August 30, 2020
Christian Collins Winn
Comfort, 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.”
“Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you oh Lord, my rock and my redeemer.” We give thanks to you for this day oh God; for the opportunity to worship, to hear your word, to sing songs, to be reminded of what it means to be your people. Grant us your Spirit this day that we might more fervently lean into the call that you put upon our lives—that we might partner with your Spirit to prepare the way for your final coming, when the whole earth will be renewed, and all things will be made new. In Jesus name we pray, Amen.
Good morning! It’s good to be able to be with you today. It’s hard to believe that we are already at the end of August! Usually this time of year would mean spending some time at the State Fair and enjoying a Pronto-pup or some fresh corn or some other treat while you walk around and explore and mingle with folks from across the state. Obviously, this year is a little different in that regard.
One thing that is not different, at least not in my house, is that we are getting ready for school. My youngest son Elijah has already had his school orientation; my wife Julie who is the director of teaching and learning at Minnehaha Academy has been busy working with faculty and others to prepare for a very unique year. And I am going to be teaching a freshman-level religious studies course — mostly online — at Augsburg University. So we are all anticipating the future that is coming towards us. Provisioning, adjusting our sleep schedules, and getting ourselves ready for the various challenges and opportunities that the school year brings.
Over these last ten weeks we have been wrestling with what does it mean to be a kingdom people. We’ve engaged a number of different aspects and topics related to the kingdom of God. And now, as we bring our series to a close, I want to turn with you to think about what is next. God’s kingdom has come in Jesus; in his life, death, and resurrection, and in the giving of God’s Spirit, the kingdom is now present and in our midst. So, what does this mean for us? To use a line from one of the prophets: what does the Lord require of you?
To consider this question, I have taken as my text today a passage from Isaiah. Some of you may know this, but the book of Isaiah was one of the most important texts to which the early Christian movement turned when trying to understand who Jesus was and what his life, death and resurrection meant. In fact, it was often called the “fifth Gospel” by the ancient church and was ranged alongside Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in importance. And as with many of the major prophets, like Jeremiah or Ezekiel, there are some truly beautiful, remarkable and influential passages in Isaiah. The one that we are going to look at today is no exception.
The passage is found in Isaiah 40, which begins a section of the book of Isaiah that holds together so well that some scholars have taken to calling this section, Second Isaiah (from chapter 40 to 55). The tone in this portion of Isaiah is one of consolation and divine solidarity in the midst of suffering and exile. One can well imagine that such a message would not only be powerful for folks who lived in the ancient world, but for people who live in almost any time. And there is no denying the impact and influence that this section of Isaiah has had in history, and especially our verses today.
Our passage reads: “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.” The context or background for these verses is the experience of exile.
Just to quickly remind ourselves: the Hebrew bible recounts that the twelve tribes of Israel were led into Canaan, where they settled. Initially they have no king, only judges. But eventually the people want a king like the nations around them. Now YHWH is against this and even warns them that things will not go well if they have a king; presumably because investing that much power in one person is a dangerous thing to do. But YHWH relents, the people get a king, and as we follow the narrative of the bible, the history of the people is up and down. The up and down history results in exile or judgment (and eventually return or restoration).
From the perspective of the prophets—those ancient wild-eyed truth tellers—the reason for exile is that the people, and especially the powerful, fail to do God’s will especially as regards doing justice and pursuing mercy. Thus, YHWH sends Israel into exile and this experience is like a death sentence.
Jeremiah, one of the prophets who experienced the Babylonian invasion, the fall of the kingdom of Judah, the destruction of the temple and Jerusalem, and subsequent exile, literally describes these events as the undoing of the world. He says: “I looked on earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light” (Jer. 4:24), which is a direct allusion to the creation story of Genesis 1, only now inverted. Instead of the habitat of creation and the presence of light, there is only wasteland and darkness. Exile, and everything it entails means creation itself is dissolved.
And from everything we know, this perspective seems justified. Upon invasion the practice in the ancient world, especially for superpowers like Babylon, was to lay waste urban centers, to destroy cultic religious sites, to decimate crops, to kill a considerable amount of the population, and then to deport the rest, generally relocating them in a faraway land.
For Israel this meant the destruction of Jerusalem, and its temple; it meant widespread death for the people either through violence, famine, or disease; and it meant the forceable removal of whomever was left — i.e., the expulsion of Israel from the Promised Land. It was literally an eradication of identity.
Our passage responds to this situation in its original setting in Isaiah: it offers comfort and promise. It says that exile will not be the permanent experience of the people! No, YHWH will act to return the people to the land; to draw from the prophet Ezekiel—their dry bones will live once again. They will be resurrected; they will be restored!
The imagery that Isaiah uses in our passage to convey this message of hope and promise would have been familiar to the hearers because it speaks of a royal procession through the desert. The Babylonians, and other imperial powers in the ancient world, built highways and roadways across their empire so that they could move their troops, foster trade, and especially so that the rule of king could be maintained and spread far and wide. And aside from military might, another important way that ancient kings ruled was through pomp and circumstance or propaganda if you will. This happened especially in the form of royal processions, and that is what Isaiah is hinting at here. In such a procession, the king would be surrounded by various expressions of military might and wealth to give the appearance of power, and of course to elicit the loyalty of the people.
Our passage now takes over this imagery and puts forward the notion that YHWH is about to process into history to perform a mighty act of liberation. In contrast to the emperors of the world, the Great King YHWH comes not to destroy, but to comfort and liberate. To lead the people back to the promised land. God is going to act to set the people free, as Isaiah puts it, and “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.” In light of God’s immanent arrival and the subsequent action of liberation the people are urged to “prepare the way of the Lord,” to “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
There is only one way to respond to the good news announced by the prophet, the news that Israel’s exile is coming to an end, and that is to get ready for freedom! What precisely the work of preparation looks like is not entirely clear in our passage, but the meaning and message are palpable: God’s reign is about to press into history to set at liberty those who have been held captive—prepare yourself!
Now, if this passage and its message sounds familiar to you, but you haven’t really spent much time reading Isaiah, it is because the message has had an enormous impact on the rest of scripture, indeed on broader history. It not only influences other authors in the Hebrew bible (see Malachi 3:1), but it shows up rather prominently in the New Testament.
All of the gospels either directly quote the passage or make significant allusions to it, and almost always in reference to the ministry of John the Baptist. Luke’s gospel, in particular, has several references to Isaiah 40, but in the most explicit John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, proclaims a message of repentance; he is described as the “one crying out in the wilderness,” of which Isaiah speaks. From where John sits, in anticipation of the coming of the great judgment, the great setting right of all things, and the liberation of Israel and humankind which YHWH will accomplish through the messiah Jesus, he calls the people to prepare themselves through baptism and repentance.
But what is interesting in Luke though, is that we get an even more concrete description of what preparation looks like. In Luke chapter 3, after proclaiming that God’s decisive action is just around the corner, the text tells us that the people ask John what they should do; “how should they prepare the way of the Lord?” John responds by saying: “‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.’ Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, ‘Teacher, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what should we do?’ He said to them, ‘Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages’” (Luke 3:11-14).
All three of these direct instructions can be boiled down to one thing: live justly. Give generously as you are able; don’t defraud your neighbor; don’t extort and use your power for evil. It’s as if John is saying: “In light of the coming reign of God, in which God will set right all of that which is wrong, embrace the way of the kingdom; do right by your neighbor, love them, live justly with them.”
Preparing the way of the Lord means living in the light of the coming reign of God, and that means living in a way that resonates with how Jesus himself lived. You may remember that when we started our series, I spoke to you about how Jesus himself embodied God’s reign. His life was one committed to setting free all those who were bound by oppressive forces—whether sin, death and the fear of death, or social ostracism and dispossession, oppression, or friendlessness and isolation.
When we think about what it means for us to be kingdom people, one thing is certain: we are called to live and enter into the way that Jesus himself walked. And to know that though we may stumble again and again, God is able to lift us up, to cheerfully dust us off, and to send us on our way again.
Isaiah’s call to prepare the way for the Lord has echoed throughout history. Notwithstanding its context and meaning for the Israelite exiles, nor its connection to the life of Jesus and the ministry of John the Baptist, the passage has inspired a variety of people to dream of a different world, and to dare to live differently in the light of that dream. This passage from Isaiah was on the lips Nat Turner who led an early slave rebellion in the 19th century. It was one of several passages quoted by the enslaved in the United States during the Civil War, when they simply walked off the plantation. What I am referring to is the fact that before the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln declaring an end to slavery in the southern states, some 2 million slaves had already walked off of plantations and headed north. Their actions were understood broadly as attempts to “prepare the way for the Lord,” because when the Lord comes, then freedom will come.
In his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, whom some in this church were present for in Washington, DC, (I’m looking at you Elaine Sloane!) Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’” And we know that King went out and struggled for that dream; he gave his life for that dream; he worked to prepare the way for the Lord by seeking justice, and loving mercy.
So, what does it mean for us to “prepare the way for the Lord?” Frankly, I think most of you already know the answer to that question. It means learning to listen to others, it means believing the best in others, it means standing in solidarity with those who are crying out for life and justice, it means struggling for a world that is more life-affirming and just.
It means building Tiny Houses so that folks who don’t have a home will have a place to lay their head; it means working with civic groups for fair and affordable housing; it means partnering with others for immigrant rights; it means working for a cleaner environment; caring for pregnant mothers and families who are in crisis; it means praying and reaching out to those who are struggling so that they know love and presence and breath. Speaking from recent experience, I think it also means not allowing our own wounds and sorrow to make us callous.
Some of you may know that my sister Christine died tragically in a car accident three weeks ago today. Three of her children were with her; thankfully they all survived. Her death was preceded by other losses in our family, compounding our grief. One thing that I have learned during this time is that pain and grief can actually present
you with a serious temptation. You can become so wrapped up on your own pain that you don’t realize that others around you are also in pain.
I share this small personal note because I have realized that what it means for me to do the work of preparation, is not to let my own pain overwhelm or blind me to the pain of others. Rather, the call of preparation is going to be allowing these experiences of brokenness to be a doorway through which I can see the wounds of others and perhaps come alongside them to offer love and simply be present.
For each of us, then, preparing the way for the Lord is going to look different. For some it’s going to mean becoming involved in working for justice; for others it’s going to mean asking the question “am I being a neighbor to everyone I meet?”; for others still it’s going to mean allowing ourselves to be open to the struggles and wounds that others carry. The one sure thing we can count on as we discern God’s call for each of us is that God will indeed be with us, guiding each of us and our community as a whole so that we might do the joyful work of preparing the way for the coming of the Lord! Amen!
Living God, Lord who comes to us, who beckons us to get ready for the coming freedom that your Day heralds, give more of your Spirit that we might be set aflame to do your will, to prepare our lives and our world for the great reconciliation which you are bringing even now into this world. In Jesus Name we pray, Amen.