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Sunday, December 9, 2018

Get Ready (Isaiah 40.1-5, Matthew 3.1-6)

Sermon by: Robert Austell; December 9, 2018 - Isaiah 40:1-5; Matthew 3:1-6)

:: Sermon Audio :: Due to weather closing there is no sermon audio

::: Music ::
Prepare the Way (Evans/Nuzum)
People, Look East (BESANCON; arr. Vanderheide)
OFFERTORY: Prepare Ye the Way (Talbot/Caedmon's Call)
O Come, O Come Emmanuel (VENI EMMANUEL)

:: Sermon Manuscript (pdf) :: This manuscript represents an early draft of the sermon. Some weeks the spoken version varies more than others from the early manuscript. Nevertheless, if you'd prefer to read than to listen, this is provided  for that purpose.

Get ready! Christmas is coming! And it’s got to be the happiest holiday of the year… right?

Maybe not. In fact, for real people in the real world, it’s often not. And all the bells and lights and Santas can’t brighten a sad or lonely heart. In fact, and here’s the kicker, the even more significant news of baby Jesus, of God come to earth, can just highlight and underscore the fact that I’m not perky and happy when everyone is supposed to be all “Joy to the World.”

Sometimes, Christmas can seem like a season of darkness rather than the season of light.

If this describes you or someone you know, listen up – today’s scriptures are for you. They are written to God’s chosen people, heirs of the covenant promise, and blessed people in all the earth. And at the time Isaiah was a prophet-preacher those blessed people lived in darkness… far from home… sad and lonely and disconnected from their God. They couldn’t see the light; they couldn’t see the promise; and had they celebrated it at the time, they certainly wouldn’t have seen the “merry” in Christmas.

One time Jesus said that he came, not to save the righteous, but to seek and save the lost. Jesus also came to show the glory and face of God, not to those already basking in it, but to those stuck in the darkness… to people like you and me.

Comfort My People

One of the lines in “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen?” talks about “comfort and joy.” Before joy and certainly before “merry gentlemen” is comfort. This is not comfort as in a soft lounge chair and a cool drink watching my favorite game comfort. This is comfort like a parent sitting with the child who has awakened in the middle of the night with a nightmare comfort. It is what God speaks of through Isaiah when He says, “Comfort, O comfort my people.”

Listen to at least three ways God speaks comfort to His people, who at this point were living away from home and feeling cut off from God because of their sin. God says, “Speak kindly to Jerusalem; and call out to her…”

    …that her warfare is ended…

    …that her iniquity has been removed…

    …that she has received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins…

God’s children had “warred” against God by disobeying Him and turning from Him. They had served and worshiped other gods; they had not followed God’s Word and Law in scripture; they had not listened to God’s prophets; they had lived like the world and people around them rather than live like a people set apart by and for God. And God had let them experience the consequences of that sin through their “exile”… being conquered and taken captive by Assyria and Babylon.

This is not just the particular story of Israel – this is the human story. You and I have warred against God through our sin. We have served and worshiped other gods, whether consciously or not. We too often look and live too much like the world and culture around us, rather than a people set apart by and for God. And many times the consequences of our choices are a captivity, a lostness, and a darkness.

Or, we might be like the children born in captivity. We were born into this situation, not even aware of all the choices our parents made to get us here. We may have “inherited” the darkness and not even understand all the reasons or sources of our situation.

We may feel like this darkness is paying for our sins; we may simply be confused and lost and lonely. However we got here, God speaks of comfort and announces that we need not stay where we are. It may feel like night right now, but dawn is coming; light is coming.

Prepare the Way

The second part of God’s Word through Isaiah is a voice calling, “Prepare the way” or in my loose translation: GET READY!

Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; and let the rough ground become a plain, and the rugged terrain a broad valley; THEN the glory of the Lord will be revealed…

In ancient times, this preparation literally happened when a king was coming. The roads would be cleared off and even leveled out to “make way” for the king.

John the Baptist made use of this prophecy to talk of preparing for the coming Messiah. He preached of repentance and getting ready spiritually in one’s heart.

If I may pause for a moment of theological commentary, I am not talking about saving yourself through works or overlapping the saving work of God through Jesus Christ. I am talking about a very practical and commonsense role that you and I play in EXPERIENCING the light of Jesus in our lives.

Let me illustrate this way: let’s say Heather and I want to have some folks over to the house for a Christmas party. We must get ready to have company over. This is in addition to any cooking or party items. There are things to be picked up, dog hair to vacuum, cleaning, dusting – in other words, PREPARATIONS to be made.

Or think about sunrise. Though we may have waited up through the night for the sun to rise, you and I are not responsible for making the sun rise. That is God’s doing – God’s creation. Likewise, we do not have to summon God to earth, accomplish the forgiveness of sin, or dial a special long-distance number to talk to God. But, it is possible to miss the sunrise by leaving the blinds closed, never getting out of bed, or spending all our time in the basement.

In order to EXPERIENCE the light and presence of God, even as clearly as Jesus shows Him to us, we have to get ready and keep ready. There is clutter in our lives that gets in the way. Some of it is sinful – lusts, self-focus, other ‘gods’. Some of it is just distracting – work, busyness, computers, television, entertainments… but if it keeps us away from God, it’s a problem!

Isaiah speaks of “clearing the way” and “making smooth the highway.” It’s not the salvation, but it’s good, practical instruction on how to experience God’s presence and light rather than to continue in lostness and loneliness and not understand the problem.

Is your life too full of distractions – loud, packed stuff that blocks out the still, small voice of God?

Is there habitual sin that dominates your life – keeping you “warring” with God rather than at peace with Him?

Is there hidden history that you need to understand and confront? Were you seemingly “born into the darkness?” and need to talk with me or a Christian counselor about persistent struggles with the darkness that you seemingly inherited?

Are there medical reasons for the darkness? Lack of sleep, weight issues, lack of exercise, or biochemical imbalances are all “rough ground” that a doctor can help make smooth.

If you’re normal, there might be a bit of all of these cluttering your life, which means they are also obscuring your spiritual life.

Take action! Get ready! Clear away some clutter; repent and pray for forgiveness; talk to a trusted friend, counselor, or come see me; take stock of your physical and mental health and get your doctor’s opinion. “Prepare the way” is not a secret and super-spiritual exercise; it’s practical advice that is part of our responsibility toward God.

In Isaiah 40:5, after calling on us to get ready, Isaiah says “then”… THEN the glory of the Lord will be revealed.

Come and See

Preparing the way for the Lord as we’ve been discussing is like getting out of bed, getting dressed, and going outside to see the sunrise and experience the daylight. The GOOD NEWS is that the light has indeed come. Listen to Matthews words in Matthew 4, saying that Jesus accomplished this:

The people who were sitting in darkness saw a great light, and those who were sitting in the land and shadow of death, upon them a light dawned. (Mt. 4:16)

The good news is that God’s glory HAS dawned. It is daylight outside the house! We are not condemned and consigned to live in darkness. There is hope and light and life, even if you are presently experiencing the darkness.

God’s Word to you and me this morning is not “Merry Christmas, everyone is now living in sunshiny Christian happiness”; rather, it is a message of comfort, a call to clear out the rubble, and an invitation to COME AND SEE

It is good and true what God says through Matthew. If you are sitting in darkness, if you are sitting in the land and shadow of death, take heart. God is there, even in the darkness. God’s promise and God’s reality is that a light has dawned.

Christmas: a Season of Dawning Glory

When my children were little, they sometimes awakened with nightmares in the middle of the night. Just as I would never have left them to fend for themselves, neither will God abandon you to the darkness. Nonetheless, it sometimes takes my children a while to awaken fully and realize that Heather or I are there whispering words of comfort and assurance. So God is speaking to each of you, “Comfort, O comfort my child… your warfare is over and your sin has been paid for in full.”

If you are like me, there’s stuff that keeps getting in the way of our relationship with God. Sometimes for me, and I imagine for you, it’s so significant that I have trouble seeing, hearing, or experiencing God at all. Maybe you’ve been on the mountaintop and God’s presence is as clear as mid-day. Maybe you’re in the valley and the only sign you have of the light are some shadows being cast around you. God is there. If God seems far away and life seems sad and lonely and dark, consider what obscures your life. Where do you need to make way and make room for God? And you need not go at it alone – your church family and I are more than willing to help.

And as we each look to Christmas – whether it is a bright and happy holiday or one less shiny – hear the good and true Word of God. God’s light has dawned. God is here because Jesus brought His face near. This Christmas season we will walk and struggle together to see God’s face through Jesus Christ. So come and see – maybe you will catch a glimpse of what God has done and is doing. And if you ask me, that will be enough. Amen.