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First Reading = Mark 1:1-8
1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; 3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
This is the second week of Advent, and we are attending to the presence of Jesus. Last week we attended to the presence of Jesus in the world around us. This week we are attending to the presence of Jesus in people.
In our first text, we heard how John the Baptist fulfilled the prophecy we will hear in our next text. There are three different components in our text today. It starts with a voice – a voice crying out. The second component is that the glory of the Lord will be revealed. And the final component is the audience. There are different people who hear this voice crying out. Try to notice the different kinds of people who hear this voice.
Sermon Reading = Isaiah 40:1-11
40Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 6A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
9Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
From Your Past
I’m running two different Monday night groups right now. I have my normal Monday night men’s group, and I’ve added the Younique Primer Course group – those who are investing time to go deeper on discovering their divine design and purpose.
This past Monday, it was my Younique Primer Course group. And one of the participants made a reference to my three strikes rule. If the Holy Spirit tells me the same thing three times, I have to do it even if I think it’s weird or crazy. And five minutes after that mention, someone from my past texted me.
But it wasn’t just anyone texting me. It was one of the people who had received one of my three strikes promptings from the Holy Spirit. And he was texting me to thank me for telling that to him six or seven years ago. So I was texted a thank you for something I said six or seven years ago within five minutes of talking about it in a group. Talk about timing!
In our text today, Isaiah is looking to the past and noticing the continuity between what was and what will be through the presence of God. Isaiah was encouraging the people to see the presence of God in the past while he also pointed to the presence of God in the future. The first way we can attend to the presence of Jesus in other people is by noticing the presence of Jesus in people from our past.
That’s one thing Isaiah was doing for the Israelites in our text today. And in my story, something motivated this man to think about his past and recognize that something I told him long ago had played a key role. And in sharing that observation with me, I was also able to enjoy noticing the presence of Jesus.
So who from your past has been used by Jesus to make a difference in your life? You may not have realized it at the time, but can you notice the presence of Jesus in it now?
Has anyone told you something important – even if you didn’t know it was important then?
Has anyone lived a life that inspired you or affected how you lived yours?
Has anyone served others – or served you – in a way that stuck with you?
Has anyone invested time in you or given you a chance when others wouldn’t?
I could highlight dozens of people who have been used by Jesus to make a positive impact on my life, but I’ll just share one. Bill was probably skeptical when he met me, his new boss. He had about as many years of experience in ministry as I had years on this earth. He had been in ministries outside the church, so he was used to being his own boss. And when he finally joined a church staff, this guy in his twenties in his first role as a pastor was his boss.
And while I am sure that he was skeptical, he never showed it. In fact, Bill and I went on to form a fantastic partnership in ministry. Several of his phrases are still key parts of my thinking about ministry. For example, he always encouraged us to focus on transformation, not information. Another of his phrases was “keep your nose clean.” So many pastors have their ministries destroyed because they succumbed to their temptations. So “keep your nose clean” was a reminder to not place myself in a situation that could be compromising. His wisdom and experience helped shape me as a pastor, and that continues to reverberate today.
Who has been an example of the presence of Jesus in your past?
If you have that kind of person, and if they are still alive, how can you thank them for the role they played? The man who texted me could have just reflected on the impact of what I said years ago. But instead he shared his reflection with me. That was a blessing to me.
So can you thank someone for the role they played in your past? I pulled out my phone to text Bill right after I wrote that section of my sermon. But I didn’t text him. Instead I emailed him back, because he had just sent me an email!
Who has demonstrated the presence of Christ in your past? And if they are still alive, how can you thank them this week?
That’s a way to notice the presence of Jesus in people – people from our past.
Another way to notice the presence of Jesus is in people who are suffering. This prophecy from Isaiah goes to a shattered city. It starts off, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
This prophecy of hope goes out to a city in need of comfort, a city of suffering. The presence of Jesus brings comfort to those in suffering. Maybe you have experienced that in your own suffering. Maybe you have witnessed that comfort in someone else who was suffering. Maybe you’re hoping for that comfort for someone who is suffering.
And I think there are, once again, two ways to approach this. One way is to do what Isaiah said – “comfort, O comfort my people.” One way to see the presence of Jesus in those who are suffering is to comfort them.
That’s pretty much what I heard from those who cooked, cleaned, and delivered meals on Thanksgiving. I heard from some who delivered the meals that they could hear the sounds of cheering after the people thanked them and closed the door. A simple meal for some is a reason to cheer for others.
And thanks to those volunteers and the generosity of this congregation, we were able to deliver 308 meals on Thanksgiving. 308! “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” You can notice the presence of Jesus by comforting those who are suffering.
Another way to notice the presence of Jesus in those who are suffering is to be inspired by their perseverance. Sometimes I am drained and worn out and don’t want to face another weird day in this weird year. OK, that’s pretty much every day at this point.
Sometimes it helps me to think about my pastor friend in Zimbabwe. On top of COVID, he and the people in his church have to face far more challenges than I am facing. Sometimes it restores my strength to think, “If he can persevere, so can I.”
Sometimes it helps me to remind myself of the father who we helped with rent who couldn’t stop himself from weeping with relief. Sometimes it restores my strength to think, “If he can persevere, so can I.”
Sometimes it helps me to think about the conversations I’ve had with people who are long-term care facilities. Many of them crave personal interaction, and that has been largely taken from them this year. Sometimes it restores my strength to think, “If they can persevere, so can I.”
We can notice the presence of Jesus in those who are suffering.
In Our Bubble
Near the end of our text today, Isaiah mentions Jerusalem and the cities of Judah. Time for a little geography lesson. Jerusalem is one of the cities in Judah. So the “cities of Judah” would be the cities near Jerusalem. They would be in the same tribe. Or to use 2020 lingo, they were in the same bubble.
How can you notice the presence of Jesus inside the people who share your bubble right now? I bet you already know how they’re annoying you, but have you stopped to notice how they’re blessing you?
In our household, we have two kids at home plus two parents working. So that means we have to pretty frequently say things like, “Please take your whistle downstairs. Mama’s on a meeting in that room.” Or “Yes, you do have to pick up the hundreds of Lego’s you just dumped out before you can watch a show.” Or, “When has throwing a fit ever gotten you what you want?” Lots of opportunities for behavior management with so much time together in the house, right?
So a couple of weeks ago I realized I had been intervening on behavior almost all day. And I had two reactions to that. First, I realized I was exhausted of it. And second, I remembered one of my own phrases: “Catch someone doing something approximately right instead of always pointing out what they’re doing wrong.” So I have been trying to tell the kids when I appreciate something they’re doing, not just telling them the behaviors we need to change in the moment.
Has someone in your bubble been considerate?
Has someone in your bubble been patient?
Has someone in your bubble done small acts of service?
Has someone in your bubble given you the space you need?
How have the people in your bubble demonstrated the presence of Jesus? And how can you thank them for it?
I think there’s one final way we can notice the presence of Jesus in people. But to get there, we have to think a little bit. Picture someone who’s like a prophet. Maybe you know someone who thrives on conflict. Maybe you know someone who always thinks they’re right. Maybe you know someone who doesn’t pull their verbal punches. Do you have that kind of person in mind?
Prophets were almost always perceived like that. When people saw a prophet like Isaiah coming, they rarely thought, “Hurrah! Here comes Isaiah!” It was more like, “Oh man! Here comes Isaiah! Quick! Hide! Do you think he already saw us?” Prophets say things that are disturbing and annoying, even if they are speaking what God tells them to speak. They might’ve been right, but they were annoyingly right!
So the final category of people to notice the presence of Jesus is people who annoy you. Yes, that’s right: Jesus can be present in people who annoy you.
And I know I’m swimming upstream here. I know personal attacks are in vogue right now. I know we tend to think anyone who disagrees with us must be an awful, terrible person influenced by the devil. But I’m going to try swim upstream on this one.
Because Jesus tells us in Luke 6:28, “bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” So I encourage you – as a spiritual discipline (not because it’s easy) – I encourage you to attend to the presence of Jesus in those who annoy you.
Remind yourself of the ways that person has demonstrated the presence of Jesus. And if you can’t think of anything, keep thinking! Keep praying! Because we heard in our last sermon series that the measure we give to someone else will be the measure we receive. If you want Jesus to round up for you, round up for other people, too.
This is a hard one. I know that. Trust me! I know this is hard. It’s a discipline, not something easy or natural. But it will renew parts of your soul to notice how the people who annoy you also demonstrate the presence of Jesus in some ways. Isaiah annoyed a lot of people, and yet he certainly had the presence of God. And maybe – just maybe – you’re being annoying to someone else and they need to take time to notice the presence of Jesus in you!
Sisters and brothers, Jesus is often most visible and most present through other people. Jesus can be present in people from our past. Jesus can be present in people who are suffering. Jesus can be present in people who are in our bubble. And Jesus can even be present in people who annoy us.
When we take the time to notice the presence of Jesus in other people, and when we take the time to tell them how we notice the presence of Jesus within them, we are more aware of the presence of Jesus around us. How will you attend to the presence of Jesus in people this week? Amen.