Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 10 December 2023.
• First Reading: Isaiah 40: 1-11 (Comfort My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem … her hard service has been completed. In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord)
• Epistle: 2 Peter 3: 8-15 (The Day of the Lord will come as a thief. Live godly and holy lives. Make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with Him)
• Gospel: Mark 1: 1-8 (John the Baptist: Message of repentance for the forgiveness of sins)
We all look forward to things. Our Christmas celebrations, especially when we expect to meet members of the family, not seen for many months. Then there is the planning for the summer holidays, for retirement or the projects to be started, in the New Year or after the summer.
There is that sense of anticipation, the planning and preparations. Even when we start wondering how to deal with unexpected problems.
This can certainly liven up our thinking during the long, dark months.
And this sense of looking forward is also there in our lessons today.
In Isaiah, the people are being told to reassure the Israelites that despite all their misadventures and failures, God has not turned away from them. He has not abandoned His plans and promises. They are still precious in His sight, even – perhaps especially when the rest of the world despises them and expects them to surrender their own hopes and future so that it can lie a little easier in its rest and self-righteousness.
Today is no exception, when they demand a ceasefire in Gaza but not the return of the hostages or the surrender to justice of those who planned and carried out the recent marauding massacres.
And yet Isaiah says, ‘Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed.’
God has not turned aside – not from Israel and not from those who believe and trust in Him whom God has sent. God still looks to those who trust in Him, above and before their own devices and strategies for meeting their wants and needs.
And when ages pass and technologies wither, when generations are gone from the earth, when arts and cultures sink into the mires from which they emerged, the Word and will, the purposes and the Logos of God still stand.
And so we proclaim that despite all the changes and chances of life, the Lord is still God and He looks for our best interests, which exceed by far the fertile, and even fevered imaginations of our own minds.
In Mark’s gospel the starting point is the ministry of John the Baptist.
Again, he is looking forward to One who is to come. Whatever John had to say or do, this One would be greater. His words would vindicate those of John, and without them John’s ministry would sink into the mists of time.
And the One to come would act out far more fully the words that He was proclaiming. John might proclaim the judgment to come and offer a baptism to show a personal repentance within the scope and spirit of the Law of Moses.
But Jesus would take authority in the Temple and Synagogue, He would preach with authority and would demonstrate that authority in healing the sick, cleansing lepers, stilling storms, feeding the masses and bringing personal forgiveness and release to those burdened by sin and sorrow and regret.
So yes, John was definitely looking forward to One for who John’s own ministry was but a tepid foretaste.
But then there is Peter.
He who had followed, first John and then having resumed his life as a fisherman, who followed Jesus’ personal call as well.
Peter who would speak up when others would cringe, or just keep quiet. Who could sail a boat, catch fish, maintain a business and yet who could still misunderstand his own Lord.
Peter, who had been a witness to the resurrection of Jesus but had to be reinstated among the leading disciples having denied Jesus three times.
And now Peter is also waiting expectantly. Not so much wondering what was going to happen next. More, whose own act of waiting was now an act of worship, as he led the church.
Not too much of an intellectual, but he knew what he had seen and heard in Jesus.
Yes, he was waiting for the Day of the Lord when Israel and the church in Israel would be vindicated.
But even this waiting was not an exercise in idleness and futility. It was more the opportunity to live closer to the Lord. The Day of the Lord would come when least expected, but come it would.
Meanwhile, live godly and holy lives. Turn away from the blemishes, heal the broken relationships, make good on the promises offered.
Take a stand on the things of faith which define who and what we are, and do not give way to discouragement or cynicism.
For the Lord is still at hand, and He comes: either when we are least expecting it, or in the fulfilment of our expectations, as we look to Him day by day.
For the promises of the Lord are not given cheaply or as afterthoughts. They are given so that we may trust in them – and as we look forward to their fulfilment.