Have you been at a point in your life when you’ve said, “This just doesn’t make any sense!” Or maybe you’ve asked the question, “Why has God allowed this to happen?” There is a mystery surrounding certain events that happen in our personal lives or in the lives of others that defy explanation and so we ask the question, “Why?”
Let’s take some examples. We have seen on our news the riots in Hong Kong, the shootings in the USA and the violent crimes closer to home where people are intent on doing harm to other people.
There are those occasions where it seems that people are at the wrong place at the wrong time and fall victim to some crazy person who knocks them down and either kills them or causes serious harm.
There are some who have no regard for human life – a child can be sold into slavery or the sex industry like a piece of merchandise. We could ask the question, “Why? Why has humanity become so brutal, cold-hearted and unfeeling?”
What does God think of us humans as we treat one another with such cold disrespect? We pray for those involved in conflict, for those who are maimed, grieving, fearful, homeless but the pain continues, and the cruelty goes on.
The mystery of human suffering touches us when we least expect it. With the children off their hands, Pete and his wife Susan were both beginning to enjoy life together; they were planning an overseas trip. Pete burst out, “Why, why is this happening now?” Susan had terminal cancer with only months to live. “I’ve prayed and prayed and prayed for healing or even for just more time”, Pete said, “but I don’t even know if God heard me.”
When we are tired, worn down, worried sick, confused about what to do next, restless and anxious and helpless because we don’t know why events have turned out the way they have or what is around the corner that will knock us for a six again, we pray if we can, but nothing gets any clearer. We find ourselves in the company of the psalm writer who says, My God, … why are you so far away?... I cry out day and night, but you don't answer (Psalm 22:1-2).
In Luke 7:18-23, we hear that John the Baptist is in prison and he’s beginning to wonder why hasn’t Jesus acted more like the Messiah he thought Jesus would be – the Messiah who would sift the grain from the chaff sorting out the righteous from the evil; the Messiah who will shake things up as the old passes away and he brings in a new age.
But all John sees is a man holding babies, eating with sinners and embracing the outcasts including prostitutes and cheats, forgiving those with no morals. John’s confused. He’s wondering, “What is God really up to? What am I to make of Jesus? Have I made a mistake?”
John has the shadow of the darker side of humanity hanging over him as he sits in Herod’s dungeon. He wants a simple clear answer to his simple question. “Jesus, are you really the Messiah?”
Like John in jail, the people of God in Isaiah’s time are captive in Babylon. They are confused and have questions about God as well. They are so far from their God-given land, and they believed, far from God himself. They are losing hope and they question – does their God love them anymore? Has he given up on them? Will God ever show mercy and restore his people to his embrace? “Are you really our God?” they asked. Questions, questions, questions.
Then comes Isaiah 35 – a chapter of hope. All is not lost. God has not given up on his people. The desert will rejoice and burst into a blanket of colourful flowers. The thirsty ground will become happy bubbling streams and lakes. The blind, the deaf, the lame and the mute will be healed and to quote Isaiah “everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10).
“Cheer up!” God is saying. “I have come to rescue you. I will lead you back home singing and celebrating and shouting because your sorrows have come to an end”.
God is stepping in and changing things for those who are at their wits end. The message goes on, “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. … He will come and save you. (Isaiah 35:3-4)”
A few chapters later Isaiah reminds his overwhelmed and troubled people, Israel, why then do you complain that the Lord doesn't know your troubles or care if you suffer injustice? Don't you know? Haven't you heard? The Lord is the everlasting God; he created all the world. He never grows tired or weary. No one understands his thoughts. He strengthens those who are weak and tired.… But those who trust in the Lord for help will find their strength renewed.” (Isaiah 40:27-31 GNB).
Isaiah then records God's promise, “Don't be afraid, for I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (Isaiah 41:10 NRSV).
The Third Sunday of Advent has been traditionally known as Gaudete which means Rejoice. The ancient reading from Isaiah is preparing us for the coming joy that will be celebrated in a couple of weeks.
God spoke through the prophet and told his people not to be afraid and discouraged – he was with them. God has spoken even louder to us, as he did to John the Baptist, through his Son, Jesus.
Jesus Christ, God's Son entered our history and became a man so that we might know how much God loves us and how well he understands our human situation. Since then, it is no longer possible for anyone to say that God is remote or far off or silent.
Since then, it is no longer possible for anyone to say that God doesn't care. Yes, people can say that God is irrelevant and unnecessary for their lives but that doesn’t change the fact that God is as close to them as their next breath.
Some say that Jesus doesn’t have anything to offer the 21st century person but that doesn’t change the reality that he will strengthen the weak hands and make firm the weak knees; bring good news to the poor, heal the broken-hearted, give to those who mourn … joy and gladness instead of grief, a song of praise instead of sorrow (Isaiah 61:1).
In Jesus, we see that our caring God understands our needs very intimately. He knows that we need hope – something more enduring is beyond the passing moments of this life that are filled with trouble and sickness and death. He knows we need true peace in our lives – forgiveness, reconciliation, renewal – and the comforting assurance of his presence even in the darkest times.
In Jesus, we see God’s love. His love for us is beyond any superlative that we can find. The promise of God himself is clear and reliable, “Don't be afraid, for I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will help you. I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (Isaiah 41:10).
It’s true we don’t understand everything that happens in our lives and like John the Baptist we end up very confused with so many questions but this one thing we do understand – we can trust the Lord who says, “Be strong and don't be afraid! ... I will help you!” Even in the worst and most confusing situations this is our strength and our comfort. As Isaiah says, “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak” (Isaiah 40:29).
And so today through the prophet Isaiah we are called to “Cheer up! Rejoice!” We are about to celebrate again the joy that is ours despite what life in this world dishes up – God came to earth in the One whose name is Immanuel which means God is with us.
This joy of Christmas is an all year joy. It’s not just about happiness that is flushed away with the first bit of sadness or stress. It’s the joy that arises in us from the hope and peace and love that comes from knowing that Jesus is right here beside us even when the sky is falling; when our earthly life is threatened with danger and sickness or is drawing to an end; when we don’t know how we will be able to cope emotionally and spiritually; he strengthens our weak hands and makes firm our weak knees when we are the weakest physically, emotionally or spiritually.
Let me go back to John the Baptist in his prison cell. The Gospel writer in his typical fashion doesn’t tell us the ending of the story. He doesn’t tell us what happened as John listened to the report of the messengers who told him how they had seen the sick being healed, the dead being raised to life, the sinner forgiven, the outcast embraced and the joy of those who felt Jesus’ love.
Typically, the writer does this deliberately and gets us to fill in the missing ending. For me, I can imagine a broad smile appearing on John’s whiskered face as he heard the words of the prophet Isaiah being fulfilled and felt his trembling hands being strengthened and his shaky knees made strong in his moment of deep human need in that prison cell.
But more than that. The Gospel writer has used the unfinished story to get us to reflect on how trusting Jesus strengthens our trembling hands and makes strong our shaky knees when we are downhearted, and everything seems hopeless. He causes us to reflect and ask,
How has the joy of knowing Jesus’ love changed me? How has it changed the way I trust Jesus even when I don’t understand? Have I been the presence of Jesus to others and strengthened trembling hands and made strong shaky knees?
Here is the text again this time from another translation. “Here is a message for all
who are weak, trembling, and worried: "Cheer up! Don't be afraid. Your God is coming.” (Isaiah 35:3 CEV)
Jesus is the joy that overcomes everything.
Wake Up to Advent! - John Sentamu
Pastor Vince Gerhardy Blog
Advent for Everyone: A Journey With the Apostles - N.T. Wright
Rejoice!: Advent in All the Scriptures - Christopher J. H. Wright and John Stott