“That Will Preach.”
Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8
December 4, 2011
First Christian Church
It been interesting to walk around the church office these days. It’s kind of become a bit of a museum. As we get ready for the upcoming move to SpringHouse Ministry Center, old newsletters and church bulletins are being taken out of the archives room and getting scanned onto a hard drive. Space is going to a bit tight in our new home, so now is the time to get rid of or economize our stuff. It’s been fascinating to look at the newsletters and bulletins from the 1950s, 60s and 70s and to see what things were like here at First during that time.
It’s hard for me to come into the office and not look at these documents from our past. There’s something about recent history that I find fasinating. There’s a store in Stillwater that has old car ads dating from the 1920s and onward. I could sit for hours and just look at these old advertisements. I really like reading more recent ads because it kindles a sense of nostalgia, a longing for how things used to be.
These old bulletins can also kindle a sense of nostalgia. When you read these documents, you get a glimpse to the days when this sanctuary was full at two services. I remember reading somewhere that the Sunday School kids classes had hundreds of kids. Yes, I said hundreds.
It’s after reading all this that you noticed how the feeling of nostalgia slides a bit into despair and sadness. The thing that keeps running through my head is what happened to all those people? Why are we not growing now? Is there any hope for us now?
In a little over a month, we will have our last worship service here and we will probably get into a bus and start worshipping in our new space. There’s a lot of anticipation among us, but I also know there is probably some sense of sadness in there as well. We are headed to into a new way of being church. I know there is excitement in the opportunities to work together with Salem Lutheran and Lyndale UCC. But we can’t pretend that there is a sense of loss. The reason we are leaving this location is for a pretty simple reason: we had become too small to maintain this building. When we moved into this building in 1955, First was a large congregation. We aren’t that anymore. And while we can say all these great things about downsizing, we can’t really deny feeling as if we are losers.
And we are also anxious about the future. We wonder if we’ll grow in our new location. We wonder if we can make it with a reduced budget, reduced staff and reduced membership. Some of you have heard the news that First Christian Church in Mankato is closing at the end of this year after 143 years of ministry. In an email we learn that the church had shrunk to the point that they couldn’t maintain a viable ministry. We wonder if that’s going to be our fate 10 or 15 years down the road.
We live in anxious times. We aren’t the only church dealing with the issues associated with decline. Add to that are people dealing with lost jobs and uncertain futures. We can’t really say that these are the good days. In many ways, it seems like those good days are far behind us.
The passage today from Isaiah is one of the most familiar passages in the Bible. You may have not heard anyone read this passage, but you might have heard it in song. Part of Handel’s Messiah includes phrasing from Isaiah 40 and we also get the hymn “Comfort, Comfort You My People.” This passage is one of hope in the midst of despair. This part of the book of Isaiah was written at a time when most of the Israelites were off in capitvity in Babylon. Their homeland had been destroyed by foreign armies years before and they were carted off to a strange land to serve their new conquerors. These were not good times for the Israelites.
And then out of nowhere comes this un-named prophet who says that God is going to bring comfort to God’s people. God was no longer angry at the Israelites for their wandering ways, going after other gods. The prophet shouts that God is coming and we are to get ready. Mountains will be made plain; valleys will be filled up and we are tell the whole world that God is here.
The whole point of this passage is that God has not forgotten God’s people even though they had forgotten God. Actually, they realize that God has been there all the time.
I’ve always considered the Gospel of Mark as the oddball gospel because it begins and ends so aburptly. We start with this guy named John who lives in the desert eating bugs and wearing uncomfortable clothing. He tells people that the promised One is coming and calls on folks to be baptized a sign of the renewal taking place in their hearts. He uses Isaiah 40 to say that Jesus is coming, so get ready. And the odd thing is that people take John’s word seriously. They pour out of the cities into the middle of nowhere to be baptized. In a time when Israel is again under foreign control-this time the Romans- and the religious leadership is somewhat corrupt and in some cases fratenizing with the Roman government, the people found hope in John’s message. God had not left them- in fact, hope was on the way.
Advent is a time of expectation and waiting. But it is also a time of hope. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is not just a nice song we sing at this time of year, it is a cry for salvation, a pleading for God to come and save us and a belief that we can rejoice because liberation is just around the corner.
We look at how things used to be, the old glory days, and wonder if God has left us. Isaiah and Mark remind us that God is always faithful to us and is always there. We might have a smaller number in the pews, we might not have the large choir we once had, we might not have the Sunday School rooms full of kids as in the days of old, we might not have as much in the bank account , but God is still with us.
These passages also tell us something else: that we are to be messengers of the good news. Yeah, I’m bringing up that dreaded “e” word: evangelism. But before you start running away in terror, I want to tell you something. The first part of that word, the evangel part? Well, in Greek, that means “good news.” Evangelism is not about beating someone over the head with a Bible, but it’s about telling everyone around you that God is good, that Good is always with us and that God has not given up on God’s creation. Afraid of talking to strangers? Well, I’m not asking you to start talking to someone you don’t know, try starting with the people you do know: your husband or wife, your children, your friends, and even yourself. In this time of despair, we need to tell the good news over and over and over. This is the message we need to tell from the moment we enter the doors of our new home; no matter what the future holds, we will preach the good news; that God has not left, God loves us and is always, always with us.
Every Wednesday evening, I lead a Bible Study. It has been fun to get together and discuss the Bible. Ann Wolverton and Karen Westphal have been regular attenders and it’s been great to sit down and study the scriptures together. Every so often, a questions comes up that I try to answer. After I’ve shared my thoughts, I noticed Karen looking at me with one of those thoughtful looks and she says, “That will preach.”
This message that we have? It will preach. It’s a word that needs to be heard, one that we need to even tell ourselves. All of us are called to preach the good news. We are called to tell that good news to others in word and deed. In feeding the hungry or praying for a friend. We proclaim that God is here, come in the form of baby to bring hope and healing to the world.
To the church called First Christian Church, the hope we have is not in a large membership and budget to match, though these are nice things to have. Our hope is Christ who comes preaching repentance and forgiveness. And that’s good news to share. As the song goes: Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel, shall come to thee, O Israel. Thanks be to God. Amen
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