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2nd Weekend of Advent (B/RCL) Dec. 9 & 10: "Our Heartaches and God's Promises"

Second Weekend of Advent (B/RCL): “Our Heartaches and God’s Promises”

Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8

December 9-10, 2017

Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, Manasquan, NJ

A couple days ago I heard a lady on the radio say, “In these terrible times everyone should start the day holding a handmade mug filled with something warm.”  She’s a potter and was giving a pitch for the mugs she makes, but I think she had another point to make, too.  Warmth in the hands and warmth in the tummy comforts.  I fleetingly thought, “What does she mean by ‘these terrible times’?”  I can’t answer for her, but I can tell you what counts for me as lousy, upsetting news this last week, globally, nationally, locally.

·         The Mid-East is in an uproar over the president announcing he’d be happy to accept Jerusalem as the capital of Israel;

·         Brexit negotiations between Great Britain and the EU are not going smoothly, which affects global economy and stability;

·         Beautiful, expansive, Bear’s Ears National Monument, a natural treasure holding sacred sites for our Native American brothers and sisters, got its size chopped back by 4/5;

·         Wildfires fanned by Santa Ana winds have overtaken Southern California, forcing the evacuation of many. (I think 200,000 is a number I heard.)   The relative of one of our HT families was ordered to prepare to leave her home in case toxic fumes in her neighborhood got too bad.  Her place of work is in direct line of the fire.  How bizarre and scary are the pictures of the LA freeways shrouded in smoke from the fires.  On the front page of the paper I also saw a photo of a house in Ojai, CA, engulfed in flames; one of my college roommates grew up in Ojai and told me about the beauty of that mountain get-away, whose name means “bird’s nest”….

·         Three members of Congress resigned on the same day because of sexual misconduct;

·         It seems like so many deer are littering the sides of local roads; I’m sad all over again every time I pass by one of them;

·         2 of our families suffered the death of loved ones;

·         At Intercessory Prayer we remembered many members of our faith family and loved ones and friends who are going through medical and other challenges.

I’m sure you’ve got your own list of things that weigh down your spirit. 

I came across a devotion recently that quoted St. Paul’s famous words:

“And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

(1 Corinthians 13:13)

The author expressed his opinion that these days hope might be the scarcest commodity in that trinity of evangelical virtues.  He wrote his reflection in 1969, when the Vietnam War was raging, our cities were burning, and the country was still mourning the recent assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy.1  It was a desperate time.

            The prophet we hear from in today’s first lesson from Second Isaiah lived in desperate times.  Last week I mentioned how the people who returned from exile in Babylon were disheartened when their long-awaited, idealized homecoming was to a devastated city they barely recognized.  Today’s passage is from an earlier time, while the people were still strangers in a foreign land.  Remember that song from Godspell?

On the willows there we hung up our lives

For our captors there required of us songs

And our tormentors mirth….

            In the midst of that painful exile the word of the Lord came, saying:

“Comfort, O comfort my people…

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,

            and cry to her

that she has served her term,

            that her penalty is paid,

that she has received from the LORD’s hand

            double for all her sins.”

                        Isaiah 40:1-2

            We might guess the prophet’s response would be an immediate, “You betcha; whatever you say, Lord.”  And we’d be wrong.  The prophet was as strung out emotionally as the people he was told to address.  The anonymous one we simply call “Second Isaiah” keeps a very low profile in his writing, spanning chapters 40 through 55 of the book called Isaiah.  He’s focused on the message, not the messenger.  The only porthole we have into who he is or what he felt is in verse 6 from today’s reading:

A voice says, “Cry out!”

And I said, “What shall I cry?”

Isaiah 40:6

Luther’s translation was, “What shall I preach?” which we might paraphrase, “Are you kidding me?  What can I possibly say?  What words could hope to lessen the excruciating pain we feel over losing our nation and our temple and our homeland?”  “What can I say that won’t incite them to throw tomatoes at me??”

And I said, “What shall I cry?”

            The answer to that question is also a reminder:

The grass withers, the flower fades;

            but the word of our God will stand forever.

Isaiah 40:8

The word of our God that we cling to when fear looms large and hope dims is God’s promise to save:

See, the Lord GOD comes with might,

            and his arm rules for him…

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;

            he will gather the lambs in his arms,

and carry them in his bosom,

            and gently lead the mother sheep.

                                    Isaiah 40:10a-11

            It hadn’t happened yet, but Second Isaiah was charged with presenting that salvation as a done deal, presenting forgiveness for the sin that had caused all the losses they suffered as a done deal, because though it wasn’t a reality yet, it was going to be, because God had promised, and God never welches on a promise.

            Here’s what one person wrote, a good reminder for us any time we begin to question whether the Kingdom will truly come, whether holiness packs a stronger wallop than evil in this world:

Nothing in existence has the power to make [God’s promises] void, not even the desperate plight which was Israel’s.2

Not even the woes of the present day and of this weary world that weigh us down most heavily.  ‘Calls to mind St. Paul’s letter to the Romans:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?...  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.                      Romans 8:35, 37-39           

            Back to Second Isaiah:

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;

                        he will gather the lambs in his arms…

This faithful shepherd sent the One John the Baptist called “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29), the Lamb who said, “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11), the Lamb to whom belongs:

“…blessing and honor and glory and might

forever and ever!”

                        Revelation 5:13

“Here is your God!”is the proclamation given to the messenger in today’s lesson.  We will find Him in the manger and on the cross.  He who is the Word we will find in the Word and in the Holy Supper and in the least of these His brothers and sisters….  Find comfort in Him and in His promises.  Open your hurting heart to His Spirit, whose nickname is Comforter.  “Have hope.  Pray for peace.  Believe in amazing grace.”  Amen

1Frederick Buechner, The Hungering Dark (HarperSanFrancisco, 1969), p. 120.

             2Westermann, Claus. Isaiah 40-66 [Old Testament Library, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969], p. 42.

Pastor Mary Virginia Farnham