How do promises change our lives…especially God’s promises? These are good questions to consider this Advent.
This is one of those weeks where the preached sermon differed a good bit from what I wrote…so just listen!
Second Sunday in Advent (Year B) – Sunday, December 7, 2014 – Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
“People of Promise” – Pastor Evan Davis
Promises change us. If we can trust them, “they change our expectations about the future,” and thus they change our actions. If a trustworthy, dependable friend offers to give you a ride home, “you don’t make other arrangements – why should you; you’ve got a promise.”1 When my friends promised to come visit me this fall to go to the W&M-JMU game, I cleared my calendar and bought 9 tickets. When Brett said she’d go on a date with me, you better believe I laid out my nicest clothes and made sure I cleaned out my car. Her promise gave me assurance of the experience we were about to have so I felt comfortable investing in that experience – in embracing it and giving it all I had.
Isaiah doesn’t feel so comfortable with the job God wants him to do, the job of preaching to his people. Because he doesn’t trust them! A voice (from God) calls to Isaiah, “cry out!” And he replies, “what shall I cry? All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.” Why should I cry out to these people? They might listen for one minute and forget every word I say the next. They’re worthless. I’d be wasting my time. Their word means nothing.
Isaiah needed a promise, and that’s exactly what God gives him. A voice called back to him, saying “sure, ‘the grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.’” God gets that promise to Isaiah. Sure, God’s people are as faithless and fickle as withered grass and faded flowers, and our efforts are incomplete, imperfect, flawed, temporary, and often self-serving…but God still uses them/us, and the word of our God will still stand forever.
And sure, there are mountains of sin between us and God, but God is leveling mountains right and left. There are chasm-sized valleys of hypocrisy and denial, but God is filling them in. There’s all kinds of rough places in our lives where we don’t believe God, where we can’t believe that God actually loves us this much, that we’re fearfully and wonderfully made, that God has given us gifts and wants to do something with us, but God is smoothing those out. Here’s God’s promise: God will show up. This is a promise you can take to the bank.
It’s like the day I stood with Brett in St. Stephen Lutheran Church, with all our friends and family around us, and she looked into my eyes and told me she would walk with me every day of our lives, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, through sickness and health. I knew at that moment that she would hold my heart for all my days, that I could trust her with every aspect of my life. Talk about a promise that changes your life! It changes things. I’m pretty sure she felt the same way about my promise. But you see, these promises freed us to build a life together, without fear, without second thoughts, because we were totally comfortable and confident our promises would be kept.
The promise changed our lives, but we’re still human beings. We’re still grass that withers, flowers that fade. One day, one of us will die. We knew we signed up for one of us to commend the other to God. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. The word that my beloved will be gathered into the resurrection, that all our love, all we share together, is a foretaste of the kingdom – this is the promise that makes our promises possible.
Don’t worry if your experience isn’t the same as mine. Human promises are so often broken – by envy, betrayal, by the changes that just happen in human life. Marriages don’t always work out. A lot of people, for many reasons, never experience that kind of relationship (and that’s ok). One way or another, everything we do, every relationship in our lives, comes to an end. But nevertheless – God’s word shall stand forever!
Isaiah trusted God and thus found the courage to speak at times hard words confronting Israel with its sin, and sometimes wonderful words of comfort. Moses, like the youth and I saw at the play yesterday, finally trusted the promise that God would deliver his people, so he could go back to his skeptical people, and all the way to Pharaoh’s throne to demand he “let my people go.”
John the Baptist….dared to preach to a people who were like withered grass and faded flowers, yet he did it anyways. He didn’t know what would happen, didn’t know if it would work, starting a new ministry out in the wilderness, baptizing people in the river….speaking the truth to power, attracting the attention of the authorities….risking his life. He dared to prepare the way of the Lord because he had a promise that no matter what happened to him, God’s word shall stand forever.
So guess what? We can have the same comfort Isaiah is announcing to God’s people. We can follow John into preparing the way of the Lord. Because we are free to trust God. We have God’s love no matter what. Therefore we don’t despair. We don’t fall into self-doubt, shame, or guilt, or throw our lives away by trying to escape them through one addiction or another. We can live as if the resurrection is true and Christ is really alive. You can simply be comfortable with who you are, the person God made and loves and equipped and called. You can follow your gifts into the kind of service God wants you to offer in this world. You can take a risk in loving another, in offering him or her your promise. You can treat your life, every day, and everything you do as if it matters deeply – because it does!
Of course, what you do in your life, or what we do together as a congregation, might not work! We are still grass that withers. Some things will go great, but some things we do might fail, but God will be with us, and the promise will still be true, maybe in a way we have not expected. If we fail, perhaps it will be because we need to. Perhaps God will use our failure to push us into something different. Either way, God’s promise is sure. Sometimes one patch of grass, one flower serves its purpose, and it’s time for it to wither and fade, so that new grass and flowers may bloom. After all, we are a people who believe that God works in death and resurrection. We are people of promise.
So we can be bold in trying new ministry as a congregation. We can try new music; we can risk talking about our faith with friends, family, co-workers. They might love the conversation, they might hate it; they might be changed, or maybe we will be. We can risk talking about hard issues like just what happened to Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Darren Wilson, and the role race continues to play in our society, or immigration, or poverty, hearing the best of all perspectives and speaking out for justice and peace for God’s people. We can dive into new ministries – like changes to our building, new experiences in worship, a new service, and we will. That’s just what people of promise do. Amen.