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Friday, December 5, 2014

Advent 2: Prepare the Way for the Lord


Comfort, comfort my people,
    says your God.
 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
    that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.

Israel had been through a terrible time. These words are spoken to the nation in Exile in Babylon, after a dreadful siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar, which in fact the LORD had
warned would happen right back in the time of Moses and then repeated by God’s faithful prophets for 500 years. And eventually God’s patience ran out and He brought on them what He had warned/promised. A similar thing happened again nearly 600 years later, when Jesus, God in the flesh, prophesied over Jerusalem that she would once again be destroyed…and she was, this time even more violently by the vicious Romans.

I say again what I have said so often before…don’t mess with our God. The prophet continues:

3 A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
    the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
    a highway for our God.

He calls to the exiled, captive people of God and says: “In the wilderness… prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” The wildernesses and the deserts, in your life and in mine, are the very places where we prepare and make a way for the Lord…the very places that our human nature says “Avoid, at all costs” are the very places where we can do our best preparation to receive The Way, The Truth and The Life. The very places where we are tempted to believe that The Way, The Truth and The Life are furthest away from us, are the very places where He is to be found, but, … listen for the voice of one calling…Listen!

Sometimes He can be heard in earthquake, wind or fire, but as Elijah discovered as he ran from the earthquake, wind and fire of Jezebel, more often than not, the voice of the Lord, the voice of one calling, be it the Lord’s or one of His servant’s, is heard in stillness. Learn with the Psalmist to “calm and quiet” yourself
(But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content. Ps 131:2). Let us practice and learn to be still…for then we will know that He is God, that He, even in the midst of our desert or wilderness, is still on the throne (“Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” Ps 46:10)

John the Baptist appears to have sensed in these words of Isaiah, God’s call to him. We don’t know, but I’m sure it would have been in a time of silence, of stillness, meditating on the Word of the Lord, the Scriptures, that he would have heard the voice of One calling him to be the voice of one calling…and so he moves out into the wilderness to show what God can do in the wilderness, your wilderness, my wilderness. Listen to our Gospel reading:

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way”—
 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”
 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. (Mark 1:1-4)

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the new thing that God is always waiting to do, so often begins in our deserts and wildernesses. Now while in the history of the church some have felt called to become hermits and withdraw into the desert, and we thank God for the desert fathers and what they taught us regarding spirituality, I don’t think the general call of God is into the desert but rather it is an invitation to find ways of embracing rather than running away from or avoiding, the deserts and wildernesses that creep up on us, for deserts and wildernesses are God’s spiritual laboratory.

Back to Isaiah (and Mark, who quotes Isaiah)

4 Every valley shall be raised up,
    every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
    the rugged places a plain.

Think of the mountains and valleys, the rough and the rugged places in your life right now, and listen to these words again as God’s words of promise and hope to you:

Every valley shall be raised up,
    every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
    the rugged places a plain.

Now hear John the Baptist’s preaching on this text:

‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”
 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.  The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

John links this promise of the levelling of your mountains and the filling in of your valleys to repentance. John warned, and warns, his hearers to prepare a way for the Lord - to make a clear and level pathway. In the context of my sermon Christ the King (2 weeks ago), but obviously for all who are saved by faith, this involves removing any boulders that stand in the way, and filling in any potholes. The boulders are the things we have done that we should not have done; the potholes are the things we have failed to do which we obviously should have done. John reminds us (and I think we need reminding) that in preparation for Christmas our thoughts should not be focused on letters, cards and presents, but on repentance, humbling and interior 'housecleaning'.

John (as Jesus would later, and as all the prophets had done previously) calls us to repentance and points us to the Jesus who will baptise us with the Holy Spirit. And now I have to ask, not “Have you been baptised in the Holy Spirit?” but rather “Are you baptised in the Holy Spirit?, Does your cup runneth over? Would you describe your life as abundant life, life in all its fullness?” These are the promises of Jesus to you and to me.

And I have to ask because we leak, don’t we? We leak, because, back to Isaiah:

 “All people are like grass,
    and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
    Surely the people are grass.

Why do we leak? Because our faithfulness withers and falls…it is like grass and flowers. Does that describe you and your faithfulness, this past week, month, year? Be honest. Has your faithfulness, which of course plays out in your obedience, has your faithfulness been steady, or better still, has it gone from strength to strength…or has it been like our Highveld grass and flowers, green, strong, upright one week, and wilting, drooping, yellowing the next…and now with all the rain, green and strong, but what will it look like in two or three weeks time. Be honest this Advent, confess, repent, remove boulders, fill in potholes, and, on this Second Sunday in Advent, let us rejoice with Isaiah that:

8 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of our God endures forever.”

It doesn’t get better than that: God’s word, His promises to you, His assurances to you endure forever. And there are so many assurances that I can’t even scratch the surface: “I am with you…..the fire won’t burn you…the waters won’t overwhelm you….you will not, ever, be tested beyond what I know you can bear….nothing can separate you from my love…I am doing a new thing, you can see it now…and so on, and so on.

The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of our God endures forever.”

And so I close with the words of Isaiah, echoed through the ages by John the Baptiser and by all who have followed:

9 You who bring good news to Zion,
    go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
    lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
    say to the towns of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
    and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
    and his recompense accompanies him.
 He tends his flock like a shepherd:
    He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
    he gently leads those that have young.

Isaiah began with the words: "Comfort, comfort my people."


In the midst of your wilderness, or desert, your wilting, your drying up or in the midst of your great faithfulness and abundant, cup overflowing life...where ever you find yourself right now, where ever it is that you are trying to prepare the way for the Lord, where ever it is that you might be leaking even as you confess and repent, may you know and experience the comfort of your Lord.

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