Sunday, December 08, 2019

Landscaping—a sermon on Isaiah 40

Rev. Teri Peterson
Gourock St. John’s
Isaiah 40.1-11
8 December 2019, Advent 2, NL2-14 
Advent theme: “The Time Is Surely Coming” // Promise

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
    that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling:
‘In the wilderness prepare
    the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
    every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
    the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
    and all people will 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 like grass,
    and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of our God endures for ever.’
You who bring good news to Zion,
    go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
    lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
    say to the towns of Judah,
    ‘Here is your God!’
See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
    and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
    and his recompense accompanies him.
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
    he gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
    he gently leads those that have young.

Last week, at the beginning of Advent, we heard the prophet Jeremiah speaking to Jerusalem in the middle of a siege. The Babylonian army had been camped outside the city walls for a year, and there was still a year to go before they would finally win the battle and take the people into exile. Throughout the week the Advent calendar has reminded us of various aspects of God’s promise spoken by Jeremiah — to raise up a new king, who would bring new life out of the chaos and destruction they were experiencing. God’s promise is true and reliable, just as we can rely on day following night and the stars and planets working together in their heavenly courses. Indeed, only if we could number the grains of sand would we be able to fully count the goodness of God.

Today we have moved forward about 40 or 50 years. The Temple was indeed destroyed, and Jerusalem was left in a ruin. Many of the people were taken away to Babylon and resettled there, in the towns and countryside where they wouldn’t know anyone, they wouldn’t speak the language, and they wouldn’t have a chance to organise a resistance or plot to return. The poorest of the poor were left behind in the devastated Judean countryside to tend vineyards that would supply Nebuchadnezzar with wine for his extravagant courtly life. 

Fifty years is a long time to live in exile. The people who first lived through that upheaval had long since gone, and new generations were born, grown, and had children of their own who never knew anything but this life and this place. 

We can imagine that the people tried to keep their stories and traditions and memories alive...but it gets harder to do with each successive generation that has no personal experience of those stories and traditions. The same is still true of immigrants and refugees, of course — they try to keep their traditions and stories, to pass them on, but things inevitably change in the telling. Plus the culture around them, then and now, makes it difficult to hold on to their foreign ways. The host culture always wants people to integrate, but what they really mean is to assimilate, to let go of the foods and language and religion and clothes and stories and songs of the old place, and become like us. 

The Israelites living in Babylon experienced this tension, of wanting to maintain their identity while the culture and government around them wanted exactly the opposite. And added to that was the fact that the ancient world believed that gods were tied to now that they were far from their homeland, they were also far from their God. They were adrift, and it felt as if all was lost — both the past and the future.

To then hear the words of the prophet beginning with “comfort my people” must have been startling, after all this time. Things had changed so much for those who originally came out from Jerusalem, the idea of comfort when they’d lost everything must have seemed absurd. And for those born into exile, what sort of comfort would be relevant to them? They understood this world and navigated it with ease — they had a harder time understanding their parents and grandparents and their attachment to the past. The challenge of speaking to multiple generations in a way that makes sense to each of them is not unique to our time.

Into this reality the prophet speaks, calling us out into the wilderness — the place where no one is comfortable. It is unfamiliar to everyone, and there’s no map ... in fact, there is no road. And there, in the place where all of us feel a little out of our element and a little off-balance, is where we are called to prepare the way for the Lord, to change the landscape so that God can be seen. 

It is big work, this preparation. Not just the seemingly insurmountable tasks of cleaning the house well enough for your parents to visit, or of getting the perfect gift and planning the perfect Christmas dinner, but a massive construction project. In preparation for God to come, we are to level mountains and fill in valleys and smooth out the rough ground. To level the playing field, removing barriers and changing the tangible things of this world to make it possible for everyone to experience God’s glory.

That’s what the prophet says — that all people will see God together, when the way is prepared. 

Can we even imagine such a world? Where we willingly leave our comfort zones in order to break down the barriers that block people’s view of God? In order that all people can know comfort?

What is so interesting about this to me is that the people were in exile — which is not exactly traditionally thought of as a comfortable place. But then again, even when things are not the way we want them to be, it is often more comfortable to put up with the problems we know than it is to go out and do something different. We know that it is scandalous that some should have excess while others have nothing. We know there are people deep in the valley, unable to climb out, while others sit back and enjoy their panoramic mountain top views. The world is full of rough ground that trips up those who don’t have connections or opportunities, while a few are lifted over and then don’t understand why everyone can’t just sail smoothly like they did. 

To go into the wilderness to prepare the way means that all of us — those of us born into exile who don’t know anything different, and those who have memories of the good old days — will have to leave behind what we know and work together on creating something new. One does not level a mountain or fill in a valley on one’s own. It’s a community endeavour. The same is true for creating a new system that doesn’t trample some down in order to raise a few up. This is a major reconstruction project, and it will be hard and sometimes painful work, to let go of the way we’ve always done things in order that a new way can be found.

Isaiah’s vision of the community coming together to prepare the way for the Lord echoes again in the Magnificat, the song that Mary sings when she is pregnant with Jesus. Mary sings of the poor being lifted up and the rich being brought down, the hungry filled with good things and the full sent away...of the world turning upside down, basically. And that’s what true equality would feel like, for those of us at the top of the mountain. But notice that neither Isaiah nor Mary says that the mountain will become the valley. This is about levelling. So that no one is sleeping in the car park or the doorway while a few metres away others live in luxury, no parent is relying on a foodbank box to feed their children while their neighbours have three course meals every day, no one is working three jobs just to keep a roof over their head while the companies they work for dodge taxes and the CEOs hide their billions off shore. 

The world we live in now has such a gap between the mountain heights and the valley depths, and it seems insurmountable. But nothing is impossible with God. And God has promised, and his word endures forever, even when our own enthusiasm for God’s kingdom has waxed and waned, withering like flowers in the sun when the task has been difficult. It may require more of us than we thought we could manage, and it will need every tool at our disposal, but it is also what we are called to do: to tangibly change the landscape of this world so that it looks more like the kingdom of God. The voice is calling, even now, even in election season, even in the midst of the terrors of the world and the twinkly lights of the holidays: in the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord. Raise up the valleys and bring down the mountains, level the ground so that everyone can see...God is coming. 

May it be so. Amen. 

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