December 16, 2007 Speaker: Rev. Braun Campbell
Topic: Biblical Verse: Isaiah 35:1–35:10
Third Sunday in Advent
What are your expectations for this Christmas? Are you looking forward to it? Did you make a wish list for what you'd really, really, really love to have appear under the Christmas tree? I remember sitting there on the floor in the living room - this was one of those times of year when we actually used the living room - and looking at the wrapped boxes as they accumulated underneath the tree, decked as it was with ornaments and lights like illuminated gems. I'd look at the boxes and wonder if the things that I'd been hoping for were already there. I didn't need to have my list in front of me: I had it memorized, along with rough estimates of the proper size of what a box containing a G.I. Joe hovercraft (complete with launching one-man skiff!) might look like. I'd sit there, alone with my hopes and expectations, as Christmas Eve drew closer and closer, looking forward to Christmas morning and the Great Unwrapping. Are you there, sitting beside the tree, gazing at the gifts, too? You may have high expectations. One box seems to have the right dimensions for that Nintendo "Wii" game console, dashboard GPS device, or automatic breadmaker that you're hoping for. And as the doors on the Advent calendar open up, the days before Christmas fly by, faster and faster. Before you know it, the long-awaited day arrives! All that remains between you and your wildest dreams is a glossy layer of wrapping paper and a puffy ribbon bow. When the first opportunity presents itself, you eagerly set into tearing open the most promising package and find... a jumbo pack of tube socks? No breadmaker. No GPS. No "Wii." No hovercraft.
In the first few verses of our Old Testament reading, the prophet Isaiah's setting some pretty high expectations. He's telling his hearers to look forward to a change. The people don't seem to have much cause for hope or reason to think that things are going to be any different. Life is hard. They live under fear and uncertainty. The future does not look good, and Isaiah's audience doesn't believe that there's a point in seeing it any differently. But God, through the prophet, promises a reversal. The things that are will not always be. In chapter 34, Isaiah reports that Edom, that nation which had so long been an enemy of Israel and Judah, would see its fortune overturned. God will transform what was once a beautiful and prosperous land into a desert. And now, here, a wilderness and dry land will be changed into a garden. The people are called to make ready, to prepare, because God is bringing transformation.
Isaiah shows us that our God works through reversals that exceed expectations, reversals that overcome obstacles, reversals that push past preconceived notions of possibility. When God breaks into the world as we know it, things change. When there's a decent amount of rainfall in the desert, the landscape transforms, with tiny flowers and plants blooming into an amazing burst of color in what was previously a sea of dead-looking tans and browns. Now imagine the stereotypical desert, dry and desolate, an arid wasteland like something from an old Bob Hope/Bing Crosby movie or "Lawrence of Arabia," nothing but sand dunes for as far as the eye can see, transformed: springs of water bursting forth, bringing life and hope where there was previously only thirst and despair, changing the parched land into a luxurious garden. Isaiah points his hearers to the God who can do this and more. God acts, bringing something out of nothing, and that which was not, will be.
Jesus brought fulfillment to Isaiah's message, working through reversals. The blind would see. The deaf would hear. The crippled would jump for joy. The mute would shout in celebration. Jesus himself is a reversal. God the Son set aside the glory, majesty, and power that was His, becoming one of us. As both true man and true God he lived a sin-free life for us who are sin-full, dying and suffering separation from the Father on the cross. Rising from the dead, he transformed death: what was once sin's ultimate victory is now the end of its power. God has brought life out of death, working a great reversal.
Earlier this year, St. John's adopted a new statement of how we live out the Great Commission as God's people. And the close of this mission/vision statement focuses on how we are sent out, "to invite all people to a life transformed by Jesus Christ." "Transformation" is part of who we are in Christ, but what does that mean? We might wonder if God still breaks into the world to work reversals for those who are blind, deaf, or crippled, to bring health where there is infirmity. Or we might wonder if we even need God in Christ to bring about transformation in our lives. Do you long to study God's Word, reading it with your own eyes and hearing it proclaimed to your own ears? Do you always use your feet and legs and hands and arms to serve others as Jesus served us? Do you use your speech to encourage others and share the Good News about Jesus, or to curse, complain, or cajole those around you? We need the transformation that Christ brings, as does the world around us. We need to be reminded of the reversal that God makes to happen in Baptism, where a spring of living water brings life to a dead wilderness. Our Lord opens our blind eyes and makes our deaf ears here the sweet news of His Gospel. He cures the poison of self-centered living and restores our hands and feet for service in His kingdom. We, who were once dead in sin and who now struggle with it on a daily basis as sinner/saints, have been given new life, life which is transformed by Jesus Christ.
Part of the identity of those people who live and work here in Northern Virginia is the Springfield Interchange. The "Mixing Bowl," as it is called, lies just a few miles from St. John's and is one of the most heavily trafficked interchanges in the United States. There, Interstate 95 meets up with 395, the Capital Beltway (495), and Route 644, our very own Franconia Road. Did you ever drive through the Mixing Bowl before the massive, recently-completed construction project that transformed it into the engineering landmark that it is today? In order to reach your destination, you might have had to cut across two or three lanes of fast-moving cars, trucks, and tractor-trailers. There wasn't much margin for error. And even now, those passing through the area had better have a clear idea of where they want to go long before arriving at the Interchange, with its flyovers, express lanes, and exit ramps. It's all too easy to stumble on your directions, finding yourself headed the wrong way and in need of a reversal.
Part of the good news that Isaiah brings us may be found in the last third of our text. God builds a highway! Unlike the Springfield Interchange, this Way of Holiness is so user-friendly that even fools will not go astray. The destination of the Holy Way is Zion, the Holy City. To Isaiah's first audience, a people who would go into captivity and exile, this was a promise of what they could expect: God would not abandon them. He would bring them home. And God invites us to travel on the highway, too, though it does not lead to the Jerusalem of the Middle East; rather, the Way of Holiness leads to the New Jerusalem, where we will be at home with our Lord, separated from our sin, rejoined with those who have gone before us in the faith, and rejoicing with great gladness in the presence of our God. This is the high hope and expectation which Jesus brings to us as Christians. If we get lost and confused, it's because we haven't been following his directions. In life, God's Word is like the GPS device that will never steer us wrong. He is with us as we journey through this world.
This Advent, sit beside the Christmas tree with high expectations - not hoping for a hovercraft, a "Wii," a GPS, or even a breadmaker, but looking forward to the new life which God is working in you. Because the God of reversals, Who brings life to the dead, will deliver.