ADVENT 2, B – December 10, 2017

SCRIPTURES – Psalm 80; Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-14; Mark 1:1-8

      Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.

      A voice cries: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord…  Isaiah 40

 

What is this time of year like for you? For some it is an uncomfortable time of being rushed and harried, of trying to make time for decorating and shopping and baking and parties and preparing for visitors. Others remember, and miss, that busyness. (Especially unhappy are those who see the golf courses covered in white, now vacant and empty!) None of these things is the essence of the Advent and Christmas seasons, however, and so any discomfort that is felt because of them is discomfort that is put on oneself.

There is a discomfort that is part and parcel of this time of year, a discomfort that God Himself puts upon us. Isaiah says, “‘Behold your God!’ Behold, the Lord God comes…” If God Himself comes… well, that changes everything! It also means discomfort. This was expressed in a letter I read in the newspaper several years ago. An area pastor wrote:

“December is a month of personal dilemmas…The dilemma is this: how do I celebrate my religious holidays in a way that respects, even nurtures, the religious holidays of others… Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, and followers of other religions.” His advice was: “During December make a point of sharing with a friend some aspect of your religious holiday and theirs, too. Not to convert, but merely to understand.”

Is this why God came: to respect us and make us comfortable? “Comfort, comfort my people,” says God, not “make people comfortable.” God’s comfort comes through the discomfort of conversion, of repentance. Repentance prepares the way for Him. This is what God cries out through His prophet Isaiah.

God has such great comfort for us: the ending of our warfare (in Hebrew, our “hard service”) and the pardoning of our sins. He even says that He will give to us double for what our sins have taken away. But, He offers and gives us this comfort in an uncomfortable place: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” This prophecy found its literal fulfillment in the wilderness near the Jordan River with the coming of John the Baptist. People had to go there to hear to receive his baptism of repentance and be prepared for the Lord’s coming. That austere place and John’s austere dress served to emphasize God’s message: that His great gifts can only be received by turning away from and not satisfying yourself.

“All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it.” This is God’s message to you. He is not only saying that you are mortal, that your days in this world are limited and will end when He blows upon you and ends your days. You don’t need Him to tell you this. You know it well; you see it every time you pass a cemetery. What God is saying is deeper. He speaks of what you are now, not only of what will happen to your body in the future. When He says that “all [your] beauty” will whither and fade before His breath, His voice, He means that the best of your accomplishments and plans and desires, all of the good things about you, are lacking. We aren’t only grass, you see; we are grass growing on top of toxic soil, filled with poison that is unseen and yet is part of us. The sin that is within you, that you hear in your thoughts and feel in your desires, poisons even the best of what you do. God sees this, even if you don’t. And so, you cannot make up for your sins with good deeds. God will not love you and bless you because you are trying hard to be a good and decent person. You, along with everyone else, must repent. You must confess that you are sinful and unclean within and without, not rely upon any goodness of your own or good works as reasons for His blessing, and look to God alone and His coming for mercy. This is what the mouth of the Lord has spoken. Repentance is accepting and confessing this and going to Him in the wilderness of repentance, and to the baptism God gave to you by a sinful man, like John. For most of you this was when you were an infant who didn’t ask to be baptized and had no understanding of what was going on. That was truly the wilderness! In that simple act, however, God not only washed away your sins and pardoned you; He also gave you His Holy Spirit and a new life as His child. You received double from the Lord’s hand!

How great is the mercy and forgiveness of God! Long before Jesus came and saved us by the hard service of His obedient life, and then dying and rising again for us, God announced through Isaiah that it is all done. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.” All past tense verbs, announcing as completed actions things that would not take place for centuries. They are yours in Christ!

Ø  Your warfare, or hard service, is ended. You don’t have to make up for your sins, for the Son of God Himself has done so. Surely you cannot do more than Him! Your hard service under God’s Law, your responsibility to obey and honor Him in thought, word, and deed was completed by Jesus. He did all things well, and for you.

Ø  The punishment you faced for your disobedience was also endured by Jesus on the cross. “It is finished,” He cried right before He died. Your iniquity is pardoned and, like a prison inmate who is pardoned by the governor, you are free!

But, you do not go forth from your prison empty, the same old sinner. In your Baptism God gave you His Holy Spirit to fill you with His life. Life eternal and union with God Himself is yours! You have received from the Lord’s hand double – and more – for your sins! All this is God’s gift to you, won for you by Jesus and given to you in His call to the baptism of repentance.

And so, even though you must enter the wilderness of repentance and turn away from yourself and to God alone to receive these gifts, do not fear that wilderness. For in that wilderness of repentance is God’s voice, pardoning you and setting you free. In that wilderness is the Holy Spirit, filling you with His holiness and renewing your life. In that wilderness is Jesus, your Good Shepherd, carrying you. “Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom.” (Is. 40) He will carry you and bring you home to your heavenly Father, to whom be glory forever! Amen.