Sunday, December 15, 2013

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

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.

Sadly, we are at a point in our history, not only here but all around the world, when it seems like we are constantly looking for an enemy. Now, don’t get me wrong, I am well aware that there’s never been an extended period of time when the world has been completely at peace. There hasn’t been a global war for many years, but there is always some battle waging between neighboring countries or clans or kingdoms. If there isn’t war on our continent, there’s war somewhere. Violence between enemies takes lives every day.

It is no wonder that we find great comfort in the words of Isaiah, “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.” We want God to do away with our enemies, to punish them for the harm they have inflicted on us. It is particularly strange, though, when the enemies fighting one another both believe in the same God. Take, for example, the wars in England between the fifteenth and seventeenth century. Those wars were about power and control, mostly between family members, but there was often an underlying question of religion.

The question was not what religion, but which type of Christianity would be followed? People were beheaded because they wanted to follow the ideas of the reformers and people were beheaded because they wanted to continue to follow Rome, it all depended on who was in power. The years during Henry VIII’s reign were particularly difficult because he was so easily swayed by whoever was in his favor. If he liked you, he believed you, and you could convince him to implement policies favorable for your point of view. But the minute you did something to fall out of favor, and it could be the silliest thing, you were out and the next guy moved in to implement the policies favorable to his point of view.

Of course, this meant that the average person had no idea what was in favor and what was not in favor at any moment. There was confusion not only in the court, but in the streets. It was the death sentence to disagree with the king, but how do you agree when you don’t even know what he believes today?

I read a lot of historical fiction from that time period in English history. I am fascinated by the relationships of those in the court. The most recent book revolved around Henry VIII’s sixth wife Katherine Parr. While the book is fiction, historical fiction writers try to stay true to the historical evidence of what happened. This particular book showed the constant jockeying between courtesans to be in favor not only with Queen Katherine, but especially with King Henry. After all, if the queen falls out of favor, you better have your foot in the next door. And with King Henry, we know the queens often fall out of favor. Katherine did eventually, but she was lucky that Henry died before he could remove her head.

We know what it is like to have division in the church. The number is impossible to verify, but worldwide there are at least 50,000 different denominations in the Church. Some of these are tiny, cultural, geographic and have similar beliefs to others. Some counts place all the non-denominational congregations within the same group, even though they do not even consider themselves denominational. Even the Christians who call themselves Lutheran are divided, with at least six major groups, with dozens of others in North America. If we, who have very similar ideas about God’s grace, can’t even remain whole, how can we ever expect the world to see the Church as the body of Christ?

The biggest problem, however, is not that we see things differently but that we see the others as our enemy. We might not have the power to chop off our neighbor’s head, but we sure find ways to bring the wrath of God down on them. We are hurt by one another because we doubt their faith, we reject their perspective and we ignore their needs. We bash one another with the Bible without really hearing each other. We damn them for their point of view and push them away because they are inconvenient to our agenda. We even cry out to God for vengeance because we assume their disagreement is hatred.

This statement from Isaiah brings light to the real question: who is my enemy? Of course, in those years of battle in England, the religious wars always quietly disappeared while the country was in battle against France. It was easy to love one another as they faced a common enemy. But as soon as one war was settled, the old disagreements rose to the top and the fighting began again.

We are human. The reality is that no matter what we believe, there are always human beings that just can’t get along. We have conflicting personalities. We see the world differently. There are just some people who rub us the wrong way. This happens within the closest groups, even families. As Christmas draws closer, many are dreading the impending gatherings because it is almost certain someone will say something to make someone else angry. There is no way to escape, especially when you are visiting distant family and friends. We’ve experienced within our church congregations, too, often over insignificant questions like which color carpet we should use. We are human and even the best of us simply do not get along with all the other humans.

But does that make them our enemy? See, we might not agree about the issues, the big and the little ones, and we may even get into heated discussions with them, but does that make them an enemy? Sadly, I have to admit that I have cried out to God about those who have hurt me. Did I want Him to hurt them? I wish I could say I didn’t…

But when God says that He will deal with our enemies, He’s not really thinking in terms of those neighbors with whom we do not get along. See, we have greater enemies about which we should be concerned, i.e. the devil. When we disagree with our neighbors about the silly things, and even the big things, Satan takes advantage of our weaknesses. He makes us think that those people are our enemies. He wants us to hate them. He wants us to divide. He’s done a pretty good job.

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 as we do today: is that the enemy God intended to take vengeance on? Jesus came to save the people, not from the threats in this world but from the threats that keep them from God. Jesus is the Way that will make the desert a land of flowing blessings.

Isaiah says, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.” Isn’t that a beautiful image? I haven’t seen it, but it is said that 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, not quite so magically, but still beautiful. 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 shall 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 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. 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.

So, they continued to look for the Messiah. Even John, who leapt in joy in his mother’s womb and did not want to baptize Jesus because he knew that he was not worthy to even touch His feet, wondered whether Jesus was the One for whom they were waiting. In today’s Gospel lesson, John sent his disciples to ask Jesus. It is hard to see the depth of this question in English, but in the Greek John is asking if Jesus is “Coming One” or “the Messiah.” He wanted to know if Jesus was the One who would set them free.

While it is true that Jesus was the Messiah, He wasn’t coming to set them free from the enemies they thought needed God’s vengeance. Jesus says, “Blessed is the one who is not scandalized by me.” Jesus was not going to be what they wanted Him to be. He was going to be what God intended Him to be. And that would be a scandal to the religious leaders and those who wanted to continue to have power.

I wonder if John was confused about Jesus because He didn’t come as a warrior. Last week John was telling the listeners that the Messiah would come in a blaze of glory-baptizing in fire and power. Jesus answered by pointing to the Old Testament scriptures we read today. “See what is happening. Isaiah’s promise is being fulfilled.” And then Jesus identified John as another promise from the Old Testament. John was the messenger to announce the coming of the Messiah.

Yet, even now two thousand years after the birth of Christ, we are still waiting for the fulfillment of these promises. 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 complete fully all these promises. 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.

So James tells us to be patient. “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 is doing. He is longsuffering. He is forgiving. He wants all to know Him. He wants everyone to walk on the Way.

Isaiah says, “Even the fools shall not go astray.” This line is translated several different ways. One way suggests that the fools will not find their way to the path, but the Greek lends itself to a different translation: that God will make sure that even the fools will not get lost. It is all about God’s mercy. He is the One who makes it happen. He has made a plan that will fulfill all His promises, and one day we’ll know what it is like to live in that wilderness that has been transformed into a garden of life. The water will flow.

The water will flow. Actually, the water already flows. While we are still waiting for the promises of God, they were fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is the Living Water that makes the desert bloom, and He is already doing so through His people. Though He never defeated the Romans, He did defeat the real enemy: death. The devil is still wandering around, trying to convince us to hate one another and taking advantage of our faults, but God is still in control. Even the fools will walk on the Way.

That’s a great comfort to those of us who continue to find enemies in our neighbors and who silently and not so silently ask God to take care of them. This idea of mercy is a scandal even to us today. We don’t want the Good News preached to our enemies. But why should God have mercy on us and not have mercy on them? After all, we were once enemies, too. His enemies. But He came to save us, and He transformed us by His grace.

James tells us to 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. Two thousand years is a long time since the first disciples followed Jesus. It is enough to make us doubt what we believe, just like John the Baptist. It makes us ask, “Are you the Coming One, or should we look for another?” In this world many people look for salvation in so many places. They cry out to God for all the wrong reasons. They don’t even realize why they need to be saved. They see enemies in every person who disagrees with them, but do not see that the real enemy has been defeated by God. Jesus’ work did not make sense to John. John preached repentance and the vengeance of God. Jesus healed and preached the mercy of God.

Jesus’ ministry certainly did not make sense to the religious elite of His day. The people He touched were the untouchables. He brought wholeness to the people who were 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. The religious leaders saw the untouchables as enemies; they were outcast, rejected, and ignored. But Jesus loved them. It made no sense to them and does not make sense to us.

Jesus loves us. This is good because we do not deserve God’s grace any more than those untouchables deserved mercy from the “righteous.” Despite our foolishness, God leads us on the Way of Holiness. He fills us with the Living Water; He fills us to overflowing. His grace is not meant to be bottled up inside us, but left to flow out into the lives of our neighbors, even our enemies. He has ransomed us and invited us home. As Isaiah said, “Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads: they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

The psalmist sings, “Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in Jehovah his God.” We might think that what we want for the future is a world free of those we call our enemies, but the reality is that in His world we will be brothers and sisters. This might upset us today, as we deal with the pain brought on by our differences. But in that day we will truly understand who was our enemy and we will be thankful that God has overcome sin and death and the devil. We will rejoice and praise God forever because He has promised that even the fools will walk in the Way. We will sing with gladness and joy.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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