Isaiah 64:1-9
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
December 3, 2023

Acts chapter three tells a lovely story: A 40-year-old man, unable from birth to walk, regularly sat at the gate of the Temple to beg for money. When Peter and John walked by, he hit them up for a handout.  Peter responded by giving him, not a bit of pocket change, but a command, saying, “In the name of Jesus Christ… stand up and walk!”  The man “jumped up” and “entered the temple with them walking and leaping and praising God”.

It’s a happy and beautiful story…until it occurs to you that Jesus, a life-long attender of temple worship, had likely a number of times before walked by that lame man, heard his cries for help, and yet chose not to heal him then as Peter and John would in His name at a later date.  Surely Jesus had noticed the man, felt compassion for him and said at least a silent prayer for him. Yet, Jesus left him waiting for the grace that would one day come from Him.

Why would Jesus do that if He genuinely cared about the man from the start?  What could it be but that the delay was a blessing in disguise?  That the timing of the healing was not yet right?  That the blessing would become more of a blessing for its being so long in coming?

There is a principle here: It can be a grace to have to wait to welcome the arrival of the grace we deem crucial or urgent!  Though we think we know when and how God should respond to our needs, maybe God knows better?  Maybe we have no idea what’s crucial or urgent?  Maybe we, like that lame man, are looking for little: a bit of money when God has in mind a mighty miracle?  Maybe you and I today are just hoping for some help to make it through Christmas this year when God is hoping even more to help us make it through the length of adulthood or old age?  Maybe we too readily jump to the conclusion that God is passing us by without giving us a thought, like all those folks rushing into the temple?

It’s easy to think God is indifferent or needlessly slow in responding to our need.  Yet, the Bible says He’s never late but always right on time, that many blessings are enhanced by not being received immediately, that having to wait – while hard – can be in itself a blessing, and that God gives us the right grace before giving us the grace we at present view as more valuable.

Most biblical scholars say today’s scripture came shortly after the end of Israel’s exile in Babylon.  For seventy long years, the people had suffered in Babylon, waiting for God to show up, deliver them from oppression and free them to return to their homeland.  God did finally enable them to go back to Israel and begin to rebuild their ravaged country. Yet, there they soon were again waiting for God to show up and give them their desired grace at that moment: the grace to restore their nation, a project now stalled out by infighting and external opposition.

While they were waiting for God to show up and do what they thought He should, God in turn was waiting for them to show up and do what He knew they should.  While they looked to Him to take dramatic action as He had, say, at Mt. Sinai, and they cried out to Him, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence”, God looked for them simply to face their sin and repent.  They had after all quit pursuing righteousness and forgotten that God only “works for those who wait for Him” and only “meets those who gladly do right”.  Though it was they who had turned away from God in sin and separated themselves from Him, they felt as if He had “hidden” His face from them.  In truth, they had turned their eyes away from Him, preoccupied as they were with their sin, and made Him disappear from their line of vision.

To straighten them out, God gave them over to the trajectory they’d set for their lives by their bad choices.  Under that severe grace, they eventually came to admit that God had “delivered us into the hand of our iniquity”.  Because they had ceased to “call on” His name or “attempt to take hold” of Him, they’d lost their ability to prevent their descent into death.  They had become like leaves which had fallen from the tree that gave them life and which the wind carries away.

The delay of the arrival of the grace they’d set their hearts on (that is, the renewal of their beloved country) did not mean God was not with them offering them grace. He was with them offering them severe grace, the grace that would help them acknowledge their guilt and return to Him.

And on what grounds might they return to God?  Not on the basis of their virtue, their ethical and spiritual accomplishments or their faithfulness; but solely on the basis of God’s having long before made them His own, all on His own – on the basis of God’s having chosen them for no good reason but that He is so very good – on the basis of nothing but God’s crazy, unwarranted love for them.

In themselves they were not much more than a mess of wet clay.  Yet, in God’s hand they could be molded into a masterpiece of His gracious artistry: a people who embrace belonging to Him and celebrate it exclaiming: “We are all the work of your hand”!

Often, the most crucial and urgent grace God can give us is the awareness that, though we can’t hope much in who we are, we can hope a lot in whose we are.  That’s why this scripture ends with this happy prayer affirmation to the One it calls “our Father”: “We are all your people!”

If you and I here today bear in mind that we belong to God, that are God’s own by His resolute choice, we will both relish the great grace we already have and happily wait to welcome the arrival of more to come!

The Advent that marked his fifteenth year behind bars, Roy Borjes was both still awaiting his release from the Florida penitentiary where he was incarcerated and awaiting another bleak Christmas in the prison where there were no lighted trees to admire, no festive parties to attend and no hot cocoa to savor.

Christmas night found Roy alone in his cell reading in his Bible about Paul and Silas singing God’s praises in a Philippian prison.  When the fluorescent ceiling lights timed off, he lay back on his bunk and stared into the darkness, wondering whether he could ever praise God like those two.  Feeling defeated, He just listened to a mouse munch on crumbs off his concrete floor.  Then a voice came down the vent above his toilet, breaking the quiet.  It was Andrew in the next cell. “Merry Christmas, Roy,” he said. “Merry Christmas, Andrew,” Roy replied.  “You know any Christmas carols?” Andrew asked.  “A few.”  “I’ll sing one if you do.”  “OK.”  The two began singing.

Andrew started them off with “Joy to the World”, and Roy answered with “Feliz Navidad”.  Then it was “O Come, All Ye Faithful”, followed by “Silent Night”, followed by “O Holy Night”.  And somewhere down the line of their play list, God showed up, and His grace arrived.  Roy’s heart filled with faith and with feelings of joy and peace, and he then knew he could, however long it took, wait with peace and hope for his release from the pen and from this troubled world.

There’s always grace to welcome before the grace we most await arrives!

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