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Sermon for Sunday 11 December 2016

FIRST READING Isaiah 35:1-10

1The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad; the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus; 2it 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. 3Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4Say to those who have an anxious heart, “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you.” 5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it. It shall belong to those who walk on the way; even if they are fools, they shall not go astray. 9No 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. 10And 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.


PSALM Psalm 146

1Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being.  2Put not your trust in rulers, nor in any child of earth, for there is no help in them.  3When they breathe their last, they return to earth, and in that day their thoughts perish.  4Happy are they who have the God of Jacob for their help! whose hope is in the Lord their God; 5Who made heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them; who keeps his promise forever; 6Who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger.  7The Lord sets the prisoners free; the Lord opens the eyes of the blind; the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; 8The Lord loves the righteous; the Lord cares for the stranger; he sustains the orphan and widow, but frustrates the way of the wicked.  9The Lord shall reign forever, your God, O Zion, throughout all generations. Hallelujah!



7Be patient, therefore, brothers, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient about it, until it receives the early and the late rains. 8You also, be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. 9Do not grumble against one another, brothers, so that you may not be judged; behold, the Judge is standing at the door. 10As an example of suffering and patience, brothers, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. 11Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.


GOSPEL Matthew 11:2-15

2Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” 4And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. 6And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.” 7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is he of whom it is written, ‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”



Welcome to Gau-de-te Sunday which has also come to be known as the “Sunday of joy.” Gaudete is the Latin word meaning rejoice which makes our Psalm reading from Psalm 146 so appropriate for today. In verse one we read, “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord, O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God while I have my being. And we concluded that reading with, “The Lord shall reign forever, your God, O Zion, throughout all generations. Hallelujah!
Gaudete Sunday was intended to be a break in the season, a time to relax a bit and think about all we have. It’s intended to be a time of rejoicing and instead of fretting about all we still haven’t done to prepare for Christmas, we should instead think of all the good things God has given us. Gaudete Sunday is a time to look with hope toward the future. A hope in Jesus that goes beyond this life into the life to come. A hope that says we have no need to worry about our future because it’s squarely in the hands of God. Hope. It’s a beautiful word that brings with it a sense of peace.
The word hope evokes thoughts of sunrises that push back all kinds of darkness. It suggests birth and healing and promise and possibility. Hope gives us the ability to keep going, or if we’ve fallen, to get up and try again. Hope is a gift that our faith can give us that will indeed meet the needs of our hungry hearts. One could even say that hope is the essence of the Christian faith. The good news is that hope is there for us. But most of us have yet to learn to discover it and take hold of it. It may be that our first lesson for today can help us in that regard. Hope is something everyone needs and having hope will positively affect our attitude and the way we look at life.
In a simplistic way, one could say that there are two basic attitudes toward life–one of hope and one of dread–one of trust, the other of fear–one of optimism, the other of gloom. A misprint of a weather forecast read like this: “There’s a five percent chance of . . . today and tomorrow.” I certainly hope that the odds are better than that! In a “Frank and Ernest” cartoon, you see Frank rousing slowly from his sleep, then looking out at the sun coming up. He says dryly, “Well, the sun is rising in the east . . . so far, so good.” I wonder how many people actually approach life that way?
You may know that the great comedian W.C. Fields died with money in hundreds of bank accounts which were never located. Wherever he went, he would open a bank account. Often, he used fictitious names and kept no records whatsoever of his deposits. At one point, Fields told a friend in confidence that he had over seven hundred accounts and knew exactly where they were. Unfortunately, he died without telling anyone else the locations of those accounts or the name in which they were held. He had one account in Berlin that alone was said to have $50,000 in it. However, during its bombing in WWII, all traces of that bank and the money were destroyed.
Fields attributed this strange behavior of storing money, in all these cities, to a dream he had repeatedly in which he saw himself stranded in a strange city without money or friends. The dread which this dream produced in Fields’ heart caused him to open these strange, anonymous accounts in every city in which he played.
The great writer, Luigi Pirandello once told a story about a man filled with so much dread that it drove him mad. When he fell in love with the woman of his dreams, he pretended that he didn’t care about her. He was afraid that if he gave in to his feelings of love for her, he would lose her. He kept up this display of disinterest so long that he nearly did lose her.
When he finally did ask her to marry him, and she accepted, he nearly went crazy planning the honeymoon. He told everyone that they would be going to Florence and Venice. Instead he took his bride to Naples–in the opposite direction. This way he felt he could trick the misery he knew would be awaiting him in Florence and Venice. That was the only way he could enjoy the honeymoon in Naples. It seems that there are some people who live with such a feeling of dread and doom about their lives, that they dismiss the possibility of joy. Even when life is being good to them, they just know that it cannot last. Somewhere–sometime–somehow–something out there is going to happen to them that will wreck their best-laid plans–that will frustrate their fondest dreams–that will crush everything they hold dear. That’s one attitude towards life.
Fortunately, that’s not the Christian attitude. It certainly wasn’t St. Paul’s attitude to be sure. St. Paul knew that we live in a difficult world. He had experienced more than his fair share of sorrow and suffering. But St. Paul knew that somewhere–sometime–somehow–something good was out there waiting for him. He knew that tomorrow would be a better day than today.
Paul believed that lasting joy and peace were not only possibilities in this life, but would someday be permanent realities. That’s why Paul wrote in Romans 15:13, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” This is the season of the year when we celebrate the God of hope. For the Christian, the mood of Advent is one of joyful anticipation and it’s a mood that we’re called to share, so that it can infect all of society.
Several of you remember the 1970s. Some recall it fondly, others, not so much. If you remember, it was a pretty turbulent time in our society. We were in the midst of the war in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal cause President Nixon to resign and Roe vs. Wade legalized abortion in America. There was also a “Doonesbury” cartoon that ran in the papers that showed the campus radical, Megaphone Mark, falling off to sleep. Above his head, you could see his thoughts. “It’s Christmas Eve as a tired, disappointed and disillusioned student activist drops off to sleep.” The next frame shows him sleeping. The frame after that shows him stirring as if startled by an unexplained noise. In the final frame he explains, “I thought I heard reindeer.” It seems that the joy of this season of the year was intruding even into the generally cynical Doonesbury cartoon strip.
The bells, the lights, all the sights and sounds of this special time of the year speak to us about hope. God is alive. Love and peace and good will are still possibilities. There’s far more than a five percent chance of today and tomorrow. And it’s all because of a babe born, 2,000 plus years ago, in a little town called Bethlehem, hope came into our world–hope that is unquenchable and eternal.
There’s a wonderful story back in the book of Genesis. Abraham, who is still called Abram at this point, is complaining to God that he has no heir to take over his house someday. The writer of Genesis says that God brings Abram outside and says to him, “Look at the heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” That’s the call that God always gives to us in our times of doubt and despair. “Look at the heaven, and number the stars . . .”
During the Advent season, of course, we need look for only one star–a star that shines much brighter than all the rest. It’s the star of Christmas, always the world’s greatest symbol of hope. “May the God of hope,” writes St. Paul, “fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Advent is, first of all, hope for the world.
H.G. Wells once wrote a story titled “In the Days of the Comet.” Wells’ story is a somewhat typical science fiction fantasy. A mysterious green vapor of unknown origin descends from the clouds and covers the earth. The vapor has the immediate effect of putting all the earth’s people into a deep sleep for three days. When they finally awake, something amazing has happened. The inner nature of humankind is radically transformed. Petty quarreling comes to an end. Instead of seeking fame, power and wealth, the people of the world seek to serve one another. Love, kindness and generosity become more important than greed or success. In short, the perfect society emerges–a society in which the dignity of every human being is honored. It’s the kind of society that the prophet Isaiah looked forward to one day.
Isaiah wrote of a day when “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” (11:6). Of course, Isaiah wasn’t anticipating a green vapor that would come down out of the clouds. He was prophesying “a shoot [that would come] from the stump of Jesse . . .” That’s Isaiah’s way of saying that there was a Messiah coming, who would establish a new world order, who would bring into being a new kingdom in which love is more important than power and service is more important than domination. Isaiah also told of someone who would be sent ahead of time to announce to coming of the One who would usher in this kingdom.
John the Baptist was sent to be the herald of the Messiah–the one whose job it was to prepare the way. The concern of the prophets, however, was not only one of personal salvation but also the salvation of Israel, and through Israel, the salvation of the world. What good is it if we save the individual but leave him in a world that tramples his dignity and crushes his aspirations? We need to affirm that when the Messiah–the Christ–came into the world He brought with Him the seed of a new kingdom–a kingdom that’s still alive and still at work whenever the name of Jesus is on the lips of believers. It’s a kingdom that has dispelled darkness, ignorance, exploitation and human slavery everywhere the good news is faithfully proclaimed. No tyrant can forever suppress it, no evil can forever resist its fury.
No wonder John spoke with such starkness of the wrath which was to come. The gates of hell itself cannot prevail against the kingdom (Matt. 16:18) which came into the world with the birth of the Christ child. No wonder the angels sang in the heavens and wise men bowed in adoration. Phillip Brooks was right when he wrote of the events that occurred in the little town of Bethlehem: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” Advent is hope, first of all, for the world. But Advent is also hope for us as individuals. Advent is hope for you and me.
In London during the Second World War, Hitler’s war planes were bombing that great city with regularity. In order to safeguard the children, trainloads of them were evacuated to the country. Somebody asked one young lad, “Where are you going?” He thought for a minute and replied, “I don’t know, but the king knows.” We’re all in the same situation.
We don’t know what the future holds, but our King knows, He who is King of kings and Lord of lords. This is the season of the year when we’re reminded that this is God’s world. He is at work in this world, and even though we may be surrounded by darkness, we know there’s a light shining in the darkness that the darkness cannot overcome (John 1:5). Even the prospect of death cannot dispel the believer’s sense of anticipation.
Damon Runyon once wrote a charming story about a man he called Doc Brackett. Doc Brackett was a beloved old physician whose office was open to the poor and needy. He would get up in the middle of the coldest night and ride twenty miles to doctor a sick woman or child or to patch up some fellow who got hurt. Everybody in town knew Doc Brackett’s office over Rice’s clothing store. It was up a narrow flight of stairs. A sign at the foot of the stairs said: DR. BRACKETT, OFFICE UPSTAIRS.
Doc Brackett never married. The day he was supposed to marry he got a call to go out into the country and doctor a Mexican child. His bride-to-be was so angry that she cancelled the wedding, but the parents of the Latino child were very grateful when the child recovered. For forty years, the lame, the sick, and the blind of that town had climbed up and down the stairs to Doc Brackett’s office. He never turned anyone away.
Doc Brackett lived to be seventy years of age, and then one day he fell onto the sofa in his office and died. He had one of the largest funerals ever in those parts. Everyone turned out. The town’s people wanted to erect a nice tombstone for his grave but couldn’t agree what should be engraved on the stone. The matter dragged along and nothing was done. Then one day someone noticed that there was already a proper epitaph over Dr. Brackett’s grave.
The parent of the Latino child that Doc Brackett had saved many years back had worried about him having no tombstone. They had no money to buy a marker, so they simply took the sign from the foot of the stairs at Doc Brackett’s office and stuck it over his grave. Now he had a fitting epitaph. It read simply, DR. BRACKETT, OFFICE UPSTAIRS.
During this season of the year we pay homage to the Doc Bracketts of this world and we declare that not only is the world a better place for their efforts, but now they reside in a better place as well–Dr. Brackett, Office Upstairs. The God of Hope. You and I are free to choose the attitude with which we confront life.
We can believe that there’s a five per cent chance of today and tomorrow or we can believe the Good News of Christmas, that Emmanuel, God with us, is alive and well and at work in our world bringing in a kingdom of love and justice and freedom. We can face the future with fear and foreboding, or we can trust in the God who has sustained us through the years and has promised us that He will never forget us nor forsake us, regardless of our situation. We can choose to live in continued darkness, or we can step out into the light of hope and triumph and eternal victory. We can live for ourselves alone, or we can make the world a better place to live for all persons. The question is, how does the good news of this season affect our outlook on life?
Does the Good News of Advent and Christmas change our attitude about life? Does it make us anticipate that sometime–somewhere–somehow–something good, not evil, is out there waiting to happen in our life? Advent is a season of hope. A hope that goes beyond the temporary satisfaction that the secular Christmas season brings. Having a Christian hope brings about the kind of change in our lives that takes place when the Christ Child is born anew in our hearts.

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