Sermon for December 7, 2014, the 2nd Sunday of Advent, Year B, on Isaiah 40:1-11
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.
A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every 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.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.
Get 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!”
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He 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.
At my home we still preparing for Christmas. I wonder how your preparations are going? We do not even have the tree up yet.
Advent Waiting as Preparation
Centuries before Christmas became a commercial event, Christians came to understand that the advent, or coming of the Christ was so powerful, so significant, that to celebrate adequately, they needed a period of spiritual preparation. The season of Advent, the four weeks before Christmas, is the time we do that preparation.
The kind of preparation those ancient Christians felt they needed in Advent had nothing to do with stringing lights on the house, decorating a tree, and certainly not shopping. I am sure that even the simple Christmas feasts of former years required some advance planning, but the four weeks of Advent were specifically about spiritual preparation.
Four weeks of waiting became four weeks of taking time out to re-examine what it means to be a person of faith; to have the courage to hope in times like these.
It seems to me that if they thought they needed to take time for spiritual preparation in those far less-complicated and less-hectic days, how much more do we?
Days of Emotional Whiplash
Like you, I am trying to process the events of Ferguson and what they mean for our nation. Just as the protests were calming down, and the glass was swept up off the streets, we hear about the Stanton Island case, and we watch the video in disbelief.
Even famous comedians are throwing up their hands in despair at these events. One reflected that that comedy is tragedy plus time – but in the mean time, it is simply tragedy; no jokes make it better.
But then, the happy news about the employment report comes on. Apparently the economy is improving. Gas prices are down. Stocks are up. Even today there is a bit of discrepancy between sadness of the memory of what happened on this day in 1941 at Pearl Harbor and the fact that this is a joyful Sunday morning in Advent. Is this a time to dance or a time to mourn?
Maybe you, like me, have personal reasons for feeing emotionally whiplashed in these days too. My father received great news: the biopsy was clear. But we have just learned that my cousin, who is my age, has terminal cancer. Each of us has our own story.
People of Exile
In the medium of ancient Hebrew poetry, Isaiah pictures God turning to his lieutenants, the heavenly council that carries out his plans on earth, and giving them marching orders. Here is what he wants them to do for the Jewish exiles in Babylon:
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.”
Isaiah and the other ancient prophets of Israel had the ability to see God’s hand at work in the large historical events of their times. They saw, in the fortunes of empires: Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, and in their own history, a long arc bending towards a purpose; evolving, yes, but not by randomness and chance alone.
But history is long, and the time that it takes the arc that is bending towards justice to move is also long. It challenges the capacity of a single generation who only lives long enough to see one span, whose vision only extends to the present horizon.
“People are like grass,”
the poet-prophet acknowledges.
“The grass withers, the flower fades,”
It is too short to last long enough to grasp the big picture, the long view.
So, in spite of the apparent lack of evidence that anything good or hopeful is in progress, as another new year rolls around and the exile in Babylon wears on, and the Jewish cemetery grows larger, an announcement must be made.
A Fresh Word to Exiles
A fresh word has to be spoken out into the present darkness to assert a deeper reality; a cause to find the courage to hope. Find the town crier and tell him to warm up for a new announcement. The prophet says to him:
“Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength…
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
Here is your God? Where? It is new years day in Babylon, again. Where is God in exile?
Ferguson is burning. Where is God?
Isis is undaunted. Where is God?
The cancer has metastasized; where is God?
The courage to wait with hope comes from the willingness to see the coming of God, even in the darkness before dawn. Even before the return from exile has begun.
It is the courage to trust that there is a great complexity at work in the world, a super-symmetry, instead of succumbing to the simplicity of despair, the less-demanding temptation to cynicism.
The courage to wait for God with hope is the willingness to read the events of the news and the details of our personal lives as moments in a process that is unfolding into a new future.
The coming of God takes many forms. Maybe one will be the release of the Jewish captives by a Persian monarch.
Maybe another is the new day that will come to race relations in America because change is finally being demanded from all sides, white and black.
And maybe the coming of God will be seen in the serenity that comes from accepting, without despair, the things that cannot change, even things like our mortality.
A Glimmer of Light
Can we have such courage to hope? We are frail people, like the grass of the field, whose courage often flags in the face of hopelessness all around. So, I thought perhaps an example of a glimmer of light might be in order as we wait in this Advent season.
We are witnessing the horrors conducted by Isis and other fundamentalist Muslim groups on the news. Sometimes we hear our news anchor people asking: where is the reaction by moderate Muslims? Why isn’t anyone speaking up?
Well, they are. By the thousands. A group of Muslim leaders has published document entitled, “A Common Word Between Us & You.” In it they assert that at the core of Islam, according to the Quran, is the call to love God and love one’s neighbor. They go on to acknowledge that this is a fundamental teaching of the Hebrew bible for Judaism and, for Jesus, and therefore, for Christianity.
This document has been signed by over four thousand Muslim leaders since it was written in 2007, including grand Muftis in numerous countries. The Christian response has been overwhelming and positive – including responses by the pope and by our own Presbyterian leadership.
(By the way, if the news media you watch or hear is still asking, “Where is the moderate Muslim reaction to Islamic fundamentalism?” – then either they are not aware of this massive public response, and therefore not very good at what they do, or, for some reason, they find it in their interest to not tell you about it.)
In any case, we can take this as a glimmer of hope in an otherwise dark scene. The arc bending towards justice is long, the process is slow.
But we are people hard-wired for hope. We sense that we are both at home in this life, and somehow in a kind of exile. We sense that there is a “more” to life than meets the eye; a transcendent level of life not fully accounted for by mundane material existence.
We long for things unseen, like justice. We believe that our lives have purpose and meaning. This is our being, our ontology, despite the discrepancies of evil and suffering in our world, despite accident and apparent randomness, despite our mortal finitude.
We have experiences of wonder and awe. We marvel at beauty. We are dumbfounded by witnessing the uncanny human will to survive, even in unbearable conditions. And we experience the coming of God in unfolding new ways, every day, if we are open, willing, and receptive; if we take time for silence, for meditation, for contemplation.
This is Advent. A time of waiting. A time for preparation. A time to be silent enough to hear the voice crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord”
So, make this a time of preparation.
Practice the habits of a Christian.
Have the courage to wait with hope.
God is coming! God is here!