Welcome Hope! (Isa. 40:1-5; Rom, 15:1-6; Lk. 3:1-6)
There he was, out in the wilderness that surrounds the Jordan River, bellowing about repentance. He was a bit of an oddball – John the Baptist. He wore garments of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist. He was doing all he could to look like Elijah or one of the early prophets of Israel (and you can see 2 Kings 1:8 if you don’t believe me). John ate locusts and wild honey. And yet, Luke takes immense pains to make the appearance of this oddball an event worth coordinating with no less than seven rulers of the ancient world, including the Roman Emperor Tiberius. And, more to that, he validates John’s ministry by using a passage from the Hebrew scripture that had echoed the promise of hope for Israel for over five and a half centuries. It had to do with comfort, preparing the way of the Lord and making God’s paths straight. What Luke was doing with John the Baptist was updating the tradition of a prophet like old Elijah by looking at him through the lens of Isaiah chapter 40, and refitting both to his contemporary world. And, in a way, that’s what Advent does for us year by year.
Advent is intended to prepare us for Christmas, when we celebrate the coming of God into the world in a whole new way, according to us Christians, in the man Jesus. I often point out to you that today, with the First Sunday of Advent , we begin the new church year. The church calendar recognises our experience of time as both linear and cyclical. We say “time marches on,” and that’s true. Each event follows on another in a linear progression and it cannot be recalled. Aging is evidence of that experience of time. But, we also experience time as cyclical. There are rhythms of winter and springtime and summer and harvest. The seasons come and go ’round in regularity. Life ebbs and flows in regular patterns. The church year adds this cyclical dimension to the linearity of our so called secular calendar year. By making Advent the beginning of a new cycle, we recognize our regular need to prepare, hope for, and anticipate the possibility of God’s coming to our own lives and experiences, yet again. In a way, the appearance of John the Baptist at a very exact point in linear time and space, points up the fact that God’s call keeps on coming around, waiting for human response.
Our contemporary world emphasises instant everything, and we aren’t always very good at waiting, hoping, anticipating, and preparing. We want to be doing. Advent intends to make us stop, slow down, breathe, question, and prepare. But why should we prepare? How should we? For what should we?
Long before Luke (and also Matthew and Mark) referred Isaiah chapter 40 to John the Baptist, the passage was first heard at the end of a long night of Israel’s soul. They had been living in exile in Babylon at least 500 miles from home (in a straight line, and the roads were far from that, so maybe nearly twice that far), for nearly 70 long years. All that they had known in their political, economic and religious lives was gone. It was common in their world to think that, when a nation was defeated in battle, its God or gods were defeated as well. And, who knows whether many people who had been brought up loyal to faith in Israel’s God were not wondering whether their God had also been defeated by the deities of the Babylonians. It would have been easy to think so when one saw processions with huge representations of Babylonian deities in gold, encrusted with jewels, enthroned and carried up the streets of that mighty city. Israelite folk were away from home, that’s what exile is. And exile can be as much a spiritual location as it is a geographical or political description.
Recent sociological and anthropological studies have concluded that seven years is about as long as people pine away for the old home, and, then they become simply rootless, homeless, displaced. And there they were; marginalized, exiled, rootless people. Inasmuch as they thought of it at all, their thoughts of God were that their God was either powerless, or, if not that, then did not care about what happened to them anymore. After all, their prophets had said that their defeat by Babylon was something they deserved for their past injustice and idolatry. And there they were – just waiting, but for what?
Again, Advent is the beginning of a new year, and so, is always a time of waiting for the old to end and the new to begin. Another word for this kind of waiting is the word hope.
After the recent attacks in Paris, once again, we are hearing what we once heard after 9-11 – that “the world has changed forever.” Things aren’t like they used to be. The Paris experience reminds us that places we thought were safe are not. Whenever we find ourselves in situations of insecurity, many people, some leaders especially, talk as if just getting tough is the answer. I think that such sabre rattling is an admission of fear that things in our world just aren’t right and we wonder why God allows such things. And so, we want to find enemies everywhere. Where is there that word we need from God?
And then, like a steel hammer hitting a steel anvil the word comes. And we recognize the voice. It’s God. But what’s the message? It’s that word “comfort.” Now Hebrew doesn’t underline, or write in capital letters, it repeats for emphasis: “Comfort, comfort.” That’s the same as red letters. It’s God, it’s the voice for which we’ve longed. But what is God saying? It’s not a word of judgment or death which we feared, it’s not about retaliation. It’s “comfort.” It’s hope. How can we hope in such a world?
The first thing we hear to explain such hope is that God calls us “My people.” No longer merely exiles (although still in strange places), exiles, outcasts, foreigners, refugees are “my people,” and it’s said by “your God.” And God continues:
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term in prison, that her penalty has been paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her mistakes.
The message is, first, addressed to Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the place that could be called home to these exiles; but it lies in ruins. And these ruins are also symbolic of an exile, an estrangement, an alienation. The message is, next, a tender one. The literal translation is “Speak to the heart of Jerusalem.” When we speak of “the heart,” we mean at least a couple of things, and the Hebrew text, too, will bear these meanings. First, to speak “to the heart” means what most modern translations say: “Speak tenderly.” Speak words of care, concern, and grace; not words of accountability and recompense. But “the heart” also means “the core, the centre, the very nub of life.” And this, too is in the poet’s mind here. This word of God that is to be proclaimed is a word that hits the core value of life. Hear it again: “Time’s up, you’ve paid the price and more.” It’s useless to tell exiles that’s where they are. They know it, they don’t respond to further guilt induction. Here God speaks nothing about guilt, only about grace. And God speaks the word to the community, to Jerusalem, not just an individual.
So where is our Babylon as we await the end of the old and the beginning of the new – as we wait for God’s coming in comfort, to speak to the ruined place of our heart a word of grace and hope? This word came and comes to exiles still surrounded by all the trappings that make it clear that the old hasn’t yet died. What has changed is that God has now spoken a word of comfort and release, and that’s worth the wait. As I mentioned this word of grace isn’t just a word to an individual, but to a community. Advent is communal waiting for the end of the old, and the beginning of the new. Advent is waiting together for God’s word of comfort and grace. And unless and until we share it in community we are in one of the greatest exiles that can happen to us–the exile of individualism. And no social media, so called, can fix that.
The next word for which exiles wait goes beyond the call of comfort; it is a call to build. Now, in Babylon, it’s pretty silly to build. But this building has to do with roads across the desert. There are all those miles of rough terrain to traverse between Babylon and Judah, between exile and home. And who would have thought that a miserable little knot of exiles could build highways over that distance, through that kind of wilderness, especially since they were still under the thumb of Babylon? God just might.
A voice cries: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every 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.
What a brilliant figure of speech that would be in the original Babylonian setting. They needed a road home. At last, we think, we can be doing rather than waiting. But we need to recognize that this is the second word for which we wait. It is important to remember that God’s first word is grace and that any building we do grows from an experience of that grace in our community. Anything we might build otherwise will only be a monument to ourselves even if we put God’s name on it (in moderate sized letters, mind you). And this road we are called to build is a highway for our God. It’s not just for us. Exiles build God’s road. Once we have understood that the waiting for God’s grace is over, we are enabled to put our hands to the work and “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” The call comes to exiles to recognize that through God’s grace they are God’s People, and as God’s People, they are called on to build, to build straight, and to build through the desert. People need straight roads through deserts – whatever those deserts might be.
The reason for both the grace and the road is clear. It is building so that: “Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed and all flesh will see it together.”
This statement, for me, sums up my theology of ecumenism. After hearing a word of grace, and comfort in community, and being recruited to build God’s highway through difficult desert places; we learn that the reason is so that God’s glory may be revealed for everyone (“all flesh”) – but here’s the key word together. It isn’t as I’m over here in my little group, and you’re over there, but together that we see God’s revealed glory. And that’s why we wait together.
Our Epistle lesson from Romans 15 talks about being together. At the end of the paragraph (verses 5-6) is the wonderful little doxology that prays that the Roman Christians will live in harmony and love. But, in that church, as in all churches, some will be in different places than others in a spiritual journey (Paul used the metaphor of strong and weak people). His own use of these terms comes out of chapter 14. Some in that congregation had particular convictions about following Jewish food laws. Others did not, and Paul himself was among this latter group. He considered those who did have such scruples as weak. Paul says that strong persons (however defined) need to bear with weak persons, so as to build them up and help them mature. The principle doesn’t just remain, however, with Jewish food laws, else this passage is useless here today. The verb ” to bear with” is the same one used of Jesus carrying the cross, and the Christian bearing the cross daily, and the Galatian Christians bearing one another’s burdens. Strong people carry weak people until they become strong people. And they do it not for their own pleasure (or to feel good about themselves), but for the good and maturation of the other. Just as Jesus lived an other-directed life and bore scorn aimed at others (even God), so, if we do it right, we bear others in the community of faith. Paul quoted a verse from Psalm 69 and applied it to Jesus to make his point, and follows that up by saying that the scriptures were not intended just to be studied as about the past, but as about the present, in order to be a tool for our maturing and to give us hope in the future.
These days, as we live in our world which will “never be the same,” and we await beginning again, let us not be either afraid or discouraged. God hears you, God says “Comfort.” God calls us “My People.” The scriptures have been given to us to announce God’s renewed in-breaking into life, after what seems an age of waiting. Don’t give up, bear one another. Have hope. Indeed, Welcome Hope this Advent.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.