Sunday, Sunday, December 4, 2011

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

Prepare ye in the wilderness the way of Jehovah; make level in the desert a highway for our God.

When we think of the concept of peace, especially in our world today, we think of peace between nations. Wikipedia says, “Peace is a state of harmony characterized by the lack of violent conflict. Commonly understood as the absence of hostility, peace also suggests the existence of healthy or newly healed interpersonal or international relationships, prosperity in matters of social or economic welfare, the establishment of equality, and a working political order that serves the true interests of all. In international relations, peacetime is not only the absence of war or conflict, but also the presence of cultural and economic understanding and unity. There is also a sense of tolerance in international relations for the realization of true peace.”

The Latin word from which we get the word peace means “freedom from civil disorder,” so there is some justification for our thinking of peace in these terms. Christmas has become a time to cry out for peace on earth; now more than ever people want to live without fear, with hope and joy. It is hard to be happy when your world is literally exploding around you.

I want to focus on one particular part of the Wikipedia definition, however. “Peace also suggests the existence of healthy or newly healed interpersonal relationships.” That is more appropriate to the text for this Sunday and for the preparation of Advent. Christ came to restore us to our Father and to one another, to overcome the darkness and sin that has created conflict between people. This can be pursued on a large scale as is done through international treaties, but the cry for peace for most people is a desire for something more personal. We are looking for peace in our own lives, in our hearts. Of course we want peace on earth, but true peace begins inwardly.

The image in today’s Gospel lesson is harsh and almost frightening. John is a bizarre character. He lives in the wilderness, wears camel hair and eats locusts. This is not a man that we would necessarily follow. He is not the kind of charismatic figure that we seek out for peace. His message is rough; he told people they were sinners. He called them to repentance. He baptized the people, but admitted that his baptism was nothing compared to the baptism that would come from God. This is not comforting. It is not pleasant. It is frightening and disconcerting.

Yet people flocked to this madman in the wilderness, longing to see the one who fulfilled the promise we hear in today’s Old Testament lesson. In that text, the message is not so frightening. It is not so unpleasant. God speaks comfort to His people and promises that they will be restored. Isaiah says, “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.” The ‘warfare’ in this text is referring to the exile, the consequences of their sin against God. They served their sentence and were about to be set free to return home. This promise of restoration was especially significant to a people who were living under the oppressive hand of the Romans. There was peace in terms of the absence of violence, and they were in many ways free to be the people of God. But they were looking forward to the day when the throne of David would be restored, when they could live again as a sovereign nation.

John provided them a glimpse of the fulfillment; they could hope, once again, that God was about to do something spectacular. Now, John spoke these words in the days before the adult man Jesus began His ministry. But we hear these words during Advent to remind us that the King for whom we are waiting is not the child in a manger. He came as a baby, to be human as we are human, but we cannot hold onto the image of the baby. It was not His birth that brought us salvation. It was not even His ministry that brought us salvation. It is the power that comes by fire and Spirit.

Isaiah writes, “All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth, because the breath of Jehovah bloweth upon it; surely the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the word of our God shall stand forever.” Peace, true peace, will come when our flesh is destroyed by the breath of God, consumed by His fire and Spirit, and we are made new. This might seem frightening, but it is the hope of Christmas: that we will be transformed and restored to God. When God comes, when He rules, He will take care of us as a shepherd takes care of His flock. John’s message might seem rough and disconcerting, but it reflects the promise of Isaiah. God is coming, prepare the way. He is coming to do something spectacular, make your hearts ready.

This was a promise for the people in Isaiah’s time, fulfilled when God restored Jerusalem and the people went home. It was understood as a promise to the people in John’s day, which was fulfilled by the coming of Jesus. Jesus has come, He’s finished the work, we are saved: so how is this still a promise for us? Is a promise fulfilled still a promise?

It is still a promise because though Jesus was born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago, lived and died on the cross and was then raised, we still wait for His coming again. The promise is fulfilled, is being fulfilled and will be fulfilled: this is the way of God. He was, is and is to come. He exists outside time and space, so we who are bound by our human flesh must look forward to the day when we are no longer bound. Perhaps we are tired of hearing about the end times. After all, we’ve had so many texts dealing with eschatological issues over the past month or so and it is not a subject we like to dwell upon. We live for today, we look forward to that day but we do not want to make it the entire focus of our faith. We live in hope of the promise not just to get to the end, but to live well along the way. The joy will be incredible when we are fully transformed and restored to our God, but the journey is a gift, too. What are we going to do along the way?

Isaiah says “Prepare ye in the wilderness the way of Jehovah; make level in the desert a highway for our God.” They were forgiven, but not yet home. They still had to wander in the wilderness before they will know the full measure of God's shepherding care. We are the same, stuck between the already and the not yet.

In ancient days, when a king desired 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 take everything the king could possibly need; they might even build a castle so that there would be a suitable place for his visit. He often stayed a year or more, so everything had to be perfect. The army would also prepare the way; they would build a smooth and straight road on which the king could ride comfortably. Isaiah writes, “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.” Only then would the king leave for his journey.

We are like that army that went ahead of the King, but we aren’t building roads on which He can ride. We are lifting the lowly and bringing down the mighty, not with weapons or warfare but with the grace of God. With His Word all are made equal, not in the flesh but in the Spirit as children of God. We prepare the way by speaking forgiveness and calling others out of the wilderness into the river of repentance. We are just like John, but the message we bring is even better because it has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. The people went to John at the Jordan to be baptized, confessing their sin and receiving God’s grace. He was right out there raising up valleys and bringing down mountains. We are called to do the same today.

Peter lived in the day when the people were hopeful for Christ’s imminent return. They were expecting Him at any moment. They were beginning to doubt the words of Jesus because it seemed to be taking so long. They wondered where He might be and why He was late. There were, I’m sure, even some who were trying to hasten His coming. During every generation some believer has preached the imminent return of Christ. Ours is no different. After all, it has been two thousand years. Isn’t it time? Prophets have tried to discern the actual moment Christ would come, and cults have built up around ideas and practices meant to spur God on to fulfilling His promises. We have waited a long time for His coming; it is easy to think that we can hasten the coming of the Lord.

But we learn from Peter that a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like a day for God. What has taken forever for us has only been a moment for God. We might think that God is taking too long to fulfill the promises, but He knows when the time will be right. Everything is not yet ready. God is patient because He is waiting for all those for whom the promise was intended to hear the Gospel message. There is great hope in this message: God does not want any to perish. He is patient and longsuffering. Christ will not come until the way is made right, when the road is level.

In this epistle, written for the believers, Peter says that God is, “longsuffering to you-ward.” Thank goodness He is patient, because there is still work for us to do, and God is giving us the time. He is waiting until we have accomplished all that He has commanded us to do. Those who have yet to hear the Good News of Jesus Christ; they are walking in darkness. But we are the light sent to share the hope of His promise of transformation and restoration. The message we take might seem harsh and disconcerting to some, after all it is not comfortable to tell someone they are a sinner, but in doing so they will experience they come with confession and repentance. They will be transformed into children of God and truly experience what it means to be at peace.

God is patient, not just for those who haven’t heard, but also for us. He is waiting until we do the work we have been called to do. God’s patience is our salvation. The King for whom we wait might come today or in a thousand years, but His is coming. When He comes, what will He find? Will He find people who are at peace, transformed and restored by His grace? Will He find His army at work making the road straight? Will He find us faithfully living the life He has called us to live, crying out in the wilderness to those have yet to hear the Good News?

We wait, we watch, we hope, but it is not for us to stand still. We have a job to do. There are people who need to see the light. We are called to share the Good News, like John, but our message is even greater than his. God’s grace has won, first in the manger and then on the cross. Now, let us wait in this time with hope and expectation, shining the light that is Christ to the world so that they too might be saved. And who knows, the one for whom God is waiting might just be someone you know and love.

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