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Sermon for 10 December 2017

FIRST READING Isaiah 40:1-11

1Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 3A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 6A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. 7The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. 8The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. 9Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” 10Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.


PSALM Psalm 85

1You have been gracious to your land, O Lord, you have restored the good fortune of Jacob. 2You have forgiven the iniquity of your people and blotted out all their sins. 3You have withdrawn all your fury and turned yourself from your wrathful indignation. 4Restore us then, O God our Savior; let your anger depart from us. 5Will you be displeased with us forever? will you prolong your anger from age to age? 6Will you not give us life again, that your people may rejoice in you? 7Show us your mercy, O Lord, and grant us your salvation. 8I will listen to what the Lord God is saying, for he is speaking peace to his faithful people and to those who turn their hearts to him. 9Truly, his salvation is very near to those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. 10Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. 11Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven. 12The Lord will indeed grant prosperity, and our land will yield its increase. 13Righteousness shall go before him, and peace shall be a pathway for his feet.


SECOND READING 2 Peter 3:8-14

8But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. 9The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. 10But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. 11Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! 13But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. 14Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.


GOSPEL Mark 1:1-8

1The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, 3the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” 4John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And all the country of Judea and all Jerusalem were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist and ate locusts and wild honey. 7And he preached, saying, “After me comes he who is mightier than I, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”



One of the things I’ve done in the past is have a little fun with the sermon by using secular Christmas songs to introduce the readings during Advent. With that in mind I think an appropriate song for this Sunday might be a tune several decades old; one that was performed by a young rock-and-roller named Elvis Presley. I’m certain many of you have heard of, and remember this particular song, “I’ll have a blue, blue, blue, blue Christmas without you.” I thought “Blue Christmas” fit in rather nicely with the way the prophet Isaiah begins our Old Testament reading for today; “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” (Isa 40:1.)
Comfort: that’s seems like an unusual command considering that with all the joy this season brings, one would think that other than some rest from all the chaos, comfort would be unnecessary. But, we must acknowledge, not everyone is full of cheer this holiday season. Despite the improving economy, there are still some who are experiencing difficult economic times. There are folks living on the streets, for a variety of reasons, there are a good number of people who can’t seem to make ends meet and all these are feeling the stress of making this Christmas season special for themselves or their families. Therefore, comfort is exactly what some people need this time of year. In fact, statistics indicate that this is a season when depression is at a peak for a good many people. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God,” writes Isaiah.
“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. A voice of one calling: In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
The season of Advent shows us many things; for one, it shows us that God cares about a troubled and broken world. Isaiah was speaking to a fractured nation. The worship of idols and secular matters had been allowed to replace the true worship and honoring of God. Judge after Judge, Prophet after Prophet and king after king had been sent or anointed by God to call the people back, but they refused to listen. And now, because of their refusal to return God to the center of their lives and worship, the northern tribes of Israel have been carried away into captivity and scattered by the Assyrians, and the Southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin are being threatened by the Babylonians. Isaiah is telling the inhabitants of Jerusalem that they’re about to suffer the same fate. Those in captivity long to return to their home land. Those facing the advancing armies of Nebuchadnezzar are looking for hope.
Now in the face of what seems like hopeless times, Isaiah assures them that God has neither forgotten them, nor, has He forsaken them, despite their unfaithfulness. God was preparing the way for their return, a highway through the wilderness from Babylon back to their home, the Promised Land. In the New Testament, the gospel writer Mark records that John the Baptist calls out to those who would listen, that God was again building an even more important highway linking humanity and God. The message of Isaiah and John the Baptist is the same; God cares about a shattered world. God cares about broken and hurting people.
I was preparing for a funeral service a few weeks back and a statement in the Greeting caught my attention. It’s a Greeting I’ve used many times, but it took a while for the words to sink in. It comes from Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians. Starting at verse 3 of the first chapter we read, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”
God first comforts us, so that we can comfort others. It’s a statement that makes you stop and realize, this is part of what being a Christian means. God blesses us with His promises and peace not for us to simply sit back and watch the world go by, but to share the gifts of God with others. God comforts us so that we can comfort others. This reminded me of a country ballad that talks about a single mom who had fallen on hard times.
In this song, the writer explains that the woman with no place to go and out of money shows up at a truck stop and asks for a job. The owner, an observant individual, looks at the car she’s in and the condition of the kids and offers her not only the job but a place to stay as well. Because the times were hard, the midnight shift was the only thing available; desperate, she gladly takes it anyway. She pays a local teenager to sleep with the kids at night and she sleeps while the kids are in school. Things are tight, but she manages until Christmas. But as things go, her car needs new tires, the kids need new clothes and coats and she doesn’t have money for either. Without saying a word, she says a little prayer and goes to work on Christmas Eve.
The usual mix of truckers and regulars are there, and everything seems normal, yet as the night wears on she becomes more and more concerned about what she will tell the kids in the morning. 8 am arrives and she finishes her shift and slowly heads to her car. It’s cold and the snow is blowing, so she quickly gets in her car without looking around. Sitting in the car she wonders what to do next and then looks in the mirror as she begins to back out. The scene in the mirror stops her in her tracks. In the back seat she finds 4 new tires, a box full of clothes and toys for each of her children and a large box of groceries. No note, no explanation.
Quickly she looks back in the window of the diner, but no one is watching everything looks the same as any other day. Suddenly, the simple necessities of life have become not only the answer to her prayer, but a source of great comfort in her time of need. It’s a sappy little song, yet it’s one that carries a message for each of us.
For one, the message of the song tells us that we can’t always tell who around us is in need, unless we’re willing to look. I was doing some visiting at the hospital not long ago and was waiting for the elevator. There were three other people waiting as well, and one gentleman, in particular, stood out. He was chatting and laughing with the others, in a light-hearted way, when he finally noticed me standing there. At the time I had a collar on, so he addressed me and asked how I was doing and where I was headed to. I replied I was doing well and I was getting off on the 5th floor. Then I asked how he was doing.
As the elevator doors opened he asked if I had a word of encouragement for him, times were tough, and he needed some words of comfort. Needless to say, this caught me off guard. Based on the conversation I had observed, anyone around would have thought things were going well. The point is, sometimes we need to look beyond the laughter and see the hurt some people are experiencing. In this season of get-togethers, laughter and joviality, we need to take a few moments and check, not only on each other, but, on those we come in contact with, and see how they’re doing.
Many times, all some people need is a little of our time. All they need is for us to stop what we’re doing and give them a word or two of encouragement. They need to hear, that even in the midst of what may seem like impending doom, that God does care for them and their future is in God’s hands. But these are the people that somehow catch our attention, what about those in our society that seem to be invisible?
Several years ago, Billy Ray Cyrus had a TV show on PAX called Doc. Billy Ray was a Montana doctor who moved to New York and was working in a Manhattan clinic. In this one particular episode, he was riding with an ambulance crew to gain insight into what went on at night in the Big Apple. As part of the conversation, one of the paramedics made an interesting statement. He said, in a city with a population of 825,000, how could anyone be lonely? Yet, he continued, there were people who would call 911 just to hear a kind voice. It’s a shocking statement, yet how many people do we see in the stores and malls each week who haven’t had a kind word spoken to them in days?
How many people around us live alone, who have no family in the area, who need a kind word of comfort? What about those who’s calling it is to care for others in hospitals and care facilities? They spend their days comforting and encouraging others yet many times no one takes a few moments to uplift and support them. Time, it seems these days, is a precious commodity, but it’s something that we need to share. Sometimes it takes more than just our time.
Like the lady in the song earlier, sometimes it takes us lending a helping hand. In an age where information is easily accessible, there are scores of people who have no idea how to get the help they need in order to get through the lean times. The demands on churches, the government and social organizations are staggering. The food banks in Dallas and Lincolnton are struggling to keep items on their shelves. The number of calls coming in for assistance is growing; unfortunately, many have to be turned away. Yes, we have the Supporting Christians account, but we’re a small church, we can only do so much.
Generally speaking, this congregation does a great job of helping out. Our food box gets emptied and then refilled each month. We collected stocking stuffers for the kids in Lutheran Services Foster care and we collected baby items for Crisis Pregnancy Center. Bethel does a lot; but sometimes we need to go a little further and provide some assistance directly from our abundance. We need to be aware of those people around us and help when needed. This takes not only our resources, but our time as well.
Sometimes God calls us to share not only some of our material blessings but our time as well. But how ever and whenever we’re called to reach out to others, the message is the same; God loves and cares for His children. God is calling us to provide His comfort to a hurting and needy world. That’s why we call the story of Jesus “Good News.” God cares about a broken world. God cares about hurting people. That’s one of the messages in this Advent and Christmas season. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.”
Jesus came into our world to identify with the world’s suffering. And it’s the same Jesus that sends us out to the broken and downhearted in the world. The message of Advent is about God’s love for us and this is the Good news that the world is longing to hear. Advent comes from the Latin. It means “to come.”
Jesus came into our world to share in our sorrows and to reconcile us to the Father. And Jesus has promised to come again that we might enjoy the comfort and joy of God’s presence forever. As the epistle of 2 Peter reminds us, the day of the Lord will come, suddenly as a thief in the night. But while we’re waiting for that day, we need to prepare the way of the Lord.
I learned something interesting concerning the burial of king Herod the Great that might add insight to the call of John the Baptist. Herod the Great died about 4 AD and commanded that he be buried in Herodium. The roman historian Flavius Josephus wrote, “And the body was carried two hundred furlongs or 25 miles, to Herodium, where he had given order to be buried. So, they threw down all the hedges and walls which the inhabitants had made about their gardens and groves of trees, and cut down all the fruit trees that lay between them and the wall of the city, and filled up all the hollow places and the chasms, and demolished the rocky precipices with iron instruments; and thereby made all the place level from Scopus to Herod’s monument.”
The call to prepare the way for king Herod was literal. They filled the valleys, leveled the hills and removed all the obstacles that would hinder the way of the king. The call of John the Baptist is the same, we need to repent, to clear the obstacles in our lives so that nothing can hinder us from being prepared for the return of our Lord and King. We prepare the way by making our hearts and minds ready.
We prepare the way by ministering to a world in need and by sharing the Good News of God’s love and the comfort it brings. We prepare the way by ministering to the sick, the aged. We prepare the way of the Lord by feeding the poor, housing the homeless and reaching out to those who need our help. We prepare the way by sharing words of comfort and encouragement so desperately needed by others. The message of God coming to us in Jesus is the good news the world needs to hear. The call of John is for us to prepare the way of the Lord by sharing this good news. We prepare the way by providing comfort to those in need, from the comfort God has first given to us.

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