Powers and Principalities

Duration:19 mins 1 sec

Our Second reading for this morning comes from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 35, verses 1-10. In this Advent season and in fact throughout December all of our preaching texts are drawn from the prophet Isaiah. The Word from the Lord Isaiah shares alternates between judgement upon Israel and Judah for their wickedness and unfaithfulness and visions of promise and hope. After several chapters which begin with woe, chapters 34 and 35 return to promise. As we hear this promise to Israel and all of creation, let us hear the Word of God for us today.

1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
    the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus 2 it 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.
3 Strengthen the weak hands,
    and make firm the feeble knees.
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.”
5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
6 then 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;
7 the 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.
8 A 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.
9 No 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.
10 And 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.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Can you think of a moment in your life in which everything changed? A few years ago musical artists Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran sang a duet which expressed just that kind of moment. The chorus goes like this:

'Cause all I know is we said hello
And your eyes look like coming home
All I know is a simple name, everything has changed
All I know is you held the door
You'll be mine and I'll be yours
All I know since yesterday is everything has changed.

Yes, falling in love can be like that, right? Especially when you are young. A boy holds open the door for a girl. They say hello. Their eyes meet. It feels like they have known each other forever despite all they know is each other’s name. But somehow everything has changed. The future now looks new and different. Yes, in that moment, everything has changed.

In our text for today Isaiah shares a “before and after” vision with that same kind of change. The before is wilderness, dry land, and desert. Surely familiar sights for the people of Israel. One of the things that I remember most from our trip to the Middle East in seminary was the color of the desert as drove from place to place. It was tan and brown and gray. Whatever plants were there shared the same hues as they were covered with dust and sand.

But when we returned to Richmond everything was green. It was the end of May. Everything was in bloom: trees, grasses, flowers. I felt like the colors just washed over me. They were so rich and vivid. I had not realized how much my eyes had missed the vibrant colors of vegetation.

Isaiah envisions that kind of transformation. The wilderness, dry land, and desert suddenly burst forth in bloom like the fertile lands of Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon. The tans, browns, and grays are replaced with all the colors of the rainbow. That very thing happened back in March in a desert in Southern California. The weather conditions were perfect as long steady rain throughout the winter soaked into the ground and temperatures were not too hot. Suddenly one day the desert was covered in wild flowers: desert sunflowers, dune evening primrose, sand verbena, ghost flowers, monkey flowers, and wild Canterbury bells.

Park Ranger Steve Bier said, “Some of these seeds have been underground for maybe decades, if not a century or more, we just don't know. Some of these places have not seen water in 10, 15, 20 years, and now they're a blanket of flowers. … What you're looking at today could be gone tomorrow. It just depends on how hot we get today, and how hungry the caterpillars get." Yes, everything changed.

For Isaiah this kind of transformation happens when the glory of the Lord appears. And this is good news! It is joyful news appropriate for us to read and reflect upon on this Sunday in which we light the candle for joy on the Advent Wreath. Yes, when the glory of the Lord comes everything changes.

… Everything changes … Now wait a minute. Everything? That is well and good when you are talking about young romantic love, right? Someone holds the door for you and suddenly you are going to spend the rest of your life with them. Or the truly breathtaking event of the desert breaking forth with blooms of color, sure. But think about your life and the world. Everything will change? Nothing stays the same. I do not know about you, but there are some things that I would like to keep the same.

Yes, the more I think about it, I am not sure that everything changing is what I really want at all. I don’t want to speak for you, but I suspect you might have a few things you would like to hold to as well. Perhaps relationships or your family or your kids or your house? Or maybe it is your job or your car or your next vacation? Perhaps it is your political party or your stock portfolio? Maybe it is that piece of furniture you inherited from your great grandmother or the latest technological gadget you just bought? Or maybe it is that Christmas present you know is just waiting for you under the tree? Are you sure you want to give all that up? Everything changed?

Those who hear the news that everything is going to change are usually those who do not have much to lose. Yes, those with weak hands and feeble knees, those who are fearful of heart – they look forward to coming of the glory of the Lord.

Those who are pretty settled with life, have a bit of money in the bank and a roof over their heads; they are ok with things staying pretty much the same. They can work their salvation out all by themselves, thank you. A little tweak here and there, sure. But everything changing, what are you talking about preacher? Let’s hurry up and get that baby in the manger two thousand years ago so we can get back to normal life.

But have you noticed in scripture that when the glory of the Lord shows up, when Jesus shows up, there is no middle ground? People either are amazed at the word he speaks, the miracles he performs, and the wonder he generates or they are enraged, fearful, distressed, and anxious. The Christmas story we like to tell is sweet with a mom and dad and animals and angels and shepherds. But we often leave out the fact that for every shepherd running to see the baby Jesus, there is also a King Herod. Yes, one who hears that everything has changed – a new king of the Jews has been born – and orders the murder of every innocent child three years old and under.

The later verses of our text for today describe a joyful homecoming on the highway of the Lord. When Jesus returns to his hometown at the beginning of his ministry, he teaches in the synagogue and everyone is amazed. But then he begins to tell them that the grace and glory of God is not the personal possession of those in Nazareth. God loves even their enemies! And his hometown crowd, those who watched him grow up, they get so mad that they try to throw Jesus off a cliff!

Yes, some are amazed and others are enraged. There is no middle ground with Jesus. He shows up, speaks a word or two, something miraculous happens, and people must respond. Some are amazed and others are enraged. There is no intellectually curious, “Let me think about all this and I’ll get back to you.” There is no, neutral “turning and walking away without any emotion at all.” There is no passing by as if Jesus was just one of many possible Messiahs or saviors or religious leaders. No, whenever someone encounters Jesus, a reaction, an engagement, is required.

So, how about us on this third Sunday of Advent? Are we ready for everything to change? Are we amazed or enraged? I think those continue to be our most common reactions to the gospel. We are amazed when a prayer for healing is answered. We are enraged when the gospel seems to ask more of us than we are willing to give. We are amazed when we feel the true love and care of our God and our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. We are enraged when something we have always held dear begins to change and it seems like God is the one responsible. So are you amazed or enraged by the coming of the Messiah?

My friends, we need prophets who can point us in a world of tans, browns, and grays toward the vivid colors of the rainbow God intends us to see and know. In his final sermon Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did just that. King had come to Memphis in support of a sanitation workers strike. The night of April 3, 1968 a gathering was held at the Mason Temple (Church of God in Christ) and King was to speak. The weather was terrible, storms and rain, so the organizers suggested that King stay at the hotel because there was sure to be a small crowd. Yet, when they arrived the church was full, the people had come to hear Dr. King, so they telephoned and told him he better come.

Well he came. And Dr. King talked about the struggle, the challenges of the movement for justice, and the vital importance of the work they were doing. He pointed out the tans, browns, and gray in the world which manifested themselves as threats against his life. His flight from Atlanta to Memphis had been as they double-checked every piece of luggage for bombs. He shared the warning against extremists he received when he arrived in Memphis. Then he concluded his sermon like this:

Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

And I don't mind.

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!

And so I'm happy, tonight.

I'm not worried about anything.

I'm not fearing any man!

My eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!!

With those final words he stepped away from the pulpit for the final time. He was shot and killed the next day on the balcony of his hotel.

My friends, have our eyes seen the coming of the glory of the Lord? The glory comes like a boy holding the door for a girl, like flowers blooming in the desert, like a child born in Bethlehem, like justice and righteousness breaking forth. There is no middle ground. Be strong. Do not fear. Rejoice! A response is required because everything has changed.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: