A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho
Dec 7, 2014
Isaiah 40: 1-11
Prophets both attract and repel me in equal measure. I am confident that I would not want to invite John the Baptist over for dinner, for example.
His decision to dress like the prophet Elijah, in a camel pelt that is hundreds of years out of style, while eating locusts and honey, are just the first reasons he wouldn’t be polite dinner company.
He calls us to not be comfortable with where we are. He calls us to repent, to turn back, to the path God intends for us. At least here he doesn’t call us a “brood of vipers” as he does in Matthew’s gospel.
But even if I am unlikely to put a John the Baptist display in my front yard as I prepare for Christmas, I can’t quite walk away from him either.
And neither could the crowds. People from the WHOLE Judean countryside and ALL of Jerusalem were going out to hear him speak and to receive that baptism of repentance. Because they needed, because we need, the message he preached.
Mark tells us that this is the beginning of the Good News. We don’t know if he doesn’t know of the birth narratives, or if he doesn’t care about them, but he begins the Good News with John the Baptizer. At first glance, an oddly dressed prophet man in the wilderness telling us to repent and change our behavior doesn’t sound like Good News.
It sounds like work.
It sounds like discomfort.
It sounds hard.
And yet ALL of Jerusalem and the WHOLE Judean countryside left their comfortable lives in the city, or their work on the farm, and went out to the wilderness to listen to John.
And, here we are, 2,000 years later, doing the same thing.
Maybe we recognize that our lives of comfort are not bringing us any good news as we had hoped they would. Deanna spoke eloquently about that last week.
For some of us, perhaps the anxiety in our world has kept us from identifying with the word “comfort” for a while now. Job stress, family instability, disease, money worries, or other factors can make you forget what “comfort” is like.
I kept hearing the refrain of “comfort, comfort my people”, this week, as more, and more, and more unarmed people are being killed in our streets, often by the people who are supposed to protect us.
So much violence. Such a complicated world we’re in.
I don’t even know what to say about it.
A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
Fergsuon, Staten Island, Cleveland, Phoenix.
I can stand witness and listen to people crying out for comfort. I have no idea what it feels like to worry that my teenaged sons will be in danger because of the color of their skin. But other mothers know what it feels like. And so I listen to them. And I pray. And I acknowledge my part in the tensions of our culture. Where is the comfort in a world of tension and violence and pain?
For John’s audience, who were living under the occupation of Rome, comfort was also probably in short supply.
And so, as John calls people to repentance, he does so by quoting the Prophet Isaiah:
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term…”
Isaiah wasn’t speaking about the Roman occupation, of course. He was speaking to a people in exile. In the 6th Century, BCE, Babylon invaded Judah, demolished Jerusalem, and carted many of her citizens off to exile in Babylon.
Isaiah offered comfort to a people who were facing real political troubles, reminding us that it is appropriate to see the political troubles of our world and respond to them with our faith.
John, like Isaiah, recognized the pain his people were living with under occupation, and gave them back Isaiah’s words, re-purposed for the problems of his day.
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight”.
That is one of the gifts of Scripture, to be able to reach across the years. A passage written by Isaiah as a response to a specific situation becomes the living word of God, hundreds of years later to 1st century Palestinians, and then combines with John’s preaching to again become the living word of God to us here in Boise in 2014, speaking specifically to our lives, our political realities, today.
Even though Mark doesn’t give us the entire Isaiah citation, the people would have heard the refrain of “comfort, oh comfort my people, says the Lord”. Much like when Susan starts playing the doxology, you know to stand up.
They heard John say, “Prepare the way of the Lord” and then their minds filled in with the rest of the song:
“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.”
What is the comfort you need in this season of Advent? What is the comfort you need in this mad dash to Christmas?
When you look around at the world, where are the places where you see the need for the mountains to be brought down and the valleys to be lifted up?
What John recognized in Isaiah’s words is that the person of Jesus of Nazareth embodied Isaiah’s words and God’s promises in ways that nobody else ever could.
“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.”
Even though Isaiah didn’t know who Jesus would be, Isaiah knew that God would show divine strength by sending a tender shepherd for the flock, a leader for the people, and a savior to restore us.
And as John read Isaiah’s words, he, like the prophets before him, took his place in story, proclaiming that he was preparing the way for the one who was to come. Are we listening to the prophets today, the ones who make us feel un-comfort-able, and call us to seek justice that is deeper than our personal comfort and privilege?
Today, we take our place in the story in this time of Advent waiting. I’ve often read this text and focused on my need to get busy, preparing. That’s the line from Isaiah:
“Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
In my bible study this week, though, one of my colleagues pointed out that John also quotes Malachi to point out “I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way.”
I was really grateful for that reminder this week. Because I am exhausted. Some days there is only so much preparing I can do, only so much bulldozing of rough paths. On a good day, I might be able to bring low a mountain of laundry, but not a mountain of injustice. I might be able to straighten out a few things, but I certainly am not up to the task of making a highway straight in the desert.
By quoting both Isaiah and Malachi, John highlights the tension of our lives. We are not the saviors of the world, AND God requires our participation to bring about God’s justice.
The human/divine relationship is mutual but not equal. God calls us to prepare the way, but it is, as John says, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals”.
We may not be worthy, but we still prepare the way and we acknowledge the way is being prepared for us. Our unworthiness to fasten the Lord’s chaco sandals doesn’t keep us from doing our part. We wait. We prepare. We comfort. We witness.
Isaiah is calling the people to work together for all people. But when the voice says, “cry out!”, the people have no better sense about what they are to do to prepare than we do. “What shall I cry?”, they ask.
Isaiah tells them to get up to a high mountain and lift up their voices, with strength, to proclaim.
“HERE IS YOUR GOD!”
I’m thankful to hear that voice in Isaiah telling us to lift up our voices. And as we struggle together to figure out what it means to prepare the way for God, I hope that we’ll be able to go about it with love and great joy. I hope, like Isaiah, we can say to the cities of Judah and Boise and Meridian and Caldwell—“Here is your God!”.
Because, if comforting the people means pointing out to people when and where we see the Divine at work in our world—then we, too, are a part of the beginning of the Good News! Comfort, oh comfort, my people. Prepare the way!
Thanks be to God. Amen.