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Monday, December 8, 2014

Isaiah 40:1-11 2nd Sunday of Advent

Second Sunday of Advent – December 7, 2014

          She hasn’t eaten in days.  Her son, 10, and daughter, 5 look at her with sunken, hungry eyes.  The Babylonian army has marched around Jerusalem for weeks.  Supplies have long run out. 
          Then, the assault begins.  It does not take long.  They break through the city walls.  There is no resistance.  The few soldiers who put up a defense are quickly impaled on Babylonian spears.  Families are dragged from their homes, kicked into the dust of the streets that flow with Israelite blood.  They are forced to watch as the Babylonians burn Solomon’s temple. 
          Then, the march.  Mile after mile, in chains, they walk to their new home, their new normal as slaves in Babylon.  She does not survive the journey.  Her son and daughter do. 
Now they live as people without rights on the bottom rung of the social ladder in Babylon.  The little boy and the little girl are now in their 70’s, the elder generation of Jews in this foreign place.  They must do what they can to keep memories of Israel alive.
          They have to tell the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Joseph and the amazing things he accomplished when he was in slavery in Egypt only lives on as they tell the stories.  They remember Moses and the Exodus through the Red Sea.  They tell of Joshua and settling the Promised Land.  They remember the victories of David and the golden age of King Solomon.  But now the brother and sister are old, tired, broken people – people who have spent their lives under heel in Babylon.  For decades they have listened to their Babylonian overlords mock their God. 
          Is it true?  Are the Gods of Babylon superior to Yahweh, the God of Moses, the God of David?  Is their God as dead as they feel?
          A rumor spreads.  A new young prophetic voice is rising in the Jewish quarter.  Young people are talking about what he has said and written.  At a make-shift gathering where one of the few available scrolls of the Torah is read on the Sabbath (thank goodness the Babylonians allow this), people are saying a Jewish prophet has something new to say. 
          This old man and old woman are too tired to hope.  Their dreams were shattered decades ago, a thousand miles way.  Everything they hoped for was violently ripped from them.  Still, they go.  Why not?  What else is there to do?
          It is the largest crowd of Jews they have ever seen and there is a buzz.  The young prophet is there and speaks.  The people who have lived in slavery for so long are overwhelmed by this prophet’s words. 
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.

          Can there be comfort?  The people of God have been swallowed by the sands of history, buried under the force of an enemy too powerful for God.  No, says the prophet.  What happened did not come about because Babylon was so strong.  Mighty Babylon; don’t buy it for a moment.  In dragging Israel off to exile in 586 BC, Babylon was simply a tool in the hands of the Almighty God, so says the prophet. 
          Exile did not happen because of Babylon’s strength but because of Israel’s sin.  Now the prophet says the penalty for that sin has been paid.  The Lord’s punishment has happened and now a new day begins.  The Lord Almighty allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed because Israel abandoned the conditions of her covenant with God.  God did not abandon them.  God does not do that.  God has always been and always will be faithful and sovereign. 
          To the Jews in Babylon, people stuck in their grief and their loss, Isaiah offers a new word from God. 
“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 prophet gives three commands.  The first is “comfort.”  Heavenly beings are ordered by the most-high God to give solace to His people.  No second rate Babylonian deity has defeated Yahweh, Jehovah, the God of the Bible. 
Scripture gives glimpses of a heavenly realm that is full of creatures we cannot understand or imagine.  There is no organizational chart.  The one clearly stated truth is God is supreme.  The heavenly beings mentioned in Genesis, Job, Daniel, Revelation and other places are superior to us, but subject to God.  This includes whatever otherworldly beings there were that oversaw Babylon.  “Comfort” – the word we see in Isaiah 40:1 – is a verb in the imperative form.  The heavenly beings must obey God’s order to comfort his people. 
A second command is “prepare.” The prophet prepares the way of the Lord – the way God will lead His people back to the Promised Land.  King Cyrus who will lead Persia to overthrow Babylon is to prepare the Jews by freeing them, sending them home in a second Exodus.  Centuries later, a wild eyed prophet named John prepares the world for the coming of Jesus by preaching repentance and baptizing those who come to him. 
And we who read the Bible and worship the Lord and believe God is real and is all powerful and does love us – we are commanded to prepare the world for Jesus’ return.  We do this when we bear witness to His grace and the salvation we have in Jesus.  We help clear the path into the hearts of friends who will listen to our testimony.  The clutter that obstructs the way into the heart is removed and they are made ready to meet God.
Comfort.  Prepare.  The third command is “Cry out.”  Proclaim God’s word.  The prophet knows this is to Him directly.  But, what he asks, is He to cry out
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.

All people are grass.  The King of Babylon is grass just like the blind beggar who lives in the ally mud, day after day, hoping someone will spare a bit of bread.  All people are grass. Eric Garner, Darren Wilson, Michael Brown, Bill O’Reilly – all people are equal.  All wither and fade.  What am I to “cry out,” Isaiah asks.  All people are grass. The wealthy slumlord and the tenant trapped in poverty stand before God in the same condition.  Right now one has it easy and the other suffers, but that inequality will not last.  Inequality and injustice will not stand, not before the almighty God.  Suffering happens for a season, but God will put all things right.
The tears that suffering brings are real and should be shed.  Maybe some here today have dealt with serious hurt and loss.  Tears pour forth from shattered hearts.  God sees.  God knows pain is on the prowl and death is claiming victims in our country, in our world right now.  God hears our cries. 
Isaiah does not whimsically dismiss the pain of right now as if it were not real.  Isaiah knows suffering.  The Old Testament knows disillusionment, defeat, and death.  And most of the Jews of the 6th century BC were ready to give in as would people of any nation at any time.  But the prophet saw beyond the immediate dire circumstances.  The prophet was given God’s view.  The prophet knew and we can know that God is a deliverer. 
Get you up to a high mountain,
    O Zion, herald of good tidings;[a]
lift up your voice with strength,
    O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,[b]
    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.

Living as we do in the age of the church, we know the ultimate fulfillment of their words.  Isaiah knew God would gather his lambs in his arms.  We know how God did it.  We know Jesus. 
The birth of Jesus reminds us that God sees the inequalities and injustices that show how broken the world is.  God sees and has done something about it.  In Jesus, God empathizes with us and takes upon himself the worst of us and nails it to a cross.  Our sins, our pain, our grief, our loss – it has been crucified with Christ.  In Him, we are no longer slaves to sin.  We are new creations.  While we linger in the fallen world, we serve as today’s pointers.
We aren’t prophets.  From time to time, prophetic words must be spoken.  But we are not prophets like Isaiah.  We are witnesses.  In this age, the people of God, all who are in Christ, bear witness to what God has done, to the truth of His kingdom, and to the salvation we have in Jesus.
Withering grass and fading flowers reminded Isaiah that in the end, all are equal before God – equally small, equally sinful, equally lost.  The greatest athlete, the president of the United States, the handicapped homeless child, you, and me – we all fade.  But, Isaiah tells us that God gathers in his shepherd arms.  God holds us, feeds us, and lifts us up to where God is. 
Jesus uses different metaphors, a table, and a cross.  At that cross, we are all dead.  He invites we who are dead to the table – all of us.  The famous physician has a seat right next to the unemployed alcoholic.  The imperfect, the defective, the broken – we sit together in a community of love. 
We serve each other bread – his body broken, our sins covered.  We serve each other wine – his blood shed, eternal life given to us. 
As we walk in the promises of Isaiah, acknowledging that pain is real but has been defeated by the power of Christ, we walk to the table.  We walk arm-in-arm in a family of love – the love of God.  We dare to believe that God is real, can be trusted, and will make the world right.  We dare to live in that belief.  And then we go out and testify to life, life in Christ.  In this age – the age of the church – we walk as those who are in the light and we spend our lives bearing witness, telling of the God who gathers us in His shepherd arms and gives us comfort.


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