Isaiah 40:1-11
Mark 1:1-8

Sermon audio unavailable for this week. 

Reading Isaiah last Sunday night in my office with the sounds of youth gathering to practice for tonight’s Lovefeast, I realized that I don’t think I have ever had to walk somewhere – been forced to walk somewhere, or been in a situation in which I didn’t know how I would get where I needed to go. I’ve gone on hikes, but almost always know where I am. My car broke down when I was in high school, but I was able to push it off the exit ramp in Black Mountain and walk less than a mile into town.

Most of us have a decent amount of say in where we go and how we get there. We can drive where we want, or someone takes us. We don’t worry if bus stops are nearby. Our brothers and sisters in town walk from apartment to bus to school to work to social service agency. That doesn’t include those who are forced to move. This text makes me think about refugees fleeing all manner of conflicts – leaving everything they know behind because ISIS is moving into their village in Syria or Iraq, militants in sub-Saharan Africa going house to house. The World Economic Forum says that at the end of 2016 nearly one in every 113 people worldwide were refugees. They estimate just over 65 million refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally-displaced people in the world. Five and a half million fled Syria led year, over 700,000 South Sudan.[1]

Isaiah 40 opens as the Israelites begin the long walk home. Isaiah’s first 39 chapters were written in the 8th century and were full of hard news for the Israelites who rebelled against God and turned a blind eye to widows and orphans. They had mistaken wealth for wisdom – First Isaiah told them it would cost them dearly. And by Isaiah 40, it had. Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 587 BC, and many of the Israelites, especially the elite, were deported. Others remained in a ravaged city.[2] For 58 years. I wonder how many Israelites were still alive who had been a part of that first journey, that forced march into exile of some 900 miles, to an uncertain future, with the clothes on their backs, smoke rising behind them, temple in ruins?

When Cyrus the Great of Persia conquered Babylon in 539 the Israelites were allowed to go home. Isaiah’s tone shifts into this new reality as chapter 40 begins. Comfort, Comfort O my people. Speak tenderly, the people have received from the Lord’s hand double for their sin. The clear theological motive is to say, first to the people, you brought this on yourself by wrapping yourselves in greed and ignoring the poor. But now, God says, I renew the covenant. The past is over and gone – we will begin something new together.

This way home is envisioned as a Second Exodus. But this time, unlike when the people left slavery in Egypt behind to go towards the land God had promises, “…the Israelites would not have to leave in haste as they did the first time…This time, it wouldn’t be a great and terrible wilderness with fiery serpents and scorpions (Deut. 8:15), but the rough places would be plain, the mountains made low. This time it wouldn’t be dry, but there would be pools and fountains of waters, acacia and juniper trees. (Isaiah 41:18) [3] God announces something NEW. God is coming, and we are to declare good tidings, to proclaim God’s goodness and love, with boldness and power, over ALL, for ALL.

There is power in that proclamation. If you’ve been on a hike, maybe not sure where you are going, and someone ahead climbs to the top of the ridge and can see the destination. Then she looks back and shouts, “It’s here. I see it! We’re almost there!” If you’ve ever wondered where you are and someone points the way, you get a rush of energy. This all isn’t for nothing. This might happen after all. It made me think of the power of this proclamation, as the people, exhausted from 58 years of exile – it’s all many of them ever knew – and the word from the prophet. THIS IS FOR YOU. GOD will lead us home. Imagine it, if you will. Imagine being so tired. Most of what you own on your back or in your arms, with your family, children to herd, older adults to support. And you don’t know exactly what you’re going back to, what is left of home. The uncertainty hangs there, your legs already heavy as lead…someone from the hillside above the crowd begins to speak…and you hear it…

Reader 1: “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.”

Reader 2: 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 forever. 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!” 

That word, that announcement, that proclamation changes things. So I wonder, as we begin Advent, as we journey towards the day on which we’ll welcome the Christ child, if you yourself are on a journey. Maybe you’re caring for someone who is sick. Maybe you’re grieving. Maybe you are furious about the state of the world, ineffective politics and racism and poverty and brutality and sexual harassment unearthed every day. Maybe all that’s wearing on you. Maybe you have a decision to make. Maybe are overwhelmed and exhausted and overscheduled and feel powerless to do anything about it. Maybe you wonder if any of this matters. My prayer is that, as Advent begins, with the joy and lights and music, and the consumerism and weird family issues and loneliness, you might hear again the prophet’s proclamation. Prepare the way of the Lord! Soon, not yet, but soon, the glory of the Lord will be revealed, ALL people shall see it together! Lift up your voices. God is near! You are not alone. This matters. You matter. And God calls us to offer this proclamation with all of the courage and hope that we can muster. The grass withers and the flower fades, all of the other stuff eventually falls apart…but the word of our God, spoken through the prophets and come to us in Jesus Christ, is even now preparing the way, God’s love made flesh, born among us.

May it be so. May it be so. Amen.

[1]  The number of displaced people in the world just hit a record high, World Economic Forum

[2] I am grateful to the Rev. Becca Messman for this background in her paper on this text, The Well, 2015, Chicago.

[3] Becca’s great paper, again.