By Pastor Bryan Niebanck

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom

Isaiah 35:1

Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?”  And the angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God. Now indeed, Elizabeth your relative has also conceived a son in her old age; and this is now the sixth month for her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible.”  Then Mary said, “Let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:34-38). 

As the people lived in a world dominated by Roman politics, they dreamed of a Messiah to come and change things up.  They dreamed of one to end the oppression and make things better.  They hoped for something that many believed was an impossible hope.  And Mary too, could not at first see how it was possible for her to be the chosen one to be the vessel of God’s redemption, when she had been with no man.  Yet, the angel’s words, “For with God, nothing shall be impossible,” quiets the doubt.  Mary accepts her call.  And Joseph accepts his also.

“Throughout the Bible, God showed up to deliver His people. He sent messages of hope in the darkest circumstances. When things seemed impossible, He sent deliverance. The annunciation of the birth of Jesus to Mary proclaims that He is with us.

“This holiday season some of us find ourselves in impossible and hopeless situations. If not us, we know someone who is struggling. And while we may not have the solutions ourselves, we can trust that “with God nothing will be impossible.” Will we choose to trust and submit to God, even when we don’t know how it will happen? Will we serve Him even when the situation seems impossible?  Do we trust God regardless of the appearance of our external circumstances? Will we obediently submit to His will for Him to bring hope and deliverance in our lives and those around us? (CBN, 6-Dec-2022).

We began our Advent series with a call to reflect.  How can we live honorably today while we confidently hope for redemption in the future?  We prepare for an unexpected visit by our Savior.  Last week, I called you to surrender more of yourself to God so that God could use you as a vessel for redeeming others.  Mary certainly felt the call to surrender when the angel Gabriel appeared to her.  Joseph surrendered his reputation when he went to be with Mary.  I asked this question: How can we be more accepting, more forgiving, and more encouraging to not only prepare the way for God in our own lives, but prepare the way for God in another’s life?  Today, the call is to awe.  We lit our candle of JOY this morning; joy can cause us to experience awe.  After reflecting on our call, and surrendering to our call, we experience awe of God.  I pray that each of us might experience that today.  Even when we sometimes find ourselves in impossible or hopeless situations, remember that is exactly where Mary found herself.  And she proclaimed, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.  Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.  … He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever” (Luke 1:46-9, 54-5).

The prophet Isaiah foretells similar rejoicing amid seemingly hopeless circumstances: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, and the desert shall rejoice and blossom… Here is your God.  He will come and save you” (Isaiah 35:1, 4).  This is also good news.  In a world where there might seem to be a desert – a desert of destruction and a desert of gloom at times, God can somehow bring hope.

This Christmas is a sad one for many.  For many, it is the first holiday season since they lost a loved one.  It may be the first holiday season since a loved one was taken from them in a devastating act of violence.  This week will mark ten years since the devastating attack on Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, 25 miles from my hometown.  I’ve met students who were at that school on December 14, 2012.  I have counseled them in Boy Scouts.  Some of my friends had friends in Newtown.  This coming year will also be the tenth anniversary of the devasting news within my hometown (April 25, 2013) that someone had asked a girl to prom, and when she said no, he murdered her in the school hallway.  We had a vigil that night for Maren Sanchez at my church.  Most of my friends knew her.  The line at her wake was two and a half hours long.  I waited in it.  I attended the funeral.  What do we do in the desert when we thought we had so many moments to celebrate still to come, and they are taken from us?  What do we do when they come closer and closer to our home?  Sometimes the situation seems hopeless.  Sometimes we ask, “How can I go on?’  We turn to God and ask, “What can I do better?”  A little bit of magic did show up that night, though.  An outdoor funeral at Jonathan Law High School’s football field was filled with strangers and friends alike, all there for the same reason.  It was at the vigil when friends were able to hug and cry together.  God did find a way in.  God shared in the devastation.  God is there to say, “I see why you are hopeless.  Let me show you a way.”

Life is not measured by time.  Life is measured by moments.  We can experience joy in the desert because God is sending a message to us.  God tells us that this is not the only way, and this is not the final end.  The angel told Mary that nothing will be impossible with God.  God has shown up to deliver the people of Israel.  God will show up to deliver the people of the world.  Again, the question is this: Will we serve Him when the situation seems impossible?  Do we trust God regardless of the appearance of our external circumstances?  Will we obediently submit to His will for Him to bring hope and deliverance in our lives and those around us?  Let us do these things.  Let us accept a feeling of hope and a promise of deliverance.  Let us serve God in the face of all evil, and combat evil with good.

If you are feeling blue this Christmas, you are not alone.  Some of us grieve a difficult year.  Some of us grieve anniversaries.  All of us grieve something.  If you are not feeling the love and peace of Christmas this year, there could be a number of reasons.  But do not feel like you need to try to force it.  Remember that Jesus came to save the lost, like you and me.  Jesus came to save those who were not happy, who were not sure where to find hope, and who weren’t sure how long they could go on.  The prophecy of Jesus means that there is someone to listen to us, someone to hear us, and someone to tell us that our thoughts are real.  A visit from God is a caring visit.  It is a helpful visit.  It is hopefully an encouraging visit.

I have a friend from Ashland who is traveling to Kenya to work with Harvest of Hope Ministries, which is run by one of my friends from Ashland Seminary.  They work with the kids and their families and give them reason to hope for something better – better water, better living situations, and a better education.  They literally harvest hope.  And by harvesting hope, they harvest joy too.  The friend who is going to Kenya tomorrow, Monday, had arranged to go volunteer her time for six weeks.  She put a lot of money and time into preparing for the trip.  According to her story, the person who is supposed to help her get to the airport cut her out from dealing with her.  She saw it as a visit of hope, a visit of joy, when she found someone else who could make sure that she gets to where she needs to be to get on that plane.  I seek to harvest hope where I live.  We all seek to harvest hope.  We all serve a God who harvests joy.  Joy is harvested in the babe in the manger, and in each of us as we spread joy to one another, through our words, our actions, and our very lives.  This is why God came to Earth for a visit: to teach us the way of joy even when a lot of things go wrong.  There is always joy, and there is always hope, even in Nazareth (Reference, The Nativity Story¸ movie).  May all glory and honor be to God!  Thanks be to God!  Amen.

Scripture Readings:

Isaiah 35:1-10
35:1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus
35:2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God.
35:3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees.
35:4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”
35:5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
35:6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert;
35:7 the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes.
35:8 A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.
35:9 No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there.
35:10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Luke 1:46b-55
1:46b “My soul magnifies the Lord,
1:47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
1:48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
1:49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
1:50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
1:51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
1:52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
1:53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
1:54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
1:55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Matthew 11:2-11
11:2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples
11:3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”
11:4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see:
11:5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.
11:6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
11:7 As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind?
11:8 What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces.
11:9 What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet.
11:10 This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’
11:11 Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

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