This was the message I gave at Neon UMC (Neon, KY) for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, 13 December 1998. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 35: 1 - 10, James 5: 7 – 10, and Matthew 11: 2 – 11.
When I read the scriptures for this week, I could not help but think of the time I spent in Missouri and Iowa working on my undergraduate and doctoral degrees. The area around Kirksville is essentially farmland and as you drive from the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa to Iowa City all you see is acres and acres of corn. So I was learning about chemistry and science education, I was also learning a lot about farming and the people who are farmers.
What I did learn was that farming is a job of patience; waiting for events that one cannot control. Many times, it is waiting for the rains to come to nourish the crops, not unlike the first part of today’s reading from Isaiah.
We are not by nature patient; we hate waiting. At this time of the year, it seems like we cannot wait for Christmas to get here so that we can find out what presents we have received.
The idea of today’s scriptures is about waiting. In his letter, James wrote
Be patient, then brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!
These are words of patience and firmness. But in this passage, you can almost hear the grumbling of the people crying “When?”
This was a time when Christians were enduring much suffering and retribution for their beliefs. As the believers looked around, they say the rich and powerful seemingly enjoying life while they, the believers, were being punished. To the believers then, the only hope was in Jesus’ Second Coming. But James, in James 5: 1 – 6, had already made it clear what would happen if one stayed with the life directed towards riches and self-indulgence.
Now, listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming upon you. Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. Look! The wages you failed to pay the workmen who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fatten yourselves in the day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered innocent men, who were not opposing you. (James 5: 1 – 6)
It is times like this that we are the most vulnerable, when we are at our weakest. John the Baptist’s disciples came to Jesus asking “Are you the one who was to come or should we expect someone else?” (Matthew 11: 4)
John the Baptist is undoubtedly one of the most powerful characters in all of Scripture. He came to Israel as a prophet, condemning the sin and corruption of the nation and calling Israel to repent and prepare for the coming of the Messiah. When Jesus came to him, John knew that he had seen the Messiah.
Yet for all the truth of his words and action, John was in prison, perhaps somewhere east of the Dead Sea. Jail in itself is a lonely experience but it must have been very lonely for John at this moment. No doubt the jailers had put John in a cell by himself and sitting there in his cell, John must have had doubts about not only his work but whether the Messiah was to come. It is often a question that we ourselves ask, “How can I be here, suffering when my enemies are living in comfort and enjoying the good life?”
But Jesus told John’s disciples to look around them. What did they see? Did they not see the miracles that Isaiah had prophesied about? Did they not see the healing that had taken place?
The challenge that Jesus made to John’s disciples then applies to us today. In our impatience, do we miss the signs of God’s presence in our lives? We have to realize that
God presents himself to us little by little. The whole story of salvation is the story of God who comes.
It is always he who comes, even if he had not yet come in his fullness. But there is indeed one unique moment in his coming; the others were only preparations and announcement.
The hour of his coming is the Incarnation.
The Incarnation brings the world his presence. It is a presence so complete that it overshadows every presence before it.
God is made human in Christ. God makes himself present to us with such a special presence, such an obvious presence, as to overthrow all the complicated calculations made about him in the past.
“The invisible, intangible God has made himself visible and tangible in Christ.”
If Jesus is truly God, everything is clear; if I cannot believe this, everything darkens again. (From The God Who Comes by Carlo Carretto)
The passage in Isaiah this morning is one of hope,
“say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.” (Isaiah 35: 4)
The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. In the haunts where jackals once lay, grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. (Isaiah 35: 8)
and the redeemed
And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness. The unclean will not journey on it; it will be for those who walk in that Way; wicked fools will not go about on it. (Isaiah 35: 9)
Isaiah spoke of the rain that brought life back to a parched dessert land. Jesus spoke of the water that brings eternal life.
Jesus came to a town in Samaria one day. While his disciples were doing some tasks, he sat at the well when a woman came there. The woman at the well was a Samaritan, not welcome in the social life of her town. That is why she came to the well at the time of day that she did; it enabled her to get her water without having to deal with the other people.
Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.)
The Samaritan woman said to him, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink.” (For Samaritans do not associate with Samaritans.)
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
“Sir,” the woman said, “you have nothing to draw with and the well is deep. Where can you get this living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did also his sons and his flocks and his herds?”
Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4: 7 –14)
The gift of everlasting water is part of the gift that God gives us during Advent. No longer should we wonder; no longer do we have to wait. If we listen carefully we can hear Jesus asking each of us if we have seen the signs,
As John’s disciples were leaving, Jesus began to speak to the crowd about John: “What did you go out into the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? If not, what did you go out to see? A man dressed in fine clothes? No, those who wear fine clothes are in kings’ palaces. Then what did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written:
“’I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
No longer can we stand on the sideline waiting. When people wonder if anyone cares about me or if it matters what I do in this world, we know that the answer, according to Advent, is a resounding “Yes, it matters!” God’s son came to give our life and meaning and hope to all who would trust in him. As we go out into the world this week, as we prepare for the coming of the Lord, we know that we no longer have to wait for Him.