(a sermon for December 6, 2020, the 2nd Sunday of Advent; second in a series, based on Isaiah 40:1-11)
It’s a saying attributed to the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, and it is as true now as it has ever been: “The only constant in life is… change.”
Think about this with me for a moment, because it’s true: everything in this world, even the universe that surrounds us, is ever in motion and with every passing moment things are different than they were before. I mean, never mind that at this very moment our planet earth is turning at a speed of 1,100 miles per hour or that it’s circling the sun at 481 thousand miles per hour (!) so that our surroundings are quite literally changing by the second; it’s also true that amidst all this whirling and twirling the future – our future – is unfolding just about as fast! It’s been said that there’s been more changes in our knowledge of science, technology and the things of the world over the past 50 to 100 years than in the previous 5,000 years of human civilization. Moreover, our shared human experience over the past century – that is, our history – has been such that quite often by virtue of certain events (9/11, for instance, or if you’re of a certain age, the Kennedy Assassination) “life as we know it” changes forever.
And, of course, it’s not simply “the world” that changes; it’s we ourselves, right? Children grow up to have lives and families of their own; families themselves have a way of “changing and rearranging” with time and circumstance; the places we call “home” also tend to shift and change with the passing of generations; and even our bodies are forever undergoing change, most especially for those of us who are, shall we say, growing a bit older! And let’s not even talk about the way, thanks to Covid-19, that many of our most cherished personal and family traditions – holiday and otherwise – have had to change this year (just ask my wife how well I adapt to that kind of change…)!
The fact is, everything changes… and not always for the better. In fact, not to get all morose about it, but I dare say there’s a verse in our text for this morning that truly resonates for us in these strange times we’re living in, and I suspect it’s not the one we’re expecting: it’s actually the one that speaks of how “all people are grass,” grass that ultimately withers and dies; as “The Message” translates it – and understand, this is the word of the Lord we’re espousing here (!) – we are people with love “fragile as wildflowers… if GOD so much as puffs on them. Aren’t these people just so much grass?” Wouldn’t you love to see that quoted on a Christmas card… of course, with the added greeting, “with blessings for the new year!”
Not really (!); but it is true that in times such as these when everything is changing so very swiftly and often so radically, we’re left feeling very fragile indeed and in the need of something… permanent. The Rev. Edward F. Markquart, a retired Lutheran pastor and writer out of Seattle, says this very well when he writes, “In a life which is spinning so rapidly forward, in a world in which we are growing older much faster than we anticipate; in a world in which nothing stays the same, there is a deep need in all of us for something to stay the same. When everything around us is transitory, we have the need for something around us to be eternal, permanent and constant. In a world in which everything seems to get turned upside down, we need something which is solid, solid like the rock of Gibraltar. Down deep inside of all of us,” Markquart says once again, “we need something that will stay the same.”
So isn’t it good news, beloved, that we have Christmas?
That verse about fading flowers and withering grass notwithstanding, what’s very interesting to me about this reading from the 40th chapter of Isaiah (the beginning of what Biblical scholars sometime refer to as 2nd Isaiah) is that historically speaking it is addressed to a people who are living in exile: specifically, the people of Judah who had been defeated and conquered by the Babylonians around 586 B.C. So once again, what we have here in scripture are words spoken in the context of the city of Jerusalem having been destroyed, the temple in ruins and God’s people deported and scattered across the known world; so they’re far from home and strangers in a strange land, a people truly lost in a desert wilderness, both literally and spiritually. To say that everything had changed for them is to put it lightly; and so when “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’” of course they’re going to compare themselves to that which is blown to the four winds “when the breath of the LORD blows upon it.” This might well be one of the most fatalistic passages of scripture that can be found in the Old Testament; if it were only about those couple of verses, it might even come off as a statement surrender on the part of God’s people Israel. And yet…
How does this 40th chapter of Isaiah begin? What’s the first thing that God says to these people in the midst of their exile and everything in their world spinning hopelessly out of control? God says, “Comfort, O comfort my people.” For not only does God want them to know that their sin is forgiven and that “[their] penalty is paid,” and “now it’s over and done with,” [The Message] God is proclaiming to them that he is coming with might, and that “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms,” “hugging them as he carries them, leading the nursing ewes to good pasture.” [The Message, again]. This testimony of Isaiah is clear: while there may be trouble for us now, there is for us a sure and certain hope, for the tenderhearted and loving God is coming to embrace us and console us. Yes, “all people are grass,” and it might well be true that our “constancy is like the flowers of the field,”that inevitably fade, the good news is that “the word of our God will stand forever.” Everything else might change, but God will always remain steadfast and strong, God will never fade and will never fail, and God will always deal with his people with peace and in love.
This is the divine truth that is eternal, permanent and constant, and it is an unchanging truth that we need now, more than ever. In these days of uncertainty and unwanted change, it is so easy for us, like Israel before us, to spend our days despairing that we, also, are like the grass; that as this world spins out of control our lives and living amount to nothing as we wither and fade; that our lives are fragile and impermanent. And yet, their good news is ours as well: we are assured in the midst of it all that “the word of our God will stand forever.” There is hope; we will know the comfort of a Savior, and we will be the recipients of his promised new heaven and new earth.
And I don’t know about you, but I will confess to you all that I need that kind of tender comfort, now more than ever. I depend on that divine hope, and I am yearning for that peace: a hope that finds its advent in a tiny baby born in a manger of Bethlehem; a peace that is made real in a Savior, who is Christ the Lord; a promise of love unending that is coming soon, and very soon, and will come to full fruition in his kingdom to come.
Yes, salvation is coming; perhaps it might not seem it at present; but there will be that moment when “the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” It will come to pass by God’s grace and in God’s good time…
…and in the meantime, we prepare the way.
Another interesting aspect of this particular passage of scripture: that call to “prepare the way of the LORD, to make straight in the desert a highway for our God” would have actually have been to the people of Israel a familiar call to action. It was in fact fairly common in those days that when royalty was to visit a particular village, the whole town would rally for weeks ahead of time to get things ready; not only sprucing up the village itself but also by repairing the road that leads into the village. Instead of winding pathways where cattle and sheep had trodden, they’d work to make the way straight; they’d smooth out the bumps and fill in the wagon wheel ruts; if they could they’d even flatten out the hills and fill in the valleys, all to create a smooth, easy entrance to their village.
Hard work, to be sure, but necessary work to pay homage to this one who was about to come to them. So when they heard this call to prepare the way of the Lord, they understood that there was much work to be done; but not in terms of landscaping, but rather in the repaving of their own lives in anticipation of God’s coming, to examine their very lives in the light of their own exile and clear out the rough places; to remove anything that might hinder their allegiance and obedience to God.
But here’s the thing: it was ever and always work meant to be done gladly. It was work that was to be done in joyous anticipation and without fear of failure; it was, in fact, work intended as a shout of triumph: “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!’” What’s very clear here is that there’s a real sense of urgency about what God is doing and what’s about to happen, and so shouting it from the mountaintops is most certainly the first and best response… and that’s both the good news and the challenge of this passage for you and for me. Because right now in the midst of this ever whirling, twirling world, the unchanging God is coming to change our world and our lives once and for all… the Savior is coming and the glory of the Lord is about to be revealed, and question is, are we ready for it?
Have we made the changes necessary to welcome his coming? Is what we’re doing today different because of what’s going to happen tomorrow? Have own cleared out the rubble of our own particular desert wildernesses so to make a highway for God? Are we ready to “boldly go,” as it were, atop that mountain and shout the good news of his coming by word and by our very lives, or will we simply be content to stay as the grass, here today and gone tomorrow?
How we answer those questions, you and I, not only matters for us in our own journeys in this advent season, but also makes all the difference in a world that needs Christmas right now, more than ever. No, there may not be peace on earth right now, and our lives in this ever-changing world certainly carry more than a modicum of injustice and struggle; but just as God fulfilled his promise of a birth of a Savior, the day will also come when all our hopes and longings are fulfilled. In the meantime, however, it falls to you and I as followers of Christ and true “advent people,” to wait, watch and prepare for that blessed moment to come; boldly and joyfully heralding the good tidings of his coming into the world and into our lives.
So let your voices be heard, beloved… lift it up, do not fear, for the glory of the Lord will be revealed!
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN.