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Sermon for December 9, 2018

Texts: Isaiah 35:1-10/Matthew 11:2-11

Title: “Beyond Recognition”


        My dad was a gardener. I can still see him at the kitchen table kitchen table in March, seed catalogue in hand, weighing the merits of the various tomato, bell pepper, and squash varieties being advertised.  Fully two months before the thaw released its grip on the Wisconsin soil, dad had already decided upon the layout of his garden plot.

 Gardeners like my dad become very animated on the subject of gardening, with language reverential in spirit and precise in detail. The poet Mary Oliver provides a window on the gardener’s enthusiasms when she shared these thoughts about a gardener she knew, “Now I see him coming from the house–I see him on his knees, cutting away the diseased, the superfluous, coaxing the new, knowing that the hour of fulfillment is buried in years of patience–yet willing to labor like that on the mortal wheel.”

        Though I do not know if Mary Oliver is herself a gardener, based on her familiarity with the gardener’s toil, I would speculate that she may very well be one. “I see him on his knees, cutting away the diseased, the superfluous, coaxing the new, knowing that the hour of fulfillment is buried in years of patience.”   

        Gardening might be a useful metaphor in describing numerous creative endeavors in which you and I are privileged to engage. Life itself, whether you happen to be talking about gardening or some other creative endeavor, often involves work, figuratively if not literally, on our knees, “cutting away” and “coaxing the new” in a quest to achieve the outcome toward which we are striving.

        If the gardening metaphor works to describe what we do in the quest to fulfill a particular vision, that same metaphor might translate in describing God’s methods in converting his will to reality. We might think of God as the master gardener “cutting away” the old growth and “coaxing the new.”

       The book of Isaiah uses gardening imagery to a great extent. Israel, God’s chosen nation, is depicted as God’s planting, God’s garden. Yet, if God envisioned Israel to be a garden as resplendent as the Garden of Eden, God’s first planting, that was not to be the case. Weeds of disobedience soon sprouted. The gardener (God) was forced to act, for he retained within himself a picture of what that garden could be if it ever reached its potential.

Albeit with some difficult, you and I can picture God “on his knees, cutting away the diseased, the superfluous, coaxing the new.” 

         The attention my dad committed to raising the perfect tomato is nothing compared to what God would do to insure that Israel, his garden, reached its potential. That commitment of God endures to this day as God trains his eye on us, vigilant to insure that each of us has what we need to fulfill our potential. In his commitment to Israel’s survival and prosperity we see modeled God’s commitment to us.

         “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.”  There are many ways God’s ambitions for humanity have been described, but none express as concisely and vividly what God has in mind for creation than that verse I just quoted.  The wilderness will become a garden, but not just any garden, it will be a garden of such magnificence as to humble the most creative imagination. 

         The Garden of Eden described in the book of Genesis was just such a place, an idyllic kingdom where every worthy desire was obtainable. Though humanity forfeited our place in that garden, that perfect place, through the transgression of our ancient ancestors, the gardener never abandoned his commitment to his people. Though it may be the dead of winter when the frozen ground—our sinfulness— mocks any thought of spring, God still has his mind in Eden, the perfectibility of the earth and the people who inhabit it. 

         “The hour of fulfillment is buried in years of patience.”  Fulfillment was thought to be unattainable when Isaiah addressed his fellow sufferers so long ago.  Dispossessed of their dreams of freedom and security, the people lived as shriveled vines deprived of a water source.  But Isaiah stepped up to inform the Israel that the gardener was still on the job.

         Isaiah delivered a simple message to the despairing Israelites: you won’t recognize this place when God gets through with it. Surveying the scene spread before them, you might excuse the people if they didn’t buy what Isaiah was selling.  The future that Isaiah described was, in the eyes of the defeated Jews, beyond recognition.  

         When you get down to it, the vision God maintains for this world is remote from our experience. As the old hymn says, “God works in mysterious ways, his purpose to fulfill.” No mortal can with certitude say that God extended his hand here or withheld it there.  Yet faith urges us on in the belief that somewhere out of our view God is at work, “cutting away the diseased, the superfluous, and coaxing the new.” The scriptures unanimously report that we won’t recognize this place [this world] when God gets through with it. Yet, we want to know when and how God will show his hand. 

         As the eighteenth century concluded that question held special significance for a group of our forefathers. Discontented with their status as vassals of England, these men were fully aware that any attempt to remove themselves from under England’s thumb would subject them to charges of treason.  These American patriots were entering a high stakes game, and they knew it.  Yet in describing the events that led to the American Revolution, author Joseph Ellis tells us that men like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton “emphasized the self-evident character of the principles at stake.” 

Though the English crown would certainly disagree, our forefathers believed they were destined to be free.  Ellis describes the prevailing attitude of those revolutionaries when he writes, “American revolutionaries talked as if they were actors in a historical drama that had already been written by the gods.” That said, the patriots could not point to any concrete evidence to substantiate their confidence that “the gods,” or God was invested in their future. England held all the cards.

       The prophet Isaiah prophesied at a time when Israel’s prospects were equally remote. He stood up and declared to the Jews, “you are not going to recognize this place when God gets through with it.”  What a glorious vision it was.  “The eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; the lame shall leap like a deer; the tongue of the speechless sing for joy, waters shall break forth in the wilderness, burning sand shall become a pool.”

       Our forefathers succeeded beyond their fondest dreams in establishing a republic on this continent. Yet consistent challenges have threatened to derail the project they launched. How closely their experience mirrored the experience of Israel. Though Isaiah laid out a breathtaking vision of the end times, Israel’s experiences in real time continued to undermine her hopes.

Even as the Scriptures assure us that God is working God’s plan with the ardor, events in real time continue to undermine our hopes today. We continue to be plagued by the nemesis of war, continue to be assaulted by poverty, greed and injustice. The resource base that sustains life continues to shrink, even as environmental scientists warn us that life as we know is unsustainable if we don’t take radical measures to address global warming. We, like our ancestors before us, await the day when “sorrow and sighing shall flee away,” but we aren’t banking on it to occur in our lifetimes. 

       Hopelessness and despair threaten as we look to the future, yet God inspires the audacity of hope, hope which Paul Zahl defines as “remembrance projected onto the future.  [Hope] satisfies [he continues] because it is based on an objective past.” 

Isaiah preached from that objective past, assuring the people he addressed that the bondage and the disgrace they suffered was not terminal. God was at work, the master gardener, standing ever vigilant to protect and prosper his planting.

       Advent is the season when hope focuses on the definitive act of God in human history. Continuing with the gardening metaphor, Advent is the time when anticipation builds that the ground will once again unlock its bounty. A precious planting of the master gardener is being prepared revealed to be in all its glory.           

In the days of John the Baptist anticipation built up in real time that God was doing a new thing in the midst of his people. When John the Baptist got word of Jesus, he sent his disciples to our Lord with a question: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  Recall the response.  It’s a good one.  “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, and the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.”        “Hope…satisfies because it is based on an objective past.”  “Am I the one?  Look at the record, the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed.” 

      Had Jesus come to fulfill Isaiah’s prophesy? Israel had Isaiah’s message down cold: “you are not going to recognize this place when God gets through with it.”  They waited for the highway leading to Mount Zion to open up in all its splendor.  And then came Jesus.

      “You are not going to recognize this place when God gets through with it.”  That message became the very message that Jesus proclaimed to the disciples of John as he advised them to open their eyes to the new things God was doing in their midst.

       It takes the eyes of a gardener to see the potential storied up in the frozen ground covered with a foot of snow.  It takes the eyes of the poet to spot the word or phrase that will convert prose into poetry.  Likewise, as we mature in faith we cultivate the ability to see more clearly the signs of God’s reign on earth.

       Much of what God is doing in the world today is hidden from our eyes. We know so little about God’s plans from one day to the next. Yet our faith born and nurtured out of what God has already done, braces our confidence that God is still at work.

       A little more than two thousand years ago by most reckonings, John the Baptist began proclaiming that the Messiah had a name, Jesus. The Jews with whom he shared that message were slow to accept that message for what it was.  The ground was hard. The message didn’t sink in.  It was beyond recognition.  But there were some who saw the longstanding hopes of Israel fulfilled in Jesus, and it is because of them, and their commitment to sharing that news, that we are here today. 

       Just as an objective fact, the crop the gardener harvested last year, sustains the hope of that gardener this year, so the objective past, God’s covenant with Israel his chosen, and God’s new covenant with us in Jesus Christ, sustains and comforts us as we await God’s final revelation, the ultimate fulfillment of God’s plan toward which history has been unalterably moving.

            Rejoice, friends, God leaves nothing to chance. His plans for this world, and for each of us, are moving forward to an abundant harvest, these setbacks and detours we experience along the way cannot, will not, alter what he has decreed. AMEN


       God, our Sovereign, hear our prayers with a patient and forbearing spirit, for we are prone to bring lists of things to fix or correct into your presence, while ignoring our responsibility to thank you for gifts already received.  By the intercession of your Spirit teach us how to pray, even as you form a new attitude for prayer in our hearts. 

O Lord, it is difficult to recognize your hand in the tragedies that play out around us. Evil makes its place with what appears to be impunity. The weak and the marginalized suffer at the hands of dictators whose lust for power knows no limits. In your mercy, Lord, strengthen and sustain those who oppose evil, the courageous women and men who at the risk of losing their lives will not be silenced. 


    Loving Father, as we continue to prepare ourselves for the coming birth of your Son, we are aware that many are making their preparations deprived of the companionship of loved ones. We pray for those who have been widowed or divorced, even as we pray for children who have been victimized as a result of divorce. Abide with those who as a result of illness or other setbacks can find no enthusiasm with which to enjoy the spirit of the season.

       We pray for members of the military, but also members of the foreign service, contractors, and our citizens who work for the many national and international aid agencies that provide essential services to people around the globe. Grant them the assurance that their efforts are valued by their fellow citizens at home.

          The future is in your hands, O God, grant us faith, and brace that faith with courage to trust you even as our Savior the Christ trusted you. Teach us patience, O Lord, when our special plans or ambitions are thwarted, even as you teach us gratitude for the many gifts with which you have endowed us.

Heavenly Father, you are the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. You are the Lord of eternity, the rock upon which the world and each of our lives is founded. We praise you for the gift of life, and the blessings we cherish each day. May your almighty hand continue to guide and strengthen us onto the day when we say you face to face. We pray these things in Christ’s name….