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Sermon for 15 December 2013

FIRST READING Isaiah 35:1–10

1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. 3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

PSALM Psalm 146:5–10

5 Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help, whose hope is in the LORD their God; 6 who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; who keeps promises forever; 7 who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. The LORD sets the captive free. 8 The LORD opens the eyes of the blind; the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. 9 The LORD cares for the stranger; the LORD sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked. 10 The LORD shall reign forever, your God, O Zion, throughout all generations. Hallelujah!


7 Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. 8 You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. 9 Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors! 10 As an example of suffering and patience, beloved, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.

GOSPEL Matthew 11:2–11

2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 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. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” 7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is the one about whom it is written,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.


How many here today can remember dial-up modems? Or when reheating leftovers in the over or on the stove were the only options, since there were no microwave ovens? Nowadays it seems like everything is instant: instant soup, instant oatmeal, drive thru restaurants where you have your food in under 2 minutes, ultra-fast internet, over-night shipping and the list goes on. In today’s society we don’t have to wait very long for most things, which means, we don’t feel the need to exercise patience with much of anything. We hate automated phone systems; we want to speak to a real person without a 15 minute wait. The thought of having to schedule a service call several days in the future causes us anxiety. As a society we’ve become accustomed to having it all and having it now. I’m not sure we even know how to wait patiently anymore. Don’t believe me, go shopping or drive I-85 and you’ll have to agree that patience is in short supply these days. And adults aren’t the only ones who lack patience.
One Christmas season when Shirley’s daughter was nearing her third birthday, Shirley decided to take her daughter along with her four brothers ages 1, 4, 6 and 8 out shopping. In one of the stores, the little girl saw a doll that she wanted. As soon as she laid eyes on the doll she knew she had to have it now. Nothing mom could say or do would alter the child’s desire. She wanted that doll and she wanted it right now. No reminder that Christmas was coming, and that she needed to be good because Santa Claus might be watching, had any impact on her. With a one-year-old in the cart, and three other little boys to keep track of, Shirley was losing her patience. She tried to drag her daughter away from the doll section . . . but with every tug on her arm came a shrieking cry, “I want a dolly for my Christmas. I want a dolly for my Christmas.”
Frustrated, Shirley tried walking away; keeping track of her from a distance. Shirley says she still remembers what her daughter did next. I’m sure you can guess. Did her little girl come running after her? No. Did her daughter tell her that she was wrong to beg and beg and beg for a doll? No. She didn’t do any of these things. Instead she lay on the floor and screamed, “I want a dolly for my Christmas. I want a dolly for my Christmas.”
While the little girl protested and screamed, her mother knew what her daughter didn’t. At home there was a doll waiting for her that she would receive on Christmas morning; a doll much better than the one she was begging for. It was a doll that she would enjoy more than any doll she ever had. However, at that moment, in her demand for instant gratification, all the little girl wanted, was a shabby imitation of the gift her mother had already intended to give. Sounds a bit too familiar doesn’t it? Instead of being patient for what God has in store for us, we want satisfaction now. We want instant gratification right now; even if it means accepting a mere shadow of the gift God has in store for us.
The writer of the epistle of James says to his readers, “Be patient, then, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop, patiently waiting for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against one another, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door! Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” These are powerful words for us to consider and for the moment, I’d like to focus on part of James’ instruction; “as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” It’s hard to be patient, but to be patient in the face of suffering is even more of a challenge.
One of my favorite stories is about a teacher who was helping one of her kindergarten students put on his cowboy boots. He asked for help and she could see why. Even with her pulling and him pushing, the little boots still didn’t want to go on. By the time the second boot was on, the teacher had worked up quite a sweat. She almost cried when the little boy said, “Teacher, they’re on the wrong feet.” She looked and sure enough, they were.
It wasn’t any easier pulling the boots off than it was putting them on. She managed to keep her cool, as together they worked to get the boots back on, this time on the right feet. Then the little guy then announced, “These aren’t my boots.” The teacher was beside herself and decided to bite her tongue rather than scream, “Why didn’t you say so?” So, once again she struggled to help him pull the ill fitting boots off his little feet. No sooner had they got the boots off and he said, “They’re my brother’s boots. My Mom made me wear ’em.” At this point the teacher didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But, she mustered up the grace and courage she had left to wrestle the boots on his feet again. Helping him into his coat, she asked, “Now, where are your mittens?” He said, “I stuffed ’em in the toes of my boots.” According to the story, the teacher’s trial starts next month.
It’s hard it seems for any of us at any age to be patient. Whether we’re a child or a teacher or a common variety human being, patience is difficult. This is even truer when we’re in a time of stress. In difficult situations, we want an immediate solution, a cure or a remedy for the problem. And at times we’ll act even if it’s the wrong thing to do rather than be patient and allow the situation to reveal itself.
There was a delightful little story in a Reader’s Digest from a woman in Arkansas. Mrs. Cash said that with the due date approaching for the birth of their first child, her husband was becoming increasingly fidgety. One evening she told her husband that she was having some slight pains, but she assured him that they were not serious. Later, she was in the den, relaxing, when she heard her fidgety husband shaving. Then he began to throw on his clothes. “What are you doing?” she asked. With great exasperation he said, “You can sit here if you want to, but I’m going to the hospital!” Stress has a way of testing our patience. And during the Christmas season it seems to be even worse.
Remember how difficult it was when you were small to wait to see what wonderful gifts you would receive? Anyone ever peek through the closets to try to get an advanced view? Sometimes we get caught, and other times parents will play tricks on the children in order to teach them patience. It’s just so hard at times. A phrase I used to hear all the time was, “they have the patience of Job. I wonder when that statement started, because James as well looked to the Old Testament prophets as examples of patience.
James also wrote; “Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” One of the prophets he surely had in mind was the prophet Isaiah. We dealt with one of Isaiah’s prophecies about the coming Messiah last week. Listen again to another of Isaiah’s prophecies about what lay ahead for his people. He writes, “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy. The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God.
“Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.’ “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. No lion will be there, nor any ravenous beast; they will not be found there. But only the redeemed will walk there, and those the Lord has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them, and sorrow and sighing will flee away.”
Isaiah was writing at a time of deep devastation for the people of Judah, and yet he paints a picture of an idyllic future, a future that we await even now. Notice the beauty of that vision. The land will be completely restored, transformed into a Garden of Eden. The soil will be filled with rich nutrients, and the vegetation will blossom so much that it will seem to break forth in shouts of joy and rejoicing. The glory of Lebanon is a reference to the fragrant cedar forests of that land. Carmel was known for its mighty oaks, and Sharon for its beautiful pastures and lush, green pastureland.
In that day, says Isaiah, the glory and splendor of God will be seen by all the people of the earth. As a result of this total transformation, the whole earth will be filled with the beauty of nature, with the radiance and majesty of God. Even those who are weak and fearful can look ahead to this glorious future with great anticipation, says Isaiah. All who are disabled will be healed and restored to health. All the blind will be able to see, and all the deaf will be able to hear. Those who are lame will leap like deer, and the mute those who cannot speak will shout out for joy.
Water, that most scarce of commodities in a desert region, will flow both in the wilderness and in the desert. Streams and rivers will flow abundantly across the face of the earth. Pools will replace desert sand, and springs will bubble up out of ground that had lacked rain. Vegetation will grow everywhere, on all land that had formerly been ruined or barren. And through it all will run a very special highway, a highway that will be known as the Way of Holiness.
In Isaiah’s day traveling along the roads was often dangerous. There were ferocious animals, thieves, and natural obstacles such as deep ravines and narrow paths on the sides of hills. But when the Messiah comes, says Isaiah, the highway of holiness will be perfectly safe. There will be no wicked persons or ferocious animals to endanger the life of the traveler. In short, the kingdom of God is coming to this earth, says the prophet, and when it does, the earth will become a perfect utopia. It’s a magnificent picture of a perfect world.
Of course, much of Isaiah’s writing is poetry and it’s not always easy to tell what part of the imagery to take literally. But here’s the important part: Christmas is about the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies. Christmas is about God’s redemptive plan of salvation. Despite the fact that society has turned the holiday into a consumer centered celebration, Christmas is about Christ.
Christmas isn’t about a house so lit up you can see it from space, or about giving or receiving the biggest and best gift money can buy. It isn’t about stuffing ourselves on ham or turkey. It isn’t even about spending time with family, as wonderful as that may be. It isn’t exclusively about celebrating an infant’s birth in a manger. Let me repeat that. Christmas isn’t solely about celebrating Jesus coming to us in a manger. Jesus’ incarnation was just one part of God’s plan. Ultimately, Christmas is about the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan of salvation.
God’ plan for our world extends from creation to the cross, from the empty tomb to eternity. God is at work bringing in a perfect world; a world where all people will live in harmony and dignity together as children of God. God’s plan includes a world where that which is broken will be made whole, a world of peace, joy and love. Sure, the babe in the manger is an important part of that plan, and it’s right and good that we celebrate His birth. But Christmas is just one part of the entire Christ event. It’s not only about the coming of Christ, but it’s also about the coming of God’s Kingdom when Christ shall reign as King of kings and Lord of lords forever and ever.
This isn’t humanity’s dream, but God’s dream, a world in which all people will live in perfect harmony together. Human beings have made many attempts at building a perfect world, a utopia, but none have been successful. Maybe you remember a scientific attempt to create the perfect world called Biosphere 2. It’s an amazing story.
Biosphere 2 was designed back in the 1980s to be a self-sustaining world. Four men and four women were sealed for two years in a palatial three-acre glass and steel structure outside Oracle, Arizona. This large ter¬rarium included a rain forest; a savanna, a coral reef, a marsh, and a miniature ocean. Here, in a sealed environment, the eight people were to live together in harmony with the environment.
Unfortunately, says one observer, “living inside the sealed habitat proved to be much more difficult than originally thought. Sixteen months into the twenty-four month mission, oxygen levels inside the facility had dropped so low that additional oxygen needed to be pumped in. Difficulties in growing food forced the crew to open their reserve food supplies. Disagreements over the focus of the project caused the Biospherians to split into two separate groups which avoided each other, much like the tribes in William Golding’s classic novel Lord of the Flies.” The project was finally abandoned.
Biosphere 2 still lives on as a tourist attraction and as a research facility of the University of Arizona. It wasn’t a failure scientifically. Much was learned from this experiment. But don’t be misled. No utopian dream of humanity will ever completely succeed because human beings themselves are flawed creatures. Flawed creatures who can never create a perfect world. Only a perfect God can create a perfect world. And that’s what Christmas is about. The child born in Bethlehem of Judea will one day rule over creation. And He will rule with perfect love. No longer will we ask “what would Jesus do?” for His law of love will be written upon our hearts.
And here’s the good news of the day; you and I can be part of that perfect kingdom. As we spread the good news of God’s love for all people, we become part of the creation of this new heaven and this new earth. On no other foundation can the Kingdom of God be built. Yes it’s hard to be patient, but if we listen to what Isaiah is telling us and wait patiently on God, I guarantee it’s worth the wait.

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