Sunday, December 12, 2010

Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:4-9 or Luke 1:46b-55
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Be ye also patient; establish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord is at hand.

There is an island off the coast of England called St. Michael's Mount. The island has been used over the centuries as a castle, a fortress, and a monastery. The island comes with interesting legends, including the story of Jack the Giant Killer and a visitation by St. Michael himself. It has passed through many hands and has always been valuable property, mostly because it is nearly impenetrable with its steep cliffs and dangerous waters. And yet, the island is also very accessible. A causeway appears at low tide, giving access to those who wish to visit.

You had better be careful to time your visit, however, because as soon as the tide starts rushing in again, the causeway disappears completely. Over the years, many strangers were lost to the sea trying to cross that causeway as the tide rolled in. Only the natives are truly safe because they understand the weather and the water, they know when it is safe and when it is dangerous.

I've heard that in the swamps there are similar causeways, often just below the surface of the water: safe to walk on, but invisible to the stranger. These causeways are referenced in stories about ancient English history, about how they were used to escape the enemy.

These were the images I had as I was reading today's Old Testament lesson. Isaiah says, "And the glowing sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water: in the habitation of jackals, where they lay, shall be grass with reeds and rushes. And a highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called the way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for the redeemed: the wayfaring men, yea fools, shall not err therein." Imagine what it must have bee like for the enemy following his prey, only to discover the earth beneath his feet had disappeared? Perhaps the 'highway' in this passage is similar. Those who are led by God know the way, they know when it is safe to cross and they follow the path that has been laid out.

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 is 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, yet. 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.

Though the words were spoken to those in exile, it is understood that these words are also pointing to another day, a future time when God will redeem the world and will 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 were those, like John the Baptist, who were expecting the Messiah. They knew, according to the scriptures, that the Messiah would come and save them. They expected a day of judgment. They expected a powerful man who would overcome the world they knew. They expected a warrior who would destroy Rome and give Israel her home once again. Last week John was telling the listeners that the Messiah would come in a blaze of glory-baptizing in fire and power. Two weeks ago we heard Jesus tell that the coming would be sudden and unexpected.

They needed Jesus, but they did not see that Jesus was the one for whom they were waiting because he did not fit their expectations. Even John the Baptist, who leapt for joy in the womb of Elizabeth when Mary spoke, was confused. "Are you the one?" John asked. Jesus answered by looking back at the scriptures we read today. "See what is happening. Isaiah's promise is being fulfilled."

John’s doubt was based on his misunderstanding of the power by which God was coming. Even this passage from Isaiah gives the people reason to believe God will come like a warrior. “Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God; he will come and save you.” They were looking for a different kind of salvation, which is why they weren’t sure Jesus was the one. Jesus put their focus back on the mercy and grace of God. His power would not destroy, it would bring healing and peace.

Yet, even now two thousand years after the birth of Christ, we are still waiting for the fulfillment of these promises. As we look forward to the birth of the Christ child, we also look forward to the second coming of the Christ. The blind are still blind. The lame are still lame. The wicked still walk in our midst. But the day will come when God will make these things happen. That day will come in God's time, not in our time. Will it be a day? Will it be a thousand years? We don't know. What we do know is that God is faithful.

This is why James encourages us to patience. “Be patient therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. Behold, the husbandman waiteth for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it, until it receive the early and latter rain. Be ye also patient; establish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” God knows what He's doing. Someone is still being cleansed. Perhaps it is you. Perhaps He is waiting for you to be ready to walk on the highway to Zion.

So, what do we do? We wait with patience, trusting in God and constantly watching for the opportunities to be God's hands in this world. We might be confused, like John, and wonder if we are really seeing the work of God. But God's promises are real and He is faithful. He has redeemed His people and restored us to Him. He will make the world right, in His time and in His way. He is coming, not just as a babe in a manger, but as the King of Glory. In that day the world will be as Isaiah imagines. So, do not be afraid. He is here now and will be here then. Even now His Spirit is sweeping across the land, transforming the dry land with His Word.

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