It’s been a difficult Advent for us at Morton this year as we struggle with sickness and death. Our hearts yearn for God’s comfort. Thanks be to God, divine comfort is on the way. Here is an Advent sermon for people who need to be comforted.
Love Is On the Way
A Sermon on Matthew 11:2-6 and Isaiah 40:1-11
“Are you the one we’ve been waiting for?” No wonder John the Baptist sent that word to Jesus. John was longing for the Messiah to set the world on fire, gather the wheat, burn the chaff, make things the way they ought to be, thy will be done, O God, on earth as it is in heaven.
But that hadn’t happened yet. And now John was chained in King Herod Antipas’ dungeon. Prison was a place of great suffering even for someone as tough as John, who dressed in camel’s hair and was used to eating insects. It was dark and damp and teeth-chattering cold. John’s disciples brought food to keep him alive; otherwise there was nothing to eat. Prisons didn’t provide luxuries like food. Prisoners depended on the mercy of people outside for food. It looked like John was probably not going to live to see his dream fulfilled. Who knew when Herod might issue the execution order? If Jesus really was the Christ, the Messiah, why didn’t he get on with things? What was Jesus waiting for?
I can’t blame John the Baptist at all for his urgent question: Are you the one, or must we wait for another? People who know what desperation is know what John was getting at. In a place of pain, the heart questions. This happens even to people of the strongest faith, like John the Baptist; like Lucy Rose, the Presbyterian pastor I told you about many months ago. You might have met Lucy when she did a student in ministry year in the early seventies at First Presbyterian Church in Rocky Mount .
Lucy Rose was much loved across the Presbyterian Church and at Columbia Seminary where she taught preaching. In her forties she developed breast cancer, and at first it appeared that she had beaten it. Three years later it showed up again all over her body and she struggled mightily with it and with stubborn pain for a year. Lucy taught as long as she could. She kept singing hymns with her friends and family even after she could no longer leave the bed. Yet even tough, faith-filled Lucy humbly asked in those last hours, “Why doesn’t God take me home?” (Lucy’s story is found in Songs in the Night, a book compiled and edited by her father, Ben Lacy Rose, ©1988 CTS Press, Decatur, Georgia.)
In a place of desperation, when all they can see ahead is more pain, people ask, “Why am I still here? Why is God keeping me here?” Loved ones witnessing the suffering ask, “Lord, why? Can’t you see the pain? What is with the timing?”
Yes, John the Baptist, we know what struggle and desperation are. We know what being tried to the limit is. We know what you mean, John. John put the question this way, “Are you really the one?” But the question could also be put this way, “God, are you really there? Do you really love us? Do you really have a plan, and a good plan?”
Those cries have an air of expectation about them. Even if they don’t really expect an answer, or a clear one, anyway, the questioners still reach towards God and expect to be heard.
But some of God’s people in exile had ceased to expect anything from God at all. When the Babylonian army sacked Jerusalem in 587 BC, they literally marched most of the survivors of Judah through the desert into exile. Their world was shattered. Their faith was shattered. The pain and the loss was so great they decided that God had completely cast them off, that God wanted absolutely nothing to do with them any more.
“If God says anything else to us,” many concluded, “it’s just going to be another rebuke, and we deserve it, too.” Some continued to mourn Judah’s sinful history. Some gave up their identity as God’s people altogether and let themselves be absorbed into Babylonian society. It reminds me of a line from a prayer of confession: they were expecting little, and hoping for even less.
But a few people, like the prophet in today’s lesson, continued to seek God. When God did speak, this prophet was ready to hear. And what God said was not a rebuke. It was not blaming or punitive. In one word, it was comfort. The word is comfort. The news is good.
“Listen up,” the prophet said to his fellow exiles. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Your God! God is on the way. Get the road ready to receive him. Look! Here he comes. Behold your God. He is going to feed his sheep. He is going to take the lambs in his arms and carry them, which means he is going to take you in his arms and carry you.
Your God hasn’t disappeared. Your God hasn’t left the scene. Your God is coming. Your God is on the way!
The word that Jesus sent back to John the Baptist was not, “Good grief, John. What’s the matter with you? You of all people know I’m the Christ!” Jesus sent back no such harsh word. Jesus didn’t say any such thing. Jesus said, “Just tell John what you see and hear. The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are made whole, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to new life, and the poor are hearing the good news that God is on their side. Just tell John that.”
In these words John would have recognized words from the prophet Isaiah. Here are the signs of the reign of God, and they are coming to pass. The reign of God is underway and it’s on the way.
Help and healing are on the way. Having somebody reassure you that help is on the way, that the rescue squad is en route, in itself helps. It sure helped me on September 8, 1993. My daughter Laura wasn’t supposed to be born until November, and there I was with a life-threatening complication. We could easily have lost Laura. We could have lost me. The doctor and nurses stayed on the telephone line with me while I waited for the rescue squad. I remember the doctor telling me to keep breathing.
Unknown to me, somebody else had indirectly heard my cry for help. One of our church members and her mother were getting ready to go to the grocery store that morning, but they hadn’t left yet, and our member had the scanner on. She heard the call for a unit to go to our address. “That’s Mary!” she exclaimed, and she hurried over. I saw her before they whisked me away, and I knew then that prayer for us had started immediately. Prayer was on the way. Soon the whole church family knew and was praying. Soon the whole town was praying. You all prayed us through. You were the face of Christ for us that morning and in the weeks in the hospital that followed. We were able to hold off the birth almost three more weeks, and that probably saved Laura from having to stay in intensive care. We are grateful.
Help is on the way. What hope-filled words! Comfort my people, your God is on the way. What gracious, hope-filled words, and we can speak them to one another and put them into action for one another. Look, John the Baptist. Look, everyone: healing is underway and on the way. Salvation is underway and on the way.
Our theme song today is the Advent hymn, “People, Look East.” And when we sing it, we’ll hear these words again and again: Love is on the way. People, look East. Look to the place where the light dawns. Look to the place where Jesus arrives. Love is on the way.
Love is on the way, and people are experiencing healing. Love is on the way, and justice is being done for the poor. Love is on the way, and the outcasts are healed and welcomed. Love is on the way, and the dead are being raised. Love, the Lord, is on the way.
Love is on the way wherever the Lord’s disciples take it. Love is on the way where his people carry food and compassion to the shut in and frail, comfort the lonely, console the sad of heart. Love is on the way wherever his people work for what is just and right and healing for the poor and the downtrodden. Love is on the way for the dying. We hold them prayerfully on this side of death, until the Lord takes them in his arms and lifts them in resurrection.
It’s not necessary to be lighthearted and merry to know that this is what Christmas means. This hope burns brightly even when tears make it hard to see, even when pain flows out in questions.
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Your loving Lord is on the way. Here he comes to take the lambs in his arms. Here he comes to take you in his arms.