Friday, February 15, 2013

Voices of Hope: A Sermon

You can listen to an audio version of this sermon here.

Well are you ready? Are you prepared for Christmas? Have you prepared the way for Christmas?  I know last week Pastor Michael said he was holding out on his Christmas shopping until after December 21st just in case the Mayan’s had it right and the world is going to end, but for most of us the preparations for Christmas have already begun if they are not already fully completed.  Our family had a cold right after Thanksgiving, so we got a late start, but the tree is up, the lights are up, the presents are wrapped – I do think I still have one to wrap, but overall I think we are prepared for Christmas. Well, I should say I thought we were prepared for Christmas, and then I saw a video on TV of the way in which others have prepared their homes for Christmas.  I couldn’t find the exact video, but here’s an example of the way in which some people have really prepared their homes for Christmas.  



The television program I was watching was saying that it took something like 3 hours to program 15 seconds of music to match it up with the lights appropriately. I looked it up online and to create a display like this “depending on the degree of difficulty, give yourself anywhere from 2-6 months of prep time before you can expect your lights show to be fully operational.” 2-6 months of preparing the way! In contrast, here is a picture of the Weems family display, a whole 3 strings of lights, which took a full 6 minutes to put up, and that was partly because I couldn't figure out how to wrap the lights around the tree without them constantly falling down into a pile. Also we had our life group over at our house and I want to thank Jason Caro for so graciously loaning me an outdoor electrical cord, apparently he thought for some reason that stringing together a bunch of those small indoor electrical cords was not prudent. Thank you Jason.



Today we’ll be looking at two bible passages, Isaiah 40:1-5 and Matthew 3:1-3,  to help prepare us for Christmas, Our Christmas series this year is entitled “Your Most Prophetable Christmas!” emphasis on the “Prophet” as we examine the prophets and prophecies of the Old Testament that prepared the way for the Lord, for the coming of the Anointed One, of Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the Christ. Our God is definitely one who believes in preparation as the coming of the One who would establish a reign of justice and peace was foretold at different times and in diverse manners through the prophets of the Old Testament like Isaiah. God was definitely prepared for Christmas day and He spoke through the prophets with voices of hope to prepare the world historically and to prepare people spiritually for the coming of Christ into their lives and for they themselves to become, in receiving the Spirit of God, prophets themselves as they became truth tellers, voices of hope, in their own communities to which they were called and not only that but to the ends of the earth.

As we listen to God’s Word for us today, let us ask ourselves, as we prepare our homes, extravagantly or not at all, for Christmas, is the way prepared in us to receive Christ, to welcome His Spirit, are we listening to the voice of hope that comes God, and are we preparing others as we ourselves can be voices of hope in our communities and personal relationships, is the way prepared for the advent, the coming of the One. Follow along in your bibles as I read our passage for today, Isaiah 40:1-5:

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, 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." 
You can see on your note page that we’re going to examine four different manners in which the way is prepared for the Lord based on our text for today. The first is in the immediate context of Isaiah. Isaiah is a prophet and in this passage is speaking about a future event,  but this prophecy has both a near fulfillment and a far fulfillment as many of the prophecies of the Old Testament. So first of all, and most immediately, this passage is about the way prepared for Israel’s return from exile. Isaiah has had some pretty harsh things to say in the first 39 chapters as he fortells about the fall of the southern Kingdom of Judah into the hands of Babylon, but here in chapter 40 he speaks not as a voice of despair or gloom, but as a voice of hope. The passage starts with the word “comfort” twice indicating an emotional form of speech, a moment of endearment, of course reinforced as God says “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem” because “her hard service has been completed.” Her hard service of course is the Babylonian exile that Isaiah prophesied in the first 39 chapters. After that hard service , that difficult time in Babylon, there will come a day when they are able to return to Jerusalem.  Isaiah’s words here, would be looked at later by those in exile and they would read the first 39 chapters and see yes, what Isaiah said was true, we were lost, we had gone down our own path, we abandoned our Lord and our God for our own way, and as result here we sit in Babylon, as exiles with no nation, no settled place, no king of our own. And then they would read our passage that we read today and say, Aha, look here, there is hope! Our God doesn’t leave us in despair but provides us with this hope of return to our nation, to our home, to our true king, to our Lord!

The imagery that Isaiah uses is that of traveling. Now many of us have been traveling over the holidays and I’m sure some of us have perhaps come long distances to the sunny land of Florida, the promised land, and it can be difficult of course to travel with children. My most difficult travel experience was on our honeymoon in Scotland where I went through two different rental cars trying to figure out how to drive a manual, went down a few paths on the wrong side of the road, spent more than our share going in circles in roundabouts not sure where to exit, and fortunately no sheep were killed in the process, though one came close. But no matter your story, we have it so easy compared to travel back in the day of Isaiah. There is an Eastern proverb from that time period that says “There are three states of misery – sickness, fasting, and travel.” Travelers were advised “to pay all debts, provide for dependents, give parting gifts, return all articles under trust, take money and good-temper for the journey;  then bid farewell to all.” Can you imagine? The path was difficult, the way was treacherous, especially for such a long distance as from Babylon to Jerusalem. Isaiah paints this marvelous imagery of a super lane highway be formed from creation as mountains lower themselves and valleys raise themselves up to create a flat, straight through the desert, path to Jerusalem. The imagery is of a king, the Lord himself, leading Israel home and letting nothing stand, not mountains, not valley, not any obstacle stand in the way of the return of the exiles.

Another part of this imagery is that of a voice, an anonymous voice calling out  to prepare the way. This is the image of a herald. When an important king would go places, a messenger would ride out before him and clear the way through proclamation. “Prepare ye the way”. Now this prophecy was filled more immediately when the Babylonian captivity was ended and the people did return to Jerusalem, but this prophecy also has a far, or further out, element that reaches its fulfillment in John the Baptist as the way was prepared by Him for the Lord, for the ministry of Jesus. John the Baptist fills the role of this herald who goes before the king. Please turn in your bibles to Matthew 3:1-3.

In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.' 
So John the Baptist fulfills this prophecy as he is one in the wilderness preparing people for the coming of the Lord, the One, the Messiah, the Christ. John the Baptist was drawing crowds when he spoke because he was speaking as a prophet, speaking the truth and was doing it in such a way that people even wondered if John the Baptist was the Messiah. You see, there hadn’t been a prophet for a long time. God had been silent for over  400 years, not a prophets voice was heard, silence… and then “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near” comes out of the mouth of John the Baptist – a voice of hope calling in the wilderness, preparing the way for Jesus the One.  Now John prepared the way literally in the sense that he said  Mark 1:7-8 "After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."” So John, told people, that literally this person, the Anointed One, is coming, but He also prepared people spiritually with this twofold message “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

John the Baptist, as a prophet, and remember prophets are not primarily future tellers though sometimes that’s involved, but primarily they are truth tellers, speaking God’s truth to the people and the truth was and is that the way needed to be prepared in their hearts for the coming of the Lord. This is, by the way, a classic prophet move. All the prophets call the people of their time to repent, to turn from whatever is distracting them and to turn to God and renew their covenant with Yahweh. This wasn’t a call, by the way, to accept an intellectual proposition, the Jewish people knew and believed in God, but it was call that involved a fundamental turnaround of their lifestyle and way of life involving both mind and action. It was a call from this voice in the wilderness, to examine their lives, to look at the path they were on and recognize that without God they were fundamentally off course. The same call, from God’s Word, as a voice of Hope is on you and I today some 2000 years later. God is speaking right now to you and I. And again, it’s not primarily an intellectual call, an information dump, the call isn’t  a voice that says believe x, y, and z and your good. The voice says “What is the path you have laid out for your life?” “What are you trusting in at the end of the day?” Are we prepared for Christmas day when under our tree we can reach a certain number of gifts, or a certain price has been met? Are we prepared for Christmas when we look at our finances, and know that we’ve made it through one more year? Have we prepared the way for Christmas when we finally get those days off and hope that the time with family, or maybe the the time alone, or maybe the time to indulge in entertainment and pleasures, will somehow recharge us enough to get a little further down the path? God’s Word, as a voice of hope, gives us something so much surer, so much fuller than any of these temporary idols. When we repent, when we turn and open our hearts to hear God either for the first time or maybe more fully than we’ve ever allowed ourselves before, we prepare the way for the Lord. There may be obstacles, there may be mountains and valleys in our hearts that prevent us from welcoming God’s Spirit. This may be the time of year that is a valley for you as you remember the past, as you remember the loss of loved ones. There may be intellectual obstacles or lifestyle mountains that you can’t get past. You simply can’t let go and clear out these obstacles that hinder you from being connected to God. I encourage you to go, myself included, and pray to God. Pray in a deep and sincere moment for God to raise your valleys and lower the mountains, and make clear the path for the Lord, Jesus Christ in your heart and Repent, turn around in thought and action from anything that prevents you from preparing the way.

Now, John the Baptist says “Repent”, but he also says “for the kingdom of heaven is near.” We prepare ourselves spiritually in our own hearts, in our own ways, for the Lord, but the way is also prepared for the Tangible kingdom of Heaven. We as the Church sometimes run the risk of only focusing on the spiritual, but when John spoke it wasn’t only in a spiritual manner that he expected the kingdom of Heaven, the kingdom of God to come. He expected that when the Messiah came, that his Kingdom would be expressed in real and tangible ways. That the Anointed One would establish justice, crush opposition, and renew the very universe as pastor Michael spoke about last week. We read in Luke 3:10-15, printed in your bulletin the way in which John responded to the crowd:

"What should we do then?" the crowd asked. John answered, "The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same."  Tax collectors also came to be baptized. "Teacher," they asked, "what should we do?"  "Don't collect any more than you are required to," he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, "And what should we do?" He replied, "Don't extort money and don't accuse people falsely-- be content with your pay." The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Christ. 
So we see that the along with the coming of the Lord, the coming of Jesus, so also comes his kingdom. A kingdom of justice, of peace, where the high are brought down and the low are brought up. The way is prepared when we, as the body of Christ here on earth, seek to see His kingdom come and His will be done here on earth as it is heaven. The kingdom is near when those with two tunics share with those who have none, and the one who has food does the same. When those of us who are rich, who have places high in society, those of us who are like mountains, when we bring ourselves low we prepare the way for the Lord. When those who are poor, who are outcasts, who are on the margin of society, those who live lowly in the valley are raised up, then we prepare the way for the King as the paths are made straight. Perhaps at this time of year it is as simple as giving a gift, taking one of those children on the Angel tree, but hopefully we as a people, whether through our partners in mission central or on your own individually or with your life group, will be invested for the long term in personal relationships to see God’s kingdom made tangible, real in our communities.

Now, as we hear the voice of hope in our lives, as we repent and make the path straight for communion with God by the Holy Spirit through Jesus Christ, something amazing and incredibly humbling happens: we ourselves become voices of hope in the lives of others because we are the body of Christ in the world. The prophets in the Old Testament, were special and spoke the word of God because they received His Spirit. Empowered by that Spirit they spoke into people’s lives as truth tellers. Friends, we live in a unique time in which Jesus has come. His way was prepared by the prophets of the Old Testament like Isaiah and in the New Testament by John the Baptist. He came and when he ascended into heaven he didn’t leave us alone. He poured out His Spirit upon us so that we might be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. So that we might be voices of hope to others as we witness what God has done in our lives. If you look in your bulletin, you’ll see an invitation card. I encourage you now to write a note on that card. Write a brief note of encouragement, of love, that may offer hope to someone you know. You could share it anonymously with a neighbor or maybe you know someone who needs a longer letter, I encourage you to do that immediately when you go home today. Tell them that they are loved, that they are cherished, that they are cared for, that God loves them more than they can possibly imagine, and that there is a hope beyond all the struggles of this life. Don’t underestimate what the value of your voice as a voice of hope can mean.

I personally can think of two instances in my life where I needed voices of hope. The first is about this time last year when I was in Haiti. We took a ride from the place we were staying all the way to the beach to baptize some new believers. It was a long, long ride and I admitted to someone on the trip that I began to despair at one point about whether or not we would ever reach the beach. Another time, a little more serious, was with the birth of our daughter Sophia. We didn’t know if when she was born what would happen because she was born with serious heart defects. In both of these cases, even though the temptation to give up hope and to despair was there, I was able to put my hope in God because of others. In the Haiti trip I had the voices of the Haitians singing beautifully as they praised God the entire drive to the beach. In the birth of our daughter, I had the voices of 3 different churches praying for us and holding us along the way. In one case, because of hope, I was able to see my daughter be born and to live. In another case, because of hope, I was able to see three Haitians be reborn as they were baptized in the ocean.  We prepare for Christmas day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, the One, into the World. He changed the history of humanity that day, he changes our lives when we repent and prepare the way to our hearts, and he, incredibly, uses us to see his kingdom come and to be voices of hope ourselves in our families, to our friends, and in our communities as we like John the Baptist, point beyond ourselves to prepare the way for the Lord.

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