Sermon – Advent 3 – "The Christian Hope II" – Isaiah 35:1-10 – 12/12/10

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"And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away." (Is.35:10).

This is now the 3rd Sunday in the season of Advent. As we have rehearsed with the children, we have the custom among us of lighting extra candles during this season as a way to track the time until Christmas. As Mainers can especially appreciate, the season of Advent comes at the darkest time of the year. And so we welcome the added light. As we progress through this season by adding light, we're reminded that the darkness of our sinful world and our sinful hearts has indeed been overcome by the One who calls Himself and who is, "the light of the world."

There is a special significance attached to the 3rd Advent. I've head this 3rd Sunday in Advent referred to "Pink Candle Sunday," but the more historic and better name is, "Gaudete" Sunday. "Gaudete" is a Latin word that means – "to rejoice." It's the first word of the Introit for this day, "Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I say rejoice" from Philippians 4. Today, we are directed to reflect our deliverance out of this life where sin and death are inescapable realities of life, and to that day when we will wake up in a foreign land, where God our Father, and our Lord, Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit, our comforter is "all in all."

What could be more timely and welcome than this focus on a day in which death has touched us all too closely?

In our Old Testament reading, the prophet Isaiah describes the 'new world' that awaits us in fantastic terms. And he describes the joy of God's people as they prepare to enter this 'new world' like this, "And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting JOY shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and JOY, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away." (Is.35:10).

In our Gospel reading for this morning, John the Baptist wants to know if it could possibly be true that the time has finally arrived for the 'rejoicing' to begin. For John the Baptist, if Jesus is truly the Christ, then even those locked up in prison and awaiting death should 'rejoice and be glad' because if the Son of God is indeed present among us, then our destiny is secure and we live with a real hope in our hearts and we die with a song of praise on our lips.

There is a stark contrast between the picture that the prophet Isaiah paints for our ears to see and the one in our Gospel text. Isaiah paints a picture of a world where everything is perfect and the people of God live in perfect safety and security. But in our Gospel, we see John the Baptist locked up in prison. John lives in a dark and dreary world where death is lurking right around the corner. Isaiah paints a picture of the destiny of all believers. Matthew paints of picture of our life here and now.

So, of these two readings, the future is actually laid out for us in the Old Testament and the past and the present in the Gospel. Even though the Old Testament is written long before the New Testament, so much of what is written in the Old is still yet to come. Just like John, we still need to be assured and reassured that Jesus is the Christ whom the whole Old Testament pointed to.

And just like John, we still get confused from time to time, and we have our doubts. We question the reliability of those promises God's makes in His Word. It's been a long time. And this world doesn't look at all like the one that Isaiah described.

So, either the whole thing is a hoax, and we who have put our hope in these promises in the bible are of all people to be the most pitied, OR the time simply has not yet come. It is still a time of waiting – something which we impatient human beings have a hard time doing. And so on this 3rd Sunday in Advent where the key word is "gaudete," we are also rightly reminded in our Epistle reading to be patient. "Be patient therefore, until the coming of the Lord… Establish your hearts for the coming of the Lord is at hand." (James 5:7,8). Maybe we should call this "patientia" Sunday. "Patience Sunday." Or better yet, patientia gaudete" Sunday. This is a time of "patient rejoicing," which is something very close to that "repentant joy" with which "we receive the salvation accomplished for us by the all availing sacrifice of His body and His blood on the cross."

So, maybe the most important word for us to be sure that we hear in Isaiah's prophecy is that little, inconspicuous word, 'then.' "THEN the eyes of the blind shall be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped; THEN shall the lame man leap like a deer and the tongue of the mute sing for joy." In fact, it just so happens that everything that Isaiah writes in this wonderful prophecy, he writes in the future tense. "No lion SHALL BE there and no ravenous beast SHALL BE found there. And the ransomed of the Lord SHALL return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy SHALL be upon their heads; they SHALL obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing SHALL flee away."

This is not only a paradise where humanity dwells in complete gladness and joy, but it's also an Eden where the all the creatures and all creation behave itself in reverent devotion to their Creator.

Obviously, the paradise that Isaiah foresaw and described lies beyond the days of John the Baptist and beyond our days too. St. Paul's imperative to 'rejoice in the Lord always', is still a rejoicing over what is to yet to come. The prayer that our Lord taught us to pray saying, "Thy kingdom come," is still the yearning of our heart 2000 years later. This prayer is not yet obsolete as it one day will be.

It will come when it will come. We cannot, as Jesus says so many try to do, "take the kingdom of heaven by force." We can't force it's coming sooner any more that we can force the sun to rise earlier or set later than it will. But this much we know, there will come a day when the sun will rise and never set. And when that final day dawns, it will be an eternal day that never ends. In his revelation, St. John sees this eternal day and writes, "And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light…" (Rev.22:5).

So, how are we to live in, what the writer to the Hebrews calls, "these last days?" How are we to walk along, what Isaiah calls, 'the Way of Holiness,' that runs right through the middle of a very unholy world and which is overcrowded and congested with fools and ravenous beasts – we ourselves being one of them?

We do just what John the Baptist did. We seek assurance and reassurance that Jesus is the "one who is to come." We don't send others to go and report back to us what they hear unless we're a shut-in like John was. We come to where Jesus is present and doing His work and we hear His Word and eat His body and drink His blood. And by these means we are reassured once more that Jesus is the One who is to come and He has come, who is with us where we are, and who promises that one day, we will be with Him where He is.

Unfortunately, St. Matthew doesn't finish this account. He doesn't tell us how John reacted when his disciples came back to him with the report of what Jesus was doing. Did John react angrily and say, "yea, but what has he done for me? If I'm the 'greatest among those born of a woman,' why am I still locked up in this prison and why am I about to loose my head for making the good confession of faith?" No, certainly not, for that would be to try to seize the kingdom of heaven by force.

Surely, John would have reacted with "patient rejoicing." Jesus is the Christ, the One who is to come has come, and therefore the night is almost over and the eternal day is surely 'at hand' when every prison door will be ripped from it's hinges and every prisoner will walk into eternal freedom; when every ravenous beast will be beheaded, whether its name be Herod or Satan, violence or war, hunger or poverty, cancer or cholera, death or grave.

Certainly, John's life was not the pretty picture that Isaiah painted. But it was enough for John to know that Jesus is the One who is to come and that He HAS come into this world.

The Christian's hope is always based on this two-fold certainty: first, that Jesus is the One. He is the long awaited, promised One whom the whole Old Testament pointed to. And second, He has come into this world.

It does us no good to believe one of these truths without the other. If Jesus is not the Christ, then He's just one more fool in this world, and Lord knows, we've got enough of them already. And if He is the Christ but He has not come down to us, to ransom and redeem us, then we must climb up to Him in order to be saved. And there is no hope in that. Our hope is in Emmanuel – God with us – right here in our sinful and fallen world, right here in the dungeons that we have built for ourselves and the prisons in which we're being held captive.

Jesus the Christ came into this world IN THE PAST, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. The whole world was held hostage under sin and the devil – all humanity, all the creatures, His whole creation. He came into this world in the past to pay the ransom price for our release. "You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as sliver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ…" (1Peter 1:18-19).

Whenever there's a hostage situation where a ransom must be paid, once the ransom is paid, there is still the hostage exchange that must take place. Jesus Christ comes into this world IN THE PRESENT to take what He has paid for. The great exchange is made in Holy Baptism, one person at a time, we where we were handed over to Christ. And He continues to come to us IN THE PRESENT and we hear His voice speaking comforting and reassuring words to us from the Scriptures. He comes to us here and now to assure us of His presence with us by putting His body into your hands and His blood to your lips.

We still however, await the day when we ransomed and redeemed people of God enter into the fullness of His presence. But we wait with patience because we know that HE WILL COME AGAIN and the eternal day will begin and have no end.

Until then, we live in the 'now but not yet.' It's life in the midst of death, joy in the midst of sorrow, "summer in winter, day in night, heaven in earth and God in man." (Richard Crashaw). We are fully confident that Jesus is the Christ who HAS COME TO US and IS WITH US. And yet still we pray, "come Lord Jesus."

"And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away." (Is.35:10).

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