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The LORD God comes with might

  • December 6, 2020
  • 10:30 AM

Sermon for 6 December 2020 (Advent 2 B)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Isaiah 40.1-11; Psalm 85.1-2,8-13; Mark 1.1-8

Title:               The LORD God comes with might

“All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field…the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40.6-8).

What happens when we avoid distractions and keep our attention on the coming of God?

THIS, my friends, is the task of Advent.

Advent is a Lamaze class for a family preparing to add a new member to the household.

Advent is Basic Training as a young person prepares to put on the uniform.

Advent is spraying salt solutions on the roadways, and making sure all the plows are ready, before the first Nor’easter of the season arrives.

Advent is the work of a transition team as they prepare to take office.

Advent is the work of logisticians who are even now making plans to roll out a new vaccine to every single human alive in our nation, and in the world.

All of this is what Advent is like. Each metaphor points to the reality that something is coming, something lies just over the horizon and is headed our way and it is going to change the reality of our experience.

A newborn baby, a new identity as a soldier, sailor, airman or Marine, a new blanket of snow and ice, a new administration, a new shared immunity.

All of these things require preparation and planning and attention effort. Not to make it happen. It’s already coming! Whatever it is, it’s on the way. In the case of Advent, Christmas is coming. Our preparations will not MAKE Christmas happen. The Feast will arrive with or without our help.

No, our preparations and planning and attention and effort are necessary to prepare US for what is bound to come.

This, my friends, is the spirit of Advent. And this is precisely the message carried by the words of the prophet Isaiah.   Right here, at chapter 40 in the book of the prophet Isaiah, a new section begins. Scholars call this Deutero-Isaiah which is just a fancy way of saying the Second Isaiah.

Although these texts were eventually all put together into one book, it’s quite clear that this is a different prophet speaking to a different community in a different context, when compared to the first 39 chapters.

In THIS context, the people are in exile in Babylon. They are defeated, discouraged, frustrated, sad, disheartened. All that they had worked toward over so many long years, all of that was destroyed back in their homeland. And now they are stuck in a strange land, held captive in the new empire far from home.

And yet there is hope, says the prophet. So be prepared and expect things to change, because God is coming.

“Prepare the way of Adonai, the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40.3).

Between Babylon in Mesopotamia and the land of the Hebrews lies a vast desert, the Syrian desert with its more than 500 miles of barren emptiness. The idea of building a highway across that is quite ridiculous, especially for a group of humans who are being held as captives, who are devoid of power or wealth.

But the language used here in Second Isaiah, and echoed in the Gospel of Mark, has more to do with planning for a grand parade. It was common, in that age of competing empires, for the victorious army to stage a grand victory parade with the image – usually the statue – of their deity having center-stage in the parade.

So even though these Hebrews are in exile, even though they are politically and economically weak, the prophet invites them to start getting prepared for their own victory parade across the desert, up into the highlands of Judea, and into Jerusalem itself.

Parades are wonderful events, aren’t they? Can you think of a parade that you were involved in? You know, back in pre-COVID times when such things were permissible?

I’ve only been to one victory parade. It was when the Phillies won the World Series, in 2008, and Erin and I got all three kids out of school and we took the train into Center City Philadelphia. It was amazing. I explained to my family that this may be the only time in your life when you will be able to walk all throughout a city center without any cars around whatsoever. Millions of people ruled the streets, and they were happy.

It takes a lot of careful planning, and a ton of time and resources, to pull off a good parade like that. Clearly, this is not what the prophet has in mind here. The Hebrews held captive in Babylon are not going to plan for an actual parade across the desert.

Instead, the prophet calls them to embrace that same attitude of hope and anticipation that you get before a major event, like a huge victory parade.

The prophet wants the people to face their future with an optimism that God can and will turn their situation around, because the word of God, the promise of God stands forever – it does not fail, it CANNOT fail. Maintain this awareness, says the prophet.

In Mark’s Gospel, these words from Second Isaiah are appropriated to point to the coming of the Messiah. As if the people would come out and line the sides of the highway along which the Messianic parade would arrive.

But in Mark’s Gospel, this arrival is more like an invasion. God is coming, no matter what. And if the mountains and hills are not made low by the time God arrives, well then God will take care of it, and God will move any obstacle out of the way – thank you very much!

“The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me.” God comes unbidden, unrequested, beyond our control, which is exactly how all the momentous changes in life arrive.

You see, we do not invite God to our party. God does not NEED an invitation, because it has always been God’s party after all.

Scholars in the Church have spoken of this as prevenient grace. Prevenient grace is how we refer to the work that God does in our lives and in our communities and in our world long before we are aware of it, long before we are ready to recognize and give thanks for it.

Because the truth is that God is always working and we are always responding. This is the order of things.

Any good thing you do in your life, anything that you may consider to be a good deed, or an act of faithfulness and loyalty, that is always a response to God’s grace already at work within you.

God acts, we respond. That is always how it is, over and over and over again.

Our work, in this season of Advent, is to focus our attention on the coming of God, and to learn how to keep it there. Because we live in a world of constant distractions.

“All people are grass…the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40.6-8).

Constancy, immutability, steadfastness – these words describe the reality of the God who comes to us, not only that one unique time in Bethlehem long ago, but over and over and over again.

Each day, and each moment present us with an opportunity to prepare ourselves for the coming of God, because we never know precisely what awaits us.

Many of you know that I was in a horrible accident, a pile-up on the Maine Turnpike, just before Thanksgiving. It was the most unexpected thing I could imagine at the time, to drive over a little ridge in Scarborough and to suddenly have the entire highway blocked immediately in front of me. In that moment, one must make a series of decisions that carry life-or-death consequences.

The truth is that we never know what awaits us just over the horizon. And I believe firmly that the work of turning and keeping our attention on the coming of God leads directly to being prepared for whatever life sends our way.

Learning how to remove distractions from the mind and from the heart, learning how to maintain focus and attention, learning how to be aware in each moment of what is happening around us – these are the fruits of our Advent practice.

Advent is all about being prepared, because life is all about being prepared.

“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40.8).

My friends, today in this season of Advent, and in every season to come, will you turn away from distractions and keep your attention on the coming of God, who continues to invade our world with redeeming grace?

And so, will you prepare yourself each day for the unexpected, ready for the next big change that surely awaits us just over the horizon? May it always be so. Amen.

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