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Advent 3A Sermon
Isaiah 35: 1-10,
Matthew 11: 2-11
15, 2019


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Isaiah 35:1-10

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus it 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.
Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
‘Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you.’
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,
and streams in the desert;
the burning sand shall become a pool,
and the thirsty ground springs of water;
the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,
the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.
No 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.
And the ransomed of the LORD shall return,
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain joy and gladness,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’
As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: ‘What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way before you.”
Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

May the grace, mercy and peace of God be with us in the name of our risen Lord and savior, Jesus Christ; Amen.

(During the children’s sermon I will focus on the pictures on the front of the bulletin … the top picture is of the wilderness in southern Jordan through which I travelled from Masada to Petra … rocks, sand, barrenness. The bottom picture is from the recent Super Bloom in California – bright and colorful wildflowers. In Isaiah there is the promise of new life bursting forth in the wilderness. This is an illustration of that happening. I have put a copy of the bulletin cover at the end of this sermon.)

The question that John the Baptist’s disciples asked Jesus on his behalf sort of baffles us: “Are you the one to come, or are we to wait for another?” Shouldn’t he, of all people, know the answer to that? After all, it was not long before his incarceration that he was baptizing Jesus in the Jordan and proclaiming him the one for whom everyone has been waiting, the one who’s sandals he was not worthy to carry. What has happened to now make him unsure that Jesus is the messiah … or maybe what has not happened? It is possible that John didn’t quite understand that the baptism by fire which Jesus was to bring was going to come about in the way that it was. Maybe as he continued to sit in a first century prison cell he wondered when this baptism by fire would happen, and HOW it would happen. Maybe Johns expectations included a revolution started by the Jesus, the freedom-fighter who would not only liberate his people from the Roman occupiers, but also depose and banish the unfaithful King Herod, who was the source of John’s incarceration. With those expectations still disappointedly unmet, John asks if Jesus is really the one.

The coming of Jesus into our lives can take us by surprise when it happens in ways that we do not expect. I am sure that, as Christians we all live expectantly, knowing the promise that Jesus made to break in and be revealed in times of joy and in times of sorrow. But when we only expect Jesus to come within our own desires or wants then we may be blind to him when he comes in other ways. Take the example of that super bloom on the front of your bulletin. It took people by surprise last spring when it burst forth and blossomed abundantly! The usual dusty brown hills of Anza-Borrego State Park were splattered with color upon color as poppies, primroses, lilies and greenery burst forth from the ground. With the floral growth came birds, insects, caterpillars and other animals, all suddenly discovering a new source of food and life. It is a reminder that when the desert blooms, it blooms abundantly, not half-heartedly; not hidden in some lonesome valley. For a few weeks that world was transformed into a living Van Gogh landscape. It was the best bloom since 2005.

But what are the conditions that lead up to a super bloom like this? The first is prolonged dormancy – seeds lying lifelessly just under the surface of the soil for years, through many seasons until, for some reason or another, they decide to wake up at roughly the same time after this long hibernation. It was also helped by a long rainy season followed by a particularly cold winter that locked the moisture into the ground. Yes, it appears that harsh, undesirable conditions for a prolonged period of time seem to pave the way for the bursting of new life in this desert.
The original hearers of Isaiah’s words of hope and comfort had experienced that long period of harsh undesirable conditions after being conquered by Assyria and then Babylon. Brutal military conquest followed by about 50 years in exile made these people ripe for new life – they were ready, and Isaiah shares God’s promise that the road home will be filled with colorfully blooming flowers in the desolate desert of southern Jordan.

Jesus’ answer to John was a reminder of the many ways in which the people of his day were ripe for new life as well. Indeed, they were ruled by a pagan foreign power and a despot on the throne of Judea, but Jesus knew that his call as messiah was to be one who heals and saves people in more important ways than politically. He points out to John’s disciples how he has fulfilled the expected coming of the messiah – healing the blind, lame, lepers, deaf and raising the dead. Most importantly, the poor have good news brought to them. They have been hurting a long time – partly because of the political situation and partly because of the neglect from religious leaders. So, Jesus burst on the scene and people are rejoicing over the ways that he is healing and bringing new life to all of them.

That is what rejoice Sunday is all about – celebrating in advance the gifts of Jesus who is the healer of the world. Being reminded of the whole purpose of our preparations – we are getting ready for the savior of the world! Just as the people in Isaiah’s day were promised a colorful, safe road home, so the people of Jesus’ day were experiencing someone from God who loved them perfectly. And just as Jesus brings with him perfect love, so we rejoice in the prospect of new, unexpected life blossoming in the wildernesses of our lives – usually in ways and in times when we really do not expect it. That is why we cannot lock into one was of thinking that God will intercede into our lives … because if we do, we may be blind to it when God does intercede.

This coming Saturday, December 21, is the day when the nighttime is the longest of the year. Some congregations have “Blue Christmas” services on that day, recognizing that this holiday time when everyone around us seems so, “happy,” can be a very down and dark time. The fear and grief can be at times paralyzing for some. That is why we remember today that the reasons for our rejoicing are much deeper and more important than merely being happy. That, when and how we may never expect it, God paints our desolate landscapes with bright and glorious colors. We may not know exactly how it will happen, and that is okay. It is better than okay, because when we admit that we are not blinded to ways that Jesus does intercede with profound love and joy, we will be more able to recognize and receive Jesus’ love and share it with others.

With our eyes opened and expectations heightened, may these darkest days of the year go by quickly, and may we experience together the joy of Jesus’ presence to bring love and peace that blossom like the crocus, primrose and lily. May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.