Sunday, December 12, 2010

TIDINGS OF COMFORT AND JOY - Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-10

The Rev. Dr. Robert A. Chesnut
Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-10
Westminster Presbyterian Church
Santa Fe, New Mexico

You might be interested to know that the New Testament from which I just read the Gospel passage from Matthew is inscribed with my name and the date 1953. It was the year when, at age fifteen, I experienced a spiritual awakening and a call to the ministry.

A couple of weeks ago we received an e-mail from our dear friend Tom Ward in Massachusetts. Tom, his wife Judy, and Jan and I first met in 1955 as freshmen at the College of Wooster. Tom was writing to tell us the good news, first of all, that in the midst of her second round of chemotherapy, Judy’s blood test scores for her ovarian cancer were very good indeed.

Tom’s e-mail, however, went on to report that Judy had just fallen and broken her arm and would have to have surgery. Some good news, some bad news. Life is full of it, isn’t it? You know that. I know that.

Jan and I have learned the hard way to be very careful about saying to each other, “Isn’t life grand…Isn’t everything just going so very well for us and our loved ones!” You never know what the next day, or even the next minute holds for you.

Earlier this year we rejoiced that our 40-something daughter had finally found the love of her life … and then mid-year that the two of them got married. But just a few weeks ago … on Thanksgiving night as we were going to bed, she called to say that she had taken her husband Paul to the emergency room. His heart was racing and he could hardly breathe. In ten minutes she called back again to report that his heart rate was so high they had to give him an injection to stop his heart and then start it up again with shock paddles. We went to bed knowing no more than that. We never know what the next day or even the next moment may hold.

So one of the primary messages of Advent is always relevant—be alert, keep awake, be ready. For the Lord’s return. For the end of the world. At least . . . for the end of life as you know it. Be prepared … for whatever may come your way.

Some good news, some bad news. Our lives are full of it … so is the Bible.

Last year at just about this time I also preached here at Westminster. I had the lectionary text about John the Baptist and his message—really not too much comfort or joy there. “You brood of vipers,” John shouted at those who came out to listen to him. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? I’m baptizing you with water but he who comes after me will baptize with fire. Even now the axe is laid the root of the tree. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire to be burned.” Wow! Hell fire and damnation.

I’m always amused that Luke concludes his summary of John’s preaching by saying, “So with many other exhortations, he declared good news to the people.” Good news? Where’s the good news there? Well, really, there is good news in John’s message. Maybe a little hard to find at first, but it’s about what we must do in order to prepare, to get ready for the good news that’s coming. John’s message is about getting our affairs in order, or to paraphrase the way it used to be put back in the 60’s, “getting your stuff together.” Actually it wasn’t “stuff” but a four letter word also beginning with “s,” but my wife wouldn’t let me say it!

John was sent to prepare the way for the Lord’s coming by telling us what we need to do to get our stuff together. So in the larger view, John was preaching good news since he was telling us how to get ready for the good news to come.

Now, as we see in today’s Gospel reading, there came a time several years later when things turned really bad for John. He ended up imprisoned by King Herod. Herod didn’t like John’s preaching, especially John’s challenge to the legitimacy of Herod’s marriage.
So John, obviously depressed, begins to doubt the whole thing—his preaching and his ministry, his message about Jesus being the Messiah. Good news has turned to bad for John. So from his prison cell, John sends a messenger to Jesus with a question full of his doubt and depression: “Are you really the one to come, or should we look for another?”
Oh my!

Jesus sent a message back to John with a direct reference to the prophecy we heard from Isaiah this morning. “Consider what you behold in my ministry,” says Jesus: “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up and the poor have good news preached to them.”

Surely these are signs of the fulfillment promised by Isaiah, signs of the presence of the promised one of God displayed in Jesus’ ministry. And, in addition, to reassure John about John’s own ministry, Jesus adds that John is indeed the one sent to prepare the way of the Lord. Even more than that, says Jesus, among those born of women there has been, until now, no one greater than John. John can now die--as we know he did, beheaded by Herod--John can now die with those words of blessed comfort and assurance from Jesus himself. John’s memory will be honored and revered for all time to come.

Good news and bad news are often mixed together for us as they were for John—mixed together in such a way that we can’t always sort out exactly which is which. One of my very favorite stories, full of wisdom and humor comes from another culture, from China. It concerns a certain farmer whose only horse broke out and ran off one night. The next day the farmer’s neighbor came over to console him on the bad news. The farmer responded. “Well, who knows what’s bad news, what’s good news. We’ll see.”

The next day the farmer’s horse came back leading half a dozen wild horses, right into the farmer’s corral. So his neighbor came over to congratulate him on his good news. “Well, who knows what’s good news, what’s bad news,” the farmer replied. “We’ll see.”

The next day the farmer’s son, trying to break one of the wild horses, fell off and broke his leg. So over came the neighbor to console him on his bad news. “Well, who knows what’s bad news, what’s good news,” replied the farmer. “We’ll see.”

The next day the army came through, conscripting all young men of fighting age—all except the farmer’s son who had a broken leg!

God moves in mysterious ways. Sometimes we don’t know what is good news and what is bad news. Sometimes one door is closed in order that a better one may be opened. Sometimes it just takes time, sometimes a long time to sort it out.

A few months ago my wife’s sister Jo was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer. Her oncologist didn’t pull any punches. She told Jo that besides preparing for chemotherapy and then surgery, she should put her affairs in order. Pretty direct talk. Like John the Baptist. Get prepared.

About ten days before Jo’s surgery, Jan and I spent a week with her and her husband at their home in Vermont. We read scripture together, we prayed together, we reflected together. At one point I asked Jo what gave her comfort. We had a good, thoughtful conversation as we shared with one another our sources of comfort.

I’d like to ask you that same question right now. What gives you comfort? In good times and in bad, what gives you comfort? [Time here for the congregation to respond.]

Now, what about joy? In the passage we read from Isaiah this morning, there are multiple promises of joy to come. The desert will rejoice and blossom, the dry land will rejoice with joy and singing. The tongues of the speechless will break into joyful song. The exiled people will return to Jerusalem with everlasting joy. Sorrow and sighing will flee away and the redeemed of the Lord will obtain joy and gladness.

In the Christmas story we hear, of course, that the angels announced to the shepherds glad tidings of great joy to all people. Surely it was wonderful news of great joy to Mary and Joseph. Yet there were many down and dark sides of their story as well. It began with the difficult, even fearful circumstances of an unmarried, pregnant teenage girl. People got stoned for such things in those days. Then there was the long, difficult donkey ride to Bethlehem. Then no room in the inn and the birth in a stable. Finally, there was the flight into Egypt because Herod was killing all the Jewish boy babies round about. Great joy, yes, but lots of hard, hard stuff along with it.

I owe it to you before we go further to give you an update on the friends and family I mentioned earlier. Our friend Judy in Massachusetts had surgery and a plate placed in her upper arm. Her second series of chemotherapy has had to be interrupted for several weeks, but her arm is healing well and the pain rapidly diminishing.

Our son-in-law Paul is fine now. After a night and a day in intensive care he was diagnosed with a heart condition that can easily be treated with medication. He was released from the hospital and that very day went back to work.

My sister-in-law Jo had surgery three weeks ago. It went well and what they found was not as bad as expected. She has made an amazingly rapid recovery from the surgery. But she still has stage four cancer.

Plenty of good news, plenty of bad news, in our lives and in the Bible. We were never promised a rose garden. All those sources of comfort and joy that we have lifted up this morning are wonderful gifts of divine blessings for which we give heartfelt thanks . . . while they last … while they last, for they can be snatched away in the blink of an eye. Our lives are inevitably bittersweet.

So what do we do? How do we live with this? The message of Advent is one for every season of life: Be prepared. Be alert. Be ready. Get your stuff together. Sort out your priorities. Put your faith in what truly matters and what truly lasts.

There are so many promises in our reading from Isaiah this morning about water in the desert, springs breaking forth in a parched land, streams flowing through the burning sand. We can identify with that here in Northern New Mexico can’t we? My word, how long has it been since we’ve had any moisture? So what I’ve been doing for the past week or so is deep watering my trees and scrubs. How thirsty they must be! How very thirsty.

Our souls get thirsty too. Our souls need deep watering too. The psalmist declares: “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” (Psalm 42:1-2a) So how do we satisfy our thirsty souls? For me it is being here as often as I can on Sunday mornings to drink again and again from the deep wells of our faith—scripture and song, preaching and prayer. It is also coming on Thursday evenings to join in our meditative prayer songs of Taize. It is the devotions, the scripture and prayer that my wife and I share at home daily. All these help to deep water my soul, to prepare me, I hope, for whatever may come, to see me through times of disappoint and drought and doubt in life. The faithful person, promises the Psalmist, will be like a tree planted by streams of water, bearing fruit, with leaves that do not wither. (Psalm 1:3)

I have always loved a funeral prayer from an older version of our Presbyterian Book of Common Worship. This is my original copy, purchased my first year in college back in 1956. The language sounds a bit archaic now, but these words have been water to my soul for more than half a century:

O God, our Father, from who we come, unto whom we return, and in whom we live and move and have our being: We praise Thee for Thy good gift of life; for its wonder and mystery, its friendships and fellowship. We thank Thee for the ties that bind us one to another. We bless Thee for Thy loving and patient dealings with us, whereby Thou dost ever teach us Thy way; for the meaning that lies hidden [even] in the heart of sorrow, disappointment, and grief; and for Thy guiding hand [all] along the way of our earthly pilgrimage. . . . Help us to walk amid the things of this world with eyes open to the beauty and glory of the eternal; that so, among the . . . manifold changes of this life, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Our joys may come and go. Through faith our comforts may remain somewhat more constant. In the long term, Isaiah promises a time when all sighing and sadness will flee away. We know that time has not yet come, but in faith we hope and believe that it will, an eternity of unending joy and gladness.

Finally, I offer you these words of John Calvin: “My greatest comfort in life is knowing that in life and in death I belong, body and soul, to Christ my Savior.”

So, yes indeed, dear Christian friends: Tidings of both comfort and joy! Amen and amen!

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