Sermon for Dec. 16, 2018 -- Expect Restoration


-a sermon preached by Terry McGinley 12-16-2018 Pardeeville

(Isaiah 35:1-10 and James 5:7-10)


          Isaiah tells his people that God will act to save them…will give them remarkable signs in the natural world.  The letter of James though, encourages us to be patient.  That’s all well and good but, what I’d like to know is how did it get to be the third Sunday in Advent already?  How does a season that invites us to slow down go by so quickly?  One full week of Advent…then just two more days…and it’s Christmas Day!  I encourage all of us to make the most of it.  Week three and Isaiah’s tone is slightly different than what we have heard from him the last two weeks.  Remember that this portion of the book of Isaiah was written during a time when Israel was being threatened.  The country was in imminent danger of attack from a more powerful neighbor and Isaiah has been trying his best to warn the leaders.  He’s been begging them to put their trust in God instead of in political alliances.  This morning we are pretty deep into this first section of the book of Isaiah.  I can sense at least a hint in this morning’s passage that Isaiah is resigned to the fact that the country will be attacked, that great devastation is going to happen, and that many people will be taken to live in another country.  And we know that, despite all of his efforts, all these things will indeed happen.  So Isaiah shifts his emphasis.  He begins to prepare the people for these events while, at the same time, painting a vivid picture of how God will work to get them back home again…and no one has been taken away to live in another country yet!  We see God’s judgment all right, but we also see that judgment is never the final answer.

          Just as we have heard in other Isaiah passages during the Advent season, Isaiah describes the scenario of how God will fulfill the promise to be with the people and to ransom them from exile.  It will be signaled by a remarkable transformation of the wilderness.  Ordinarily, the wilderness is a barren place, a place without much color.  This drab area is not a place that anyone would willingly wish to go.  It’s a lonely place.  It’s scary because of the wild animals you might run into.  It is simply a dangerous place to be not only because of the harm that might come to you but also because of the absence of much that would support human life for very long.  Isaiah’s vision finds a wilderness that is completely transformed.  It will blossom and flower like never before.  It will become God’s palette, with great splashes of color everywhere.  More importantly, the wilderness will be life giving instead of life threatening.  And it will become a place of safety for anyone who finds themselves there.  Now that’s quite a change!  The wilderness will no longer be a place of trial and testing, of struggle and suffering.  The wilderness will be transformed into a place where you can witness God’s majesty.

          Each of the three Isaiah texts we have heard thus far during Advent involves a change in creation.  On the first Sunday of Advent, it was a change in human nature, when swords will become plow shares and spears will become pruning hooks.  Last week, we heard about the wolf and the lamb living together in harmony.  This morning we hear that the usually desolate wilderness is going to become a magnificent floral display…a cathedral of God’s glory!  Each of the Isaiah texts have described great numbers of people too.  First, people streaming to the mountain where the temple stands.  Then, people living in peace with one another and acting with justice toward each other.  This morning it is the great number of people whom God will lead back home.  It is the story of their rescue from exile.  And each of the Isaiah passages we have heard during Advent speak of a dramatic transformation.  We began with the transformation from a climate of war to a climate of peace.  Next we saw nations living together in peace under the leadership of a new king who listens to God and rules with justice.  This morning’s passage is perhaps the most exuberant of all three.  The brilliant transformation of the wilderness, the restoration of those with physical ailments, the blind now able to see, the deaf now able to hear, and the lame jumping for joy.  Not to mention the highway that God will provide for the chosen people.  This path of safety is the route that people will follow to return home.  It will be the visible sign of God’s intervention and will provide salvation for the chosen people.

          So here we are, on the third Sunday in Advent.  Today is also called “Gaudete Sunday”, named after the Latin word for “rejoice”.  This reading from the book of Isaiah is the ideal text to hear today.  My guess is that it made the chosen people happy.  Isaiah’s time goes much further back than Advent…even though we’ve had this season for a while.  Advent started in the fourth century but was much different back then.  Originally, during Advent, the mood was penitential and somber.  Then something wonderful happened.  A reading from Paul’s letter to the Philippians found its way into the church calendar for the third Sunday in Advent.  That passage begins with the words “Rejoice in the Lord always.  I will say it again…rejoice!”  And the here-to-fore penitential mood of the Advent season was shattered because of Paul’s encouragement.  We’ve been rejoicing, particularly on the third Sunday in Advent, ever since!

          We even make our Advent wreath look special today…using the pink candle.  One of the young people in the church I served in Mauston once asked me, “Why is there a pink candle?”  I know how I used to answer that question when I was a boy, growing up and attending a Catholic grade school.  We used to joke that the reason the third candle was pink was that Advent was now half over!  And, I guess, in a way that’s true.  We are much closer to the gift of the Christ child than we were only a couple of weeks ago.  But an even better reason why the third candle on the Advent wreath is pink lies in the fact that the overwhelming tone of today’s Isaiah passage is one of rejoicing.  Today we take a bit of a break from the waiting and anticipation of this season and let ourselves look ahead to the joy we will have when our salvation comes.  We see it in the first line of today’s passage from the book of Isaiah, which begins, “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad.”  God still gives us plenty of reasons to be glad.  So, if the rest of creation can be happy, why can’t we?

          We are now just nine days from Christmas Day.  One week from tomorrow, we’ll gather here in worship to celebrate God’s gift of a Savior.  Because we are this close, we might be tempted to skip over the rest of our preparation and anticipation, particularly when we hear about rejoicing, and go right to Christmas.  We could do that, I suppose, if it were not for one thing…patience!  The need for patience comes through loud and clear in the letter from James that we heard this morning.  James reassures us to be patient and steadfast as we wait for the coming of the Lord.  We are asked to practice patience during the season of Advent.  All of the words we associate with this season—waiting, expectation, anticipation—have behind them the idea of patience.  Patience is an act borne of faith.  When we wait patiently, we are expressing our trust in God that God will act.

          I have one of my own stories about patience to share with you this morning.  It began back in 1993 when I was admitted to the hospital in Mauston with kidney failure.  I was patched up and released after about five days but the name of the kidney disease I had wasn’t pinned down until about eight months later, when I had my first of several biopsies. There was a gradual decline in my kidney function over the next nine years.  That led to kidney transplant surgery in August of 2002.  My recovery was nothing short of phenomenal.  All those years of lousy lab values got turned around in about 48 hours. My hospital stay for the transplant was the same length as the hospital stay in 1993…a mere five days!  I returned home.  The weight that I lost started to return.  (I weighed 146 pounds when I had the transplant!)  I gained my strength back and returned to work repairing cars.  And I felt better than I had in a long, long time. 

          About three and a half months after transplant, one of my regular labs contained a funny number.  When I called my transplant coordinator, she said those fateful words when she invited me down to University Hospital for a look see…“Pack a suitcase…just in case.”  I did pack a suitcase and, after another biopsy and a few other diagnostic procedures, I was whisked away to the sixth floor of University Hospital in Madison again.  I even got my old room back!  I soon got to see some places and departments in the hospital that I had never seen before, some of which I didn’t even know existed.  I had a procedure done in the Department of Vascular Intervention that ordinarily corrects the problem I had in a day or two.  Not in my case though.  I had rediscovered the joy of being an interesting patient—not something I would recommend to anyone!  What happened to me over the next week plus could have discouraged me…if I had not been patient.  (That pun was intended.)  Every afternoon while I was in the hospital, I was visited by a group of medical professionals making rounds.  There was a transplant surgeon, a follow up doctor or two, someone from the pharmacy, and a few others.  Generally about six people stopped by my room to take a look at my chart and talk to me about how the treatment was progressing.  And each day these professional minds would get together and scratch their collective heads.  They would wonder out loud why the procedure was not yet working.  And they would give me their frank medical opinion about what else could be done.  Every day the answer was the same.  We all had to wait.  I felt sorry for those medical professionals that graced my room every day because they were taking this much worse than I was!

          You see, I had no doubt that God would continue to take care of me.  Being patient came very easily to me.  I had relied on God when I was hospitalized in 1993.  I had relied on God during the decline of my kidney function and the transplant surgery.  Why on earth would I act any differently now?  Whatever the outcome of this hospital stay…cure, continued problems, dialysis, another transplant, it didn’t matter.  I continued to feel God’s presence very strongly.  God was going to take care of me.  So I continued to be patient and wait for whatever was going to happen to happen.  As you may have guessed by now, the procedure eventually began to work (that was on day 11!) and I was released from the hospital on Christmas Eve day after a two week hospital stay.  It was a great Advent lesson for me about waiting.  But it also served to teach me about patience and expecting God to act.

          So it is during the Advent season that we are asked to wait for God to act…in fact, to expect that God will act.  We know that it’s okay to be happy about it.  And we know that God is able to restore us, to bring us back, just as God did for the chosen people long ago.  God finds safe paths for us to travel, paths that reflect the glory of God that is all around us.  We simply need to remember that God is faithful to promises, that being patient can ease our minds and hearts, and that God is able to restore us to wholeness.  How great is that!?  Thanks be to God!