Sunday December 15th 2019
Pastor Galen Zook
Isaiah 35:1-10; Matthew 11:2-11
Third Sunday of Advent
It’s not hard to see why the word “Joy” is associated with Christmas. Christmas is a joyous season for many reasons, not least of which is the fact that we get to open presents! Many of us have fond memories of running downstairs on Christmas morning to see the delightfully wrapped packages awaiting us under the tree. And no doubt many of us here this morning are looking forward to Christmas this year with hope and expectation, perhaps to see what presents you will receive, or perhaps because there’s a gift that you are very excited to give to someone else.
For the youngsters here in the room this morning, one of the ways that you can tell you’re getting older (in addition to the fact that you start saying things like “youngster”), is that you find that you are more excited about seeing your younger relatives open their gifts than you are about opening up your own presents.
Whether your family is one of those families where everyone tears into their presents as soon as they wake up on Christmas morning, or whether your family is like my family, where we light some candles and turn on Christmas music and take turns opening up our presents one by one so that we can extend the gift-opening process as long as possible, giving and receiving gifts is indeed a joyous experience.
But the gifts that the prophet Isaiah predicted the Messiah would bring were not presents that could be very easily wrapped up and placed under a tree.
According to Isaiah, at the coming of the Messiah,
The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water…(Is. 35:5-7a)
Imagine finding that under your tree on Christmas morning! But what a beautiful and joy-filled picture. The person who previously could not even walk, not begins leaping like a deer! The one who could not even speak, now sings for joy! And where there had previously been a drought, now there is a stream. And not just a stream, but a pool, and a spring of water gushing forth from the ground.
This is a picture of a joy that cannot be contained. Joy that is from somewhere deep down inside. Joy that is overflowing, bubbling over.
In Isaiah’s prophecy, all of this would take place when God came to save, when the glory of the Lord was revealed, and when all would see and recognize the wonder and majesty of God (see Is. 35:2). And the end result would be that “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away (Is. 35:10b).
In Isaiah’s mind, in order for this to happen, the coming of the Lord’s salvation would also come with God’s “vengeance, and with terrible recompense” (Is. 35:4) — in other words, God’s judgment and wrath — no doubt on the enemies of Israel. For a people who had been downtrodden and oppressed for so long by so many different people groups, this was a much longed-for occurrence, and would be received as a welcome gift.
Was Jesus Really the One?
And yet the actual coming of the Messiah, the birth of the baby Jesus which we celebrate this time of the year, included none of the fire and brimstone, none of the judgment coming down out of the sky, none of the plagues or hailstorms that we might have expected to be associated with God’s rescue and redemption.
Instead, Jesus was born peacefully, quietly, rather unobtrusively. Born in a stable and laid in a manger, the son of a carpenter and a poor young mother, in a humble village, a few miles outside the capital city of Jerusalem. Not much is known about Jesus as a young child, but when he is fully grown and begins his public ministry of teaching and healing, even his cousin John the Baptist begins to wonder if Jesus is really the Promised One after all.
John the Baptist, the prophet who had prepared the way for Jesus’s ministry by preaching in the desert and calling the people to repent — to turn around — and to get ready for the soon-coming kingdom, had landed himself in prison. He’d gone too far, gotten too personal, called out the sin and hypocrisy of the religious and political elite, and now he was awaiting sentencing. But perhaps even more so, he was awaiting the Messiah to come and free him, and not just him but all of the Jewish people. He was waiting for Jesus to overturn the powers that be, the corrupt and wicked forces that kept the people in bondage. John and all of the people were waiting to be rescued and set free.
And so he wonders if Jesus is really the One after all? Is he really the One that the prophets foretold? And if so, where’s the vengeance? Why hasn’t he come with God’s judgment and wrath to overthrow the Roman government and free John and all the people from their yoke of oppression? Why hasn’t Jesus acted more decisively? Where’s the army? Why isn’t he playing the part of the conquering military hero that so many expected? If Jesus was the Messiah, what was he waiting for?
Below the Surface
Jesus sends word back to John, “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” (Matt. 11:4-5).
Through Jesus, the prophetic vision of Isaiah was being fulfilled. Through Christ, Isaiah’s vision was coming to pass. Those who could not walk were being healed. Those who couldn’t speak could now sing. The blind were being given their sight, and lepers were being cleansed, even the dead were being raised! And, Jesus says, the “poor have good news brought to them.”
But what John couldn’t see was that something deep and profound was occurring beneath the surface — something that would eventually spring forth into new life and rivers of living water. Jesus was freeing people not only from their physical blindness, but even more-so from their spiritual blindness. Jesus was raising people not just to physical life, but to eternal life. Jesus was freeing people, not from their bondage to the Roman government, but from their bondage to Sin, and the strongholds of violence and greed and deceit that pervade every society in every time and in every place.
You see, Jesus had not come just to free the Israelites from the yoke of oppression they were currently living under — if that were the case then it would have made sense for him to come with an army.
Instead, Jesus was ushering in the Kingdom of God — a Kingdom that would eventually be made up of people from every nation, language, and ethnicity. This Kingdom vision was much larger and all-encompassing that one group of people being saved or rescued from their enemies. Instead, the Good News of the Kingdom is available to all people — in all times and places — who turn to him for the forgiveness of their sins — oppressed and oppressor alike. This is indeed Good news. This should indeed result in everlasting joy.
And yet, the joy that we have in Jesus is not yet complete. We are still waiting for the ultimate fulfillment of these promises, still waiting for the time when Jesus will return, when we will go to be with Jesus forever, where “everlasting joy shall be upon [our] heads…and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Is. 35:10).
In the meantime, we still have sorrows, and we still have struggles. We still experience pain, and loss and suffering. We still experience hardship. And like John the Baptist, often we wonder why Jesus doesn’t just come and take it all away? And this leads many to wonder if Jesus is indeed the One, or should we wait for another?
Jesus — Bringer of True and Everlasting Joy
And yet, if you’ve ever experienced Jesus’s work in your life, if you’ve ever experienced his grace and salvation wash over you like a flood, if you’ve ever been healed or forgiven, if you’ve ever had your spiritual sight restored, then you know that Jesus is the one this world is waiting for. You know that true joy, and hope, and peace can be found in none other than him.
Although we await the ultimate fulfillment, although we await the time when sickness and death and poverty will finally be brought to an end, even here and now we can experience the true and lasting joy that only Jesus can bring.
The joy that Jesus brings is a joy that is not based on our outward circumstances. It is not based on how much money we have, or how many presents are waiting for us under the tree on Christmas morning. It is a deep and inner joy. A joy that lasts even in the midst of sorrow and mourning. A joy and a peace “which surpasses all understanding” (Phil. 4:7).
And so this Advent and Christmas season, let us pause to reflect on the Gift that we have already been given. Sometime between now and Christmas morning, I encourage you to take a few minutes to think about where you’ve come from, how far Jesus has brought you. How has Jesus rescued you, or what has he kept you from? How has he given you new eyes to see? How is your life different because of the work that God has done in your life?
If you’ve never written out your testimony (story), maybe you could take some time to do that this Advent season? Or if you’ve never told your family members, children or grandchildren, maybe take some time before or after the presents are unwrapped to remind them of why the birth of Jesus is something to be celebrated.
Many families have a tradition of reading the Christmas story together on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning. But perhaps this Christmas you could also share a sentence or two about what the birth of Christ means to you? In the midst of the sorrows and sufferings of this life, in the midst of all the reasons to doubt, we need the encouragement of one another to have faith and believe. (If even John the Baptist had doubts, then we are in good company if we have them too!)
And so this morning, let us come before the Lord with all of our doubts, with all of our sorrows and sighing. Let’s remember what Jesus has done for us, and let’s kneel before him and worship him, because he is worthy to be praised.
Let us focus our attention first and foremost on Jesus. Let our primary focus not be on presents, or on the lights or trees, or on the buying or receiving gifts. Those things are great reminders of the true Gift that we have received in Christ! But let’s ultimately find our true joy and delight in the One who gave himself for us. The One who saved us and redeemed us. The One who is constantly present with us — no matter what we might be going through. Let us look to Jesus for our peace, our hope, and our joy. Jesus truly is the best gift we could ever receive. Let us worship him, and give him the adoration and the praise that he is due!
O come let us adore Him, O come let us adore him, O come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!