Deferred Hope, Fulfilled Promises.

First Sunday in Advent
Music: “Home” by Phillip Phillips, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” “Come, O Long Expected Jesus” “One Candle is Lit” v1, “Eat this Bread, Drink this Cup.”

Scriptures:  Isaiah 40:1-5, 28-31 Mark 1:1-4

I am not, by nature, a very patient person. I do not like to wait. But God knows this, so He takes every opportunity to help me learn to be patient.  For example:  I work only  about two miles from home, but there are three stop lights, two schools, and two school zones, between home and work.  If I’m not in a hurry, then usually, I just cruise right through these two school zones.  But, should I be in a hurry, or even worse, be running late, then I can guarantee you that I will have to stop in both of those school zones for kids to cross the street, and traffic will ALWAYS be backed up a block or two for cars pulling into the schools.  Oh, and of course, all three of those lights will be red.

The same thing holds true for the days I ride the bus. Most days, there will only be four or five people waiting at the bus stop, and I’ll be able to get on and sometimes even get a seat.  But on those days where I’m in a hurry, you can bet that the buses will be running late and there will be 15 or 20 high school students standing around waiting for the bus.

And should you ever see me in the grocery store checkout, DO NOT get in line behind me. It doesn’t matter which line I choose, it will ALWAYS be the longest wait.

I’m sure that there are lots of you who can relate to this. We live in a fast paced world, where there just isn’t enough time to get from here to there and do what has to be done.  But our waiting for things is not nearly as bad as some of the people you read about in the Bible.

In Genesis 15, when Abram complains to God that all his property will go to a servant, because he has no sons, God takes Abram outside and tells him “Look up at the sky and count the stars—if indeed you can count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.”

Abram and Sarai waited for 10 years to have a child, and then, when Abram was 86 and they just couldn’t wait any more, Abram had a child with Sarai’s servant, Hagar. But that wasn’t in God’s plan and things didn’t work out very well for Hagar and her son, Ishmael. He didn’t receive Abram’s inheritance, but God did promise Hagar that “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”

Abram and Sarai waited another 13 years until God fulfilled the promise that Abram and Sarai would have a son. And so it was that Abraham and Sarah, at the ages of 99 and 89, had their son Isaac.  Twenty three years passed between the time that God made the promise and the time that the promise was fulfilled.

At the same time that God promised Abram an heir, he also promised him that “…for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.” Keep that promise in mind.  We’ll get back to it shortly.

There are other promises made by the Prophets, speaking for God. Like Joel 2:28-29, “And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days.”   We see this prophecy fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, which was only about 650 years later.

In Jeremiah 31: 31-34, we hear “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and with the people of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to lead them out of Egypt, because they broke my covenant, though I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord.

“This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” This prophecy only took about 610 years or so to be fulfilled, when Jesus declared the New Covenant at the last supper.

The Prophets Micah and Malachi both spoke about the Messiah that would come. Micah said “But you, Bethlehem, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times,” and Malachi even prophesied about John the Baptist, “I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.

In our scripture today, Isaiah also spoke about John the Baptist, some 680 or so years before Jesus’ ministry began, saying that there would be “A voice of one calling: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.’”

Isaiah also said that “those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.” How long did the Israelites “wait for the Lord?” Let’s go back to that promise God made to Abram.  You know, the one about how his descendants would be “enslaved and mistreated” in a “country not their own?”  We see this promise come to pass when Joseph brought Jacob and his brothers into Egypt during the great famine.  In Exodus 1:6-14, we see that this happy situation didn’t last very long.  “Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, but the Israelites were exceedingly fruitful; they multiplied greatly, increased in numbers and became so numerous that the land was filled with them.

Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people, “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.”

So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.” This situation went on for how long?  Oh, right. 400 years.

These are but some of the many, many promises that God made to His people that are recorded in the Law and the Prophets. In many cases, hope was deferred for generations, centuries, even millennia. But the Hope was there. And the promises were kept!

There is another significant promise that I want to touch on today – it’s why we call this church season “Advent.” From the first chapter of Doctor Luke’s Gospel, we read “In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; so the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.  Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month.  For no word from God will ever fail.”

“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.

And 25 days later, Jesus was born. Oh, wait, no, it was 40 weeks later, more or less.

There are many, many other promises that are fulfilled in the New Testament. Some Bible scholars have counted them, and there are at least 750 promises recorded there, ranging from Atonement and Forgiveness, to prayers being answered, to healing, to forgiveness of sins.  750 promises from God to us. We know that God always keeps the promises he makes, albeit not always in the time span that we desire, but they are kept none the less.

And what, exactly does God, in the person of Jesus, ask us to do? Three things:

  1. Love God.
  2. Love each other.
  3. Tell the world about this story.

So, that’s it. We get all the really cool stuff, like Salvation from sin, Spirit baptism, Protection by angels, Soul-winning power, Earth as an inheritance, Great rewards, Answers to all prayers, and all good gifts.

Now, I’ll admit that we do pretty well on the first two things that God asks us to do – Love God and love each other; but that sharing the story with the world, that’s not where we excel. We kind of like to keep our relationship with God a relatively private matter.  But BEING A DISCIPLE OF CHRIST CANNOT BE A PRIVATE MATTER! When the Pharisees told Jesus to quiet down his followers, Jesus replied “I tell you, if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out.” We have got to share the Good News!

According to the apostle Matthew, the very last thing that Jesus told his followers was “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” How can we not do this?

In this Advent season, it is much easier to share the Good News. So this week, I challenge you to tell the people about the Good News of Jesus Christ. Tell them that we will not treat them like strangers. That we, like the ancient Israelites, have been told “Do not oppress a stranger; you yourselves know how it feels to be strangers, because you were strangers in Egypt.” We need to tell the world that every person is a child of God, made in God’s likeness, and that we welcome everybody here – and EVERYBODY means you! Let them know that there is a seat reserved just for them – right next to you.

Amen!

Time to plant the seeds.

The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully (2 Corinthians 9:6)

I have heard this scripture used many times in an effort to convince the hearer to give money to a “ministry” with the promise of a huge “payback” from God. I don’t think that this is what Paul was talking about. Nowhere in scripture does God tell us that we will get lots of money, or things like houses and cars and fancy clothes if we give lots of money to the church.  What God does tell us is that we will get what we NEED to fulfill God’s plan for us.

God will give us all the seeds that we need to do God’s work in our world.  Paul is telling us that if we only take a little bit of that seed and plant it, we shouldn’t expect to get a very big “crop” back. 

 Many church leaders are afraid that if they put all their resources to work spreading the Good News, that there won’t be anything “in case there is a problem.”  I think that a lot of us remember Pharaoh’s dream of 7 years of plenty followed by 7 years of famine, and want to make sure that we’ve got enough put aside for those lean years.  That is all well and good, but we fail to remember that God caused all of this so that Joseph would be placed in a position of authority and leadership in Egypt, and that this was not an everlasting commandment to all of God’s people for all time.

In this second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul emphasizes what Jesus says in Luke 6:38, that ” …With the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”  Paul is telling the church that we don’t need to store up our seeds for some future day, because as long as we are doing God’s work and trusting in God’s provision, then we will always have everything that we need to carry out God’s will.

Some years ago, our congregation was facing some pretty tough financial decisions.  We had a great physical plant situated on five acres, with a five year old sanctuary, a fellowship hall, an administration building and an education building.  All in all, this represented over $2 million dollars of seed that we had been given to sow.  But for six days a week, these buildings were mostly unused space, and like any seed that is stored for a long period of time, our seeds were beginning to rot.

Finally, after we did everything that we could do without God’s help, we began to pray — not very regularly, and certainly not trusting that God would actually come through, but we did pray.  What did God do? Come through is exactly what God did.  A preschool that was housed at another church came to us looking for a new home, and a wonderful partnership based on a shared vision of ministry to the community was begun. Even though God had answered our prayers, some of us didn’t like that answer. Some people even left. But our budget crisis was over, and we started to turn the corner. Over time, it has become pretty obvious that God sent us that school to help us understand that the seeds that we had been given were not to be stored, but to be planted.  Now our buildings provide a home for two AA groups, an Al-Anon group, a Pills Anonymous group, a community choir, a local mom’s club, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and of course, the preschool.  We also are a polling place, host medical screenings and have a labyrinth that is available to anyone at any time.  Yes, our campus is showing signs of wear and tear, but God has provided for that also.  It has taken us a long, long time to realize that what Paul was telling the church in Corinth applies to us today, that God is more powerful than anyone can ever know, and God will provide all that we need if we will only trust God.

Or as it says in Proverbs 3: Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and don’t rely on your own understanding.

My Personal State of the Union Address

Just over 51 years ago, a young former Senator from Massachusetts was inaugurated as the President of the United States of America. John F. Kennedy was the youngest person elected president, and the first Roman Catholic to hold the office. During his inaugural address, he said some things that have continued to live in our collective memory. Things like “…the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God” and “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country” and “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

Just over 3 years ago, a young former Senator from Illinois was inaugurated as the President of the United States of America. Barack H. Obama was the 4th youngest person elected president, the first president to have been born in Hawaii, and the first president of African American ancestry. During his President’s inaugural address, he said things that were very similar to the previous President. Things such as “What is required of us now is a new era of responsibility” and “…those of us who manage the public’s dollars will be held to account.” He also said “…starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.”

What we are now experiencing in our Nation’s Capital is as far away from the ideals of either of these two Presidents as it possibly can be. There is no “new era of responsibility” in Washington today. Instead we are experiencing an era of finger-pointing and name-calling. The Congress, which holds overall responsibility for the public’s dollars, is not accepting the accountability that comes with the responsibility of fiduciary oversight. In fact, they are not even accepting the responsibility. In the Senate, men and women whom the President has appointed to lead Federal departments have been waiting for Senate confirmation while the senators filibuster in order to prove who really bestows the rights of mankind.

The Judicial branch of our government has become the place to go if you can’t get your way in the House or Senate. Just over a year ago, the Supreme Court of the United States of America, in a 5-4 decision, ruled that corporations are protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution in that Congress can make no law “abridging the freedom of speech.” At no previous time in our Country’s history has a corporation, or for that matter, any non-sentient entity, been included in this provision. Yet now, corporations are allowed to donate unrestricted amounts of money to political action committees that are separate from a candidate.

And in the White House, our President, in what appears to me to be a desperate bid to hold on to his job, is saying to the citizenry “Ask not what you can do for your country, ask what your country can do for you.”

So to all of our elected Federal officials, and to the justices of the Supreme Court, I pose this question: When will you all start doing your jobs in a manner that reflects President Kennedy’s statement that “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet?” When will you resume the work? When will you do what you have been chosen to do?

We do not need partisan fighting for power. We don’t care whose is bigger. We don’t want to know why you can’t get your jobs done. We have elected you, or in the case of the judiciary, you have been appointed, to run this country, to do your jobs and represent the people, not self-interest. You have been chosen to represent the people and not the corporations.

In his address at the dedication of the Federal Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, President Lincoln called upon the nation to ensure that “…government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” It is time – now, today – for each of us to renew our commitment to government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Whether you are conservative, liberal, progressive, traditional, Republican, Democrat, Red, Yellow, Black, White, Daughter of the American Revolution, an immigrant who just came across the border yesterday, or any other person in this great Nation of ours, the time is now for us to take responsibility for ourselves if we are able, and to care for those in our society who are not able to care for themselves.

The time for finger-pointing and name-calling is over. We must seek responsibility and take responsibility for our actions. We must all stop focusing on our individual wants and desires, and focus on the needs of our cities, counties, states, commonwealths, territories and ultimately our Nation.

So to once again quote President Kennedy “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans…tempered by war, disciplined by a hard and bitter peace, proud of our ancient heritage, and unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this Nation has always been committed, and to which we are committed today at home and around the world.”