Sunday, December 9, 2007

Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 35:1-10
Psalm 146:4-9 or Luke 1:47-55
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

Due to an ironically hectic schedule during this season, today’s posting is a slightly edited repeat from 2004. I apologize for not putting more into this week's post, but I think the message is still as relevant as it was three years ago.

Go and tell John the things which ye hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good tidings preached to them.

I used to teach preschool. I had a small class of four and five year olds that met twice a week for a few hours a day. Christmas was an especially exciting time of year. The children were very excited about the upcoming holiday. They knew that December 25th was Christmas, even though they barely know how the calendar works. December presented a very hectic schedule as we tried to fit in our normal activities along with all the special activities we planned for Christmas. It doesn’t help that the month of December is extremely short because the school closes for the holiday. We had to rush Christmas to get it all in. I’m sure the same is true in all the other schools.

We do the same thing in the church. We love to celebrate Christmas, to sing the songs and to enjoy the story. We love to see our children acting out the nativity in homemade robes and furry sheep ears. We want to hear the carols we love and we can’t wait until Christmas Day. So, we ignore Advent and begin our celebration early. We use worship time to share our plays and cantatas. We do it early because so many families are busy or are on vacation during the holidays. All too many churches will miss out on the stories for this week because the choir or children are presenting a special program for the congregation.

Those programs are wonderful and they do tell the story of the Nativity. Christmas certainly is about the birth of Christ, but when we skip Advent, we miss out on the prophetic scriptures that are the foundation of our faith. How do we know that Jesus is the One? How do we know that He is the Savior? We know because He fulfilled the promises given in the Old Testament.

Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night and suddenly turned on the light? It is so bright that you are blinded for just a moment. It is better to gradually turn up the light so that your eyes can adjust. This is how it is for us spiritually when we try to jump into Christmas without taking the time to enjoy the journey. It is too bright, we are almost blinded by the majesty and we forget the humility. We look for the king and we ignore the suffering. We enjoy the gifts and giving and overlook the sacrifice.

There were those who, like John the Baptist, 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.

Despite the Old Testament prophecies, the people of Israel thought they knew what they were looking for in a Messiah. Jesus did not fit the bill. Even John, who earlier at the Jordan cried, “Behold, the Lamb of God, that taketh away the sin of the world!” had his own doubts. He sent some of his disciples to Jesus to ask, “Art thou he that cometh, or look we for another?” Jesus was not meeting John’s expectations. He was looking for fire and brimstone, Jesus was giving healing and forgiveness.

John heard what was happening even while he was in prison, yet he was unsure as to what he should do. If Jesus was truly the Messiah, he could let his disciples go to follow Him and rest in the knowledge that he had done his work well. If Jesus was not the right one, then John had failed. There was nothing he could do from prison except continue to encourage those who believed the Messiah was coming, helping them to be patient while they waited for the true Savior.

Jesus answered John’s doubts with scripture. “Go and tell John the things which ye hear and see: the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good tidings preached to them.” This is a reference to the promise found in Isaiah. “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall sing.”

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.

The promise of Isaiah points to another time in Israel’s history. The salvation the Israelites anticipated is freedom from exile. God promised a time when Jerusalem would be restored, when the people could go home and live in peace. It is a beautiful song of hope for well-being, when God will overcome the evil and the oppressed will be liberated. This promise was not for just one time, however. It was also a foreshadowing of the work and message of Jesus. It is about a homecoming – first the return to the Promised Land and then the return to a life in God’s Kingdom.

“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 is shall be for the redeemed: the wayfaring men, yea fools, shall not err therein. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast go up thereon; they shall not be found there; but the redeemed shall walk there: and the ransomed of Jehovah shall return, and come with singing unto Zion; and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads: they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” How we long for the world to look like this promise. This is a world of peace, where there is no fear or doubt.

Yet, even now two thousand years after the birth of Christ, we are still waiting for the fulfillment of this promise. 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.”

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, certainly not immediately for those who were the first to follow our Lord. It is enough to make us doubt what we believe, just like John the Baptist. It makes us ask, “Are you the one we are waiting for, 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. See, 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. 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 that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in Jehovah 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, He speaks to the people about John. “But wherefore went ye out? to see a prophet? Yea, I say unto you, and much more than a prophet. This is he, of whom it is written, Behold, I send my messenger before thy face, who shall prepare thy way before thee. Verily I say unto you, among them that are born of women there hath not arisen a greater than John the Baptist: yet he that is but little 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.

James tells us how to live while we are waiting. “Be ye also patient; establish your hearts: for the coming of the Lord is at hand. Murmur not, brethren, one against another, that ye be not judged.” We are not only to have patience, but we are to have patience with one another. When we are excited about something, it is so easy to be distracted by our expectation that we will step on everything and everybody that gets in our way. One of the most difficult parts of teaching school through December is the excitement of the children. They can’t sit. They can’t concentrate. They can’t think about anything else but the coming celebration.

We aren’t any different as adults. We are so excited about Christmas that we can’t patiently wait through Advent. We have to sing those carols and put Jesus in the manger before it is time. We predict the second coming even though Jesus warned us we would not know the time. We don’t live in anticipation, we expect satisfaction immediately. It is like trying to turn on the light in the middle of the night – blinding if not done slowly and patiently. This blindness makes us see improperly. We see Jesus as we want to see Him, but miss out on the true Messiah. We look for the king, but overlook the suffering servant.

What are you waiting for? Does your impatience make you doubt the truth of what God is doing? Do you wonder if Jesus really is the One, or if we should be looking for another? The answer is the same for us today as it was for John. “Go and tell the things which ye hear and see.” The blind see God, the lame go forth in faith, the filthy are cleansed, the deaf hear God’s word, the dead are raised to new life in Christ and the poor are given the treasures of the Kingdom. This is truly good news.

A WORD FOR TODAY
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