Pastor Johnold J. Strey
Gloria Dei Lutheran Church; Belmont, CA
Sermon on Isaiah 35:1-7
Third Sunday in Advent (Year A)
Sunday, December 12, 2010
ADVENT GIVES US A REASON TO REJOICE
- Christ comes to undo the effects of sin
- Christ comes to pay back the proponents of sin
“I’ve got bad news and good news. Which one do you want to hear first?” Have you ever been asked that question? Which one do you pick? I usually ask to hear the bad news first, because I hope that the good news that follows will somehow negate the bad news.
Today’s First Lesson comes from Isaiah chapter 35. Chapters 34 and 35 are sort of a “bad news, good news” section about Jesus’ Second Advent. Chapter 34 was the bad news—and it was bad: God’s judgment was coming against sin, and it meant death and destruction for his enemies. But the bad news is followed by good news for God’s people—good news that unquestionably trumps the bad news. The Second Advent of Jesus is bad news for his enemies, but it is the greatest news imaginable for his people. Advent gives us a reason to rejoice! That’s Isaiah’s message for you in today’s First Lesson. Advent gives us a reason to rejoice, because Christ comes to undo the effects of sin, and he comes to pay back the proponents of sin.
Last summer, my family and I drove to Phoenix for the WELS Arizona-California District Convention. The two-day trip included a drive through the southern California and Arizona desert. Driving through the desert is not exactly a scenic experience: hot sun, burning sand, no shade, no water, and beyond the occasional cactus, few signs of life. You don’t expect to find exotic birds or colorful flowers in the desert. The desert is practically a symbol of death.
In the chapter before today’s First Lesson, Isaiah describes the aftermath of God’s judgment like a desert: heat and smoke, death and destruction, no signs of life beyond the creatures that live in a desert. That was the bad news of God’s just judgment. Isaiah 34 is not exactly the section of the Bible that makes for good bed-time reading. It is harsh, brutal, and disturbing. Even a devout believer has to tremble at the desert-like picture of God’s judgment.
But in the midst of this scene, a scene where you would never expect an ounce of good news, God comes and describes the Advent gospel. “The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom. Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.” Can you imagine colorful flowers blooming in a desert wasteland? Beauty in the midst of ugliness? Life in the midst of death? That is what the Second Advent of Christ will bring. Isaiah adds more thoughts to the picture. “The glory of Lebanon will be given to it, the splendor of Carmel and Sharon; they will see the glory of the Lord, the splendor of our God.” These references might not mean much to us today, but each of them continues the picture of life and beauty springing up in the midst of death. Lebanon was known for fragrant cedars; Carmel was known for its sturdy oak trees; and Sharon’s claim to fame was its beautiful flowers and rich pasturelands.
A few verses later, Isaiah builds more thoughts into this picture. “Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. 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.” The desert is the last place you expect to find water, to say nothing of bubbling springs and rushing streams. The desert is the last place you expect to find the kinds of plants that only grow in wetlands. But this is Isaiah’s beautiful portrait of Christ’s Advent. Christ comes to undo the effects of sin on creation. He brings life and beauty where there only seemed to be death and destruction.
Last Sunday’s Gospel recorded John the Baptist preaching and preparing people for the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Today’s Gospel records John the Baptism in prison. His honest and direct preaching earned him a spot behind bars no thanks to King Herod, who didn’t like the fact that John’s law preaching hit a little too close to home. John was understandably discouraged in prison. Even God’s prophets struggled with despair, and John was no exception. He asked his disciples to find Jesus and ask him if he really was the promised Savior. Do you remember Jesus’ response to John’s disciples? “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Matthew 11:4-5).
Notice how Jesus’ response sounds like these words from Isaiah in the First Lesson: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy.” Jesus’ first Advent fulfilled these words. Jesus’ miracles verified that he was the promised Savior because his miracles undid some of the effects of sin on the people he healed. And at his Second Advent, Jesus will permanently undo all effects of sin on all believers by rescuing them from this world of sin and from his judgment against sin, and by bringing them to the lush beauty and life of heaven. No wonder Jesus’ Advent gives us a reason to rejoice!
We face the effects of sin daily. Travel on an airplane and the security checkpoint reminds you of the constant threats of terrorism and lawlessness. The newspaper headlines always seem to capture the bad news—whether a lagging economy and growing unemployment rate, or a local disaster like the San Bruno pipeline explosion, or the stories of poverty and homelessness that dampen the joy of the holidays. But we don’t have to look outside of ourselves to find those signs of decay and sin. Every headache and heartbreak, every trip to the doctor or the chiropractor, every tragic disappointment and terminal disease has the same underlying message: We are dying. Ever since Adam and Eve ate the poisonous fruit from the tree in the middle of Eden’s garden, sin’s death and decay have infected every last heart and soul. The death and destruction of Isaiah 34 ought to be the death and destruction we deserve because of sin.
But then, as unexpectedly as finding signs of water and life in a barren desert, Jesus tells us that his Advent gives us a reason to rejoice. His Second Advent, which means death and destruction to those outside the church, means blessing and life for those who trust his work of redemption. Christ came to undo the effects of sin. He endured the punishment for our sin on the cross, and in exchange he has given us his forgiveness. He repaired the broken relationship that our sins had caused, and as a result of his sacrifice he has made us one again with God the Father. He accepted our eternal death sentence on the cross, and through faith in him we receive his holiness as our guaranteed entrance into eternal life. Jesus came to undo the effects of sin at his First Advent, and those blessings will be given to you and all believers at his Second Advent. No wonder his Advent gives us a reason to rejoice!
What comes to mind when you hear the word “revenge”? We know how strong the urge is to seek revenge when someone wrongs us. But we know that God commands that we, as individuals, do not seek revenge. St. Paul wrote, “Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath” (Romans 12:19). Revenge is God’s job, not our job. That might sound strange; it almost sounds wrong to hear that God seeks revenge against sin. But on the Last Day, God serves as judge. A judge in a courtroom hands down a verdict; that verdict brings vengeance and punishment for a crime. On the Last Day, Jesus Christ, the judge of the universe, will judge the world and will bring vengeance and punishment for crimes against his law. So God is not out of line to seek vengeance; as judge, that is his job.
The thought of God coming as judge ought to put fear in every person’s heart. Isaiah knows that, and so he clarifies what exactly this will mean at Christ’s Second Advent. “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way; 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.”
A judge announces one of two verdicts: guilty, or not guilty. With Jesus’ holiness covering their sin, believers can stand before God confident of the “not guilty” verdict that they receive through faith in Jesus’ work. Repentant hearts that are fearful because of their sin can also be joyful, for Christ’s Advent will mean an eternal life sentence, not an eternal death sentence. But that will not be the case for everyone who stands in God’s divine courtroom. God comes with judgment for those who violated his law and those who rejected his grace. He comes with vengeance for those who persecuted his people. He may allow that vengeance to come on someone already in this life, such as when a person suffers as a result of their sinful behavior. But God’s ultimate justice will come on the Last Day, when Christ comes to pay back the proponents of sin and give them the just verdict and sentence for their sin.
Our first Sunday morning Bible class after the New Year will be a study of the book called The Theology of the Cross (link: http://online.nph.net/p-1532-the-theology-of-the-cross.aspx). The book’s title is also a concept found throughout Scripture. The theology of the cross is the concept that we imitate Jesus’ humility in this life, not his glory. Christians suffer hardship, ridicule, and persecution for their faith in this world; the glory that Jesus won for us by his resurrection is something we will experience only in heaven. On this side of heaven, both the church and the individual Christian look and act much more like the humble Jesus than the exalted Jesus.
There is no doubt that it is hard to endure ridicule and hardships for our faith. Your coworker makes a passing statement around the lunch table about how ridiculous it is that people believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus. You can find ad campaigns this time of year from organizations that mock the Christian faith and the Christmas account as ridiculous religious fiction. Everything that is near and dear to you seems under attack, and oh, how we would love to put those people in their place! It’s bad enough to suffer the effects of sin, but it’s worse when we who know the solution are ridiculed for our faith.
But this is why Isaiah’s message is so important. The world’s ridicule does not erase the miracle of the Virgin Birth. The world’s unbelief does not change the fact that faith in Christ delivers his forgiveness and salvation to our hearts. The world’s skepticism does not change the facts that Jesus was crucified, died, and was buried, that he rose again on the third day, and that he will return again to judge the living and the dead. And so we wait. We wait for Christ’s Second Advent, trusting in his cross as we live under his cross day by day. We wait for Christ’s Second Advent, knowing that he will pay back the proponents of sin who rejected his message and troubled his people. We wait for Christ’s Second Advent, knowing that his return gives us a reason to rejoice because it will be our first day of eternal glory.
The days leading up to Christmas are a favorite time of year for many, many people. The music, the special events, and the family gatherings of this season are certainly reason to enjoy these December days. But your main reason to rejoice this season has very little to do with holiday ambiance, presents, jolly old Saint Nick, Christmas dinners, or family celebrations. Your real reason to rejoice has everything to do with the Advent of our Savior. So, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel!” Amen.