A Voice Cries Out
Trinitarian Congregational Church Second Sunday of Advent
Anthony S. Kill December 10, 2017
Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
For many years, I heard the scripture readings of Advent as words
that scolded and challenged and chided us, warning us to
“Repent! Change your ways!”
“You’re so frantic and preoccupied
because you still don’t get it straight!”
“Knock down those mountains and level off those rough roads!”
“Simplify your life and get right with God.”
I would think, “Man O man, we have some heavy roadwork to do.
We have fill in those valleys and grade down those hilltops
and smooth out those rough edges to make a level plain.
We have to tackle the mountains of injustice and the valleys of corruption
and the rough places of sin, to prepare the way for God.
And all that before Christmas!”
But on closer reading of the texts, I now think that that’s a false Advent message.
Not that we don’t need to be concerned about all those things.
It’s just that, that interpretation implies that
there’s something wrong with our world or with our lives, and we have to fix it.
The Presence of God is missing, and we have to work to restore it.
We have to straighten the crooked paths, and break down the mountain barriers,
so that we can find our way to God.
That is not the message of Advent — It’s not Isaiah’s message, or John’s.
Their message is that God is coming to find us, and rescue us.
Their voices cry, “Comfort my people. See, here your God comes.”
“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!”
I want to call our attention to that phrase that is translated “Good Tidings” in this text.
It is used twice: Zion is called a ‘herald of Good Tidings,’
and Jerusalem is called a ‘herald of Good Tidings.’
In Hebrew, the word for “Good Tidings” is “baśar (bashar).
But when Jewish scholars later translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek,
this word was translated “euaggellion” in Greek – “evangel” —literally ‘good news’.
That’s where the word ‘evangelist’ and ‘evangelical’ come from.
In old English, that word was ‘god-spel’ = ‘Good News’
– which is where our word ‘Gospel’ comes from.
Isaiah 40 is the first time that the word “Gospel”
is intentionally used in the scriptures.
It is the word used in the first verse of the first chapter
of the Gospel of Mark in today’s reading:
“The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”
And it is the word used by the angel in Luke’s Gospel,
to announce the birth of Jesus to the shepherds:
“See, I bring you Good News of great joy for all the people.”
In Isaiah 40, the Good News is this:
“Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him;…
He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms,
he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”
So Isaiah is not announcing something we have to do.
It is the Heavenly Council who declares
that a superhighway is to be built in the wilderness,
a smooth roadway for God’s victory march.
It is the Divine Powers who will make a straight highway in the desert,
and level the broken road in the wilderness,
so that God can lead the people and clear a way for them
on their joyous journey back to the City of Peace – Jeru-Shalom – Jerusalem
Most of us know some kind of wilderness in our lives.
Most of us wrestle with a desert of one sort or another.
Most of us have traveled over bumpy roads, with steep and forbidding obstacles in our paths,
paths so treacherous and crooked that we weren’t sure we’d ever reach a safe destination.
And many of us may feel that we’re still on such a road, in such a wilderness.
For some, it may be a wilderness of grief, facing the holidays with the absence
of a loved one whose place can never be filled.
Some may feel trapped in a wilderness of a troubled relationship with a family member
– a spouse or parent or child – where every conversation seems to turn into a fight,
and no one can step away enough to make a fresh start;
Others may find themselves in the wilderness of addiction, imprisoned by their own passion
or denial, and their inability to say “no” to the escape or ecstasy they crave.
For some, it may be the wilderness of life’s own weary journey, so uncertain and insecure,
so filled with heartache and loss, as our mortal bodies weaken and slow down,
and family and friends diminish around us.
And for others, the wilderness of this cold and violent world may be their desert,
so full of injustice and prejudice, hatred and distrust,
so unwilling or unable to pursue ways of compassion or peace.
There are so many steep mountains, many deep valleys,
many rough and crooked roads we face on our life journeys.
But the prophets say: “Behold, your God comes.
A mighty one comes to comfort you, to wash you with Holy Spirit,
to guide you on your journey, and lead you in safety.”
“Comfort my people.”
We usually think of comfort as ease or rest, or even luxury.
But the word “comfort” comes from the Latin, “cum fortis” = “with strength.”
To comfort someone is to strengthen them, to bring them new fortitude,
to provide strength or support to them on their journey.
Where do you most need to hear the word of comfort,
of strength and support, in this season?
Perhaps that strengthening will enable you to keep the world’s pressing issues in your mind
and in your heart without despairing or giving up.
Perhaps it will strengthen you to keep on praying and protesting and giving witness
about racial injustice, or global warming, or equal rights and equal opportunity for all.
Where do you most need to hear the word of comfort, of strength and support, in this season?
What is the wilderness that saps your energy, disorients your sense of purpose or direction,
and threatens to get you lost in its ruts and mazes?
That is where a voice comes to you with a word of promise:
“Take Comfort, my people. Take strength.”
“Repent! Turn your head and see: Here is your God!”
Here with you, bringing strength and hope and whole new possibilities.
Here with you, like a shepherd reclaiming his flock, leading them to nourishing food and drink,
carrying the young and the weak, guiding the sheep and the lambs to a safe haven.
The promise of Advent is not a childish memory of Christmas past,
or a nostalgic wish for simpler times.
It is a promise in the present, for the future.
It is a promise that God is near us with a strong arm and an outstretched hand,
ready and able to save us, about to leap into the fray of human pain and hope
as the Word made Flesh.
The Divine voice in the Isaiah text has the character of persistence, even desperation.
Our loving God is desperate to find us:
“I will come to my people, and nothing will keep me from them.
Mountains will be torn down, valleys will be filled in, rough places made smooth
— whatever it takes!”
It is hard not to think of the old Diana Ross song, “Ain’t no mountain high enough”.
God is coming to us! This is fantastic news! So, what can we do to get ready?
Confess your sins, John suggests. Get baptized. Repent.
Later, Jesus will add, “and believe in the good news!” (Mark 1:15).
But God will come and fulfill all of God’s promises whether or not we do any of these things
— but knowing God is on the way, why wouldn’t we want to do them?
To take a somewhat simple analogy, most children love to play the game “Hide-and-Seek”
in which everyone hides and tries not to get caught,
but eventually, when the game goes as it should, everyone gets found.
The game is interesting from a psychological point of view
because “hiding” itself is not really all that much fun.
If you ask most children, “Do you want to sit somewhere all by yourself
and keep very still and quiet for a long time?” you probably won’t get many takers.
What’s fun about “Hide-and-Seek” is not the hiding, but the getting found
and the anticipation of getting found. Everybody likes to be found.
So, when Advent comes around every year, we are reminded that God is coming to find us.
We all have our ways of hiding – from God, from each other and from ourselves.
But in Advent, when John the Baptist shouts, “Prepare the way of the Lord!”
it is as though God has just called, “Ready or not, here I come!”
And we remember: this is the God who always seeks us, and always finds us.
That Advent promise is heard in the voices of prophets and sages,
of shepherds and angels, of young couples and aged widows.
It speaks in the voices of unlit candles and empty, waiting manger beds
— and yes, perhaps even in the voices of bright colored lights
and blaring Christmas carols, like this one:
“And you, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way, with painful steps and slow;
Look now for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing;
O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing!”
“Hear the Good News: Behold, your God Comes”