Sunday, December 4, 2005

Second Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Surely his salvation is nigh them that fear him, that glory may dwell in our land.

It has been two thousand years or so since Jesus walked in flesh, died on the cross, rose from the tomb and went to sit at the right hand of God the Father. For two thousand years, Christians have expectantly waited for His return in glory. As we read the lessons found in the scriptures, we get a sense of the urgency of sharing the message that they felt. The world in which they lived was chaotic and the hope they held came with an expectation of immediacy. They were suffering right then and there. In last week's passage we heard the Lord promise that their generation would not pass away until it all came to pass.

We hear this urgency as we read the passages for Advent, and yet it is hard to believe that we need concern ourselves with it right at this moment. After all, two thousand years of waiting has not accomplished anything. Tomorrow is another day. There is plenty of time to prepare for the day.

The official Christmas shopping season began on November 25, in some stores it began very, very early in the morning. Vicki and I usually like to go out just for the adventure. It has become one of the special things that we do together every year. While we do manage to find some things to purchase, we don't expect to get the great bargains. Last year we planned our trip so that we would be at one store at the hour they opened, hoping that we might be one of the lucky ones to reach the sale items and get our chance at that special deal. We even arrived early, thinking it would be worthwhile to stand in the cold to be close to the door. Unfortunately, hundreds of other people had arrived earlier with the same idea. By the time we got in the door, the items we wanted were gone. Our wait brought nothing but disappointment and yet we managed to find lots of other wonderful gifts before Christmas Day.

As I watched the pictures from this year's stampede into the stores, I wondered how many people would be disappointed. I also realized that the items they were standing in the cold to purchase would be available again there's always another sale, another deal, another shipment of the 'perfect gift.' Sometimes we just have to be more patient than we want to be.

Yet, it is hard to believe that five days have already passed since that first day of the shopping season. There are only twenty-five days left until Christmas. As I sit here planning my schedule I wonder if there is enough time to complete everything. Will I get my shopping done? Will my decorating be up early enough? Will I be able to make all my favorite Christmas cookies? I might think I have plenty of time, that tomorrow is another day, but the reality is that if I wait to prepare some things will not be ready. I'm standing here between the promise and the fulfillment of the promise. I can't just sit here and wait, there is work to do.

For two thousand years we've been standing between the promise and the fulfillment of the promise and except for the urgency found in the scriptures we have no idea when Christ will come again. At least I know that Christmas Day will be here soon. That great day for which we are waiting can't be inked onto a calendar. It might be today and it might not be for another two thousand years.

So how do we listen to the words in today's scriptures without thinking about those who have passed through this world only to be disappointed by the lack of satisfaction? Advent has historically been a time of penitence, a time of looking for the second coming of Christ. Yet, that purpose has almost been lost from our practice because we are so caught up in the present, and the presents. Our forefathers waited anxiously and did not see Him come in glory, why should we think we are the ones who will do so?

All our scriptures today touch on this time between the promise and the fulfillment. In Isaiah, we hear that all men are nothing but grass, that we will wither and die just like the flowers. As we look around our chaotic world, it is easy to see the truth in this statement and to think that there is nothing better. War comes and seems to stay forever. Natural disaster destroys the earth and everything in it and it seems like things will never return to normal. We try to restore relationships but we can't really let go of our anger or pain and we think that wholeness or healing is an impossible dream.

But while Isaiah does give us the truth of our condition, he also provides the promise the Lord GOD comes with might. "He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and will gently lead those that have their young." This prophetic utterance was given for those who'd been exiled in Babylon and who were looking forward to the promised restoration to Jerusalem. In verse one we see that forgiveness was already theirs. "Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem; and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she hath received of Jehovah's hand double for all her sins."

It might seem as though the promise is already fulfilled, for the forgiveness is theirs. Yet, Isaiah goes on to say "Prepare ye in the wilderness the way of Jehovah; make level in the desert a highway for our God." The people are stuck between the promise and the fulfillment. They still must wander in the wilderness before they will know the full measure of God's shepherding care.

In ancient days, when a king would pronounce a desire to go on a royal adventure, a frenzy of preparation would ensue. They would not only send ahead a warning party, the king would send forth an army to prepare the way. They would not only take everything the king could possibly need, they might even build a castle so that he would be suitably ensconced for his stay. They would also prepare the way, building a smooth and straight road on which the king could ride comfortably. "Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the uneven shall be made level, and the rough places a plain." After this, Isaiah tells us that "the glory of Jehovah shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."

It is then that the promises will be fulfilled, that the Lord will feed His flock and gather His lambs. It is then that He will carry them in His bosom.

But we have to get through the wilderness. Not only do we have to get through the wilderness, but we are called to "prepare the way of the Lord." We aren't forgiven to sit around and wait. We are called into faith to go out into the wilderness to raise up the valleys and bring down the mountains. We see this in John the Baptist. He is the one crying out in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord." He came, appeared in the wilderness a wild man himself calling people to repentance. The people came to him at the Jordan where they were baptized, confessing their sin. He was right out there raising up valleys and bringing down mountains.

He came with a promise. "There cometh after me he that is mightier than I, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose. I baptized you in water; but he shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit." They were standing between the promise and the fulfillment. What is it we are waiting for? Mark begins his Gospel with the words, "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God." What is the gospel? What is the good news of Christ?

We generally think of forgiveness as the good news, which it certainly is good news. After all, knowing that though we are grass fated to wither and die leads us to the realization that we need some source of salvation forgiveness or else we have nothing for which we can hope. Yet, we saw in Isaiah that forgiveness was a present reality for the Israelites despite the fact that they still needed to walk through the wilderness before they could see the glory of the Lord. So too, those who were baptized under John knew forgiveness, yet they still had to wait for the One who was to come. So here we are, two thousand years later, still waiting.

During the Advent season we are prepare our hearts for the coming of the child, again, and we wonder if there is any point in waiting and watching. It has been two thousand years. It no longer seems to an urgent need. After all, Christmas is only twenty-five days away. There are more important things for me to do than to sit and wait.

But that is the point of today's passages there is so much to do, things to prepare the way of the Lord. Peter writes, "And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation." Thank God it has been two thousand years for in His patience is our very salvation. And His continued patience means salvation for another soul, a soul that needs our witness today. We look forward to His coming with urgency and expectation not only because it is the fulfillment of God's promise of wholeness to us, but because time is short for those who have not yet heard the Gospel of grace.

Peter writes, "But forget not this one thing, beloved, that one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some count slackness; but is longsuffering to you-ward, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance." The Lord waits patiently until all He has called into His heart have arrived. If the Lord's day is like a thousand years, then only two days have passed since Christ was born so long ago in that manger.

Yet, we should not think we have another thousand years to wait, because God wants all to come to repentance. So He calls us all to be like John the Baptist, crying out in the wilderness to all those who will hear and be saved. Peter tells us, "the day of the Lord will come as a thief; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall be dissolved with fervent heat, and the earth and the works that are therein shall be burned up." We do not know the day; we can only look forward to that time when Christ will come in His glory.

So, we wait patiently, watching expectantly for that which we know will come our Lord in glory to feed His flock, gather His lambs and carry each of us in His bosom. Even now the promise is true, but it will be fulfilled and we will be made whole in that day for which we long. Now we can pray for peace on earth and good tidings for all men, then we will know true peace. Now we stand between the promise and the fulfillment, knowing that God is faithful.

So, while we are running around in the chaos of the Christmas season, let us remember that we are not only waiting for the coming of the Christ child, we are waiting for the coming of Christ in glory. We are standing between the promise and the fulfillment. Even while the Lord dwells in the land and in the hearts of His people, there is still an end to come, a fulfillment of the promise that we will be made whole and complete. We are called to be just like John the Baptist, called to cry out in the wilderness so that the world might see Him and live in the hope of what is to be one day whether it is today or in a thousand years. Thanks be to God.

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