Advent 3 2020
Rev. Doug Floyd
Isaiah 65:17-25, Psalm 126, 1 Thessalonians 5:12–28, John 3:22–30
The alarm of coming judgment has resounded through our texts since the Sunday after All Saints. The prophet Amos told us that the Day of the Lord is a day of darkness and not light. Zechariah declared that the sound of the Day of the Lord is bitter. Ezekiel warned of a coming judgment between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. The psalmist warned about hardening our hearts to the voice of the Lord. We heard a series of parables from Jesus on the coming judgment. Isaiah offered confession on behalf of God’s sinful people crying, “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.”
After meditating deeply upon the judgments of the Lord, we are called to remember the healing mercies of the Lord. The same Lord who humbles us, lift us up. The same Lord stepped into the sin and brokenness of humanity and has raised us up out of death and into life everlasting.
Today is Gaudete Sunday, a time to rejoice. For God in His mercy has made a way for his sinful people. The former things are not to be remembered. “We are called to be glad and rejoice forever.” The Psalmist sings out,
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then they said among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them.” (Psalm 126:1-2).
Paul exhorts the people in Thessalonica, “Rejoice always.” John the Baptist and His disciples behold Jesus baptizing people, and John rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Looking to Jesus he says, “This joy of mine is now complete. He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:29-30).
Today is a day of rejoicing because the Lord is true to His Word. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward (us), not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9).
We rejoice even as our Lord rejoices in His people. “I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. (Isaiah 65:19). As we rejoice, let us pay attention to the story behind this joyous song of Isaiah.
Babylon laid waste to Jerusalem. The Temple destroyed. The land salted and made of no use. The people taken captive. In the land of Babylon, some Jews left behind their identity and thrived in this glorious kingdom. Others grieved. They cried out,
4 How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy! (Psalm 137:4–6)
They languished as resident aliens in a land that was not the land of promise. By the waters of Babylon, they sat down and wept.
Daniel turned his face toward Jerusalem. and cried out to God three times a day. They realized the nation had been punished for idolatry, for turning from the covenant, for neglecting the poor and abusing the needy. Their nation was destroyed. Their home ceased to exist. Practically speaking, their nation died and was buried in Babylon. From the place of the dead, they cried out to the Lord.
Some of us in here know what it means to cry out from the place of the dead, from the place where all hope has vanished. Some know the anguish of grief in a lost loved one. Some know the pain of a broken relationships that never mended. Some know the hurt of losing a job and the community of coworkers. Some have known great sickness, great anxiety, great fear, great brokenness. All of us have experienced the crippling impact of sin in our lives. In one sense, all of us know the graveclothes of sin and death.
In Babylon, some wept, some prayed, some ached for home. For their world their had come to an end: the land of Jerusalem, the worship at the Temple, the feasts unto the Lord. All that ended with the destruction.
God heard their cries. Just as he heard the cries of the Hebrews slaves in Egypt, just as He hears our cries from the place of the dead. He heard and He came. He answered them in their distress.
Isaiah sings out,
For behold, I create new heavens
and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered
or come into mind. (Isaiah 65:17)
When they are led away from Jerusalem, the world as they knew it ended. Now as they return to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple a new world is beginning. Imagine the joy of those who had ached and longed and cried out for God to remember them, to look upon them, to have mercy. It was liked being called from death to life.
1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
3 The Lord has done great things for us;
we are glad. (Psalm 126:1–3).
In other places, Isaiah will sing of God’s provision as they travel home. He will speak of a Highway of Holiness in the wilderness. He will sing how the Lord will preserve His people even as they pass through water and through fire. These are all promises for the journey home. He will lead them home safely.
Finally, they return and rebuild the Temple. This is the moment they longed for, they prayed for, they dreamed about.
As it turns out, this moment is far more difficult than they ever imagined. Rebuilding the Temple will take years. When it is finally completed, those who remember Solomon’s Temple will grieve when they see the new Temple because it is smaller and shabbier than the Temple they remember.
Sometimes the hand of God does not look as glorious as we had anticipated. Revival does end human conflict. We may receive that job we longed for, that relationship we desired, that breakthrough miracle that would change everything. Then we realize, our world is still broken. The very things we desired, we hoped for, we longed for will be more difficult, more challenging than we had imagined. We may weary even in the midst of our abundant blessings. Those captives who returned struggled with disappointment because what they expected appeared far less glorious and was far more difficult than they imagined.
Haggai declares to the weary ones,
My Spirit remains in your midst. Fear not! 6 For thus says the Lord of hosts: Yet once more, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land. 7 And I will shake all nations, so that the treasures of all nations shall come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the Lord of hosts. 8 The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, declares the Lord of hosts. 9 The latter glory of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts. And in this place I will give peace, declares the Lord of hosts.’ ” Hag 2:4b–9.
Zechariah exhorts them not to be discouraged, proclaiming,
Thus says the Lord, I have returned to Jerusalem with mercy; my house shall be built in it, declares the Lord of hosts, and the measuring line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem. 17 Cry out again, Thus says the Lord of hosts: My cities shall again overflow with prosperity, and the Lord will again comfort Zion and again choose Jerusalem.’ (Zec 1:16–17)
Jerusalem shall be inhabited as villages without walls, because of the multitude of people and livestock in it. 5 And I will be to her a wall of fire all around, declares the Lord, and I will be the glory in her midst.’ (Zec 2:4–5)
Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion, for behold, I come and I will dwell in your midst, declares the Lord. 11 And many nations shall join themselves to the Lord in that day, and shall be my people. And I will dwell in your midst, and you shall know that the Lord of hosts has sent me to you. 12 And the Lord will inherit Judah as his portion in the holy land, and will again choose Jerusalem.” (Zec 2:10–12)
These promises seem too good to be true. As it turns out, this smaller, shabbier Temple is more glorious than Solomon’s Temple. It is not a testament to the wisdom of man. It is a testament to the promise of God. This Temple declares that God has raised Judah from the dead. After this Temple falls, another Temple will come, and it will be even more glorious.
But it will look smaller and even shabbier.
The coming Temple will not be made by human hands. This Temple will be a person. The Son of Man. He will come in obscurity and hiddenness. As we prepare to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord consider the hidden glory in this story.
He will have no beauty to draw attention to Himself. Yet, He will be even more glorious. In His greatest, most glorious moment on earth, He will be bruised, beaten, and broken. He will die and rise again, defeating the power of sin and death.
Today we rejoice in the absolute faithfulness of God revealed in His Son Jesus Christ. We rejoice in this glory that is often hidden. Even now we may feel alone at times and forgotten. Even now we may be like the captives who rejoiced but then grew weary with the difficulty of rebuilding the Temple. We may be like the Welsh priest, R. S. Thomas, who watched and waited for the coming of the Lord but often sensed nothing and no one.
R. S Thomas wrote, about waiting in “In Church.”
Often I try
To analyse the quality
Of its silences. Is this where God hides
From my searching? I have stopped to listen,
After the few people have gone,
To the air recomposing itself
For vigil. It has waited like this
Since the stones grouped themselves about it.
These are the hard ribs
Of a body that our prayers have failed
To animate. Shadows advance
From their corners to take possession
Of places the light held
For an hour. The bats resume
Their business. The uneasiness of the pews
Ceases. There is no other sound
In the darkness but the sound of a man
Breathing, testing his faith
On emptiness, nailing his questions
One by one to an untenanted cross.
At times, it may feel like evil is winning or even has won. At times, it may feel like we are alone and forgotten. But as we watch and we wait, we rejoice that God is here now even as He is coming to take us home into the fullness of His presence. We rejoice in this hidden glory. This glory is growing brighter within us even as we are outwardly wasting away.
We rejoice. For God is absolutely faithful even when we are faithless. In His grace, He will open our eyes at times to the glory we fail to see all around us. He will open eyes to the promise of His coming that echoes in every breath and every moment. After writing and watching and waiting much of his life, R.S. Thomas begin to see glimpses of God’s glory everywhere He turned. He writes,
Suddenly after long silence
he has become voluble.
He addresses me from a myriad
directions with the fluency
of water, the articulateness
of green leaves: and in the genes,
too, the components
of my existence. The rock,
so long speechless, is the library
of his poetry. He sings to me
in the chain-saw, writes
with the surgeon’s hand
on the skin’s parchment messages
of healing. The weather
is his mind’s turbine
driving the earth’s bulk round
and around on its remedial
journey. I have no need
to despair: as at
some second Pentecost
of a Gentile, I listen to the things
round me: weeds, stones, instruments,
the machine itself, all
speaking to me in the vernacular
of the purposes of the One who is.
Let us rejoice today in the One who has not, will not forsake us but has come and will come to us in our lowly estate with promises of His love everlasting.