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Sermon: Waiting in the Way of the Lord

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Grace Presbyterian Church

December 6, 2020, Advent 2B (recorded)

Isaiah 40:1-11; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

Waiting in the Way of the Lord

The verses given in today’s reading from the book of Isaiah, or at least the first five of those verses, are almost painfully familiar to anyone with even a nodding acquaintance with the oratorio Messiah, by George Frideric Handel, which in a normal year would be getting performed so frequently and so many places this month that you wouldn’t be able to heave a brick without hitting at least three such concerts. The first two of those stand out to me as the only pieces for which I got to be a soloist in a big classical concert work of that type, way back in college more years ago than I can count. Even now, more than thirty years later, it’s almost impossible to read these verses aloud without breaking into song – (sung) comfort ye, comfort ye, my people or every valley – every valley shall be exalted. It’s a good thing that Lois was reading the first reading this morning and not me.

As if that weren’t enough, the reading from Mark echoes that passage in its first verses, at least part of it very directly – you could be forgiven for wondering whether Handel was using Isaiah or Mark for setting (sung) The voice – of him – that crieth in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord… This reading also introduces us to the figure of John the Baptizer, presented here as enacting the “crying out” in the wilderness described in Isaiah. Again we are reminded that there is no nativity story in Mark, and John’s appearance in this messenger role is where the whole story starts in this gospel. Conveniently enough, before the end of this first chapter of Mark Jesus shows up in the flesh; the wait is not a long, protracted one. If you take Isaiah’s oracle as forthtelling of someone like John, the wait is much longer – centuries so.

Again this week, though, it is the epistle reading where “the rubber meets the road” for those of us living on this side of the first Advent, with the second seeming like little more than a distant and fading dream. Unlike last week’s reading from Paul’s letter to Corinth, written around mid-first century, this letter given the name 2 Peter was far more likely to have been written somewhere around the *end* of that century – as much as sixty or seventy years after the physical life of Jesus on earth. Particularly with the rise of hardcore scoffers mocking the very idea, it was getting hard to hold on to any particular hope of any kind of second Advent or reuniting of any sort.

The author of this particular missive takes two different approaches to this creeping sense of despair among the churches here. The first approach is something different, not necessarily kin to such answers in other epistles such as Paul’s. Even as Paul was approaching the end of his own life he was prone to stress that Christ’s return was imminent, even if he didn’t necessarily expect to live to see it himself. You may remember some of the letters to the churches at Philippi or Thessalonica, recently read and proclaimed in these services, for Paul’s differing degree of imminence in speaking of Christ’s return and judgment. 

Today’s author takes a different tack; trying to hold God to human timetables is fruitless. If you’ve ever wondered at the source of that old saying on how “one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day,” well, there it is in verse 8. It’s the verse behind that final stanza of “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past” – you remember, “a thousand ages in thy signt are like an evening gone, short as the watch that ends the night before the rising sun.” One might even dig up the old gospel song “When the roll is called up yonder,” which begins “When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound and time shall be no more…” to remind ourselves that our linear time is not like God’s eternal now.

In short, we need to drop the idea that God is bound to our concept of time, or to any concept of time at all. As C.S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity, “If you picture time as a straight line along which we have to travel, then you must picture God as the whole page on which the line is drawn.[1] Linear time is our limitation; God is not bound by it, and we will be less frustrated when we learn this.

Our author’s second point makes a virture of what looks to us like delay: perhaps it is a form of grace, as verse 9 suggests. God doesn’t want anybody left out; God desires all to come to repentance. God is, in unbounded now, patient with us recalcitrant humans. What to us feels like interminable slowness is grace, opportunity, and patience.

Finally, our author wants us to be ready, not unlike other epistle writers. Our waiting, as this letter would have it, calls upon us to live “lives of holiness and godliness.” No small goals there. Verse 14 also encourages that we be found “at peace, without spot or blemish” when the “day of God” comes (shades of Paul’s “day of the Lord”). 

This is where things get challenging. These verses looking ahead to “the day of God” or “the day of the Lord” have a nasty little habit of catching us being very comfortable with the way things are. We live…good enough, perhaps? Not really “lives of holiness or godliness,” not really “at peace” or “without spot or blemish,” and when we are pressed hard enough we end up having to admit to ourselves that we’d just as soon see the “day of God” keep on being delayed. We are plenty comfortable where we are, and don’t need the “day of the Lord.” We’re good, thank you very much.

Or perhaps this is the year that puts the lie to that sense of comfort and security. Maybe now in time of corona we get that what we think of as security really isn’t, and our safety isn’t what we thought it was. Maybe we are in fact the ones who are most in need of God’s patience, as we are slow to rouse ourselves from our contented slumber into the life of holy waiting to which God calls us in this and every Advent. 

Perhaps the great lesson of Advent that we need to hear and remember is that in Advent, “to wait” is not a posture of passivity and helplessness. We don’t do anything to make God speed up the timetable for second Advent, but we live – actively and deliberately live – lives that point to and show the One for whom we wait. We don’t run away to a mountaintop to try to be first in line; we take on the task of living lives like Jesus showed us how to live, of being transformed by the power of the Spirit into true witnesses of the good news to all. We don’t just wait; we wait out loud, showing the Lord’s death until he comes. 

For the time of waiting and the way of waiting, Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #87, Comfort, Comfort Now My People; #—, It Was Written By the Prophet; #104, O Lord, How Shall I Meet You

[1] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (revised and enlarged edition. New York: Macmillan, 1952), 147.

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