Sunday, December 06, 2015

Speak--a sermon for Advent 2

Rev. Teri Peterson
Isaiah 40.1-11
6 December 2015, NL2-13, Advent 2 (Giving Voice to God’s Promise)

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 for ever.
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.

It’s been one of those weeks, hasn’t it…or really, one of those months—it feels like every time I check my email there are new headlines of horror. If I’m honest, it might even be just one of those years, or even one of those decades…the bad news just keeps coming, and it feels like the world can’t catch a break. From climate change and terrorism to greed and distrust and back again, plus the everyday grief and illness and pain of life, every day seems to have something new to be sad, scared, or angry about.

Earlier this week I was talking with Anita and trying to decide whether I should try to write a sermon on Thursday, because it was going to be a busy Saturday here with the cookie walk and the theater showcase. But it was too close to the shooting in California, which was hard on the heels of Colorado Springs, and of the video from the Chicago Police Department, and Paris, and Beirut, and underlying it all is Syria and racism and controlling women and the general harsh way we talk about and treat each other—I wasn’t ready to write anything worth hearing. But as we talked, I realized that there’s danger in waiting until I’m ready, because by then, it’s likely something else will have happened. And it did, of course—with the attack in London and the bombing in Nigeria happening Saturday afternoon.

There’s always something, and it is so easy to give up hope. We may begin to wonder if there’s any point to trying to practice love, justice, and peace, because it feels like we’re always swimming against the stream.  

After 40 years in exile, the Israelites knew that hopeless helpless feeling. The memories of home were fading even as their idealized rose-colored versions were as bright as ever. The feeling of being a stranger in a strange land, unwanted but also trapped, could be overwhelming. They had done their best to make a life in this reality, but it was one thing after another—watching families separated, homes destroyed, land lost…and then having to learn new language, new neighbors, new rules, new foods, raising children among strangers while trying to rethink their religion that had been so based in the land and the Temple they’d lost…they had that desolate feeling of wrongness when they tried to sing their old songs, like something was missing and they might never get it back. For a while maybe they hoped this would be a short captivity, that it was just one of those weeks, one of those months, one of those years, and better days were ahead. But after 40 years, this gloomy, dangerous, unmoored life was their new normal. Children had been born, grown up and had children of their own, surrounded by the day-in day-out drudgery of living under oppression, fear, and scarcity. They didn’t know any other way.

So often, then as now, it doesn’t feel like we can do anything about this. The world’s problems seem too overwhelming to fix, so we go on as if it’s perfectly acceptable that we could be shot at any moment, or that there are children who don’t have enough food to eat, or that there are people whose lives are so desperate they are willing to cross desert and ocean just to survive, even knowing they will be met by hostile faces. Our everyday lives play out on a backdrop of drought, rising sea levels, and unusually extreme weather, and it barely brushes our consciousness. This is normal now…and that’s just how it is.

This was also the prophet’s answer, when God said “speak!” and the prophet said “what should I say? All people are like grass—their faithfulness fades away at the first sign of trouble. There’s no use speaking your word to them, they’ll just forget or leave it behind.”

But God wasn’t having any of that, and said to Isaiah the same thing God says to us: “people’s faith may fade like grass, their courage may wither like flowers in the noonday sun, but the word of the Lord stands forever.” However faithless we may be, God is still faithful. God’s promise is true and present, even when we drop our end of the deal. So speak it out, over and over, as many times as it takes….and when the people forget and fall away, cry out again, whisper again, teach again, sing again, love again. Use your voice, and trust that God can use it too. It will take constant reminding, but this reality is more true than whatever new normal we have settled for: the word of the Lord stands forever.

And the word of the Lord today is this: Take comfort. I am coming. Get ready.

We could certainly use the comfort.

Getting ready is a bigger deal than just cleaning the house like we do right before our parents come to visit. That always seems like a nearly insurmountable task, but this is serious construction work: every valley shall be lifted up, and mountains brought low. Out in the desert’s endless stretches of rocky hills and sandy dry creek beds, level out the ground and make a good road, straight and flat. There’s nowhere to hide out in the desert, no escape from the heat or the boredom or the danger. But out we go, in spite of our fear, to bring down mountains and lift up valleys, to make space for God to come among us. It seems ridiculous, to look at the state of the world and then spend time, money, and effort on a road—whether the road is made of prayer and study, or of service and activism. But it is the road that our true king will use to cross the chasm and enter our lives. This construction project is just the beginning of the ways we will be transformed when God takes on flesh and walks that road.

Too often we raise the mountains up higher, leaving those in the valley to sink in despair. The peaks of the mountains are great, but only a few can be there…the rest are in the shadows. We act as if that’s just the way things are, even as we exploit each other to take earth from the valley and use it to make the top ever higher, even as we build walls that Christ himself orders us to tear down, even as we make it ever harder to climb the mountain. We tell ourselves we can’t do anything about it, it’s too big and we’re too small, and by our inaction we contribute to the problem rather than solving it. But the Spirit calls us to level the field, even though it goes against our socio-economic and political system to do so. We are to speak comfort and make peace and constantly make God’s promise known…even in the midst of a world where the gap widens instead of shrinks, we are supposed to use our voices to make big changes: to tear down the powerful mountains and use that earth to lift up the valley floor, until we all—ALL—can see and know and live God’s promised abundant life. The prophet says that when God comes down this desert highway to retrieve the people and lead them home, all flesh shall see God’s glory together. Not just those who can afford the mountaintop views, not just those who said the right words or pledged to the right flag, but all flesh shall see it together.

It seems a far-off vision, but it is a vision made of truth: the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever. So lift up your voice, speak out, do not be afraid. Take comfort. I am coming. Get ready.

May it be so.

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