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.

SERMON Advent: A Time to Reflect December 6, 2020

Punctuation matters. Perhaps some of you have seen the FB memes that reminded that commas, in fact, save lives. Without a comma, let’s eat, kids becomes lets eat kids.
Without a comma I like cooking, my family and my pets becomes I like cooking my family and my pets.

Often during Advent Christians hear that text from the Gospels where John the Baptist is crying out in the wilderness: Prepare ye the way of the Lord. As you just heard, it is a reference to Isaiah 40…but the punctuation is different. In the Gospel John the Baptist cries out from the wilderness. But in Isaiah a voice is crying out: “In the Wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.”

Isaiah is saying that it is in the wilderness that we prepare!

Months ago I compared this pandemic to a wilderness experience. I am Exile now is a time to prepare for what might lay ahead.
These days a lot of people are talking about things eventually getting back to normal. But a growing number of us are suggesting that maybe this is a good time to envision and prepare for something new….a new “NORMAL.”

“Time out” hadn’t been invented as a parental tool yet when I was a kid, but I do remember being sent to my room as a punishment from time to time….and I knew that there I was supposed to think about what I had done and repent of my misguided ways before I was let out.

I can’t think of a better use of our time and energy these day than reflection and repentance.

Defeated by the Babylonians, their temple destroyed, cast out into Exile, the Israelites did a lot of reflection. They took a long hard look at themselves….asked the tough questions…and surfaced some painful answers. And they came to believe that the Exile with all the suffering and sorrow it entailed was self-inflicted….that it need not have been….that they had made their own bed and now they were stuck lying in it for what would turn out to be 70 years.

This morning I invite you to think about self-inflicted suffering…and to do so in two different ways. First, think about it on a personal level.

There are people, maybe some here this morning, who are all too aware of bad choices they have made in their lives….choices that hurt them and those around them.

There may be someone here this morning who knows what it’s like to have lost so much because of bad decisions….who may have lost family members or friends, or a job ….who know what it’s like to be judged on the basis of the worst thing they ever did.

They may feel like they are living in exile… cut off from people they hold dear….unforgiven. The hurt and damage caused by poor choices is real. There is always damage left in its wake…damage that needs to be acknowledged and addressed before going forward.

Just as Israel had to face up to all the hurt and the damage that was the result of her wrongdoing….but during those years in exile that’s exactly what she did…for 70 years. 70 YEARS!

But when she did…when she really had taken a long and honest look in the mirror and assumed responsibility for her own situation, then look what happens. God says

“Cry to Jerusalem that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid. …that her sin is forgiven. It’s over. Comfort, comfort my people” says God. Now I’ll deal with the hurt and the damage.”

These are words for people who understand that they have made a real mess of things, who are paying the price and who want to do better.

Of course, yes, there are obstacles yet to be overcome before that can happen….But in Isaiah we also hear the good news that even those obstacles will also be removed. “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.” All the obstacles will be overcome by the power of God’s grace. So don’t you go worrying about the road back. You just need to walk it. And when it feels like it’s too hard, God will carry you.

This is powerful stuff, friends….for those living in exile God’s intention is to comfort and to heal your life. . . So do not lose hope.

But as I said earlier I want to say something about a second way of understanding all this. Allow me….for just a moment….explain what I mean.

You see I have just done with this text what Christian pastors all too often do with the Hebrew texts….I have been speaking about sin on a personal level but for the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures sin is almost always understood as corporate….as national…as communal….as something that we all participate in together and something that impacts the entire community. Isaiah and all the prophets are almost always addressing systemic sin.

The people in exile understood their period of exile as a punishment for their having come up short as God’s community. They were banished from their homeland to spend years living in exile because of ongoing systemic injustice.

Before the destruction of the temple…before the fall of Judah to the Babylonians…before the exile…there were prophets, great prophets out there warning the people that the nation was headed for disaster….prophets like Jeremiah, Amos, and Ezekiel, out there preaching powerful words of caution. “If things don’t change…if we as a nation don’t turn this thing around….we are headed for disaster.”

But the people didn’t listen. They started to take God’s protection for granted. They would never be conquered and God would always spare them.

And yet guess what happened, folks..

And after it did the people must have lived in stunned silence for a long time…but slowly….as the years passed….they reflected upon their situation….and they assumed responsibility for it. They realized that they as a nation had come up short. They had not cared for the people as they should have…failed to care for the orphans and the widows…worshipped things other than God….allowed the rich to prosper on the backs of the poor….didn’t always pay workers a living wage…had a justice system that was too often unjust…all those things are specifically named by the prophets, but the people didn’t listen.

And let’s face it. In many ways neither have we.

Oh, I know… We want to believe that everything is all right….but for most of us it is becoming very clear that everything is not all right in this country…that our Union is FAR from perfect…that many of those same things the prophets spoke about so many years ago are also very true today. .. . that we have some very serious work to do and now. And sitting in exile, as we reflect upon our situation as a nation, we can see the consequences of what we have created.

People are starting to wake up and smell the stink of the institutions and systems we as a nation have created to benefit some of us and keep others stuck exactly where they are.

But the fact that more people are understanding this gives me hope. This Pandemic is waking us up to the fact that our lives truly are intertwined. . .that what impacts one of us impacts us all. The death of George Floyd has opened our eyes to the reality that racism goes beyond personal prejudice and bias….that it is systemic…and now many communities across the country, including ours, are re-examining our methods of policing. More of us are asking ourselves what it might take for us to heal the great divide that exists in America. Voices that have for so long been silenced are being heard and the demographics of the seats of power are starting to change.

It is said that a dying mule always kicks the hardest, so yes, the push back right now is powerful. But things are changing and 20 – 30 – maybe 50 years from now I have hope that people will look back on this period of human history as a time of reflection, repentance and awakening. And maybe some of us…a few of us….will still be alive and we will be able to say that we remember….we remember what it was like to live in exile and that we must never forget what we learned from the experience.

Let us pray
Dear God may we use this time to reflect, to acknowledge that there are things that need to change, and to repent of the ways we as individuals and as a nation have been misguided….and then to imagine and prepare for what might be. To start right now laying the foundations for it. ….a new creation grounded in our loving one another as you have loved us and where justice then flows like a mighty river…righteousness like an everflowing stream. And may we never forget what we are learning in our exile. Dear God may it be so. Amen.