“Patience and the Promise Keeper”
December 10, 2017
By John Partridge*
Isaiah 40:1-5 2 Peter 3:8-15 Mark 1:1-8
Have you ever received mail from a friend or relative that got lost by the post office somewhere along the way and arrived long after it had been sent? Have you ever read stories about people who had been separated by World War Two and decades later received love letters or gifts that had been found in an attic by their grandchildren? These sorts of things take us on journeys out of time, or displaced in time, in some way. I also think about some of the older families in the east coast. A friend of mine once told me a story about a friend of his who had been dating a girl in the DuPont family. The DuPonts are the family that founded, and still own a majority share, of the international chemical conglomerate, but their family goes back to founding of our nation. The story that I heard was that, while visiting his girlfriend, this young man was invited to help decorate the DuPont family Christmas tree, and while doing so was reminded to handle the decorations with care, because some of them had been handed down from generation to generation and dated back to the 1700’s. As I heard it, the young man was nearly paralyzed with the fear that he might break something that was clearly irreplaceable.
With that in mind, now imagine that while you were unpacking such a box you found a letter from your four or five times great grand parents in which they promised an inheritance that would not only change your life, but would change the course of our nation, and lead to a world in which the leader of the United States would rule over the entire world. That idea would be pretty hard to get your head around. A thousand questions would swirl through your mind. How could they have known? How would they ever be able to accomplish such a thing? But let’s make it even harder. Imagine that you were doing some historical research and found a letter with that same kind of bold promise, but the letter in question was so old that the English in it had to be translated before you could understand it. Imagine that such a letter was written eight hundred years ago in the year 1217, a year in which the Crusades were being fought, Genghis Khan was conquering Persia, the Magna Carta had only just been written, and the Shogun still ruled over Japan.
We would think that such a promise was impossible to make or to keep and, after 800 years, had certainly been forgotten. But that is exactly the sort of thing that we are talking about as we read the prophecies and the promises of God sent to the people of Israel through the prophet Isaiah. Of course, there’s a big difference between the promises of a human being and the promises of God, but eight hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Isaiah wrote these words to the people of Israel in Isaiah 40:1-5:
40:1 Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
3 A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
And, far from being lost in some library somewhere, the people of Israel kept the words of Isaiah close to their hearts, taught them to their children, passed them down from generation to generation, and read them in their synagogues. But, much like today, some people in positions of authority, and people who thought that they were “sophisticated” began to think that the words of Isaiah were no longer important or relevant while others took God at his word and had the faith to believe that, despite the long wait, God would keep his promises. That’s why there were people like Mary and Joseph whose faith allowed them to believe that God was at work in their world and in them. That’s why scholars from the east (perhaps in Babylon) noticed the birth of the messiah before Israel’s own scholars. And that’s why the beginning of the book of Mark sounds so familiar to anyone who had ever heard the words of Isaiah. (Mark 1:1-8)
1:1 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”—
3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
After 800 years of waiting, God was moving in Israel. After generations of wondering when it would happen, God’s messenger had arrived to proclaim the arrival of the messiah, savior, and rescuer of Israel.
God was keeping his promise.
But that 800 year wait seems like a long time. In fact, 800 year doesn’t “seem” like a long time, 800 years “is” an extraordinarily long time. And as we notice that, we cannot help but notice that it’s been almost 2000 years since Jesus rose from the dead and promised to return. So much is different. So much has changed. Are we wrong? Has God forgotten? Is God slow to keep his promises? Or is it something else?
These are not uncommon questions. In fact, these are not new questions. In a letter to the entire church and to believers everywhere, Jesus’ disciple and close friend Peter addresses some of these very questions.
(2 Peter 3:8-15)
8 But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. 9 The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.
11 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives 12 as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.
14 So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. 15 Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him.
Peter reminds us that the God who spoke galaxies and stars and the entire universe into existence is not a creature that is a slave to time in the way that we are. God sees time but experiences it, or at least thinks about it, in an entirely different way. Perhaps simply being an immortal, eternal being makes him less constrained by, or less concerned with, the passage of time than human are. But in any case, Peter explains that God is not slow in the way that we understand slowness. God has made promises to his people, and God intends to keep those promises. But since God is not only eternal and immortal, but also omniscient, or all-knowing, God has the ability to keep his promises in a way that benefits the most people. God does not desire for anyone to die in their sin, but desires instead that everyone might repent and be saved. Rather than rush to fulfill his promises, God chooses to be patient in order that more people might have the opportunity to be saved.
But Peter also reminds us that a day of destruction, the end of the world, and judgement is coming. We therefore look forward to a new creation, a new heaven, and a new earth where the righteous will live forever. But as we look forward, we are called to do all that we can, in Peter’s words, to “make every effort” to live righteous lives, to be as perfect as possible, so that we might “be found spotless, blameless, and at peace” with God.
And so, on this second Sunday of Advent, as we light the candle of Love, we remember that God is not slow to keep his promises, but instead is being patient with us. God is taking his time to give us another chance to get it right. God is being patient so that we might make another effort to be righteous, to be as perfect as we can be, to be more like Jesus than ever before, and to tell even more people about the Good News of Jesus so that everyone might repent and be saved.
It was 800 years from the time prophecies of Isaiah to their fulfillment in time of Jesus, and it’s been almost 2000 years since Jesus promised that he would return.
God is not slow.
God is giving us another chance to get it right.
Let’s not waste it.
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* You have been reading a message presented at Trinity United Methodist Church on the date noted on the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Trinity of Perry Heights in Massillon, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry may be sent to Trinity United Methodist Church, 3757 Lincoln Way E., Massillon, Ohio 44646. These messages are available to anyone regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at firstname.lastname@example.org. To subscribe to the electronic version sign up at http://eepurl.com/vAlYn. These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.