The Rev’d Dawn M. Frankfurt
In the name of the Holy One who is relationship, who gives and receives perfect love by being, bless us that we may grow in relationship with you, ourselves and others. We ask this of the One who creates and makes whole, whose very nature is love. AMEN.
You probably aren’t aware, unless you have seen a printed copy of my sermon somewhere, that each one has a title. This one is called “long-term relationship.” It is so named because of the sweeping perspective offered by the readings on this third Sunday of Advent. This is the Sunday we traditionally say fills us with ‘joy’ in the midst of our expectation and preparation for the Christmas celebration.
Today we begin by hearing from the prophet Isaiah, who we often hear from here in church during in our Old Testament lesson and also when he is quoted by Jesus, or Paul, or one of the other writers of the New Testament. One of the most familiar prophetic exhortations from Isaiah says, “A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low” (Isaiah 40:3).
There is a little wrinkle, however, in the prophecy we heard today from Isaiah. It’s not the exhortation we are accustomed to hearing. Today we hear from chapter 35. Isaiah is not exhorting the people to build a highway for God. Instead, by the power of God working in him, Isaiah is sharing God’s promises directly with the Hebrew people. God is promising to build a highway for the people. This is a different kind of idea.
This is a story of you and I being rescued from all of our worries and troubles. No earth-moving equipment nor asphalt-laying machines will be required in the heat of the desert. Instead, the pleasant path will be prepared for us – and the ones of us who are bone tired (or too weak to go on) will be shored up and strengthened for the journey. Everybody will make it home.
Isaiah describes an ideal time in the future which any of us would long for. On the one hand a frivolous moment of escapism from the horrors of the present – and more importantly, a hope-rich idea-generating vision of how things can be.
We can identify with those ancient people of God. They were listening to the prophet Isaiah and finding out about the relationship God wanted to have with them. Here we sit today, still listening and trying to understand what God is saying to us.
Also like those of Isaiah’s day, we still have war; tribe against tribe and nation against nation. Just as it was then, today people everywhere can be found who long for enough to eat, one person is enslaved to another, prevailing justice is questioned, and people are desperate to preserve home, family, and dignity. Then and now people suffer, it seems, without much hope of relief.
Prophets like Isaiah have spoken to us in salvation history and we have learned of the way God is on our side. Yet, we wait for the land where “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (Isaiah 11).
Hearing Isaiah’s words in the midst of our own very real discomfort, has the dual effect of keeping hope alive and stirring the question: Oh Lord, how much longer?
The realism of the epistle of James follows at this point in our readings and we hear, “Meanwhile, friends, wait patiently for the Master’s Arrival. You see farmers do this all the time, waiting for their valuable crops to mature, patiently letting the rain do its slow but sure work. Be patient like that. Stay steady and strong. The Master could arrive at any time.”
Sometimes my impatient response is: Are you kidding me? Be patient? Do you realize we believe Isaiah delivered God’s promises to the Israelites hundreds and hundreds of years before the time of Christ? We have been waiting at least that long! Are thousands of years of patience not enough? Diseases, disaster and disunion have been themes of life for generations. How much longer, Lord? Come quickly to our help.
At such a point as this, I remind myself of our “Long-Term Relationship” with God which sweeps through all time.
When we hear the Gospel story, the telling has advanced to the time of Christ where we hear Jesus say, “Let me tell you what’s going on here: … if you read the books of the Prophets and God’s Law closely, you will see them culminate in John, teaming up with him in preparing the way for the Messiah of the kingdom. Looked at in this way, John is the ‘Elijah’ you’ve all been expecting to arrive and introduce the Messiah.”
This was the time of the first Advent. The time the Messiah first came into the world, even John the Baptist wasn’t sure it was really happening. Millennia later, as we do each year at this time, we remember that first Advent. We prepare to celebrate the remembrance of the first coming as a babe in a manger, yet, even now, we are exhorted to be ready for his second Advent.
We are living in the time of the ‘already’ and the ‘not-yet’. We have much of the story which we can understand as “already.” It has already happened in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. But the story is not over. Even though the book we know as the Bible has ended, our long relationship with God has not.
We do not know when Christ will come again, when the second Advent will be. We have heard predictions and guesses about the future, and through time many of them have proven themselves to be false, and we are still left with the fact that we do not know if God will come tonight or tomorrow, or at another time we can’t anticipate.
What are we supposed to do in this time of already and ‘not-yet’? We are to be ready right now. Our life, our job, our reason for being is now. Our readiness is known in the way we live life now, the way we love now, the way we care for others now. The way we do not selfishly save or protect ourselves only for the future.
Tell the people in Syria, Turkey, Germany and some neighborhoods in Chicago, that God is still saying: “Tell fearful souls, ‘Courage! Take heart! God is here, right here, on his way to put things right and redress all wrongs. He’s on his way! He’ll save you!’” Tell them that at the second Advent we await, God will bring their suffering to an end, injustice will finally stop and desperate needs long unmet will be fulfilled. Tell them about the ‘not-yet’ – and start to make it real in the ‘now.’
We have seen violence and injustice in our time, in the past, and in biblical history. Our faith says that it will be defeated in the ‘not-yet’. We hasten the coming of the ‘not-yet’ with our action now. Mary did.
The Mother of God is our perfect example of loving in the ‘now’ and thereby bringing the ‘already’ and the ‘not-yet’ together. She did not worry about herself, her safety or her reputation when right in front of her was the opportunity to do as the Lord had asked of her. We must act now – especially for the outcast, the ignored and the discounted!
There are all sorts of ways to be loving in the ‘now’ by helping people you can help right now. Episcopal Relief and Development assists people in need around the world. Episcopal Migration Ministries (EMM) and Episcopal Social Services (ESS) work tirelessly for people in our community. If you want to help people in need in this congregation (that’s people right in front of you right now), then give to my discretionary fund. If you want this parish to thrive in ministry now (not later), then give and make generous pledges of time, talent and treasure for 2017.
When an opportunity to give, to love, or to have mercy presents itself, there is no time to waste. The Lord may come again at any time. The ‘right-now’ is what God has given us to make the ‘not-yet’ more and more real in the ‘right-now’:
“They’ll sing as they make their way home…, [with] unfading halos of joy encircling their heads, [They’ll be] welcomed home with gifts of joy and gladness as all sorrows and sighs scurry into the night.”
That’s us. We aren’t home quite yet, but we’re getting ready. By remembering what has already been done and remaining hopeful for what is ‘not-yet’, we make ourselves ready. We do the things we can do to make God’s promises present in the ‘now.’
Loving the people we can love right now allows us to take hold of the prophecy foretold by Isaiah. It brings joy and sends sorrows and sighs scurrying away.
Just say the word, dear Lord, and we are ready.
We are ready to go straight from the ‘already’ and the ‘now’ into the promised ‘not-yet’ with joy!