The text for this sermon is Isaiah 35:1-10. Pastor Jim Kniseley presented this sermon on December 11, 2016, the 3rd Sunday of Advent.
Grace, mercy and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
I suspect that some of us here need a dose of grace and hope in our lives. If we’ve experienced situations in our lives that have seemed (or seem now) utterly hopeless, we may wonder if anything good can come out of our distress. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah is a good one to turn to today. He is the one that we quote so often in the Season of Advent. Isaiah prophesied 700 years before Christ and it is amazing how accurate he is in describing Jesus as God’s Promised Messiah.
Isaiah’s job as a prophet is to continually call the people to trust and faithfulness to God in their lives. There is an added dimension of imminent danger in Isaiah’s day. The Assyrian empire was expanding and soon would obliterate the northern kingdom of Israel. Isaiah prophesied to Judah, the southern kingdom, that someday they too would face a terrible defeat. Many of their people would be carried off into slavery in Babylon. Isaiah said that would be their punishment for idolatry, worshipping other gods and not putting their trust in Yahweh God. He said this 100 years before it actually happened. But happen it did, in the year 586 B.C.
Someone has pointed out that the structure of the Book of Isaiah is like a miniature Bible. The Bible has 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 books in the New Testament. The first 39 chapters of Isaiah depict judgment and condemnation upon an immoral and idolatrous people. The last 27 books declare a message of comfort and hope, for the Messiah is coming as King and Savior.
People of Trinity and St. Jacob’s, where do you dwell in your religious faith these days? Do you live in the first 39 chapters of Isaiah or the last 27 chapters of Isaiah? Is your outlook on life governed by fear and expectation of punishment? Or, are you dwelling in the hope of God’s mercy and salvation?
People have all sorts of opinions about and pastors, and I ran into an unexpected opinion when I showed up for jury duty some years ago in San Diego. My number was called and I was en-paneled for a murder trial. A seventeen-year-old male was accused of killing another male in a fight outside a 7-11 convenience store. The defense lawyer asked a few questions and declared I was acceptable for the jury. The prosecution lawyer asked me fewer questions and declared I was unacceptable for the jury and I was dismissed. I asked an attorney friend about that since I was willing to serve. He told me that I was probably dismissed by the prosecution because “pastors are expected to be merciful”.
I thought about that back in 2009 and 2010 when the congregation I served was having hot and heavy discussion about the ELCA Decision on same sex marriage and ordination of gay and lesbian persons. Someone yelled at me, “What about repentance?” I wanted to yell back, “What about God’s grace?” I plead guilty. I rely more on god’s grace than I do on God’s punishment.
God’s grace is presented abundantly in Isiah through the numerous messianic prophesies. The book unveils God “the Holy One of Israel” who punishes his rebellious people, yes, but ends up redeeming them. In case anyone misses it, the very name Isaiah means in Hebrew, “The Lord saves.”
The particular reading we have today from Isaiah concerns his vision of what will happen when the people of Israel are released from their bondage and are sent home. The images are wonderful and we can read into them our ultimate experience of going to heaven and even our experiences here on earth when times of distress are lifted.
In Isaiah’s mind, he is describing leaving Babylon and walking through the wilderness on their back to Jerusalem and Judah. The parched desert sand becomes fertile soil and the plants will grow and blossom and there will be flowers. The land and the plants and flowers all will sing. All fear will be gone. The glory of the Lord will be revealed.
Here’s the tie to Jesus in this messianic prophecy by Isaiah: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongues of the speechless sing for joy…”Do you remember that Jesus went into the synagogue at Nazareth and read similar words from the 61st chapter of the prophet Isaiah, and then declared that all this was happening now? In other words, he was declaring that he was the fulfillment of this prophecy; he is the Lord’s anointed Messiah. Further, in our gospel reading today, John the Baptist’s disciples ask Jesus if he really is the Messiah and Jesus tells them this:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see; the 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.” Isaiah said that these would be signs of the messianic kingdom, the restored kingdom of Judah. We Christians understand a broader message that Jesus is God’s Messiah and all these things take place because of Jesus.
There is an image of the Messiah and his people that I want us to look at today. In chapters 42 through 53, the Lord calls his Messiah “my servant”. We can understand this being applied to one person, but the idea is applied to Israel as a nation. It is through the suffering servant that salvation in its fullest sense is achieved. How does this apply to us today? There are going to be times in our lives as Christians, as the Body of Christ, as this congregation, that we will be called upon to suffer for the sake of the gospel. We must not be tempted to avoid suffering at all costs or to see that suffering in only a bad thing. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor put to death by the Nazis, wrote that “we cheapen the cross of Christ when we look only at the rewards and not the cost.” Martin Luther prayed that all followers of Jesus would understand the difference between the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. So many in our world and in our churches understand that church life is all about worldly success, with growing budgets and growing attendance and wonderful buildings and adoration by the community where we live. The theology of the cross calls for following Christ wherever that leads and often that means failure in the eyes of the world and our call to suffer for the sake of Christ.
Dear friends in Christ, look for signs of God’s grace and hope. We don’t have to wait until the end of our lives and heaven for such evidence. Here in this congregation, you represent God’s grace and hope for the future. Your faithfulness whenever adversity rears its head is a sign of grace and hope. Those here who stand up for the marginalized and outcast in our society are signs of God’s grace and hope. Finally, the capacity to reach out with the good news of Jesus Christ is being enlarged around here these days, and that too is a sign of God’s grace and hope.
May God grant all of us grace and hope to prepare our hearts and minds for receiving him again at Christmas. Amen!