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Sermon for Dec. 2, 2018 -- Expect a Miracle

“EXPECT A MIRACLE”

-a sermon preached by Terry McGinley 12-2-2018 Pardeeville

(Isaiah 2:1-5 and Romans 13:8-14)

 

         Now that we have finally reached the season of Advent, I have a confession to make.  It is difficult for me, if not impossible, to resist hanging out in the book of Isaiah during this most wonderful season of the church year.  Like it or not, we will be hearing a little something from the prophet Isaiah each Sunday in Advent, as well as on Christmas Eve.  But we will not let Isaiah stand alone.  We’ll give him a scripture buddy every Sunday too.  I mention this because it will give you something to look forward to in the season of expectation.  I would love it if we could all experience the feeling of expectation during this Advent season.  To expect something is to believe that it will arrive.  Part of that expectation is, of course, the birth of our Savior on Christmas.  Even though we know when that event will happen, there are other opportunities for expectation during Advent…especially in Pardeeville.  Our ancestors centuries ago believed that God would act to save them.  We’ll get to experience some of their expectation in the Isaiah passages we’ll hear on Advent Sundays.  But there are other things that God is doing.  I hope you’ll believe, as I do, that God will continue to guide our church as we seek our next pastor.  So…plenty to do in the Advent season and only a short time to do so.  Let’s begin.

         The book of Isaiah covers about two hundred years of Jewish history.  It gets divided by Biblical scholars into three sections.  The first 39 chapters were written during a time of political turmoil for the Israel.  It looked as though the Assyrian armies were going to invade the country any old time.  This, of course, caused both alarm and great anxiety. Unfortunately, the chosen people were blowing it big time.  Instead of placing their trust in God, the leaders of the people tried to forge political alliances with other nations for mutual aid in case one of them was attacked.  During this period of their history, Isaiah acts as God’s prophet to announce God’s judgment on the people.  Isaiah, in no uncertain terms, reprimands the people for their lack of trust in God and tells them that bad things are going to happen if nothing changes.  That’s what’s going on in the first part of the book of Isaiah.  The second part of the book, chapters 40 to 55, records a time of exile for the chosen people.  Indeed, their country has been attacked.  Their cities have been destroyed.  The temple has been knocked down.  And many of their people have been taken away to live in another country.  That’s the focus of the middle chapters of the book of Isiah.  The last eleven chapters take place during a time when the chosen people have been allowed to come home.  Isaiah now has to find ways to bring hope to his people because, when they arrive home, they are able to witness all the destruction that has taken place in their country first-hand…and it’s devastating!

         I mention all three parts of the book of Isaiah so you can get a feel for what’s going in each section.  All of the readings we’ll be looking into during this Advent season though, will come from the first section of the book—when there is a time of unrest and uncertainty about the future and when war seems unavoidable.  Yet somehow, as all good prophets seem to be able to do, Isaiah is able to disregard everything he can see at the time, everything that’s going on around him.  During all of the turbulence, the political positioning, and the misplaced reliance of the country’s leaders, Isaiah is able to imagine something better—something that God will provide.

         Here we are on the first Sunday of Advent, the very first day of the church year.  And what are the first words that we hear?  We hear Isaiah’s prophecy that the temple is going to be on the highest mountain. In Isaiah’s time, the higher you could get on a mountain, the closer you were to God.  So if the temple is on the highest mountain, it means that the chosen people will be closest to God.  Even better, people from all over the world are going to come.  Everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, will come to the temple on the mountain.  They’ll be taught by God.  They’ll learn God’s ways and do the things that God wants them to do.  This will bring about a time of extraordinary peace.  The vision that Isaiah describes is for all people.  If you think Isaiah’s reference to this time of peace are words you’ve heard before…you have.  The same passage, just about word for word, shows up in the book of Micah, one of Isaiah’s contemporaries.  What strikes me most about this part of today’s passage is the image of transformation.  Swords and spears are going to be transformed into plow shares and pruning hooks.  Instead of weapons that destroy, the same metal will become tools that help to grow food for the entire community.  Instruments for taking life will become instruments for sustaining life.  But hold on a minute!  This is by no means the picture that Isaiah or anyone else would get by looking out of their windows in the present day.  Isaiah ignores everything his eyes can see at the time while envisioning a time when things are going to be much different.  No specific time is mentioned but, by using the words “in the days to come”, Isaiah affirms his trust in God to make it happen.

At the end of today’s passage, Isaiah bids his people to take action, to live into the vision that he has described.  It is as if to say that God will work to bring about peace but this has to be a cooperative effort.  We are all God’s partners in peacemaking.  Isaiah urges his people to walk in the light of the Lord.  Light plays an important role throughout the book of Isaiah.  Light plays an important role in the Advent season too.  All you have to do is take a look at the Advent wreath each Sunday and you’ll notice that the light starts out as a single flame.  That light grows each week.  Light also plays an important role in our own lives.  We receive the light that Jesus brings into the world and we find unique and creative ways to share this light with others.  That’s what Christians do.

         In fact, you could say that Isaiah’s idea of “living into the light” is updated in the reading from the letter to the Romans we heard this morning.  Paul is describing a new way of life to the Christians in Rome in much the same way that Isaiah used the images of swords becoming plow shares and spears becoming pruning hooks.  The atmosphere in Rome was not at all conducive to people openly declaring that they were Christians.  You might say that doing so would be hazardous to their health!  But Paul uses the imagery of waking up, of starting again.  Paul declares that it is a new day.  The night is gone.  The light of a new day is here.  And the new day that God is bringing is a time when God and humanity will be reconciled, a time when peace, justice and integrity will be the hallmarks of human society.  And Paul encourages everyone to start living right now as though this new day has already begun…living into this time of peace.  By doing good things for others, by offering our help to anyone who needs it not just those who ask for it, we are living in the light of a new day.  In doing things for others, we are imitating God’s love.  And God’s love is best shown to us when God does things to benefit us—you know, like sending Jesus to be our savior—stuff like that.  God’s love is seen more in action than at any other time.  In the New Testament, love is not based purely on emotion.  Love is based on action.  To love someone is to pursue that person’s welfare and well being.  This is why Paul states that all the commandments can be summed up in one statement “Love your neighbor as you love yourself”. 

During the season of Advent, we will hear more about peace and peacemaking.  We will hear the words “peace on earth; good will to all” on Christmas Eve.  One of the things we are charged with doing during this short season is the task of preparing ourselves to receive the gift of God’s Son.  Ironically, it is to be done by people who never seem to have enough time in the first place.  Most of our waking hours seem overwhelmed by the demands of time.  There are work schedules and school functions and trying to coordinate multiple calendars.  Now it is the holiday season so you can triple everything.  We are asked to wait during Advent too and that doesn’t fit our days very well.  Not only does our culture fail to value the idea of waiting for anything, it imposes a great many distractions this time of year in an effort to give us something to do instead of waiting.  Catalogues clog our mailboxes.  Commercials on radio, television and the internet try to convince us to buy something because, at this time of year, it seems that everything makes a great gift.  I especially dislike the commercials that try to put their advertising message into the lyrics of a familiar Christmas song.  Never has there been a greater misuse of poetic license!  We have new names for certain days.  November 23 was “Black Friday”, a term that has in recent years tried to describe how profitable one day can be for retail sales in this country.  And we have a new name for the following Monday.  Cyber Monday is the biggest day of the year for sales via the internet.

         Into all this activity, the season of Advent offers us a welcome alternative.  Advent offers us the gift of expectation.  Expectation is way better than waiting.  Expectation offers us more hope that mere waiting ever could.  Expectation, and its cousin word anticipation, have a greater sense of certainty about them.  Words matter.  There is a word you find in the Isaiah passage we heard this morning that may have slipped by you.  I know it has gotten past me in previous years.  It’s a pretty short word.  The passage begins, “This is what Isaiah saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.”  Not what Isaiah heard or what God told Isaiah—it’s what Isaiah saw.  The choice of words here indicates a much higher level of certainty than another word could.  What Isaiah sees is going to happen.  Indeed, this is Isaiah’s vision of the future.  In the same way, as we enter the season of Advent, with feelings of expectation and anticipation, it will only lead us to a greater realization of how God much loves us.  We do have an unfair advantage over the chosen people of Isaiah’s time and the Christians in Rome to whom Paul wrote his letter.  We don’t have to guess when God will act to bring us home from exile.  We don’t have to wonder if there will ever be a safer atmosphere in which to practice our faith.  We know that on December 25 it’s going to be Christmas Day.  Even though we can already see the end of the Advent season, we must revel in the hope that this season brings, and the hope that we can bring, to a world in great need.  There are still wars going on.  There are still natural disasters and outbreaks of illnesses that claim lives.  There are still a lot of things that need to be different in order to create the new life that Isaiah and Paul spoke about in scripture.  But we are people living into the light of a new day.  We are people filled with hope.  We are people who must share our vision for the future with others.  For it is in doing so that we share God’s love, a love that we see very clearly in the Christ child on Christmas morning.  Let us live then, as people with such a vision.  Let us expect God’s miracle.  Thanks be to God!  

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