killing God’s people; it just doesn’t make sense that God told Moses to put a bronze serpent on a pole and have those bitten look at it. Wouldn’t it be easier to remove the problem rather than offer a solution? The whole point of the story was for God’s people to learn to look to Him, to trust in Him. Those who believed God and turned to the pole were saved.

Take takes us to the fulfillment in John’s Gospel. God’s people had turned from Him in so many ways. Though they claimed to be faithful and righteous, they were faithful to themselves and self-righteous. They had broken the relationship with God, living by works rather than faith. They were (we all are) sinners in need of a Savior and they didn’t even know it. Wouldn’t it have been easier to just get rid of sin rather than demand the price paid by Jesus on the cross? Why did Jesus have to be lifted, like that bronze serpent, so that we could be saved?

The bronze serpent didn’t save anyone. Moses didn’t save anyone. The people who looked to the bronze serpent trusted God’s Word and they were saved. The same is true of those who look to Jesus for salvation. We trust God’s Word that Jesus is truly the way of salvation.

The central theme of today’s texts is the ministry work of Jesus in fulfillment of God’s promises. Isaiah tells us that the eyes of the blind will be opened, the ears of the deaf will be unstopped, the lame man will leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute will sing. The psalmist made the same promise.

Matthew tells us that John the Baptist heard stories about Jesus Christ. He was imprisoned by Herod and could not go see it for himself, so he sent some of his disciples. “Are you he who comes, or should we look for another?” they asked Jesus. Jesus answered, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see,” and goes on to list the same promises. Jesus was opening the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf. He was making the lame walk and the mute sing. He was raising the dead. Jesus was fulfilling the promises of the Old Testament in their presence, proving by His works that He was the One for whom they were waiting.

The greatest promise of all is that Jesus was preaching the good news. It was well and good that Jesus was healing the people, but He was unable to heal every single person. What of those who did not get healed? Did God not love them, too? How could God allow even one person to continue to suffer when Jesus was so capable of making them well?

It is the age old question: why does God allow suffering? Just as we struggled with the question of why God didn’t just get rid of snakes, why doesn’t He just get rid of all pain? Of course, we see in the promises of God that one day there will be no more tears and pain, but shouldn’t that be true today? Jesus has come! All is made right with the world. The reality is that Jesus finished the work, but it is also only just begun. We wait for His second coming to complete the work, to end all pain, to begin the eternity that is our inheritance. Like the serpents in the wilderness, we still dwell in the imperfection of this world that is caused by sin, but we have the promise that if we look to the Jesus who is lifted up, then we will be saved.

Two thousand years after the birth of Christ we are still waiting for the fulfillment of God’s promises. This is why James encourages us to patience. “Be patient therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it, until it receives the early and late rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand.”

We aren’t very patient. The language of the New Testament has a sense of immediacy that seems to contradict the reality we see. Two thousand years is a long time; those who followed Jesus first thought that He would come again immediately. It is long enough to make us doubt what we believe, to make us wonder like John the Baptist and ask, “Are you he who comes, or should we look for another?” Unfortunately, a great many people are looking for another – another understanding of God, one that makes more sense in our world.

Jesus’ ministry certainly did not make sense to the religious elite of His day. He touched the untouchables. He brought wholeness to the outcast. He brought life to those who were dead to the world. He set the prisoners free, opened the eyes of the blind, and made the lame walk. He did not do good things for the righteous; He did great things for the sinners. It made no sense in Jesus’ day and does not make sense today. Human nature expects reward for goodness. Jesus gave gifts to the humble. No wonder so many people doubt that He is the Messiah even today.

The psalmist speaks of the hope we have in Jesus. “Happy is he who has the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in Yahweh, his God.” This is not good news to the righteous; it is good news for the sinner because it speaks of looking beyond oneself and trusting in a higher power. That higher power, by virtue of its greatness, must know better how things should be accomplished. We are still waiting for the fulfillment of the promises two thousand years after the coming of Christ because God still has work to do. There are things to be accomplished and we are called to wait both patiently and expectantly while God finishes what He has started.

After sending John’s disciples back with the good news, Jesus spoke to the people about John. “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? But what did you go out to see? A man in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in king’s houses. But why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and much more than a prophet. For this is he, of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ Most certainly I tell you, among those who are born of women there has not arisen anyone greater than John the Baptizer; yet he who is least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he.” Once again, Jesus pointed to the Old Testament prophecy to show the fulfillment of God’s promises.

We have a hard time believing His final words here, though. John was a great man, a prophet of God and the precursor to the Lord. How can a little one be greater than John? The point of this verse is that John was of the Old Covenant, a covenant based on a different kind of promise. He was looking for salvation in flesh; the New Covenant gave a greater salvation. The power of the Old Covenant was fire and brimstone, it was destructive and judgmental. The power that Jesus came to bring was of healing and forgiveness, restoring people to God and making them whole. While His work has been complete, we do not yet see the entire fulfillment of this promise. This is the hope in which we live.

In the days when Jesus was born, the people were waiting for a Messiah, a savior or liberator. They wanted someone who would defeat the Romans and return Israel to the Golden Age of David. They wanted God to take vengeance on their enemies. But the Jews faced the same question we do today: who is the enemy? Jesus came to save the people, not from the suffering and pain in this world but from that which keeps us from God. Jesus is the Way that will make the desert a land of flowing blessings.

Isaiah says, “The wilderness and the dry land will be glad. The desert will rejoice and blossom like a rose.” Isn’t that a beautiful image? The desert is absolutely beautiful when it blossoms after a spring rain. The flowers seem to appear out of nowhere. It happens here in Texas every spring, although not quite so magically. If the conditions are perfect, the rains of February will bring out the Bluebonnets in such numbers that the fields turn to blue. Isaiah goes on, “It will blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing.”

Something spectacular was about to happen, and God’s people would return home with shouts of praise and song. When it happened, extraordinary things would occur: the blind would see, the deaf would hear, the speechless tongue would sing and the lame would dance. They shall see the glory of God. But this promise was not for all men, it was for God’s people. The highway leads directly to the gate of Zion: the unclean would not walk the Holy Way.

This promise in Isaiah was given to the exiles as they waited to be released from captivity. It must have been difficult to wait. We know that God is faithful, but when things don’t happen in a timely manner, we begin to doubt our certainty. But things happen in God’s time for a reason. Perhaps they weren’t ready. Perhaps they did not fully understand the depth of God’s grace. Perhaps there were still some that needed to be cleansed of the attitudes that sent them into captivity in the first place. The people were there to be transformed, to remember the God of their forefathers and the power of His Word. The promise would be fulfilled when the time was right, when God was satisfied that all were ready to return into His presence.

It is necessary to know and understand the Old Testament stories to truly know and understand Jesus Christ and His saving work. Though the words were spoken to those in exile, it is understood that the words also pointed toward another day, a future time when God would redeem the world and transform His people forever. Can you imagine a world as is pictured in the text from Isaiah? We might catch glimpses today, but there are still those who are blind, deaf, dumb and lame. The lions and jackals still roam. Were things changed when the exiles returned to Jerusalem? People still became sick, children were born blind. By the time Jesus was born, the unclean were walking into the gates of Zion.

There will come a day when there will no longer be sin in the world. Satan will be defeated. We won’t be tempted by that which leads us astray. We won’t hurt one another, we won’t cry, we won’t get sick. We won’t die. Until that day, however, we live in a world filled with sinful human beings. All of us fail to be that which God created us to be. We all fail. We all sin. We all need Jesus. The old snake will keep biting us and we might succumb to the poison that can kill us.

But we’ve been given the cure: just as Moses lifted the bronze serpent in the desert to heal the people bitten by the snakes, Jesus was lifted to heal those who look to Him for mercy and forgiveness. God could have taken away the snakes, but the lesson learned was trust in God’s Word. Those who believed were saved. God could also have defeated Satan without Jesus and the cross, but the only real salvation comes from trusting His Word, which is Jesus. He is the Way.

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