ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH DECEMBER 7, 2014
Come and Receive
Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1: 1-8
For many of us, life is busy. There always seems to be lots going on, things to do, and not much time to do it, but somehow, at this time of year, life gets even busier! How is that even possible? The Christmas season tends to bring on a new definition to busy, and along with that stress. Besides our normal everyday events we find ourselves, spending hours caught up in holiday activities. We devote countless hours in malls and stores as we wander around looking for that special gift, or we end up going from store to store frantically looking for that must have present that is on the Christmas list, but that is so popular you can’t find it anywhere. Then if that is not bad enough, we spend what seems like hours standing in long line-ups waiting to pay. The holiday season also includes Christmas parties, bake sales, and bazars. Also, the Christmas pageants and concerts put on at schools, as well as special Christmas concerts performed by churches and community choirs. If only that was all, what about the many hours baking Christmas goodies? Or the time we spend decorating our place, with lights and brightly coloured decorations, and putting up the Christmas tree? What about the countless hours writing Christmas cards? Although, with the price of stamps these days, you would need a second mortgage to keep up this holiday tradition! And, I haven’t even mentioned wrapping all those gifts. It is tiring just thinking about it!
When I think about all the running around and trying to get things done, I’m reminded of the Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis’ movie, Christmas with the Kranks. The basis for the movie is that a married couple are alone for the first time during the holidays because their daughter is overseas, so they decide they are going to go on a trip and skip Christmas altogether. Christmas Eve morning, all of their plans unravel when their daughter calls and surprises them saying she is coming home for Christmas. Chaos ensues as the couple finds themselves trying to decorate the house and coordinate a party with only twelve hours to spare before their daughter and future son-in-law arrive. As you can imagine there is lots of stress and lots going on!
During the holiday season, there is so much going on that it can be overwhelming. This time of year can also be stressful, even for those who do not find themselves caught up in all the Christmas events, concerts, and shopping. The holiday season can evoke many strong emotions. Christmas should be a time of joy, but for many it is a time of loneliness, a time of pain, a time of sorrow. A time when we remember loved ones who are no longer with us. A time when we are reminded of broken families. A time when we face the fact, we cannot be together with our family because of geography or other barriers. A time when we remember better periods in our lives, compared to our current circumstances. There are many reasons why this time of year is far from a happy one.
Between frantic schedules and emotional trials, whatever situation we find ourselves in during the Christmas season, we all need a time to pause and to rest. We all need to recognise and feel the peace and comfort in which our Lord brings us. Advent is all about Christ coming to us, and we all need to take time to be with him. In Jesus, we have a promise of peace in the middle of struggles, and peace in the middle of all the chaos. Jesus is preparing the way for us. He is here amongst us, we need only to take the time to stop and listen, to hear his voice calling out to us.
The passage from Isaiah we read this morning begins, “Comfort, O comfort my people…” This was a message to the people of Israel who were living in exile. These people had many difficulties; they were slaves, they were far from their homeland, and even if they did return to their place of ancestry, the temple was in ruins and their homes and lands were destroyed or taken over. Yet, here God is calling to them, comforting them in their place of exile and giving them hope for the future. God was preparing the way for them. Amongst the pain and suffering they had and were enduring, Isaiah, using poetic imagery, proclaims how God will overcome the obstacles that stand in their way, “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” This is a promise of hope for the future, which is drawing near. A gracious promise that the time of fulfilment is close at hand.
Mark tells us the very same message, but in a new way. Mark’s Gospel is a book about a new era. He’s not simply writing a biography about a man, but he’s telling of a time in which God entered human history in an entirely new way. Mark uses a quote from Isaiah to set up the promise of what is to come. Mark then introduces John the Baptist as a man sent by God to prepare the way of the Lord. Like, we find in Isaiah this is a story of a promise, of a time drawing close, yet unlike the Old Testament story, the time of fulfillment is not deliverance from exile, but the coming of the Messiah! John the Baptist is merely a prophet telling us what is to come. Mark alludes to the Old Testament prophet Elijah, as he describes John’s clothing. This parallel illustrates that John the Baptist, and Elijah were both apart of salvation history. God’s covenant with the Israelites and God’s sending of his son Jesus, were both fulfilments of his Word. Just as God came to the people of Israel, he comes to us today. No matter what the situation we face whether we are in a place of hardship or sadness, busyness or calm, God will arrive to lead us and to comfort us.
All we have to do is to respond. John the Baptist was called by God to bring people from all around and to prepare them for the one who is coming, “the one who is more powerful” than John. It was, and is a miraculous event. Even though John appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming for all to be baptised, and to repent, it was still a personal invitation. One in which individuals had to receive. John could have stood there up to his waste in the Jordan River proclaiming repentance for the forgiveness of sin, but if no one heard his cries and took up his invitation, than his message and act would have been all for not. However, we read that, “people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized by him…” They travelled to the riverside and received the gift of baptism. From there they had the promise of someone greater that was going to give them even more. The story of John the Baptist is all about coming and receiving a gracious gift.
The season of Advent has much of the same theme. It is a time where we anticipate the celebration of the coming of Christ to this world. But, we cannot forget that Christ is already here! Jesus is with us, he is in us, he surrounds us. Our Lord and Saviour comes to us day by day and moment by moment. He offers up to us what we need; peace, hope, love, and joy. Like all those people who heard John’s call, and went to the river to be baptised, we too are to hear Christ’s call and to respond. During this time of year, it can be difficult to take the time to respond. It is easy to get caught up in all that is going on. It can be easy to dwell on our emotions and the past, but God is calling us to come and receive his gracious gifts. One of these gifts is peace; peace of mind, peace of spirit, a peace that passes all understanding. I think especially during the holidays we all need this gift of peace in our lives. We may feel lost or overwhelmed, but God still finds us.
A couple weeks before Christmas, a woman’s aunt was hospitalized after suffering a broken hip. While in the hospital, her aunt developed other complications and was not doing very well. The woman spent countless hours by her aunt’s bedside. Life was hectic, as the woman tried to balance her family life, visiting her aunt, as well as all the other Christmas running around that she felt needed to be done. Soon it was Christmas Eve. Tired and exhausted, the woman went with her husband to the midnight Christmas Eve service at church. She had lots on her mind, things that still had to be done; preparations for Christmas dinner, presents that still needed to be wrapped, Christmas cards that should have been written but she just did not have the time, the list seemed endless, and on top of this her thoughts kept going back to her ailing aunt. Many burdens and emotions clouded her thoughts. As she and husband entered the sanctuary she looked around and saw the candles and decorations, the place was warm and inviting, but she was distracted from all of this. As she sat down, the congregation was singing Joy to the World, but as you would guess, the woman felt very little joy. She felt so overwhelmed and her heart was heavy and burdened. She did not feel like singing, nor did she feel that she really could. What was there to be joyful about? But, as she sat there, something changed. She felt peace come over her. The thoughts racing through her head, slowly faded, her worries lessened, and the distractions of her life fell away. As she sat there, the words of the Christmas hymn brought her comfort, “No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make His blessings flow…” The peace of Christ was in her.
This same peace can come to us, and like in this story, this peace can come at any moment. Whether we look for Jesus or not, he is there. Even when we are least expecting it. This woman came to the church on Christmas Eve. We really do not know all her reasons for doing so, whether it was out of need, or tradition, or hope, or faith, but in the end, she came, she responded to a calling within her, and Jesus gave her the gift of peace she needed. The season of Advent is all about Christ being with us. Between all the chaos and busyness, along with the hardships this season can bring, our Lord invites us to come to him and to receive him and the peace in which he offers to us. This is a gracious gift, we just need to come and receive it, amen.