Love Is on the Way
Advent II; December 10, 2017
I've been wondering – and I'm not asking you to raise your hands – how many of us really expect Jesus to come again. Around here there have been more prayers for the second coming of Scott Frost.
The New Testament is drenched with the assurance that Christ will return. And we Christians read Isaiah 40 with eyes that not only look back at Jesus' birth in Bethlehem but that also look ahead to Christ's coming in glory at the end of time. But after 2,000 years of waiting, I wonder how many Christians really expect Christ to come again or even want him to come again.
When the prophet says to prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness, he thought he was talking about the wilderness stretching from Babylon to Jerusalem. Prepare the way of the Lord so the people of the Lord could return to their homeland. And when John the Baptist was quoted this prophecy and applied it to himself, he thought the wilderness was the land around the Jordan River, where he was getting people ready for the coming of the Messiah. Where is the wilderness now? If we really believe that Christ is coming again – or at least hope that he will – what wilderness needs to be prepared for his coming?
I had the folks turn to one another and talk about it for a few minutes, then solicited some responses. They included: people on fringes of society, one's own heart, our culture, technology, the Internet, wherever there is despair, social media, circumstances, home, everywhere, politics, high schools.
The word "Advent" means "coming." It is the season of expectation, the season of preparing for Christ to come. It was not originally a time of preparing for Christmas; Advent was part of the Christian calendar long before Christmas was. Originally Advent was a season before Epiphany, which is the celebration of God's appearing to the world in Jesus Christ. When Christmas was added to the calendar in about the sixth century, then Advent became a season before Christmas. But it has always had a feature that I find particularly intriguing: it is the one season of the year that looks both backward and forward. It is the beginning of the year and the end of the year. As the beginning of the year, it looks back to God's preparation of the world for Jesus to come, born in Bethlehem. As the end of the year, it looks ahead to Christ's coming in glory.
The hymn we will sing after the sermon is one of my two favorite songs for Advent; we will sing the other one next Sunday. We have sung "People, Look East" every Advent since I've been with you and Sharon (our organist) played the tune for you last Sunday, so it should feel familiar by now. Anyway, Eleanor Farjeon, the poet, did a brilliant job of looking both backward and forward by calling upon the whole creation to prepare for Christ's coming. In verse 2, the earth in winter is prepared for Christ, which gets us thinking about our Christmas celebration at the beginning of winter but also gets us thinking about the planting of seeds and the expectation of the coming Spring. And all the other verses, calling upon birds and stars and angels both make us think about the feast of Christmas and looking ahead for Christ to come: Love, the Guest/Rose/Bird/Star/Lord, is on the way.
And verse one, "People, look east, the time is near…" calls upon us to put our house in order for the Guest to come. It says to look east because our tradition is that Christ will appear in the east, and so Christian churches were traditionally built so that the people would face east during worship. Every time we gathered for worship we expected the Lord to come to us. And the hymn tells us to "Make your house fair as you are able; trim the hearth and set the table." Kathleen and I have started the decorating for Christmas, something we do in bits throughout Advent in both of our homes: Clarinda and Omaha. And we finish with the tree on Christmas Eve. Weeks ago I started the preparations for Christmas dinner. But it doesn't take much imagination to know that the poet isn't talking only about preparing to celebrate Christmas. Put your house in order for the Guest to come; what all do you and I need to do?
What wilderness needs to be prepared for the way of the Lord? What do you and I need to do to get our house in order? Our society is certainly a wilderness and seems more so every day; for years I have feared that civilization has practically disappeared from the United States. Our own homes and families and workplaces can be wildernesses needing preparation for the coming of the Lord. As the climate changes and species disappear, I wonder what the Lord will say to us as stewards of the earth when He comes, if we do not get our house in order. And I know I still have a lot of work to do on my own heart and mind to be ready to receive Christ when he comes. The wilderness runs right through my heart.
The prophet's first word is "Comfort" and the last words of this prophecy are words of encouragement, so that's the note to finish on. Whenever we worship fully – when our service includes all the elements it is supposed to have – then we experience everything God promises us in this prophecy. We receive comfort when we confess our sins and are reminded that we are forgiven. The command is to "cry out" and we cry out in prayer and in song. God's servant offers the word of our God, which will stand forever, in Scripture and in preaching. And God feeds the holy flock like a shepherd with the body and blood of Christ at the Holy Table. The prophet promises it and when we gather around Word and Sacrament God delivers on that promise.
That's enough to get us to lift our heads and look east. Love, the Guest, the Rose, the Bird, the Star, the Lord, is on the way.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
 New head football coach for the University of Nebraska – Lincoln.
 "People, Look East" by Eleanor Farjeon; it is sung to the tune Besançon, a French folk song. Number 105 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (2013).
 "Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending" by Charles Wesley, sung to the tune Helmsley by Thomas Olivers. Number 348 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (2013).