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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Advent 12/04/2011

On this Second Sunday of Advent, we continue to be out of step with the wider culture’s observance of this season.  I mentioned last week that in church we start this season in a different place with acknowledgment of sin and hope for change; today we’re still in a different place, especially with our gospel lesson, the first of two weeks of John the Baptist who isn’t particularly Christmas-y. 

The first lesson however, does have something of a hint of Christmas to it, at least for anyone familiar with Handel’s Messiah.  Handel starts his oratorio with Old Testament prophecies that point to Jesus and these verses from Isaiah that announce comfort are the first ones he uses.  There’s a story behind this text though starting with the fact that there’s a long pause between chapter 39 of Isaiah and chapter 40 from whence these verses come.  It’s a pause that lasted about 150 years.

Chapter 39 of Isaiah ends with the arrival of envoys from Babylon, the dangerous power to the north of Israel and Judah around 700 years before Christ.  These envoys, more like spies actually, were scouting out the territory and it prompted Isaiah’s announcement to King Hezekiah of Judah that the day was coming when the people of Judah would be taken into exile in Babylon not because Babylon was so powerful, but because the Lord would let it happen because of the sin of the people.  “Nothing shall be left,” says the Lord. 

It happened, quite a few years after Isaiah’s prophecy, 100 or so years, but it happened, Jerusalem was conquered and the best and the brightest were deported to Babylon so nothing was heard from Isaiah for all those years before it happened and during another 40 or 50 years of exile; it was a long pause.  Of course First Isaiah, as he is known was long gone by then, but another prophet who we call Second Isaiah finally spoke, ending the long silence.  The words he spoke to those exiles in Babylon were these words of comfort from the Lord, “Comfort, O comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.”

That’s remarkably good news.  It’s like a get out of jail free card; you’ve served your term, your penalty is paid.  To get this though, to fully appreciate it, you have to use your imagination because that’s what Isaiah is asking the people in exile to do; he’s asking them to break from what they believe to be the reality of their circumstances and to imagine new possibilities.  So use your imagination and picture yourself living in a place that isn’t home, living in a foreign culture where the god of your ancestors, the Lord, has apparently been defeated.  For some of you, it’s the only world you’ve ever known, but you’ve heard from your elders about another land far away, you’ve heard about a temple in a city called Jerusalem, and you’ve heard about the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.

All of that though, is just a memory until this prophet, out of the blue offers his crazy sounding words of hope and they are crazy sounding because there was nothing that would have caused you to think that anything was going to change.  Babylon was at the peak of power and you knew you would do better to just accept that reality, accommodate yourself to their program and get on with it.

But Isaiah wants you to use your imagination because inspired by the Lord he’s using his as he creates this scene of the Lord addressing the divine council of angels and messengers who surround him.  Picture it; in the divine heavenly council voices cry out as they discuss how to implement this announcement of comfort.  One voice talks about building a highway in the desert and about valleys being lifted up and mountains made low.  It sounds impossible, but Isaiah wants you to imagine it as the means of a triumphant return home.  The forgiveness and pardon of verses one and two will result in homecoming.  “Imagine it!” Isaiah says to you.

But then a second voice speaks, another member of the divine council.  This voice simply says, “Cry out!” and that creates some second thoughts and confusion for Isaiah who is privy to all that’s going on, second thoughts about what he should say because he’s not so sure about you.  “The people,” that’s you, “are like grass that withers and fades.”  Unreliable, not to be counted on in other words.  After announcing the Lord’s words of comfort and hearing about the image of a highway home, now the prophet isn’t so sure that you’re worth it.  But don’t give up; in verse 8 we appear to have another speaker, one who doesn’t disagree with Isaiah about you, but his conclusion is different.  You are unworthy, but it doesn’t matter, because the word of God stands forever.  The word of God stands forever, so this announcement of comfort is rooted in God, not in you, not in your or anyone else’s worthiness.

Following that, you picture Isaiah cowering a little bit before this heavenly council as he is given clear instructions as to what he is to do and what he is to say.  “Get up to a high mountain.  Lift up your voice, do not fear.  Say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”  Here is your God; that’s the message; words of good tidings, good news, gospel. 

“Imagine it,” Isaiah says.  Imagine the Lord, your God visible and effective here in this place from which he seemed to have been defeated and expelled.  And they did; they imagined because it was true and so reality was changed for them, there was hope, life would be transformed, but first they had to imagine it.

John the Baptist emerged out of another long pause.  The people did return from exile in Babylon as Isaiah had prophesied.  It didn’t happen for quite a few years and then it wasn’t as triumphant and wonderful as they had hoped.  Eventually they came under the domination of yet another superpower, the Roman Empire, so they still weren’t free.   There had been hope for a Messiah who would free them, some of the prophets had talked about that, a descendant of David, but it hadn’t happened, and on top of that it had been several hundred years since there had been any words from any prophet; another long pause.

As was the case with the people back in exile, there didn’t seem to be much hope for change; Rome was in charge and you might as well get used to it; until wild and crazy John the Baptist showed up.  His message wasn’t quite the same as that of Isaiah; it’s more discomfort than comfort that he offers with his call for repentance.  Even with that difference though, it was an announcement of change, the arrival of…someone…for whom he was preparing the way, someone who would be an agent of change, and people flocked to the wilderness to hear what John had to say.  After another long pause though, John the Baptist was announcing hope.  It’s no surprise that those words and images from Isaiah were connected to his announcement.

The pause John the Baptist entered into was ended by the arrival of Jesus.  We look forward to celebrating that arrival again in three weeks.  At the same though, we live during another long pause, between the already and not yet of Jesus’ promises.  In Jesus we have seen the future, the kingdom he talked about where steadfast love and faithfulness have met, where righteousness and peace have kissed each other as today’s psalmist says.  In Jesus we have seen the future, that’s the already.  But we also know that we’re not yet there.  Like the people in exile in Babylon, like the people of Israel at the time of John the Baptist, we know what it is to live during a long pause.

We know what it’s like to live during a time when it doesn’t seem like anything is going to change, when the world seems to be in something of a downward spiral that we have no control over.  We know what it’s like to feel like there’s no sense fighting it, because we can’t do anything about it.  That’s when we need the words of Isaiah and the words of John the Baptist.  We need the comforting words of Isaiah that provide hope and confidence that things will change, words that invite us to use our imagination, to imagine that change, to help us see how God will act again.  We need the harsher, discomforting words of John the Baptist to remind us that we’re part of the problem, that repentance is called for, but words from John that also announce the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

We do live during a long pause, but we’re not the first ones.  We may not see it coming, it no doubt will surprise us, but it’s a long pause that will end.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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