December 15, 2019

Isaiah 35:1-10
Luke 1:47-55
Matthew 11:2-11

“Here is Your God!”

There are a lot of debates that take place at this time of year around worship-planning tables, between clergy and music leaders about which hymns and carols we will sing. Many ministers make a point of avoiding Christmas carols before Christmas Eve, arguing that Advent hymns are more appropriate, since Jesus has “not yet” been born. At the same time, musicians and choirs and congregations are often longing to sing the songs of Christmas joy, even if it’s only mid-December.

You may have noticed that our Advent Season here at First Church includes a bit of a mix of Advent carols and Christmas songs, and as we move through the month, we’re including more and more of the Christmas ones. And the reason is not that the Music Team here is very persuasive and convinced the minister to do Christmas early.

But rather, it’s because we understand that Advent isn’t only a “not yet” season; it’s also an “already” season. The SALT Lectionary Commentary describes Advent as “a season made for vividly experiencing the eschatological “already/not yet” tension at the heart of Christian life.”

It’s the idea that the Messiah has already come to us in Jesus, and the Reign of God has already been inaugurated in his life and ministry. But it has not yet been made complete. The world is waiting, longing, and hoping for the fulfilment of Jesus’ kingdom, when Christ will come again, and the world will be made right.

We celebrate Advent at the darkest time of the year and prepare to announce the Light of the World. We enter the shadows, and we light candles. We call for Jesus to come, and celebrate his presence even now. We take “anticipatory joy” in Christmas, and remember that in this broken world, we still await that future coming when “sorrow and sighing shall flee away,” as the prophet Isaiah wrote.

And so, on this Third Sunday of Advent, on the Sunday of Joy, I titled my sermon, “Here is Your God!” Not “Hope for God” or “Wait for God,” but “Here is Your God!” because even as we wait and hope for the fullness of God’s Reign on Earth, we believe that God is already present and active in our lives and in our world. God has already come to us in Jesus, and God abides with us through the powerful and comforting presence of the Holy Spirit. Our God is here!

Last week in our Advent Book Study, we were invited to engage in a spiritual discipline of paying attention. We were encouraged to choose a short prayer to use throughout the day, returning to that prayer when we’re walking, or driving, or cooking, or eating, or during other regular activities. And the point of the prayer throughout the day is to draw our attention to what God may be doing in our midst.

One of our group members shared that he begins each morning thinking of the phrase from Psalm 118: “This is the day that the Lord has made. Let me be glad and rejoice in it.” Imagine coming back to that verse throughout the day, and pausing to be attentive to God in our midst.

It seems to me that “This is the day that the Lord has made” is an easy prayer to say when I wake up in the morning and look forward to the fun and exciting things that I’m expecting to happen. But it’s an even more powerful prayer to say when I know that my day will be filled with challenge and struggle, when I’m worried about bad news, when I don’t know how things will turn out, or when I know I’ll need to make it through pain, sorrow, or hard things.

When the prophet Isaiah wrote today’s encouraging text to the People of Judah and Jerusalem in exile in Babylon, theirs was a context of terrible struggle and almost giving up, but he nonetheless proclaimed to them, “Here is your God!” and invited them to open their ears and their eyes to see what God was doing in their midst.

When Isaiah writes to “those who are of a fearful heart,” the Hebrew is literally, “those whose hearts are racing.” So, he’s writing to the desperate and afraid, the near-panicked. Think refugee parents and children separated from each other. Or someone wrestling with a grim diagnosis. Or a prisoner facing execution.

To each of these racing hearts, the prophet says, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God… God will come and save you.” And, of course, that is what happens when they are granted their freedom, allowed to return to Jerusalem, and given the opportunity to begin again in the land of promise.

Our Gospel texts today give us good clues as to what to look for when we want to see what God is doing in the world, when we are looking for evidence that God is, indeed, here with us.

Early in Jesus’ ministry, his cousin – the prophet John the Baptist – was in prison when he heard the kinds of things that Jesus was doing. He wondered whether Jesus was actually the Messiah or not, so he sent word by his disciples to ask.

And Jesus said, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”

Jesus answered in terms that evoked Isaiah, using words that would have reminded Jewish people of Isaiah’s promise of a coming Messiah. One commentator paraphrases Jesus’ response to John like this:

“To understand who I am, you have to look through the ancient lens given to us by Isaiah. But don’t focus too much on me personally – I’m here to herald something much bigger than one person. Focus on the signs of revival and abundance you hear and see, the signs of the new era I’ve come to proclaim: the Realm of Heaven is at hand! Look! The long-promised day of joy is dawning, and that joy is breaking out everywhere – visible signs of joy, joy you can hear and see and touch! Tell John THAT!”

He might as well have said, “Here is your God!” but Jesus was being a little more subtle than that, and letting John and others discover that good news in time.

The few years of Jesus’ ministry were very clearly an “already/not yet” time in which he announced that the Kingdom of God was coming, and he did miracles, and performed healings, and welcomed outsiders, and embodied amazing love.

But his miracles were also just a glimpse of the wonders yet to come. And when he fed the multitudes, it was just a foretaste of the heavenly banquet in the Reign of God. And when he showed us how to love fully, selflessly, and sacrificially, it was the “already” before the “not yet” time when all God’s people will live and love one another in his Way when the Reign of God is complete.

So, our job now is to practise for that future time when our joy will be complete. Our job is to look and see what God is doing, where God is present and active. First, we can rejoice! And then we are invited to participate in the good work that God is already doing in the world.

There are many places that we can look to see what God is doing. But when I got home on Friday afternoon, my copy of the Presbyterian Connection Newspaper had arrived, so I took the opportunity to flip through it where I discovered plentiful evidence of God’s activity in, around, and through Canadian Presbyterians.

The front page tells about “Side by Side” – a small-scale recreational day program for people with dementia in Calgary. There are stories of people engaging, learning, and getting involved in Indigenous reconciliation through the Healing & Reconciliation Tour last summer.

There’s a story about a Halloween event in PEI for kids with physical or mental barriers, and others about congregations in Ontario and Manitoba that are reaching out in love through dance, musical theatre, music education for children, knitting projects, and backyard mission projects. (You’ve got to read it to find out what that’s all about!)

God is also at work through the listening ministry of the Rainbow Communion. At the direction of the General Assembly, this special committee has been listening (over the last 2 years) to the stories of harm experienced (as well as grace received) by LGBTQ people in the Presbyterian Church. They are holding those stories as a precious gift, and they are working on recommendations that will promote healing and a more gracious welcome in our congregations.

Nick and I were both moved as we read the Rev. Glynis Williams’ description of the ministry at Samuel House in Romania that we visited in September. We both experienced God’s presence and love through the caring and devoted leaders who welcome, teach, and equip poor children from the villages for a brighter future.

Together, Canadian Presbyterians are also participating in God’s activity in the world through Presbyterian World Service and Development, and through our partners in many parts of the world. We are assisting people in Yemen, Syria, Malawi, and many other places where communities are suffering from the effects of war or natural disaster.

Presbyterians are getting involved through their personal contributions, fundraising initiatives, work on committees, and their participation in the “Ride for Refuge” to support PWS&D and other good ministries.

Of course, I want to encourage you to read the “Presbyterian Connection.” (There are copies available in the narthex, and you can sign up to get it delivered to your home if you haven’t already.) There are lots of interesting articles, news, and pictures from across the church, including a couple of things by “yours truly.”

But I also want to encourage you in this season of “already/not yet” to pay attention to what God is doing in your life, in your family, in our church, in our neighbourhood, and in our city. Look for God’s activity. Rejoice in the good things that you see and hear. And be bold and courageous to get up and join in, as the fullness of God’s Kingdom grows in our hearts, our lives, and our world.

“Look! The long-promised day of joy is dawning, and that joy is breaking out everywhere – visible signs of joy, joy you can hear and see and touch!”

Even before Jesus was born, his mother, Mary, anticipated that he would embody God’s presence in the world, and she rejoiced in the opportunity to participate in God’s good work in the world. Her child had “not yet” been born, but her soul was “already” magnifying the Lord, and her spirit rejoiced in God her Saviour.

As the Christ-child grew in her womb, Mary proclaimed: “Here is your God!”
“He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.

With Mary, let us practise our joy, as we look and work for the day when God’s Kingdom is complete.

Even now, let us join our voices to hers:
“My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.”