December 7, 2014
Second Sunday of Advent
First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
Consequences can be discouraging. We’ve all been there—after losing a game, after failing a test, after botching a job interview, after alienating a friend, after over-spending, after making an embarrassing mistake. How we respond to failure is a huge test of our character. It is tempting to give in to discouragement, to let yourself be overwhelmed by the taste of failure, to give up. At those moments of crisis, we often need a word of encouragement, of help and reassurance. If we don’t hear hope, don’t see a way forward, upward and out of our despair, then we can get lost in its sinking spiral. In this Sunday’s first reading, Isaiah offers a word of encouragement to the ancient Israelites and to us.
In the very first words of Handel’s Messiah, the tenor soloist sings out in warm tones Isaiah’s message of hope: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” The people had failed. They had been unfaithful to God. They had suffered the consequences. They were banished from Jerusalem. Their temple was torn down. They wept by the streams of Babylon. They “received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isa 40:2 RSV). It was a multi-generational failure. If you read through Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, you can see the momentum of judgment build as king after king fails to be faithful to the Lord and leads the people into idolatry. No one felt this failure more acutely than those who witnessed the destruction of Jerusalem and were carried off into exile. By this point in the text, Isaiah has pounded out thirty-nine chapters of judgment, thoroughly condemning the sinful practices of the people, but now is the moment where things turn.
The Babylon of Sin
Most of us have never been physically exiled from our homeland, however, we might have found ourselves under the reign of sin (see Rom 5:21). In fact, sin can be so powerful that it can enslave us (Rom 6:17) and function as an overlord dragging us away from true life before God into a spiritual exile in “Babylon.” Sin is so enticing because it appears to deliver happiness as a shortcut around all the hard work, self-discipline, and dedication to others that we know happiness really requires. Sin pretends to answer our longings in the way that Babylon seemed to be a great ally for ancient Judah. However, when the Babylonians sent ambassadors to visit King Hezekiah (as Isaiah reports immediately before our reading), and he showed them all the wealth of Jerusalem, they shrewdly decided to turn their prospective partners into cowering subjects and soon conquered Judah. Sin similarly pretends to be our partner, but ends up being our master. It tempts us by leading us to think we can control it, regulate it, limit its influence, but soon we can find ourselves controlled and overpowered by it. Sin appears to answer our cry for freedom, but actually forces us into servitude. True freedom lies in freedom from the slavery of sin.
Speak to the Heart
Translators are always traitors. Here in Isaiah 40:2, they usually take the Hebrew to say “speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” but literally it says, “speak to the heart of Jerusalem.” The people are discouraged after the time of judgment and exile and need some heartening words to lift their chins and re-embrace the covenant which God offers to them. The same applies to us. We need hope. We need to believe. We need to know that things can get better, that we can change, that we can love. This reading stirs the ingredients for hope in our hearts. It points out the power of a word of encouragement in a time a crisis. The hope-filled waiting of Advent reminds us that our slavery to sin and our “bondage to decay” (Rom 8:21) is temporary. A little baby will come on that extraordinary day at Bethlehem and set us free.
A Straight and Smooth Path
John the Baptist famously quotes these words of Isaiah to explain himself: “the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mark 1:3). He sees himself, dressed in camel hair and dunking people in the Jordan as a new kind of prophet, a forerunner, who makes way for the Messiah. But often, we hear about straight paths and flattened mountains without getting the idea behind it. In ancient Israel, you would never find a nice, straight, smooth road. If you had to travel, you’d be making do with cart paths, donkey trails, and winding roads that were not always well-maintained and avoided hills, mountains, and other obstacles. For us highway-driving moderns, travel would be a frustrating experience.
The crooked trails must have been annoying for the ancients too, because they constantly use “straightness” as a metaphor for righteousness: “he will make straight your paths” (Prov 3:6), “the blameless keeps his way straight” (Prov 11:5). A straight path was a sign that things were well in order and served as a powerful symbol for keeping God’s law. Not only was it desirable for one’s path to be straight, but broad and smooth as well. When Isaiah hammers home the metaphor with valley-raising, and mountain-flattening, he is highlighting the power of loving, covenantal obedience to the Lord. By faithfully keeping his word in the “wilderness” of Babylon or in the “Babylon” of sin, we prepare our hearts to receive what he has to offer. We can then receive the glad tidings of the personified Jerusalem, crying aloud from her mountain-top soapbox. What we find is not an angry God coming in judgment, but a shepherd-like king who carries the lambs in his arms. In fact, we find a baby.
So next time you find yourself letting disappointment or discouragement carry you down to the depths, think of that tenor’s voice pouring like honey over the stage: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.” You might just find yourself riding the tide of a rising valley out of Babylon and into Bethlehem.