A New Hope

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 cried 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 all 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. 

“A hopeless situation.”

That’s how she described herself while sheltering against the church from the wind. Above her mask I could see a tiredness in her eyes, a tiredness that was further echoed in her story. No job, no family, no food, no money, no hope

Meanwhile, a van full to the brim with a family drove by and, even though all the windows were up, we could still hear all of them singing at the tops of their lungs, “It’s the hap-happiest season of all!”

I handed her a bag of food, offered to pray with her, and when she walked away I couldn’t tell if it had made any difference at all.

Can you imagine anything worse than being in a situation without any hope? Being forced so strongly to the margins of life that there was no one you could call to bail you out, no family that would welcome you in? 

Hopelessness can derail individuals and families. And even though, at this time of year, we light candles and string up sparkly things, and decorate Christmas trees, and talk about hope in places like this, the sting of hopelessness can still hit harder than just about anything else. 

God’s people Israel knew hopelessness. During the Babylonian Exile, the time in which Isaiah speaks his confounding word of comfort, they were a people who knew no comfort. 

It’s challenging for people like us, today, to imagine, at all, what that time was like for God’s people – they had lost their homes, their nation, their possessions, their worship, their status, roots, stories, identity, and just about everything else. 

They were truly strangers in a strange land.

They were swallowed up by their oppressors and compelled to adopt a way of life that ran counter to all they had ever known.

They were in a hopeless situation. 

And, to make matters worse, the Lord of their ancestors had commanded them again and again to take no other gods save for the Lord God. Their idolatry, their wanton disregard for the commandments resulted in an exilic punishment.

To put it plainly, they brought it upon themselves.

And they were hopeless to do anything about it.

But it is precisely here, to a hopeless people, that God speaks through Isaiah: 

Comfort, O comfort my people! Speak kindly to my people, remind them that the penalty for sin has been paid. A voice is crying out – Prepare the way of the Lord! The valleys will be lifted up, the hills will be brought down, God’s divine leveling will come to fruition. God’s glory will be revealed and all will see what God can do. A voice cries out – People are like grass, they wither and float away. But God stands forever and ever! So do not fear! God is coming with might! He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom.

Chances are, some of us are familiar with at least part of this proclamation from the prophet – In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. We hear those words every Advent in reference to John the Baptist who, spoiler warning, prepares the way of the Lord.

And J the B, as I like to call him, was no ordinary fellow. 

He is rather alarming, coming straight out of the desert dressed in animal skins while eating insects and yelling about repentance. And, according to Mark’s Gospel, its precisely J the B showing up on the scene in ancient Palestine that marks the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

J the B has never been fully understood, and for good reason. 

He shows up out of nowhere, and before we really get to learn much of anything, he is beheaded for crimes against the state. So for two thousand years he has stood in the midst of this season, with his strange sense of fashion and bewildering diet and discomforting theology completely out of sync with his age, our age, and just about any age.

Advent, for better or worse, is a time set apart in the church when we make a conscious effort to recover some of the strangeness from the strange new world of the Bible – and John embodies it all. Because, like J the B, Advent is rather peculiar. It’s out of sync with time.

As we talked about last week, Advent is about the time between time, the already but not yet, the pause between the once and future king. 

To put it in musical terms: Advent is God’s great caesura…

The best parts of Advent are those that give us the courage and the conviction to rest in the tension of who we are, and what God has done for us in spite of who we are. We take time Sunday after Sunday to look toward the darkness into which, and for which, Jesus arrives.

Advent, in a way, is actually a lot more like Lent than we often make it out to be. We take stock of who we really are in order to come to grips with what it is, exactly, that Jesus does for us.

J the B arrives, confused for Elijah, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. He does so, to take the hint from Isaiah, to prepare the way of the Lord. There’s something about recognizing the condition of our condition that enables God to do the work that we so desperately need because all of us, whether we like to admit it or not, are hopeless cases.

It takes quite the Christian constitution to affirm the truth of Isaiah’s words: we are like grass and flowers that wither and blow away. Sin isn’t just something we do, it’s who we are. In ways big and small we regularly (like the Israelites before us) rebel against the Law of God, we insist on laying down at the altars of countless idols, and we are forever determined to be the masters of our own destinies. 

Just take a look around – Covid cases spiking yet again, economic uncertainty as jobs are not rebounding, evictions are piling up as rents can’t be paid, and there’s no sign that any of it will slow down any time soon. 

Obviously, some of this is out of our control, but some of it lies squarely with us and our unwillingness to love our neighbors as ourselves. 

I know it might not seem like it, but confessing our sins is actually very good news for us. There’s a reason the Catholics have been doing it for millennia. There is a documentable psychological benefit to confessing our faults and failures, we literally release endorphins in the brain when we do so. But confessing our sins also benefits us by putting us squarely in an Adventen frame of reference.

Light is only light because of the darkness it shines in.

Grace is only grace because it cancels the power of sin.

Resurrection is only resurrection because it refuses to let death be the final word.

That’s a stark and frightening thing to admit but it’s part of the Christian witness. The message of John to a hopeless people, the message of Isaiah to an exiled people, is better for us than all the trimmings and the trappings that this season usually holds. All of the advertisements and pressures and assumptions only provide a shadow version of our own reality.

That’s not who we are. 

We’re Christians! We’re sinners!

We’ve come to worship today, albeit in a way none of us quite imagined back before the pandemic struck, we’ve come to worship in some part because we know we need these words from Isaiah and from John more than we need the mall, and the wrapping paper, and the light shows, and the curated Christmas playlists, and the never-ending holiday-themed Lifetime Movie marathons. 

We know we need these words from the prophets because we know we need Jesus – he’s the only hope we’ve got.

Without Jesus, we’re just a people in exile stuck in a hopeless situation. But Isaiah and John show up to prepare us for the appearance of God’s own self in the person of the Messiah. They remind us that God is active in the world in ways seen and unseen and it is upon the work of the Lord that the universe hinges.

But, how might we prepare for this? It was one thing to wander around during the days of J the B and find ourselves dunked into the Jordan river repenting our sins. But we are a people stuck in Advent between the once and future king – we already know what awaits us in the manger and on the cross. 

What, then, is the right response to the triumph of God showing up?

The Beyonce of the Episcopal Church, Fleming Rutledge, makes the case that, during Advent, we should keep the tune O Holy Night stuck in our gray matter because when God shows up, the only proper response is to Fall On Your Knees!

Think about it: when the reality of God breaks in on from on high, the only thing we can do is recognize the great chasm across which God chose, and chooses, to traverse for us. When we see how God is God and we are not, we can’t help ourselves but fall to our knees in reverence. 

J the B stands at the edge of time. He, in himself, holds the words of the prophets while pointing to the One who transfigures the cosmos. Advent, then, looks not just to the birth of a baby in the manger, but also to the long-awaited day of the Lord when rectification reigns supreme. 

In Jesus Christ, the once and future King, the new day of righteousness is made incarnate. The old age of sin and death is crumbling away and in the coming kingdom of God there is the divine shepherd who gathers the sheep into his bosom.

That’s what J the B came to declare – our deliverance is nigh!

And how shall we respond? Fall On Our Knees!

God is going to level out all things. The mountains are coming down and the valleys are moving up. Creation will be reknit and all of us along with us. 

Despite the language we might hear about in church about how it’s our job to prepare the way of the Lord – God is doing this work regardless of whether or not we participate in the divine clearing project. 

And, frankly, its not going to be easy for people like us. For, God’s work of divine leveling means laying ourselves open and vulnerable to a vision of reality that is God’s will be done and not necessarily our own.

It means living every moment of our lives in anticipation of God’s bringing down the mighty and lifting up the lowly.

It means relinquishing our most cherished (and therefore flawed) understanding of what we have earned and deserved.

It means being ready to give up all of our privileges and advantages in the world on behalf of those who are stuck down in the valleys of life.

Again, this isn’t going to be easy. Particularly for a people drunk on our own self-righteousness. 

We don’t like admitting our faults and failures. 

We don’t like confessing our privileges and advantages. 

We don’t like repenting of our wrong-doings.

In the time between time, Advent, we can (with the help of the Spirit and the church) take a good hard look in the mirror and confess the condition of our condition. That’s how repentance works – it is a change of life, a reorientation, a turning back. And we can’t turn without admitting that we need to turn in the first place.

But even if we can’t bring ourselves to confess the truth. God is still in the business of making something of our nothing. 

For God does not desire the immense brokenness that surrounds us. God in Christ is reconciling all things to himself. The old age of Sin and Death was run by death and division. But in God’s kingdom, what we are preparing for and are being prepared for, is run on reconciliation, grace, and mercy.

So hear the Good News: Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, not before or after, but in the midst of our sin. And this proves God’s love for us. In the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. The Kingdom of God is near. Amen. 

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