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Sermon for Sunday 6 December 2020

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the good fortune of Jacob. 2You have forgiven the iniquity of your people and blotted out all their sins. 3You have withdrawn all your fury and turned yourself from your wrathful indignation. 4Restore us then, O God our Savior; let your anger depart from us. 5Will you be displeased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

8Do 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.”

Giving Comfort

You know me, I’m one who enjoys a humorous story, especially when the story is true and one about pastors.  Grady Nutt, back when he was in Seminary, tells of a fellow student who was assigned to a rural parish as their regular supply pastor.  One day, during class, word came to this fellow student preacher that a man in his church had died.  He was needed to go, meet with the family, and conduct the funeral.  As each pastor will face, this was to be his first funeral.

Feeling reluctant, the young preacher consulted one of his seminary professors and received instructions and counsel about how to proceed.  Feeling more prepared, he drove out to the home of the man who had died to offer his widow some comfort and to plan the funeral service.  The widow greeted him, and they looked around for a quiet place where they could talk.  This was a problem however, since the house was filled with people who had come to offer their condolences.  Since every other room was occupied, the widow suggested the only room that was available . . . the bathroom.  So, they went in there.  She closed the door and sat down on the edge of the tub, and as Grady put it, the young preacher took, well the “other seat.”  Things went well.

During their conversation they shared stories about the deceased, chose appropriate passages of scripture, and then joined hands for a closing prayer.  When the young pastor stood up, he instinctively reached back . . . and pushed down the handle.  It was then that Grady reminded us: you just can’t un-flush a toilet.  I’m not sure how much comfort the young pastor gave the widow that day, but he certainly gave her something she could laugh about for a long time.

Our Old Testament lesson for today begins with these words of solace, “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 . . .” (Isaiah 40:1-2a).  More than one scholar has been quoted as saying, that the task of a prophet is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  Prophets like Amos, Jeremiah and Ezekiel were quite adept at afflicting the comfortable.  

Amos, in particular, was harsh in chastising the Northern Tribes of Israel because of their treatment of the poor as well as their other sins.  In chapter 3 he proclaims: “Hear this word, people of Israel, the word the Lord has spoken against you—against the whole family I brought up out of Egypt: ‘You only have I chosen of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your sins . . .’” (Vs. 1-2).  Think about God’s statement here: because God had chosen Israel to be His people, it was necessary for God to discipline Israel when they went astray. 

From time to time, I’ve heard people say that God has chosen America and that’s the reason we’re so blessed materially.  Please be careful if you think this is true!  Remember what Jesus said, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48b).  God chose Israel out of all the nations and because they were the “chosen ones”, God not only blessed them, cared for them, and provided for them; therefore He also expected so much out of them.  And because God chose Israel and He expected more, He punished them for their sins.  That was the teaching of the prophets.  Now consider how much more fortunate we are; we live on the other side of the cross.

Christ came in human flesh to take our sins upon Himself.  As the psalmist said, “he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities.  For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:10-12).  Thankfully, God does not punish us for our sins the way He punished Israel.  However, we still need to heed the words of God’s prophets.

Because God sent Jesus, for those who trust and obey His commands, the punishment for our transgressions has been taken away from us.  This however, doesn’t mean that we have a “Get out of Jail Free” card.  Despite those who refuse to accept responsibility for their actions, we’re all held accountable for our actions in this world.  For example, if you drive out of the parking lot of Ingles at 90 miles an hour, run red lights, and drive recklessly in every way possible—even if you do escape the actions of law enforcement—there is the laws of physics that says that when you take a turn too fast in a car there is a price to pay.  Just ask the Highway patrolman who failed to heed these laws here on Long Shoals road the other day. 

There is a certain amount of pain involved in crashing an automobile into an immovable object like storage building, a tree, or another car for that matter.  God isn’t punishing you for your reckless act; the laws of nature are punishment enough, that in conjunction with the subsequent penalties of the insurance company and local law enforcement.  Therefore, God doesn’t necessarily punish us for our sins in this life. 

But, as the readings from the past few Sundays reminds us, judgement is coming.  God, in this life, is grieved when we bring punishment on ourselves because of our misdeeds.  God, through the prophets of the Old Testament, was trying desperately trying to warn the people where they were headed, and what the consequences would be if they continually ignored God and His laws.  Someone has likened it to two young men canoeing down the river toward Niagara Falls.  

Although the water was relatively calm, they were approaching the area where the water began to pick up speed as it headed for the falls.  A man on the shore, sensing the danger, called out, “guys, you’re getting too close to the rapids!”  But the young men, who heard the warning, chose to ignore it.  Instead they went on laughing and joking, paying no attention to the danger.  On the shore, the man watching began to run and shouted in desperation, “Turn around!  You’re getting too close to the rapids!”  Still the young men refused to heed his warning.  

Faster and faster the current carried the canoe until they were trapped in the rapids.  At this point the young men began to panic.  With all the power they could muster, they tried to turn the canoe around, but it was too late.  Over the falls they went—all because they refused to heed the voice of warning.  The prophets of old weren’t trying to be “spoil sports”, they weren’t trying to keep the people from having too much fun.  Rather they were the voices of warning that doing wrong can spell disaster for us and often for people we love.

Sometimes the prophets were quite harsh with their warnings, but they could also deliver words of comfort and encouragement as well.  This is the case with our text today.  Even in the midst of sounding God’s warning, God also gave them words of reassurance: “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.”  Now to put all this into perspective, let me set the scene for you.

The Babylonian army had invaded the land.  Many of the leading citizens including the faithful like Daniel, Shadrack, Meshack and Abednego, had been taken away to exile in Babylon.  The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed.  The holy city lay in ruins.  The people were in shock.  The people had been in captivity for several years.  As the psalmist cried out during this time of exile: “By the waters of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” (Psalm 137:1).  That’s the situation that the prophet Isaiah is addressing. 

So God calls upon His prophet to take a break from words of woe to be become a herald of hope.  “Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God.  “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem . . .”  The Lord had not forgotten nor abandoned His people.  Soon their time of exile would be over.  But as we know, God wasn’t just talking about their rescue from captivity in Babylon, He was also looking forward to the day He would deliver them and the entire world from the bondage to sin.  Indeed, God Himself would soon be coming to them.  This is one of the many messianic prophecies of Isaiah.

Isaiah is reminding the people that God had not abandoned them nor left them desolate—just as He will not leave us desolate.  As he says in chapter 7, verse 40, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel” which means “God is with us.”  God with us.  Are there any words in scripture more reassuring than these: God with us?  Many of us here have read the story of Robinson Crusoe.

Robinson Crusoe was shipwrecked and seemingly all alone, stranded on an island.  He wandered around that island for days, weeks, months and he knew he was alone.  One day, he noticed a footprint in the sand and that footprint wasn’t his own.  Immediately, Robinson Crusoe knew he wasn’t alone.  Someone else was on that island.”  Someone else was with him.  That was the message of Isaiah to the people of Israel.  God had not forgotten them.  They were not alone.  Deliverance was would soon come.  God Himself, Immanuel, would be coming to be with them.  Can there be any greater source of comfort than God’s words of promise?

            Later in this chapter, Isaiah continues the words of reassurance: “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!”  Then he adds these tender words, “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” (vs. 11).  It’s difficult to find words more comforting than these.  It’s a reassurance that only God can give.

In one of his books, the late pastor Jess Moody told of meeting Rose Kennedy, the mother of President John F. Kennedy.  She came to a Bible study Moody was conducting.  In that study Moody challenged his hearers to make their hearts ready to meet the Lord because life is short, and no one knows what the future may hold.  Later Rose Kennedy spoke to Jess Moody privately and said she had done what Moody was talking about.  

She confessed that, as a young bride, she had been enamored with money.  “She became selfish,” she told Moody, “living only for her own desires.  Then she gave birth to a beautiful baby girl.  Soon it became apparent that something was wrong with her daughter.  Medical tests revealed that her daughter had been born with severe [intellectual disabilities] and would have to be institutionalized for her entire life.”  Rose said that she and her husband were devastated.  This devastation soon turned to enormous anger toward God.  

“How could you have done this to us?” she asked the Lord.  The anger eventually turned to a corrosive kind of bitterness that drained every bit of joy from her life.  She was hesitant to attend social engagements, fearful that her anger about her daughter’s condition would spill out.  And that’s when it happened.  A maid who worked for the family spoke to her.  “Mrs. Kennedy,” said the maid, “I’ve been watching you for the last few weeks and I’ve seen how angry you are.  If you don’t do something, it’s going to ruin you.”  

Then the maid made a suggestion: “I think you should pray this prayer: ‘O Lord, make my heart a manger where the Christ child can be born.”  Rose Kennedy told Jess Moody that she was so angry that she fired the maid on the spot.  But that night when she went to bed, she couldn’t sleep.  Tossing and turning, she couldn’t get that simple prayer out of her mind.  Finally, she knelt by her bed, and in an act of deep surrender she prayed, “O Lord, make my heart a manger where the Christ child can be born.”

In that moment, in the depth of the night, when she cried out in anguish, God heard and answered her prayer.  “I’ve always been religious, you know.  I’m a Catholic,” she said, “and I’ve always believed in Jesus.  But this was different.”  That night, she opened her heart to Christ in a new way, and her heart did indeed become a manger where Christ could be born in her.  Love replaced the anger that had gripped her soul.  With a heart filled with God’s love, Rose rehired the maid who stayed with the family until she died many years later.

            “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 . . .”  There’s only one place where lasting comfort can be found—in the arms of the one who as a babe, laid His head in the manger of Bethlehem.


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