First Congregational Church
December 10, 2017
Second Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11 & Mark 1:1-8
“Comfort and Peace”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
This morning’s sermon introduction is brought to you by the Advent Candle Lighting on breathing and peace, Oxfordshire born operatic tenor, Anthony Rolfe Johnson and bits of George Frederic Handel’s iconic oratorio.
“Comfort Ye” and “Every Valley”
I had never heard of Anthony Rolfe Johnson, but his biography says that while he was encouraged by his parents, there was no thought of taking up singing as a career. Instead he took an agricultural degree and became a farm manager, singing hymns he had learned in church to his herd of cows. Whether you are an opera lover or not, I think most would agree with a singing teacher who told him he was in the wrong job.
This morning’s Old Testament passage is brought to us from the prophet Isaiah. Some 700 years before Jesus would be born, Isaiah foretold a coming destruction of the holy Temple, which, incidentally, happened roughly 120 years after that prophecy. But the Temple was destroyed again in 70 AD, so one has to wonder just what Isaiah was predicting in the first 39 chapters worth of impending disaster and devastation to the Hebrew people. And then, almost as if another personality had kicked in, we have the words the 40th chapter.
Isaiah 40:1-11 (NIV)
1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 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. 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. 4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. 5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
6 A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. 7 The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”
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!” 10 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. 11 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.
Thank you, Sharon. This morning’s New Testament reading is brought to us from the book of Mark. It’s the earliest of the four Gospels - the earliest of which we have good, solid information. In this coming year, we will undoubtedly hear a number of passages from Mark, the most concise of the writers to a Gentile audience. Rather than giving a list of ancestors like Matthew or setting up the prophecies like Luke or getting all ethereal like John, Mark gets right to the action.
Mark 1:1-8 (NIV)
John the Baptist Prepares the Way
1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” — 3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’”
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 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. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 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. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Thank you, Bill. After a very long and boring sermon the parishioners filed out of the church saying nothing to the preacher. Toward the end of the line was a thoughtful person who always commented on the sermons.”Pastor, today your sermon reminded me of the peace and love of God!” The pastor was thrilled. “No-one has ever said anything like that about my preaching before. Tell me why.” “Well – it reminded me of the Peace of God because it passed all understanding and the Love of God because it endured forever!” It is always my hope and prayer that despite how disjointed any sermon may feel, that at least one little bit might work its way into each one’s heart and mind as manna for the coming week.
I doubt that anyone would argue that this morning’s scripture passages are neither reminiscent of the birth of the Messiah that we will soon celebrate nor as romantic as a Hallmark card. Much as we’d like it to be different, a good many folks are actually closer to these somber scenarios of the scripture passages than to a magical manger scene. In fact, I think that all the incense that I hear about putting Christ back in Christmas may not be so much about theology as a sort of pathology; a “deviation from propriety” as Merriam Webster says, as an avoidance of the holly jolly of the season. Whether it’s grief, illness, fatigue, pain, a broken heart, or any other burden that weighs the shoulders and souls down, if we looked a little deeper into our own hearts, we would probably readily discover just how far away we may be from that holy baby’s birthday - more than we’d really like to be.
If we were to step back from individual situations, we can get - cerebrally - get that we are spiritual beings having a human experience. But sometimes our humanity gets the better of us, allowing for our attention to be drawn away from the larger picture of life. And there is nothing wrong with that. We are human, after all. But we sometimes forget that the great Good News of the gospel is that 1. God understands our struggles and 2. we are not alone. It’s easy to forget that God has already entered our struggle. It just may not look like anything we may have anticipated.
I wonder if that’s part of the reason God chose John the Baptist as the heralder of Christ. He surely didn’t look like an announcer of the holy and divine Son of God. Didn’t eat stuff that looked like a holy heralder. Probably didn’t smell like the heralder we might conjure up in our minds, either. In fact, he was perhaps a rather goofy choice for the position. And aren’t we all just a little goofy, too? Which is part of the beauty of this whole Advent waiting.
No matter how we look, what we eat, what we wear, God is in the middle of it. No matter if it makes sense, if life confounds, if “comfort” seems like the most irrelevant encouragement, God was, is and always will be in the middle of it, regardless of whether it looks like it or not.
Which is where “faith” comes in. Faith is one of those strange words, because while we may believe and be believing, while we may trust and be trusting, we don’t have a faithing, although we may “practice” our faith.
It is in the practicing and faithing and believing that God is going to take of everything where we can find peace. If God is with us, and we practice trusting that God has a plan - that we may not understand or even appreciate, then we come closer to that peace that is promised us. We can put our situations, our worries, concerns, even our lives into God’s hands, to find the comfort and peace, of which this day promises us. And we get closer to really appreciating the deeper meaning of a baby being born into a world that struggles with unrest and discomfort on so many different levels. And we get closer to not just celebrating the Christ child, but experiencing all that surrounds that child and that Christ.
William H. Willimon, Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School, said, “Jesus preached some stirring sermons and pronounced some beautiful truth. But mostly what he gave us was himself, touching the untouchables, reaching out to the forgotten and dispossessed, sharing a meal with outcasts and sinners. At the end of this story that John the Baptist begins, Jesus will gather with us in an upper room and break bread and share a cup of wine saying, ‘This is my body, my blood, given for you.’ “
Scott Hoezee of Calvin Theological Seminary posed the idea of sitting down with a class of Kindergarteners and telling the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, but mixing in some bits from the Three Little Pigs or other story. Undoubtedly there would be some scowls and furrowed brows before an insurrection of “That’s not how it goes!”
When it comes to the stable at an inn on a night 2,000 years ago, the prophet Isaiah and the writer of Mark remind us that it’s not just about that night, but about so much more. So it’s good to have this season of waiting, that we can be reminded of the way the story really goes, with all it’s goofiness, contrarinessss, comfort and peace. So shall we pray?
Holy and Eternal God, we thank you that your word endures forever and that your promises are sure and true. We know that you understand how life can take our focus off your big picture and we can get caught in the minutia of things. So help us to remember the story of your son, in all it’s glory and depth and oddities, that in the practice of our faithing we come to embrace all the comfort and peace that you have for us. For these and all your gifts, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.