Sunday, December 4, 2011

Comfort, O Comfort My People...

Thanks to Travis Franklin of Ministry Matters for his insights on today's lectionary.  We wait with hope, and we wait actively.

2 Peter 3:8-15a
But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.
Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.
Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

Mark 1:1-8
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in he prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 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. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He 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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Isaiah 40:1-11
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.”
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. 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!”
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.

This is the Word of the Lord

In 587BC, Jerusalem was conquered and destroyed, and the best and brightest of Judah were exiled – taken to serve as slaves to Nebuchadnezzar. Taken off in chains, these men, women, and children would never again see their home – never again see the Temple, or hear the priests singing psalms, or smell the sacrifices burning on the altar.

And with every footstep on that long journey into captivity, with Jerusalem in flames behind them, the words of the prophets echoed in their ears, reminding them: this was their fault. They were not defeated because of the strength of Babylon, but because of their faithlessness to God. This was not the result of the victory of a superior army – this was Yahweh’s judgment against them. And it was terrible.

There in that pagan city, Babylon, the Jewish people struggled to remember who they were. The priests still read from the scrolls, the prayers were still said, hymns were still sung. And despite the opulent beauty of this city, with its magnificent hanging gardens, every Jewish man, woman, and child, back bent beneath the burden of slavery, struggled to remember, every day: This is not my home.

And the years passed.

And as the memories dimmed, hope faded. To many of the exiles, their paltry acts of worship seemed nothing more than just going through the motions. A psalmist of the time wrote, “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down in the dirt, and cried our eyes out when we thought of Zion. There, on the willow trees by the banks, we hung up our harps for good. Our captors, those that use us, waste us… they make fun of us, and demand that we sing one of our ‘pretty little songs of Zion.’ But how can we sing God’s song in a foreign land?”

Meanwhile, Jerusalem was not empty. The best and brightest were gone, yes, but that wasn’t the entire population. As the smoke from the ruined Temple cleared, men and women picked through the rubble of their city, and tried to figure out how to go on living. Their leaders were gone. Their wealth, robbed. Their self-respect as a people, destroyed. And with the Temple razed to the ground, there was no longer any evidence that God remained behind, either. Day by day, the people left behind in the ravaged city put one foot in front of the other, eking out an existence, going through the motions.

And it is into this loneliness, this wretched, soul-wrenching feeling of not belonging – not just not belonging in Babylon, but not belonging anywhere anymore – that the word of God speaks through the prophet Isaiah: “Comfort, O comfort my people.”

To a people who felt forgotten, God said, “I remember you.” To a people who did not belong, God said, “You are my people.” To a people who felt condemned, God said, “I forgive you.” To a people who felt utterly alone, God said, “I will come to you. Prepare the way.”

No, it didn’t happen immediately. Cyrus, who defeated the Babylonians, began allowing the Jewish people to return to their beloved Jerusalem – by now, a city most of them knew only from stories told by their parents – in about 520 BC. And it would be more than half a millennium until the latter promise – that God would indeed visit God’s people – was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

God did all of this not because the exiles deserved it. Not because they had suffered enough to merit God’s attention. They hadn’t discerned the magic words to get God to act.

No, God did this out of an abundant and incomprehensible grace, out of matchless and ebullient love. Too often we think of an Old Testament, angry and vindictive God, and a New Testament, loving and forgiving God. Here in the 40th chapter of Isaiah, we see a complete picture of God: One who, even when his beloved people have turned so far away that it takes a Nebuchadnezzar-sized hammer to get their attention, still loves those people in a steadfast, eternal, unshakable way.

That is the promise of Advent. In remembering the Christ child, born to a teenage girl and her fiancée in a barn in the middle of nowhere, growing up to travel the dusty roads of Judea, preaching Good News and bringing hope to all who had ears to hear, ultimately giving his life to break the bonds of death and usher in a new and eternal Kingdom, we too lay hold of that eternal, unshakeable, stubborn and egregiously abundant love.

Oh, sure, much of the time – perhaps even most of the time – it may feel like we haven’t really laid hold of anything. We say we abide in the now-and-coming Kingdom, but we struggle to sense God’s presence in our own exile. Living each day in the shadow of terrorism, staggering violence, possible threats all around us, our uneasiness with poverty, racism, materialism, we too often seem to be merely going through the motions – faking our faithful response to God’s mystery.

The prophetic message of Isaiah to the exiles in Babylon, and to the forgotten of the ruined Jerusalem, is a message for us, as well. And it’s a message we need to hear. We are so easily enticed to buy in to the latest trend – to follow the freshest story. We are inundated each moment with more news than we can ever hope to assimilate. Choices overwhelm us each day as to what we will do, where we will go, what we will buy, and what we are to believe. Although the Hebrews’ exile was more related to place than ours, we too find ourselves in exile. We too need to hear a new song in this foreign land of too much stuff, too much information, and too many choices. In the midst of such despair Isaiah proclaims not only that God is present, but that God is preparing to restore God’s people. God has forgiven our sin and will abide with us. God helps us find our way. We wait in expectation that God will be faithful to these promises.

Yet in all of this waiting, there is an urgency, a call to action, an immediacy. Our Gospel reading is from Mark, where we first meet John the baptizer, and again read God’s promise to God’s people from Isaiah. One of the most striking things about the Gospel of Mark is that everyone seems to be moving at a fast jog, every event and parable is related with breathless urgency. A sentence fragment starts the Gospel, as though Mark picked up his thought in midsentence. It’s the shortest of the Gospels, and it bursts with energy. There’s always something happening. And this, too, is a word for us. We do not, we cannot, wait passively. For us, to wait is a verb. In our Epistle reading today, we see that the fact that Christ has not yet returned is a blessing – an act of divine patience, which allows us time to both remove the obstacles within ourselves which block a fuller relationship with our Creator, and to share that great good news of Jesus Christ with a world desperately in need of hope! God’s word is true and reliable, and we are promised that Jesus Christ will return. When Jesus returns, it will be suddenly, completely, and redemptively. This is not an eventuality to fear, but one to look forward to expectantly. Only then and shall we at last end our exile, and live with him forever.

But for now we wait – and in our waiting, proclaim the grace and love of God to all creation.

Alleluia! Amen!

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