35The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”
5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.
47and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
Mennonite Church USA had its biannual meeting this past summer in San Jose, CA. And there was a lot of discussion taking place at the business meetings. Heathcare access and how to work through disagreements as Christians were major topics. But outside of the business meetings another kind of discussion was taking place. And as is often the case in Mennonite gatherings, the discussion outside of the business meeting often involved a certain question, “How are we related?”
You have probably noticed that we are using two different passages in our worship service over the Advent period. Each week so far we have had an Old Testament reading and a New Testament reading. And if you don’t really listen to these scriptures you might be missing out on an important aspect of these passages. As you hear these passages read, you should be asking the question that was asked outside of the business meetings of MCUSA. How are these two related? An important aspect of these scriptures is that they are both talking about the same thing. The Old Testament passage is a prophecy of things to come. The New Testament passage is the fulfillment of that passage.
Around 700 years before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah wrote the words from our OT passage, words that were given to him by God. And we have to understand the situation in which Isaiah was living to really understand what he is looking forward to. As the 8th century BC was coming to a close we find a great power rising up to the east of Jerusalem. That power was Assyria. The great kings of Assyria were powerful and they were taking all of the land that they came in contact with. It was under the Assyrian kings Shalmenezer V and then Sargon II that the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell, went into exile, and then simply ceased to be. When you hear about the 10 lost tribes of Israel, this is why they are lost. The Assyrian kings caused them to become lost. So Isaiah was living in a pretty scary time. He knew that his death and the death of his city Jerusalem could be on the horizon. But Isaiah received a message of hope from the Lord that we find in our passage from Isaiah this morning. In the midst of all of this destruction and warfare, Isaiah saw something beautiful arising. Isaiah has this vision of a dry, desolate desert. I’ve never lived in a desert, but I can’t imagine that they are too pleasant. Especially back in Isaiah’s day, long before air conditioning and bottled water. So Isaiah sees this desert and out of this desert blooms new life, like a crocus blooming abundantly. And the people will see this and they will rejoice.
The dry desert that Isaiah is seeing is the current condition of Jerusalem. Fear of war, fear of death, fear of exile was always on their hearts. It laid there like a heavy burden. They were in the middle of a war that they didn’t want to be in with an opponent that was too strong for them to defeat. But Isaiah gives them this message of hope in the midst of all of this. He says in verse 4 “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.’” God will save you. And God did save Jerusalem, until the year 586 BC when the Babylonians invaded the city and took over.
So was that what Isaiah was expecting when he said that God would save the people? Was Isaiah predicting that God would simply spare the city from destruction for the time being? No, he was predicting the coming of a new age. A time when the blind would see, the deaf would hear, the lame would leap. A time when the dry desert is refreshed by streams of water flowing through it. A time when people did not need to fear the jackal or the lion. A time when a road, the Holy Way he calls it, will emerge and lead God’s people back to Zion. So when Isaiah gets this vision, he is seeing much more than the protection of Jerusalem against the Assyrians. His vision is Messianic, a vision of the coming anointed servant of God that would bring about this new world order. Isaiah is seeing what is to come. But when? So we fast-forward about 700 years. And this virgin named Mary has just received the news from the angel Gabriel that she is going to be having a baby. A baby not conceived by a man, but by the Holy Spirit. And while I don’t think Mary could have ever known what all this baby boy was going to accomplish, I believe that she did expect him to be the messiah that had been prophesized about by Isaiah. Mary knew that much and she rejoiced in the Lord. So why was Mary so happy? Why was she so happy that she sang this song that we find in Luke chapter 1? What was the big deal? Did she expect to get something out of the deal? Did she expect wealth, money, power, or prestige? No, I don’t think that is why she sings this song at all. She sings because God chose to work through her to bring about his purpose. Even though Mary did not know exactly what God’s purpose was, she rejoiced that God had chosen to work through her. God chose to work through Mary to fulfill his purpose on earth. Mary probably expected something similar to what most of the other Jews expected from the coming messiah. By looking at her song, we see that Mary expected her son to bring Israel back to its once powerful position, to the place the monarchy was under the rule of King David. Mary expects God to work through her son to bring down the powerful from their throne. And this likely refers to the Roman Empire that inhabited Jerusalem at this time. But this didn’t happen, did it? Jesus didn’t come as an earthly king. His kingdom was not of this earth. He came proclaiming the kingdom of God. As we look back at the prophecy in Isaiah, this seems to describe the kind of king that Jesus is and not the kind of king that David was. Isaiah predicts that the deaf will hear and the lame will leap. The blind will see and the speechless will sing for joy. I don’t think an earthly king, even David as good as he was, ever led a kingdom where these things took place. There were still blind people and deaf people in David’s kingdom. But Jesus came and he healed people. So what does this mean to us here today? We are gathered here because we believe that Jesus is our Lord and Savior. We believe that Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophecies of Isaiah and others. And for a period of about three years, we have documents called the gospels that tell us that Jesus healed the blind and the deaf, the lame and the speechless. But when Jesus died, these healings slowed down. Today when we hear of someone being healed by God, we are skeptical. When someone on television stands up out of a wheelchair and walks, I’ll admit it that I can be skeptical. The kingdom that was promised by Isaiah came in Jesus Christ, then it seems to have gone away with him. And today we make this kingdom of God into something purely eschatological. That the kingdom of God will only come again when Jesus comes back. It is like Jesus started something here on earth and said, “Now you have a taste for how things can be, but you will have to wait until later to fully experience the kingdom of God.” Well, this is true and it is false. The kingdom of God will only fully come when Jesus comes back. But that does not mean that the kingdom of God cannot exist to some extent here on earth with us. Because we as Christians are called to not only hope in the kingdom to come. We are called to live as a part of the Kingdom of God today. We have a tendency to look at this world and say it is too far gone, so why worry about it. What can we do? But Jesus didn’t just tell his followers to focus on the life to come, he told them to live as a part of the kingdom while on earth. As Christians we are to live in the upside down kingdom, a kingdom so vastly different from the kingdom of the world that we Christians stand out. We become a living testimony to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We share his story and live as he called us to live. But the framing story for this world is so different from the framing story that we find in Jesus Christ. The framing story for this world is that of prosperity. The person with the most wealth, the most prestige, the most friends, the most success is the person the world tells us we need to be. This is what the world around us measures their success by. But the world around us is not the yardstick that we try to measure up against. Our success in the kingdom of God is measured by our faithfulness. Not by the power that we accumulate. This is something that has been especially heavy on my heart this week. I will admit that this has been a difficult week. As I tried to finish up my final papers and my final exams, I found myself under the typical amount of stress that always seems to come at the end of a semester. And I have grown used to this stress. I can handle it alright. But there was a fair amount of additional stress added to my life last week. It was early this week as I was studying for my Hebrew final that I learned about Jim’s cancer and Janie’s heart problems. These things lay heavy on my heart, but I was able to concentrate. Then after I finished that final and moved on to a final paper, I got the news about Josh Myers. Josh was a part of the last conJoshation where I pastored in Ohio. Josh didn’t have a great life. He had spent most of his life going back and forth between his birth mother and his foster parents. One day his foster mother would want him and his brother and they would live with her. Then a few weeks later she would decide that she didn’t want the boys and they would go back to stay with their foster mother. Now I don’t mean to place all of the blame on Josh’s birth mother, but he probably didn’t feel too loved when she would send the boys to their foster parents. And Josh made the decision that he was not successful enough. He didn’t have enough friends; that his life wasn’t worth living. And Josh took his own life last week. 15 years old, and he decided life wasn’t worth living. So I received this message as I was trying to finish my last paper of the semester. It was Wednesday afternoon and all I had to do was finish a six page reflection and I was done. And all I could think about was the situation that the Delps were going through and Josh’s suicide. And my paper showed it. That paper was a place for me to unload some of my disappointments with the world, with people, and even with God. And I asked the question, Why God? Why did this have to happen? Why have Jim and Janie had to endure so much? And why could Josh not have known how much he was loved? Well I finished up that last paper around 7:00 that evening. And rather than celebrating the end of another semester, I was down in the dumps. I was kind of depressed. And I am thinking to myself, “What can I do?” As a follower of Jesus Christ, what is my role in all of this mess? Do I just sit back and watch the world fall apart before my eyes, or is there something that I can do? And the answer came to me. I am called to love. If more of the world had heard the call to love than perhaps Josh Myers would not have seen taking his own life as the best option. If Josh would have experienced the love of Jesus Christ through his peers rather than being the subject of their jokes, then he may have seen the world differently. And maybe there is nothing that I can do for Jim and Janie to improve their health, but I can love them with the love of Christ. This is my calling as a Christian, and this is my call as a pastor, to love people. Sometimes that love takes shape through home visitations, sometimes it takes form in the conversation that takes place over a cup of coffee, sometimes it takes the form of shooting BB guns with a boy that doesn’t always feel loved. But I am called to love and like Mary, I rejoice in the Lord today that he has placed this calling upon my life. Though I don’t fully understand it, I will rejoice in the fact that God wants to use me to fulfill his purposes on earth. And you, my brothers and sisters in Christ, God has called you and God wants to work through you as well. God wants to work through you to fulfill his purposes on earth. We must work together to decide how God wants to use us. When Jesus rose to be with God to prepare a place in heaven, his vision for the kingdom of God here on earth was not meant to end. Jesus put his disciples in charge of continuing that ministry. As followers of Jesus Christ we look to the future when we will be included in God’s kingdom, what we might call heaven. But we are not to ignore the world in which we live today. We are called to live here on earth as a part of God’s intermediate kingdom, God’s kingdom on earth. This is what I believe Jesus means in the Lord’s prayer when he prays, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” He is saying, yes Lord, your kingdom is in heaven, and we look forward to that. But while we are here may we make this place as much like your kingdom in heaven as possible. God has called us to do just that. To make this world as much like heaven as possible. That is why we live by the Word of God rather than by the expectations of the world. That is why we love our enemies, that is why we don’t hate. That is why we don’t steal, or covet, or gossip, or lie. Because God commands it of his people and we are called to live as a part of God’s kingdom on earth until we are called to the full manifestation of God’s kingdom in heaven. Sonya and I went to see Jim and Janie at UVa yesterday. They have had a rough couple of months, but they really didn’t complain. Janie is facing surgery, but she isn’t healthy enough to undergo surgery at this time. She didn’t complain. Jim has a form of cancer that is going to require monitoring for the rest of his life, but he didn’t complain. And I think I know why. Because they know that they are a part of the Kingdom of God. They live in a tight Christian community that has been lifting them up in prayer. They know what it means to love and to be loved. They know what it means to serve a higher power than themselves. They are a part of God’s Kingdom on earth, and they know that they will be a part of God’s Kingdom in heaven. If Josh Myers had known what Jim and Janie know, maybe things would have turned out differently for him. If Josh had been able to experience more of God’s Kingdom on earth, maybe he would have seen life as something worth living. Now it is my prayer that God can forgive him and allow Josh to know what it means to be a part of his kingdom in heaven. Today I rejoice while I lament. I lament the pain that Jim and Janie are suffering, yet I rejoice in their inclusion in the Kingdom of God here on earth and the Kingdom of God in heaven. I lament in the loss of a life that had only just begun, but I rejoice that the Lord has chosen to further his kingdom through you and through me. Just as Mary rejoiced when she learned that God had chosen to use her to further his purposes, I rejoice that God has chosen us as his servants as well. May we rejoice in our calling.