Sermon ~ Sunday, December 10, 2017 ~ Pastor Neil Wilson
Prophets do not speak and their words are never recorded in a vacuum. There is always a political, historical social context. So allow me to bore you with a brief history lesson.
In the seventh century BCE the Assyrians swept from the north and conquered the Northern kingdom of Israel. We find prophecy relating to this in the first 39 chapters of Isaiah. This portion of Isaiah is often referred to as First Isaiah. Then, in the beginning of the sixth century BCE some 35 years or so later, the Babylonians invaded the southern kingdom of Judah, destroyed much of Jerusalem, disrupted the economy, and deported leading citizens to Babylon. All told the Babylonian kingdom occupied the land for 50 years. It is during the latter years of this Babylonian occupation and deportation that Isaiah 40 and the following chapters were recorded.
There is could be as many as 100 years between the events and people spoken of in chapters 39 and 40. Thus many scholars refer to Isaiah 1-39 as “First Isaiah” and beginning with chapter 40 as “Second Isaiah.” This “second Isaiah “emerges with his exquisite poetry and a very different tone with today’s reading. Isaiah chapter 40 contains poetry so beautiful that many included the likes of George Frideric Handel of the 18th century and Bono of U 2 of the 21st century felt the urge to interpret it in their music.
Isaiah seeks to bring back to life a people crushed under a shroud of death with this poetic image. While he writes among a people with little to hope for and perhaps even less to live for, yet he imagines a nation restored, a city rebuilt, and a people reunited in Zion.
Some scholars see in the words of Isaiah 40 the image of a great heavenly council. YHWH, the God of Israel has assembled a heavenly host. This is no council of bickering gods competing for position and control but servants of the Sovereign of the Universe, whose compassion and regard for justice distinguish this God from all others. I would like to play with this idea of a heavenly council a bit this morning.
The council has been assembled and we have gathered in the balcony. Before the council is the matter of the situation and condition of God’s children, the descendants of Abraham, the tribes of Israel. On the agenda are three items.
The first item: To find agreement among the council members that God’s people have indeed served their time, received enough punishment for all their sins and that the council needs to inform them of such decision.
For a grieving, futureless people, few words could be more surprising than the ones found here. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” For a people whose God had seemed to have been silent for all these years Isaiah opens with the longed-for consoling words. They have suffered “double for all their sins.” (v. 2 NRSV) Their suffering is massively disproportionate to anything they may have done. For second Isaiah, the people’s sin does not adequately explain the historical disaster of the Assyrian invasion and the Babylonian exile and actually could be seen as taking issue with other prophets at the time!
Send them a word of consolation: “Enough is enough, says yours God!”
Second agenda item: To determine the tone and the wording of the proclamation.
A voice is lifted up in the council:
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the way and level the highway” . . . for the glory of the Lord is about to be revealed!”
The message is clear: be ready, prepare now, for the Sovereign is coming. The Glory of the Lord could be translated as “the presence of the Lord shall appear.” All they may have hoped for, all they may have given up hoping for, is about to be realized! The God, this bruised and battered community, thought had abandoned them or perhaps had been defeated by stronger Babylonian gods, is announcing that God is coming, prepare the way, for you shall all see the presence of the Lord and you can count on it for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Then another voice in the council speaks up “Cry out!”
And another, “And I said, “What shall I cry?”
And there is a mini discussion which draws attention to more the content of the message
All people are grass . . . grass withers and flowers fade but the word of our God will stand forever.
This word, message is as steady, durable, and reliable as the God who sends it.
“You shall see your Lord!”
The third agenda item: To see to the proper commissioning of the prophet and setting out of the itinerary.
“You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain.
“You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid.”
The prophet is to go up high to project their voice far and wide as the good news, the message of joy is proclaimed. The charge is to cry out fearlessly.
But what is fearful about this message of redemption and return? Are the words too improbable to be believed among those to whom the prophet is to proclaim them? Even though they are in exile, have they grown comfortable enough with their life in Babylon?
Or is it the message that this God comes with strength, with arms outstretched in triumph, a God who it seems was not able to stop the invasion and subsequent exile?
But here God’s strength is paradoxical, because it is not the strength of a bloody avenger, a violent warrior, or a demanding judge. No this God’s strength appears in the barely thinkable power of gentleness, in a tender and caring presence, in intimacy such as a shepherd expresses when gathering the wounded, scattered flock.
Take a look at our own world, and consider how preposterous our message of the gospel sounds to many. It does indeed seem that the God of Israel and of Jesus has very little power in relation to the “gods” that seem to reign supreme in our 21st century “empire.”
Consumerism demands more of our resources, and our lust for cheap energy and convenient mobility threaten our environment. The conduct of war robs us of precious lives and international respect. Even in our own society religious zealotry pits one image of God against another, leaving the human community fractured and cynical.
How dare we speak of a God who promises to become present in a way that “all people shall see it together.” (v.5)
Yet, this is precisely what the faithful people of God are being commissioned to do. In the face of all the derision and indifference, we are to speak of this God whose fierce compassion and care for all of humanity trumps the power of the other “gods” who seem to enjoy sovereignty in our human relationships.
Advent is a time to hear these promises spoken or perhaps sung to the community of faith once again. It is a time for us, the faith community, to find our voice, overcome our objections and fears and speak words of comfort and assurance to all who feel separated from or abandoned by God. It is time to get passed the “Happy Holidays vs. Merry Christmas” debate! Is this our only message to a hurting world?
How will the world hear God’s real message of hope and deliverance, the message that God will arrive and will come in gentle power, when too all too many “we” seem to be more concerned about losing our faith because of how we greet each other during this season.
Let’s just begin by really noticing each other, by greeting the stranger with the love of God we come to know through Jesus. Is this not one way of speaking tenderly and preparing the way, leveling the paths, straightening out the highways to each other?
If we can do this then maybe, just maybe, the world might see that the glory of the Lord has been revealed.
And the heavenly council’s agenda will have been fulfilled!
Listen to Pastor Neil’s original Sermon from Sunday morning worship service by downloading the file below: