This is the message I presented for the 2nd Sunday in Advent (December 5, 1999) at Walker Valley UMC. The Scriptures were Isaiah 40: 1 – 11, 2 Peter 3: 8 – 15, and Mark 1: 1 – 8.
George Frideric Handel’s English oratorio Messiah stands alone, a work in a class apart, telling of the birth, passion and triumph of Jesus not in direct narrative but by allusion. It is by general consensus one of the supreme masterpieces of all music. It was composed in just three weeks (August 22 – September 14, 1741) and was first performed on April 13, 1742 in Dublin.
Yet, for all of its majesty, beauty, and greatness, there are a number of misconceptions about the piece. First, there is more to the piece than just the “Hallelujah Chorus”. And this chorus is not at the end of the performance, as one might suspect.
Handel’s Messiah (without a the in the title) is also more than a Christmas piece, though that is when it is most often sung. As I have already noted, the oratorio is composed of three sections, which deal with the birth, passion, and triumph of Jesus Christ. As was also noted earlier, its first performance was at Easter in 1742.
And if you are like me, you did not initially know that the words Handle used for the Messiah are taken from the Old and New Testament. The Old Testament reading for today provides the basis for the opening tenor solo.
I might add that the first solo that I ever sang was an adaptation of that opening tenor solo, “Prepare Ye the Way.” Some of my students at the time commented that I looked a little scared when I was doing it. Something about my face looked a little paler than usual.
But the Scriptures for today are not necessarily about a piece of music; they are about Advent and what it means. The passage from Mark speaks of John calling for repentance, a word that in Hebrew originally meant to return. The passage from Isaiah for today, first spoken to the people of Israel and now to us, to return is an invitation. For the Jewish nation in exile in Babylon, the words of Isaiah were a call to return to their home in Israel.
For though Advent prepares us for Christmas, it is more than that. It is also a time for us to prepare for the coming of Christ, whenever that may be. As noted in the Epistle reading for today, that time is not known.
Just as last week, the message for today is one of preparation. That is why, today, we hear about John the Baptist. All four of the Gospels deal at length with John not because he was a significant religious leader with disciples or because of he suffered martyrdom but because it was understood that his function was to be the one who prepared us for the Advent of Christ.
John was the one, of whom Isaiah spoke,
A voice of one calling: “In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40: 3)
But even John knew that he was not the one, the true Messiah.
And this was his message: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop and untie.” (Mark 1: 7)
But we have to be careful that we do not rush past John’s words of preparation and repentance. John’s preaching makes it abundantly clear that one aspect of the Lord’s Advent is the full revelation of the kind of persons we are and of the consequences of character and conduct that await us.
Preparing for the Lord, as we are called to do in the Gospel reading for today, is not a simple task. As Bill McCormick noted last week, when a king would come to visit an area for the first time, engineers would come out and straighten the roads, removing all of the major obstacles, and making it generally easier for the king to travel.
In this day and age, do we do the same? Do we spend time preparing for Christmas or are we caught up in the hustle and bustle of the season? Is our focus on Christ’s birth and what it means or do we spend all of our time focusing on the gifts we need to buy and the gifts we hope to get?
Are we so busy with the matters of the world that we put God aside, hoping that He will be there for us when we really, really need him? Is our world such that we feel that we can solve any problem that develops using solely our own abilities and skills? In a world where our hope to solve our problems is based on our own abilities, the best we can ever expect is to keep things from getting worse, never better. If we isolate God so that our secular world is without Him, then it is a world without hope.
It is a primary truth of Christianity that God reaches us directly. No person is insulated. As ocean floods the inlets, as sunlight environs the plant, so God enfolds and enwreathes the finite spirit. There is this difference, however, inlet and plant are penetrated whether they will or not. Sea and sunshine crowd themselves in a tergo. Not so with God. He can be received only through appreciation and conscious appropriation. He comes only through the doors that are purposely opened for him. A person may live as near God as the bubble is to the ocean and yet not find him. He may be “closer than breathing, nearer than hands or feet,” and still be missed. Historical Christianity is dry and formal when it lacks the immediate and inward response to our Great Companion; but our spirits are trained to know him to appreciate him, by the mediation of historical revelation. A person’s spiritual life is always dwarfed when cut apart from history. Mysticism is empty unless it is enriched by outward and historical revelation. The supreme education of the soul comes through an intimate acquaintance with Jesus Christ of history. (From The Double Search by Rufus M. Jones)
So we pay heed to the closing verse of 2nd Peter,
Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives.’ (2nd Peter 3: 11)
Peter also wrote of the Lord’s promise,
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2nd Peter 3: 9)
The Lord has always been true to his promise. The prophet Isaiah was sent specifically to give the people a sense of redemption. To redeem something means to make good, to keep a promise if you will. Having a sense of redemption is necessary if we are to successfully function in today’s world. Having a spirit of redemption means that we can operate with the belief that we will receive what was promised to us.
But as verse 9 of 2nd Peter concludes, that promise of redemption is all those who come to repentance. Christmas is a time of celebration, a celebration that comes from preparation. And while we may want to sing praises and hallelujah, that time is not yet here. It is more a time to sing of preparation and repentance, to prepare the way of the Lord in one’s own life.