Peace in the Present Promise*
December 06, 2020
By Pastor John Partridge
How can a pandemic possibly be a good thing?
Certainly, current events will give us much to complain about and mourn over for years to come, but we also get glimpses of the occasional silver lining in our ongoing battle with the coronavirus. Certainly, among these are an array of new medical technologies that have been brought to bear as our doctors and scientists seek new medications and new life-saving treatments, as well as new technology that has allowed us to develop multiple vaccines in just 18 months when the previous speed record for such an accomplishment was five year long rush program with the Ebola virus that was only recently approved. But another important silver lining may be the attention that our forced lockdown and resulting isolation and seclusion has brought to those among us who suffer from depression, suicidal thoughts, and a variety of other mental illnesses. While isolation is difficult for all of us, it is harder for extroverts, and disastrous for many people who suffer even in ordinary circumstances. And while today’s message isn’t going to solve these difficult mental health issues, perhaps by shining a light, and continuing to raise our awareness of these problems, we can begin to make a difference in the lives of the suffering.
But for the rest of us, as we struggle with our isolation and lack of human contact, many of us, the midst of a pandemic, and the resulting upheaval of everything familiar, which is, of course, piled on top of our normal level of change and upheaval, are wrestling with how can we possibly find… peace. Our minds are constantly pulled in a hundred directions at once, we worry about our employment, we worry about our families, we worry about our health, about our church and other institutions and business that we care about, and in the midst of our whirling, dizzying, wrestling match with fear, worry, depression and despair, we hear the prophet Isaiah calling to us as we prepare for the arrival of the Messiah. In Isaiah 40:1-11 we hear these words, spoken to Israel as their nation, their religion, and everything they knew, faced destruction at the hands of the Assyrian empire.
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem
and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed,
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.”A voice says, “Cry out.”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
“All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
7 The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”
9 You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!”
10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.
11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.
Even as the disaster they are expecting approaches, God promises to bring comfort after Israel’s hard service was completed and her sin paid for on the day God would send the messiah to rescue them. God declares that people are like grass because we fade, fail, and fall away. Our failure comes because our faithfulness fails and not because God has failed. We know that God never fails, and that God endures forever. And that is why in this dark hour, Israel could find hope in God’s promise to send a messiah that would make the world right again. Like us, Israel looked forward to the day that God would return their world to normal. Best of all, was knowing that God wasn’t doing to do fix things with floods, fires, earthquakes, or destruction, but like a shepherd gathering his flock and carrying his lambs close to his heart.
And, because we get to read their story, we know that after their time of suffering in Babylon, the people of Israel, at least the few that had remained faithful, returned home to rebuild their nation just as God had promised. And much later, in Mark 1:1-8, we hear the story of the coming of God’s promised messiah. As Mark writes:
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 withwater, but he will baptize you withthe Holy Spirit.”
Echoing Isaiah’s message, John the Baptist preaches a message of baptism, repentance, and a return to faithfulness. And this time, the people are ready, and Israel answers John’s call. Mark says that the entire city of Jerusalem, and the whole Judean countryside went out to hear John, confess their sins, and be baptized by a man who spoke like, and dressed like, the ancient prophets. Of course, we understand that Mark is exaggerating. We know that the entire city of Jerusalem and the entire countryside of Judea did not go out to hear John preach and to be baptized, but the numbers must have been so large, that it seemed as if everyone was going. And we can certainly understand that so many people went to hear John that almost everyone must have known someone who had done so. But even though the people came, and even though John looked, dressed, and acted like a prophet, John’s message is that the people must be prepared for imminent arrival of messiah that God had promised.
God’s redeemer had arrived, and in the middle of an enemy occupation, and their struggles with Rome, the people were reminded of God’s words that they had heard from the prophet Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed.”
But then what? Two thousand years have passed between them and us, between then and now. What can those two-thousand-year-old words have to tell us during a modern pandemic? But that isn’t a new question. The church has been asking that question from the beginning and Peter wrote to his church friends and explained it this way (2 Peter 3:8-15a):
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 wants the church to remember that God hasn’t forgotten us. What seems like a frightfully long time to us, is not a long time to God. Rather than hurrying, God is being patient and giving people time for a second chance. We are reminded that Christ’s return, and his judgement, are still unpredictable and may come at any time, like a thief in the night. As such, we must be prepared for his arrival by living godly lives, to watch, and look forward to his coming. On that day, everything physical will be destroyed but we are more than physical. What is physical will be destroyed, but what is spiritual will remain. It is for this reason that we must do everything that we can to be as blameless and perfect as we possibly can. On that day we will see a new heaven and a new earth, where everything will be right once again. Finally, the world will return to normal, and we will live in peace with one another the way that God intended. And it is for this reason that we look forward with hope.
God’s promise, given through the prophet Isaiah, to the people of Israel came eight hundred years before the arrival of Jesus in Bethlehem. And, since then, we have waited another two thousand years. But God’s promises remain. The people of Israel held on to God’s promises as they endured the loss of their homeland, the loss of their freedom, and the loss of God’s temple and their freedom to worship. But God kept his promise and many people returned to Israel and rebuilt it. As we endure a pandemic and wrestle with our feelings of separation, fear, depression, worry, and despair, we too hold on to the promises of God. As we celebrate Advent, we are especially reminded of God’s promise of redemption and rescue and we look forward to celebrating his arrival both at Christmas and upon his return someday in the future. God’s promises are not just something that we read about in the distant past, but an ever present, immovable rock upon which we build our lives, safe from the storms that swirl around us. God’ promises are not a thing of the past, but an anchor for our present lives in which we find hope…
You can find the video of this worship service here: https://youtu.be/NHijitBg6cY
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, 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 or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online). These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.