Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8
Have you heard the news? Just a little over a year from now, on December 18, 2015, the new Star Wars movie is debuting. Back in the late 1970s, when Jim and I had just started dating, the first of the Star Wars movies had just come out, and I think we actually went to see it on one of our first dates. Jim loved the pyrotechnics and the special effects not to mention the Science Fiction storyline, a favorite genre for him. I loved watching Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford, - and Chewbacca, of course. Every three years after that, a new episode of the trilogy was released on the big screen, each one a blockbuster in its own right. I have to confess that we made our own contribution to the billion dollar-plus draw of the franchise.
Sixteen years later, three more Star Wars movies were released, once again, at three year intervals. Now, these movies were not sequels. They are what are level, and the rough places a plain.” As the incarnation of God in John’s own time, Jesus will, once and for all, level all the obstacles placed before humankind to receive God’s mercy and grace; Jesus will level the playing field of people of every time and every place to take part in the glorious kingdom of God.
Back in the 6th century B.C.E., the People of Israel, exiled for more than a generation in Babylon, needed to hear these words of comfort and promise from Isaiah. But these words, repeated by John the Baptist also fed the hope of the people of first century Palestine, oppressed and living under Roman occupation and rule. And in the 21st century world of today, we acknowledge that these are words that we, who are living in an often hostile, violent, and broken twenty-first century world hunger and thirst for as well. In the wilderness of our world, we witness and absorb acts of brutality of one person or nation against another played out daily on the local, national, and international scene. Yes, we need these words of promise, and we acknowledge that we continue to hunger and thirst for the love and grace of Jesus to dwell with us, and in us, and to abide in our world today.
Comfort, comfort now, my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,…” For years, the people of Israel had been inhabitants of the great city of Jerusalem, with its temple, the central symbol and locus of their religion. Their status as God’s chosen people was central to their lives and to their identity, and yet, they had forgotten about their role in keeping covenantal relationship with God, had sinned appallingly against God, had neglected the poor, the widows and the children.
And then they became a conquered people, long exiled to Babylon. A generation passed away and another came of age following the conquest destruction of their city and the desecration and annihilation of the Temple, the locus of their ritual life with God. Finally, the prophet calls out the word of the LORD, “Comfort, O comfort…cry to her that her penalty is paid.”
Isaiah is announcing to the people that something spectacular is about to happen. God is about to come, to rescue God’s people, to lead them home. God will give them the comfort, God will deliver them from their hopelessness, and God will transform their lives. Have no fear, the messenger is telling his people – wilderness, mountains, valleys and rough places hold no threat against this coming of the LORD. God will indeed come. God will lead them home.
What must it have been like for those people, who have languished their entire lives in this land of Babylon, to hear those words, “Comfort, comfort now my people,….The glory of the LORD shall be revealed and all people shall see it together…” What was it like, for the people in first century Palestine, living under Roman occupation, watching and waiting for the promised Messiah, the anointed one to arrive, to deliver them from their oppression, to hear the words of John, words that connected them to their backstory – to their beloved Scriptures – “As it was written in the 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,’”?
As we read these words today, I wonder if we can see the remarkable way in which they reach out and draw us into this story of God’s advent? I wonder if we can see parallels in these stories of the ages? Like the people of Isaiah’s time, we might often feel that we, too are languishing. We might feel that we, too have lost our way. Whether we are personally experiencing a rich harvest or famine in our lives, we have to acknowledge that that are so many points of connection between our story and the Israelites – or the people of 1st century Palestine – or any time in between.
Throughout the history of humankind, we have seen cycles of conquest, exile, rebellion, and the continuing fight of good against evil. The Israelites lived it. The people of first century Palestine experienced it, and it is part of the landscape of our world today.
Our Old Testament and gospel readings each refer to the wilderness. Wilderness can be described as inhospitable terrain, empty or pathless region, uncivilized, wild, or uncultivated state. Wilderness is symbolic of much of human life. Wild. Unpredictable. Uncontrollable, no matter how much we like to think we can and do have control. In many ways, especially when we consider its vast potential, the wilderness of our lives is barren.
Yet it is in this barren place that we hear God’s promise. “Comfort, comfort” proclaims the prophet – our God promises and will provide, Comfort. In Jesus Christ, every valley is lifted up, every mountain and hill made low, the uneven ground is smoothed out, and all those rough places are made a plain; leveled, like a field.
And yet, we know that the fulfillment of this promise is not yet complete. Through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, this leveling, this comfort, this promise is breaking through the wilderness, and we are part of its revealing. The good news of this gospel is that God is now present, now working, now comforting and consoling, now coming, now feeding empty stomachs, now clothing, now encountering, now embracing the suffering, the hungry, the thirsty and the lowly ones. In the mystery of the ages, God has come among us in Jesus, who remains with us through the power of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus will come again, bringing this promised leveling and lifting up to a complete and glorious end.
We are surrounded each day by images that stay with us and inform our world view. Lately, many of those images are disturbing: Violence in Ferguson, Ohio and New York, terrorism in Syria and Somalia, racial and ethnic unrest, disgraced celebrities and politicians, beheadings, massacres, innocent children suffering every manner of torment, and more. But the scriptures we have read today deliver God’s word to us that is more powerful than any worldly power or the power of evil itself. Comfort, comfort, now my people….I am sending my messenger….Every valley shall be lifted up…every mountain and hill be make low…uneven ground become level….the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.
And so, I would like to leave you with other images today…images from just the past week: Pope Francis I and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of the Eastern Orthodox Church embracing, and the pope bowing for blessing by the patriarch in an historic moment of reconciliation; white police officers embracing young black men; black women holding the hands of white officers and praying with them and for them; lists of names published daily in the local paper, of people in our community who have contributed to a fund to help the needy; piles of Christmas gifts forming in my office, donated by Grace members to provide Christmas for poor families; people of many backgrounds coming together to contribute to the needs of refugees; there are so many more.
In our text from Mark, a messenger has come once again. John the Baptist delivers the good news that God has entered human history in an amazing and unprecedented way, and the same message is given, “See, I am sending a 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.” WE are part of the good news of the advent of Christ. May we be comforted in our work and in our lives. May we be inspired to daily acts of loving kindness and reconciliation. May we pray and daily support peaceful resolution of worldwide conflict. And may we, who live yet in the wilderness, find our rest in Christ, the one who came, is coming, and will yet come again, freeing every captive from every thing that binds us. Amen.