Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
40:1Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 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. 3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 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. 5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” 6 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. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 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!” 10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 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. (Isaiah 40:1-11, NRSV)
1:1The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”
4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. 6 Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “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. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:1-8, NRSV)
Let us pray: God of timeless grace, you fill us with joyful expectation. Make us ready for the message that prepares the way, that with open hearts and holy joy we may eagerly await the kingdom of your Son, Jesus Christ.
I have a good friend whose three sons are each Eagle Scouts. I was not a Boy Scout but I am familiar with what it takes to become an Eagle Scout. Anyway, my friend was talking about her experience with Boy Scouts and how glad she is that each of them has done scouting, because of all the things they learned, she said “I know it may sound strange but as a mother I know that if any of them ever gets lost somewhere out in the woods alone or stuck somewhere that they each have enough tools and skills to know what to do and survive.” They could each survive in the wilderness if they had to.
This conversation got me thinking about Advent. Every year I am it seems strange that Advent always starts in the wilderness and not with a trip to the manger. In our readings from today from both Isaiah and Mark, we get the wilderness. There is a voice crying out in the wilderness. Shouldn’t Advent be on the top of a mountain with glorious scenery all around or in front of a palace with great pomp and circumstance announcing to the world that the savior is coming? Isn’t this the best news ever! But then I stop and realize that Advent has to begin in the wilderness. Throughout the history of God’s people it is often in the wilderness that God speaks. Throughout our lives, it is often in the wilderness that God speaks and acts. When we are on the mountaintop, we are feeling pretty good about ourselves. We don’t think we need God, but when we are lost and wandering around in the wilderness, you better believe that God is often the first place we turn. For in the wilderness is when we realize our own powerlessness. In the wilderness we realize our need for God. In the wilderness we realize that we cannot get out of the wilderness without God.
If ever any people knew what the wilderness was like it was the people in our reading from Isaiah. Six centuries before Christ perhaps the worst that can happen to a people happened to them. They were trying to hold onto Jerusalem, the capital city, but ultimately they could not and the entire nation collapsed. There was looting and pillaging and killing. Solomon’s glorious temple, that was the heart and soul of these people, was destroyed. Then, all the leaders – the politicians, priests, lawyers, businesspeople, were marched across the desert to Babylon where they were held in captivity for 70 years. It is called the Exile. So do you think these people understood wilderness? Do you think that they felt powerless and lost and alone without a home, without anything stable or comforting to hold onto? Many scholars call this time of exile the “great silence”, because the people felt abandoned. For 70 long years they must have wondered what would become of them. (Idea came from John Buchanan at Fourth Presbyterian Chicago, sermon on 12-8-02)
In the midst of this wilderness, the exile, a prophet’s voice is heard. The prophet, Isaiah, was very gifted with words as he speaks to the exiled people in Babylon and he tells those words that we read every single Advent. He tells them words that are the famous words from Handel’s Messiah. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God, speak tenderly to Jerusalem…Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:1 and 3)
Then Isaiah reminds them about God, reminds them of who God is and what God does for his sheep. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms.” (Isaiah 40:11) Isaiah reminds them that they may have lost everything — their homes, their land, and their temple, but they have not lost God.
“The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” (Isaiah 40:8)
I am the first to admit that I am not a political or legal scholar but something is definitely wrong in our nation, violence, riots, race relations seemingly at a boiling point and government racing headfirst into an impasse. It is a mess and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. I have no idea what the answers are or what can be done. But what I do know and what I can remind you and me over and over and over is that God is a God who comforts, even — no most especially in the wilderness. God is a God is who never abandons or deserts. God is a God who will find us in whatever wilderness we are in and give us what we need to survive. He will pull us close to him and hold us in his arms with the assurance that at the end of the day, on the other side of the wilderness, is God’s kingdom where mercy and love and justice reign.
I can’t give you the ins and outs of the legal system, or politics but I can look you in the eye and tell you that “the grass withers and the flower fades but the word of our God will stand forever.”
I can’t tell you whether the cancer will go away or the pain will subside or what your particular wilderness is or even that you will be home for Christmas but I can tell you that the grass withers and the flower fades but the word of our God will stand forever.
John the Baptist knew all about the word of our God. He stood out in the wilderness preaching it, preaching a hard to hear and hard to live message of repentance. And amazingly enough people willingly went out in the wilderness to hear his message. There were people who remembered the promises of God, who knew what life God had to offer and also knew they weren’t living it. They had been looking for that life in the mall, in the holiday festiveness, but it wasn’t there. Somehow they knew the message of hope, of comfort, of repentance, of turning around and living a different way, was a message that could be heard in the wilderness. So they left the city and went out into the wilderness to hear this strange prophet, John the Baptist.
John the Baptist told them to get ready, because someone even more powerful than he was coming and he will set the world on fire. He will lift up the valleys and make the mountains low. He will make straight our paths.
It is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ our Lord. Remember he is the One who is coming to save us, to forgive us our sins and to redeem us. So as we come to his tables, to share in communion, eat, drink and remember that our God is a God who will come out in the wilderness, wherever we are and find us and gather us in his arms and carry us. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray. Merciful God, you sent your messengers, the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation. Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.