Sermon Advent 3A 2019 The Rev. John M. Atkins
The Prophet Isaiah 35:1-10
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”
5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
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The Letter of James 5:7-10
7Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. 8You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. 9Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.
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Gospel of Matthew 11:2-11
2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.
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After listening impatiently to a long and wearisome sermon, a young boy asked his Mother what the priest did the rest of the week. “Oh, our priest is very busy,” she said. “He takes care of church business, visits the sick, cares for those in need, and takes some time to rest up. Preaching a sermon isn’t easy.”
The young boy thought a moment, and said: “Listening to it isn’t easy, either.” (Cal and Rose Samra, More Holy Humor, Thomas Nelson Publ., 42-43, 1997)
Charlie Chaplin said: “Humor is today’s antidote to hate, fear, and prime causes that trigger hostility and violence.” (Cal and Rose Samra, More Holy Humor, Thomas Nelson Pub., 173, 1997)
If I’d have the opportunity to answer the young boy, I’d tell him, in all seriousness, listening to a sermon is often not easy.
Sometimes it’s because of the preacher, and other times it’s because of the message within the biblical text.
The prophet Isaiah painted a scene of the world as it will be when God’s Messiah comes to rule and reshape the earth.
You will notice that the re-creation of the world occurs primarily at the margins, in both wilderness and desert, places representing fear, limited resources, hardship and longing.
These are places many care to avoid.
The prophet speaks to the margins of society where issues look very different from the perspective at the center of power.
(Rosalind Brown, Fresh From the Word, Third Sunday Before Advent, Canterbury Press, p. 122, 2016)
Wilderness and desert will welcome God’s re-creating manifestation of love.
Yet, in those marginal locations God’s Messiah will come with vengeance.
God’s Messiah will save those who now are vulnerable, exploited and abused by those living in the center of power and ignoring their needs.
The Messiah will open the eyes of the blind, and the ears of the deaf will hear; the lame shall leap, and the tongue of the mute will joyfully sing; the land will be watered and flourish, and a clearly designated path will invite all who seek the Holy One.
All who enter by the Holy Way will sing with joy and gladness, for hardship and distress will be no more.
This is God’s promise to God’s faithful people.
John-the-Baptist sat in a dark, dank dungeon awaiting his execution by order of King Herod Antipas of Galilee.
John was only 31 years old. He had survived in the wilderness and experienced freedom from the oppression of society. John had announced the coming of the awaited Messiah, and pointed to Jesus as God’s Anointed One.
As he sat in prison, he wondered if he had gotten it right. John knew the ancient prophecies relating to God’s Messiah. One of the Messiah’s gracious acts would be freeing prisoners from their captivity.
But there he sat, in prison, wondering if he failed his mission. John sent word to Jesus through John’s disciples: “Are you the one who is to come?”
Jesus sent word back; it was a message directly from the ancient prophets: “the blind see, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor hear good news.”
Jesus confirms John’s mission complete to the crowds gathered around him. Jesus tells them: John was no reed shaken by the wind from threats uttered by abusive power-holders. John was the prophetic messenger preparing the way for God’s Messiah.
John didn’t hear this from his cousin, Jesus.
Jesus thought it enough that John knew his prophetic message and witness was not in vain.
James wrote the letter we have in our New Testament, before his execution, somewhere near the year 68 AD. James was the brother of Jesus and unbelieving in Jesus’ Messianic identity until after Jesus’ resurrection.
After his conversion to believing in Jesus as God’s Messiah, James took up leadership in Jerusalem within the fledgling Jesus-movement, alongside the 11 Disciples plus Matthias.
James knew the anxiety of waiting for Jesus’ promised return. He was acquainted with the abuse of power and exploitation of the poor and vulnerable in Galilee and Judea.
Abuse took place not only at the hands of the Roman Army, but also, by the hands of Israel’s wealthy land owners and the Holy Temple’s religious aristocracy.
In the midst of cruelty and injustice, the people living on the margins in the Holy Land, and beyond their sacred homeland, waited. They waited for liberation by God’s promised Messiah’s return.
James urged newly-forming Christian communities to patiently wait. Waiting, for James, was not a waste of time. When you and I have to wait in the checkout line or the doctor’s office or, after punching frustrating number of phone buttons to speak with a Customer Representative normally, we don’t count our waiting time as value. Instead, waiting to re-enter our busy schedules ups our blood pressure and increases anxiety.
But for James, waiting is of great value. Waiting allows us to anticipate, prepare and work towards God’s promised love for us and the world.
God promises that Messiah Jesus will return and those living on the margins will celebrate. They will receive good news; they will experience liberation from those abusing their power and exploiting the vulnerable.
Their hardship and tears will turn to songs of joy; the hungry will be filled with good things and the powerfully rich, unwilling to help the vulnerable and needy, will be sent away empty and excluded from God’s re-designed creation.
We are invited into this re-created world and live in celebration and love. Waiting for God’s liberating, joyful love to fill the earth is where you and I find ourselves today. We know Messiah Jesus will come again to bring to fruition God’s manifestation of love.
If you keep up with national and world current events you’re aware it’s very hard waiting for Messiah Jesus’ return.
On Thursday of this past week, Daily KOS Staff Writer, Walter Einenkel, wrote: Liliana Segre is an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor and Italian Senator-for-life has been under police protection because of anti-Semitic threats to her life. Senator Segre has come under fire from neo-fascists after promoting “a new parliamentary panel against racism, discrimination, anti-Semitism and online hatred,” according to TIME magazine.
Italy has seen the rise of neo-fascism like Germany, the US and some parts of the rest of the world in recent years.
The Forza Nuova party has taken a violent line on refugees and immigrants as the reasons for the economic inequalities that have plagued Italy. And, anti-Semitic fervor has underpinned this fascistic hatred as it always does. On Tuesday, December 10th, CNN reports that the 89-year-old Senator, Liliana Segre, was escorted through the streets of Milan, accompanied by 600 Italian mayors and thousands of supporters, in a public march of support while the crowd chanted her name and sang an anti-fascist song “Bella Ciao.” Behind her a banner was unfurled that read “Hatred has no future.”
We hear other disturbing stories of disgusting hatred and ignorance, and, also, we hear stories of generous, loving acts which plant seeds of hope.
This describes the world in which Isaiah lived, John-the-Baptist, Jesus and James lived, and this is the world in which we live. Today we await the promise of God’s love that will come in its fullness when Messiah Jesus returns. Jesus already offers us the path to our salvation through his life, sacrificial death and resurrection. Now we await the salvation of the world, when God’s loving vision comes alive.
We wait, but while we wait, we are to work in helping God’s love bring justice, hope, peace and liberation to people desperate to sing songs of relief and delight.
I end with another quote by Charlie Chapin: “You need Power, only when you want to do something harmful, otherwise, Love is enough to get everything done.”