A sermon preached at Prestbury Methodist Church on 4 December 2011, 2nd Sunday of Advent
The Bible passages for the second Sunday of Advent (Isaiah 40:1–11; Psalm 85:1–2, 8–13; 2 Peter 3:8–15a; Mark 1:1–8) contain a number of rich themes that focus on the coming King. All we are going to do here is to follow those themes through to where they might lead us.
But first, a delightful story told, I think, by the late Erma Bombeck.
A Jewish mother phoned her daughter.
“How are you, child?”
“Oh, Mamma. I’m so sick. I have a headache second to none; my sinuses are so blocked, I think my head is going to burst. The children are bored and won’t stop moaning. There’s no food in the house because I can’t drag myself to the shop; I haven’t washed the dishes since Thursday, and we’ve got no clean clothes. Oh Mamma, I don’t know what to do.
“Don’t worry child. Mamma’s here. I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’m going to walk down the hill and catch the cross-town bus. I’ll get off at the shop and by something for lunch; then I’ll call in at the drugstore and get you something for your head. Then I’ll walk up the hill to your house. I’ll make you some lunch and you can go to bed while I take the children to the park to get rid of some of their energy. When we get back they can watch TV while I wash the dishes and do the laundry.
“By the way, how’s Sam?”
“Your husband, Sam.”
“But my husband is Joseph.”
“Is this 0234567891”
“No, it’s 0234567892”
“Does that mean you’re not coming?”
Isaiah says, “Comfort my people. Announce the good news! Tell the towns of Judah that their God is coming!” Had Isaiah heard of Erma Bombeck he would have added: “This is no missed call. This isn’t the wrong group of children. This is the real deal; your God, your King, the Sovereign Lord is coming.”
In Psalm 85 we hear that our sin has cut us off from God but that God’s forgiveness is greater than our sin; it reaches further than the farthest places our sin takes us. God forgives the sins of his people. He promises peace and he is ready to save us. Then he says, “Love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will embrace.” Two magnificent promises. The first seems obvious: “Love and faithfulness will meet.” Surely you can’t have love without faithfulness? But I guess it is a reminder of what love really is. There is so much that passes for love today, which contains no faithfulness; a love that lasts only as long I’m getting what I want. There seems to be plenty of love without faithfulness.
Faithfulness and Love
There is also a whole lot of faithfulness that has no love. There are plenty of people who are faithful to their political leaders (or their lovers) and will do anything for them, obey their every command; but they won’t love them enough to point out their weaknesses; love them enough to say no, that’s not acceptable.
We need a place where faithfulness is infused with love, where love is enriched with faithfulness—a place where love and faithfulness meet.
Righteousness and Peace
The second promise is that “righteousness and peace will embrace”. The COP17 conference seems to mirror our society: it seems to be a place where a whole lot of righteousness is expressed. Each group, each organisation, each country represented, expresses the righteousness of its own position, but there is very little peace.
That sort of righteousness, righteousness without peace, leads to war. It happens within families, it happens within communities it happens between countries; righteousness without peace, leads to war. Equally, peace without righteousness leads to pain and suffering. There is a great deal of suffering going on in homes and schools and workplaces, all “for the sake of peace”. “I don’t want to rock the boat.” “I don’t want to get anyone into trouble.”
Raped in Afghanistan
A woman named Gulnaz was raped in Afghanistan and had a baby as a result. She was thrown into jail for adultery. As a result of a great outcry, she was pardoned on Thursday. But her pardon carried an expectation that she would agree to marry the man who raped her—even though there is a good possibility that he might feel so humiliated by it all that he will kill her or abuse her again.
The only way she can avoid bringing shame on herself, her baby daughter, and her family, is to marry the father of her child, even though he raped her. “My rapist has destroyed my future,” she is quoted as saying. “No one will marry me after what he has done to me. So I must marry my rapist for my child’s sake. I don’t want people to call her a bastard.”
The outcry against her situation was as a result of a documentary about Afghan women in jail. The problem, however, is that exposing abuse is so humiliating to the family that a woman who speaks out is often rejected by her relatives, which adds isolation to the abuse. Peace without righteousness. We may not have those extremes, where the justice system encourages the abuse, but in homes and communities across the nation, black and white, rich and poor, love and faithfulness are kept apart, and peace, without righteousness, is maintained at any cost.
The Psalmist promises us a place where love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will embrace.
“Comfort my people.” Isaiah picks up the theme of forgiveness that we found in the psalm. “They have suffered long enough and their sins are forgiven.” God’s forgiveness reaches out into the wilderness of our sin and failure—even that rapist’s sin and failure, if he would dare to receive it. God’s comfort and renewal bring new life to the desert of our despair and helplessness.
Isaiah is also called to proclaim “that all human beings are like grass; they last no longer than wild flowers…. Grass withers and flowers fade,” he says, “when the LORD sends the wind blowing over them.”
Now in the desert a message like that has impact. If you tell people in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands that we are like grass, after all the rain we’ve had, and we’ll think you are paying us a compliment; we’ll think you’re telling us that we are strong, and sturdy, and full of life.
But, in the desert, grass withers and flowers fade. In the desert, we know just how frail we are; we begin to feel like grass; we begin to sense that if the hot wind were to blow we, too, would wither and fade away.
And it is precisely there, at that moment, that God can reach us.
Let me read you a poem I wrote last year, based on a similar passage from Isaiah 38:
Only in the desert;
Not in our self-sufficiency and self-reliance;
Not in our comfort zones,
or our frenzied worship of the latest trends.
Only in the desert,
In the empty, uncluttered spaces;
Only in the desert,
A place of dying to the false self,
a letting go of all that I cling to,
all that defines me,
that gives me a sense of worth.
Only in the desert,
when I recognise my blindness,
my inability to see, to understand, to be wise,
when I recognise my inability to speak,
to bring words of wisdom, hope, and love,
when I recognise my lameness, my weakness,
my need to be carried.
Only in the desert,
When all that is false has died,
There in the depths of the desert,
The earth will rejoice,
Water will gush out of the rocks,
and sight and strength and speech will be given.
And what delight and celebration there will be
as we walk the path of life together;
In today’s passage, Isaiah says, “Comfort my people. Announce the good news! Tell the towns of Judah that their God is coming!”
2 PETER 3
But let me tell you, if I were a town of Judah, I’d be pretty nervous. We are like grass, remember; we are the desert flowers that fade with a breath of warm wind. And Peter tells us that on the Day of the Lord, it won’t just be grass and flowers; the entire earth, even the planets and stars will be gone, burned up in an instant, melted by the heat. Would someone like to tell those folk meeting down in Durban? They tell us that if the climate changes by just four degrees we’re in trouble. Well you can tell them, we’re going to be in much bigger trouble than they think.
But the good news is that God isn’t just coming with fire; he is bringing a new heaven and a new earth. God is not out to destroy what we have. He simply comes in his glory and majesty, and in his holy presence evil has no place. So if we turn away from God and hold onto those things that have no eternal significance, we will be blown away with them. If we hold on to power, to money (or the things that money can buy), we’ll discover that our possessions and status have no significance in the furnace.
Katie Melua (yes, I confess, I love her to bits), sings a song called The Flood. She sings about someone caught in a flood and clinging on to a rock, hoping to avoid destruction. The problem is that, holding on to the rock you are going to be battered by the floodwater itself and battered by anything the water is carrying with it.
Katie says, “What we own becomes our prison” and that, when anything threatens our possessions, we look for someone to blame.
“Blame no one is to blame
As natural as the rain that falls
Here comes the flood again”
When there is so much crime and corruption, there are plenty of people we can blame. When the markets crash and our savings are gone, it’s easy to point fingers. Sometimes the blame is deserved but it doesn’t restore our fortunes or make things better. We can blame others; we can blame ourselves; we can blame our past and our circumstances but it doesn’t do anything for us. When the flood comes and we are clinging to a rock in the swirling waters, it makes no difference where the flood came from, or whose fault it is. ‘What now,’ is all that matters. Katie suggests something radical in those circumstances: let go of the rock. We can become prisoners of our possessions and of our fears:
See the rock that you hold onto
Is it gonna save you?
When the earth begins to crumble
Why do you feel you have to
Hold on, imagine if you let go….
Wash away the weight that pulls you down
Ride the waves that free you from your doubts.
The imagery is stunning and far more eloquent than most of us manage for a Sunday service. Let go; let go of guilt and of blame, let go of plans and certainties, let go of possessions and power. Because God says, if you don’t, that rock you cling to is going to melt and you’ll go down with it.
Our God is coming
The flood you and I experience does not have the last word; the destruction that threatens you and your family (wherever it comes from) is not the all-powerful thing that it seems. Our God is coming.
He is coming to a place in your heart and mine. He is coming to renew our world by transforming our lives. His healing and transformation doesn’t necessarily begin with the outward needs of our bruised and broken bodies or our painful circumstances. He begins his work within.
But God doesn’t just want to save you and me, to bring us into this glorious new kingdom; he wants us to bring our neighbours, and for them to bring their neighbours and, yes, to bring the whole planet.
But, as we think about our neighbours, notice the difference between Isaiah and John the Baptist in the Mark reading. There are similarities: Isaiah said, “Prepare in the wilderness a road for the Lord.” And when John the Baptist announced the coming of the Messiah, he appeared in the desert—the very place where grass withers and flowers fade; he came, as Isaiah said he would, to the place of our weakness and our vulnerability, the place of our brokenness.
But Isaiah went on to say, “Tell the towns of Judah that their God is coming!” And what happened? When John the Baptist preached the good news, people came from those very towns of Judah, and from Jerusalem itself, to hear him. They came from the city of God’s temple, from the very place that God should have been found. If there was to be any good news, if there was news of God’s coming, surely it would be heard in Jerusalem? But no, it was proclaimed in the desert. God was starting something new; it was good news, Mark tells us, about Jesus the Christ, Son of God, and it began in the desert. Perhaps Jerusalem was no longer a place of good news.
My friends, where will the people of Prestbury, of Phayiphini, of Pietermaritzburg, hear the good news today? Is this a place of good news? Are we broken enough? Are we vulnerable enough, dependent on God alone, or has the rain given us a sense of self-sufficiency? Are we caught up in petty squabbling and point-scoring while the earth burns up around us? Are we clinging to our own plans and dreams; hoping that someone else will save us, something else will come up? Are we so busy clinging onto any rock we can find that we have no spare a hand to offer anyone else? Is this a place where good news is found? Is this a place where the rough places are made smooth and where, as one writer put it, “mountainous problems can turn into motorways of possibility”?
My friends, there’s work to be done. Get out there onto the highest mountain you can find and proclaim the good news. Tell the people around you, “Your God is coming. The Sovereign Lord is coming to rule with power, bringing with him the people he has rescued.”
- Advent Reflection: Joy, anticipated and celebrated (wonderingpilgrim.com)
- What’s the Baby’s Name? (jimkane.wordpress.com)
- Katie Melua: The Flood (wonderingpreacher.wordpress.com)
- Our God is Coming (wonderingpreacher.wordpress.com)