Preparing for the celebration

Scriptures: Isaiah 40:1-11;Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15

Preparing for the celebration. We didn’t read from the Gospel passage where John the Baptist is giving his message, where he quotes Isaiah 40, and he talks about the passage, starting in verse 3 where it says “the voice of one calling in the desert, prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.”

During that time when Christ came the first time and was born, it was a time of waiting and excitement for the Jews. Four hundred years they had been waiting, from the time of the last prophet to the time of Jesus’ coming. Four hundred years they had been suffering oppression and pain and limiting their country, nationally, spiritually, and in many other ways.

Four hundred years they felt like they had been paying for the sins of their fathers, waiting for the release that would come with the Messiah. It was a time of great anticipation, and they were expecting to have a time of great joy and celebration.

For in the words of Isaiah, and in the words of the psalmist, we see and hear that when the Lord’s day comes and the Lord comes again, he doesn’t just bring salvation, but He will bring good things to His people.

Good things to His people. It will be a time of celebration. Even in the reading from 2 Peter, he notes that, while everything will be destroyed – and that really doesn’t sound like much of a celebration. I mean, the heavens destroyed by fire, and all the elements will melt and the earth is destroyed. That sounds kind of like an apocalypse.

But – there’s a “but” – after that, there’s a new creation, a new heavens and a new earth. And in that new heavens and new earth, there will be celebration, and the righteous shall live there forever. So when we go through Advent, and we prepare ourselves for the Second Coming of Christ, as they were suggesting in the epistle from Peter, and as we remember the first coming of Christ and the salvation that he brought, it is to be preparation for celebration.

How do we prepare for that? Well, I suppose we could do the “Twas the Night Before Christmas” route.

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house
Not one thing was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care.

And so forth. We decorate the trees – and we have a gorgeous tree here. But there’s a suggestion that there might be something else that we need to do, to prepare for the celebration.

Isaiah speaks to Israel as he says, “The voice of one calling in the desert, prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. For every valley shall be raised up, every mountain made low. The rough ground shall become level and the rugged places a plain.” John says the same thing to the people listening to him.

They understood that while Isaiah was speaking to the nation of Israel at the time, that John was speaking to each one of them. Because they ask him, later on, “What shall we do?” And he goes on to give them individual pieces of advice.

So let’s look at what this admonishment is. Let’s look at what this preparation needs to be. And let me suggest to you that the first thing that we see is that it needs to be a time of everything being turned upside down.

I mean, think about it. The valley shall be raised up, the mountain and hill made low. The rough ground becomes level and the rugged places a plain. It’s a time where everything gets overturned. Now that’s not a comforting thing to hear, perhaps.

The closest I can come to it in terms of general practice would be spring cleaning, when everything usually does get kind of overturned and upset, and you do a general housecleaning, and discover all these things that you’ve been storing and sometimes wondering why you’ve been storing them. Then we usually have the garage sales.

They even offer, at least in Muscatine, special days – they have a Spring Cleaning Pickup Day, where they don’t charge you for all the bigger items. You know, normally if you put out a mattress or an oven, or more than two trash cans of stuff, they start charging you for all the extra. But on Spring Cleaning Pickup Day, it’s not a problem. They’ll pick up anything and everything, and you’d be amazed at some of the stuff that’s put out there. Or maybe you wouldn’t be amazed.

So that’s one way that we can look at that. But there’s another way that we can look at it, as well. Isaiah was calling for it, to the people as a whole. John was calling for it in each person’s individual life. And that is a revival. A revival of the people of God in your hearts and your minds.

Now, revival is one of those words that’s kind of slippery, depending on your denomination. You see a revival being offered with Methodists and their tent meetings and stuff like that, and it has a call to sinners and all that. You see revival in a Pentecostal setting, with the Assembly of God, and you might see people being “slain in the Spirit” and things like that.

And then you see revival in the Presbyterians, and – wait a minute, do you see revival in the Presbyterian church? [Laughter] Actually, we do. Jonathan Edwards was one of the greatest preachers of the First Great Awakening, and he happened to have been a Presbyterian.

The revival that can occur can be of a couple different natures. The call that was there, the call that John placed, and the call that most people that are more of the Baptist persuasion and things, is a call for people to come back to God, who have walked away.

You need to turn over your life. Reset all of your parameters. You need to turn everything off and then turn it back on. A hard reboot, to use computer terminology, if you will. I experienced that myself in my own life.

I tell people I was converted at fifteen but I was discipled at twenty-five in my faith walk. That’s because I had gotten my Master’s degree in molecular biology, I had gotten a job – I knew that I had the job before I defended my thesis. Three weeks after I successfully defended it, I walked across the threshold to my lab.

I had given for the first time to the United Way campaign, the first time I had ever given to charity. There at Johnson & Johnson they always had a raffle to encourage people to give to the United Way. And I won the grand prize.

I hadn’t been there six weeks. And it was an all-expenses-paid trip for two to the Bahamas for two days and three nights, and it became my honeymoon. God is good – all the time! But I didn’t know her at that point in time.

So I had all this stuff going for me. And it was a rainy day, and as I was driving home – and if you’ve ever been in Pennsylvania, on their roads, they have these combination merge and exit lanes, and it can be a nightmare in heavy traffic.

So it was raining, and I was trying to get on an exit ramp on my way home, and I hydroplaned. I came literally within inches of hitting the concrete barrier because I was trying to turn sharply because someone else was coming on and they weren’t about to let me get in to get off. You know how it goes when you’re on the road.

As I got control of the car again and I got down to the bottom of the ramp and I pulled over to the side to shake for a moment, I realized that I wasn’t shaking. And that I really didn’t care if I had hit it or not. Everything good in the world going on at that moment, and I didn’t care.

Now, I had walked away from God while I was in college. I had had some bad things happen. While I was at church every Sunday because I was paid to be, as a stipended soloist, it was a job. It wasn’t where I went to be fed or nurtured.

I realized in that moment, as I sat there in my car in the rain, that there was a hole in my life, a hole that had once been filled, a hole that needed to be filled again, a hole where God belonged. At that point in time I rededicated myself to Christ. I began to understand what it means to be seriously a disciple.

I began going to church – and it was a Presbyterian church. They had a great music program. They did not have a singles group, though, which is why I ended up going to a Baptist church for that, and that’s where I met my wife, and corrupted her into becoming a Presbyterian. But I had had a moment of revival.

Everything had to be turned on its head. Everything that was seen as good by the world was seen finally by me as not enough. And I needed to seek after the things that the world thinks are unimportant. The things that the world seems to dismiss, and even mock. The thing that ultimately led me into ministry – though that took still a few more years of God working on me, because I’m nothing if not stubborn.

So for you, perhaps, if you’ve walked away from God, then this is a call for that kind of revival. That kind of change in your life and your heart, as you set aside the things of this world that have consumed you and taken up your attention and your primary place, and put God back where He belongs.

So that the mountains are made low, and the valleys are lifted up, and the rough places are made smooth. Not in terms of our life, because that doesn’t mean that trials won’t occur. But in terms of our relationship with God, as the way has been made smooth and we can open ourselves up to His Spirit, and the joy of His presence in our lives.

Now for others, this upheaval and overturning might be more along the lines of you’ve been coming to church for years and years, and it’s just something that you do. You may even read your morning devotions, but you notice that they’re just kind of flat. You’re not getting out of them the stuff that you used to get out of them. Your prayer life is kind of halting.

You keep trying to start it up again, and somehow it dwindles away after a few days. You’re just struggling, because it seems like you’re in what we call “in a rut.” Maybe it’s just a dry time for you, and everybody goes through those dry times. But maybe, just maybe, it’s a warning that you need to experience revival in your own life.

And that sense of revival, that new experience of God, may not involve setting aside everything that was important, because you’ve had all the right things in all the right places. But rather a rekindling of the joy that you can experience in Jesus Christ.

Maybe what you need to do is spend the time to think back. Maybe for you it was camp. A lot of people come to know Christ in camp. Or maybe it was a time in your youth or after you were first married. Some point in time where you just knew that God was with you and you experienced His presence with you on a daily basis, and you were excited. (I know that’s hard for Presbyterians to hear.)

Excited about God and His love and care for you. So excited that maybe you even wanted to share it with other people. Certainly excited enough that it touched you in your heart and gave you a glow, if you will, a sense of presence, because you knew that you weren’t alone.

Maybe today you need to experience that kind of revival in your life. Well, let me tell you, there’s no better time than Advent to experience that revival. There certainly is no better time, Scripturally, as we point to the Second Coming, as we remember the first coming and the salvation that Christ brought us, in his willingness to suffer and die for us and his being raised again.

There’s no better time to begin to do what Isaiah called us to do, as the valleys are raised up in your life, and the hills are made low, and the rough places plain in your walk with God.

And as you do that, and you focus on that time of joy and you remember it, and you try to experience it again, from an even more mature perspective, then I promise you that joy will only be deeper than it ever was before. Until it comes to the point where it can’t be taken away from you. And no matter what your circumstance, you’ll know God is with you.

For wasn’t that what Christ was all about when he came, that first time? Immanuel, God with us. May you experience God with you, this Advent season, and know the joy of preparing for the celebration to come.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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