Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, December 7, 2014; (Second Sunday in Advent).
The year is about 540 BC. The place is Babylon, capitol of the Babylonian Empire.
Only a generation ago, in the year 587 BC, Nebuchadnezzar’s army destroyed the Nation of Judah, the City of Jerusalem, and Solomon’s Temple. Much of the surviving population, including most of the upper classes of Judah – priests, nobility, scholars and their families – are imprisoned and then exiled here, in an alien land totally unlike the isolated mountaintop fortress of Jerusalem. Their new home is perhaps the greatest city on earth, containing people of many cultures, languages and faiths. Strange people, strange ideas, and strange gods are all around them, challenging the Jews and their faith in ways they never imagined.
They are strangers in that strange land. The fact is, they have lost everything – friends, family, home, possessions, status, and even – or so they think – their God. And even if God is not lost, what good is God, since the strange gods of this strange land are clearly more powerful? And besides, how can they hear from God, even if God still lives? God’s home among them was destroyed, too.
The news from back home is just as troubling: the prophet Obadiah tells us that marauders and armies from nearby lands, such as Edom, are sweeping through the ruined land, murdering those left behind, and plundering what little of value remains.
The People of God see themselves as the walking dead, soon to forever vanish and be forgotten. All is darkness. All is lost. They are lost: whether they are scrabbling to survive among the ruins of Judah, or living in exile in the all too alluring and exciting materialism and corruption of cosmopolitan Babylon.
The facts are indisputable: the future holds no hope at all for them, nor for their faith.
But then, this generation that is lost in that wilderness, in darkness and pain and doubt; hears Daniel and Ezekiel, among others, prophesy that God is not lost or dead. They are not forgotten. Israel and the Temple will be restored. Regardless of the obvious facts confronting them, there is hope, because the fact is that God is, and is there, in exile with them.
And then in about 539 BC; Nabonidus, the last Babylonian Emperor, is overthrown by Cyrus the Great. Hope is reborn. The facts were clear, but it is God who is writing the story.
Our Old Testament text was written at this critical moment in Israel’s history. It reflects that rekindling of hope, saying: 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 she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
Who this prophet that we know as Second Isaiah really was, we simply do not know. All we know is that their words were appended to the end of the well-known prophesies, more than a century old at the time, that form the first 39 chapters of the Book of Isaiah. Those who compiled the Hebrew Scriptures deliberately preserved the First Isaiah’s prophesies of doom and destruction within the same narrative as the Second Isaiah’s words of satisfied judgment, hope, and redemption.
Second Isaiah does not deny the fact that the people of God have sinned, distancing themselves from their loving God; and, acknowledges that they have paid a heavy price for their abandonment of God.
But now, as Ezekiel had foreseen in his prophesy of the Valley of Dry Bones; the People of God are being restored, and will live again. The time of exile is ending. The period of mourning is over, and restoration is at hand.
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,” says Second Isaiah, “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” … The people will soon return to Jerusalem, and they will begin rebuilding the Temple, as Cyrus the Great commanded them to do. God’s exile is ending, too.
Half a millennium later, in a time similar to the period preceding the Babylonian destruction and exile, the Gospel of Mark tells us of a voice calling out from the desert wilderness of Judah. The voice is of a man clad in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, preaching a gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
But, before having John the Baptizer announce to us that one greater than even he is coming, Mark quotes from Second Isaiah, telling us “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” The words of John and eventually Jesus both teach us that the people have again exiled God from their hearts, and are paying the price through the oppression of their Roman masters and corrupted leadership. (The New Testament often refers to Rome as “Babylon” very deliberately, and for good reason.) But they also tell us, now is the time to prepare for God’s return.
A wise farmer only sows after the field is tilled. No architect begins construction before the building site is prepared; and in Mark’s text, we see that in the same way, God’s presence will not be made manifest until we have made ourselves ready. “Prepare the way of the Lord!” Mark writes, then tells us that John proclaims a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Mark is saying that we must prepare ourselves for Christ’s arrival; which is also the purpose of the Advent Season.
Advent is not simply a celebration of the impending birth of the Christ Child. It is not about buying presents or decorating trees or baking cookies, wearing garish sweaters or singing beloved old carols. These are all good things (well, hopefully). Such things are an outgrowth of our worldly desire to focus on the good and the joy. Because we are human, we would rather avoid thinking about less pleasant things. Again, this is not a bad thing.
Advent is intended to break our daily routine, to shake us up a bit, to take our focus off everyday things and pleasant things, and turn us to contemplate our need for God. It prepares us for the coming of the Christ Child, and anticipates our baptism, if you will, with the Holy Spirit; which comes to us through God’s gift of that child. Ultimately, Advent is about replacing our human nature with God’s nature.
And in this second week of the season, we are with the exiled Jews in Babylon and with those who sit at the feet of John the Baptist. The fact is, we have failed, and we know it. The fact is, we have fallen short, and we know it. The fact is, we are broken and in need of healing, and we know it. The fact is, we, know we cannot do it ourselves. In short, because of the facts, we know we need the healing touch of God, through the Holy Spirit.
But it is also a fact that God hears us, and it is God who writes the story.
God hears our cries. God sees the injustice in places like Jerusalem, Ferguson and Cleveland, New York City and the border with Mexico. God hears the cries of the poor and powerless who are imprisoned or exiled from our society, while those with wealth and influence do not hear them, often committing great crimes themselves and yet walking free. God hears the meaningless tirades that our politicians fling at each other in their battles for political supremacy within the halls of our government, and yet God also sees the homeless struggling to find warmth and food on streets that are literally right outside those same Babylonian monuments to our worldly power and pride.
God sees the sin. God knows there is a price for sin, a price we pay for the corruption that is within us and with which we surround ourselves.
The facts are clear: we cannot escape our own sin, but it is God who is writing the story.
A Babe will be born, and will grow into adulthood, walking this earth as any human being does. Jesus will experience the love of his mother. He will play in the streets, having fun, and arguing, with his friends and siblings, as any child does. He will hear his people’s stories, go to school, learn the scriptures, find his own identity, develop his own voice, and embark on his own journey towards God, as we all do. He will laugh, weep, celebrate, starve, love, and be betrayed by those whom he loves, as we all do.
The fact is, he will be fully human, just like us. But it is God who writes the story.
The Baptist anticipates the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and tells us its purpose: not to preach the forgiveness of sins or to be baptized with water, as he is doing; but to baptize us with the Holy Spirit.
The Baptist came to cleanse us, to prepare us, for the coming of Jesus. John’s words echo the words of Second Isaiah, speaking of repentance and rebirth. The Baptist helps us acknowledge and repent for our sins; setting aside our flawed human spirit, to make room for the Holy Spirit that is to come.
The teaching of John the Baptist and of Second Isaiah prepare us for our own encounter with God. Where we are confronted with the facts of our flawed and broken lives, but where we then learn that it is God who is writing the story.
The “sin” we see in others may be that they depend on public aid, are poor, or a felon. Maybe we see them as lazy or self-centered. Perhaps they love the wrong person, have the wrong skin color, or were not born in this country. Maybe they don’t see the truth as we do – they may not be Christian, may not be our type of Christian, or perhaps they vote for the wrong political party.
But, Advent tells us we are just as flawed and hurting as they, and just as in need of healing and redemption. The “problem” is not the sin we see in them, but the difficulty we have in seeing the sin within ourselves. So, Advent asks us to contemplate our own sin, not theirs.
Because, the issue is not that they are flawed, but rather that we see them as flawed, which God does not, and it is God who writes the story. The FACT is that they are a child of God, just as we are. The FACT is that God loves them as much as God loves us. The FACT is that they are no more flawed than we. The FACT is that we are not seeing our own flaws. And, the FACT is, that we are imagining we see what their flaws are, when only God truly knows. And finally, the FACT is that God loves them – and us – despite all of these flaws, all of this sin, that we cannot escape.
The purpose of the season of Advent is not to prepare for Christmas, but to reflect upon our own brokenness, our own sin, and our need for the redemption and healing that is abundantly and freely available to us through the gift and message of Christ: who came into this world to share our journey with us, to show us how to love one another in spite of our flaws, and our flawed view of the facts.
And so, during this Advent Season, we are called to choose Faith, in spite of OUR facts, because the ultimate FACT is that God loves each and every microscopic bit of Creation, including us, just as we are, regardless of the flaws and sin we see in ourselves or in each other. The limitless Love of God is enacted in the determination of this congregation to love everyone just as they are, no matter who they are, no matter where they are. This Love that is made available through the presence of the Holy Spirit in each and every one of us.
Advent encourages us to choose God BECAUSE of the facts, not in spite of them; and to remember that it is God who writes our story, a story that always ends in the embrace of God’s eternal, fierce, and unrelenting love for us.
Copyright (c) 2014, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)