The Rule of God, for Us, Advent 2 – December 10, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

Comfort, O comfort. There is so much need for comfort in this world of heartbreak where we find ourselves. Every day, we hear new stories of how we have failed each other, how we have used our talents, gifts, power, and position to maneuver our way to “success” at the expense of so many others. We have so completely fallen for this version of the world that we expect losers and winners at every turn. If you are not a winner, you are a loser. If not a loser, a winner, and the winners get to be in charge. They get to use their power to remind everyone else who is on top. In this way, living in this kind of world, we can relate to the exiled community of Israelites. The Babylonians were clearly the winners of this power struggle; they used their power to take over and kick out the losers. They used their power to enact laws that undermined the foundations of the Jewish people, their culture, and their faith. They used their power to proclaim again and again that they were the winners. Despite all of this, feeling forgotten and alone, strangers in a strange land, God was with God’s people. God did not abandon them.

Comfort, O Comfort. The prophet has given many commands in this passage, but the first was to comfort. To be human is to be vulnerable. This vulnerability leaves us with many reasons to need comfort. We are hurt – physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. The community to which Isaiah was called was an especially vulnerable community, suffering the effects of years in exile. Though most of us may never understand that form of vulnerability, we can all acknowledge our need for comfort in the midst of our variety of vulnerabilities. Yet, what is especially interesting to notice is that God does not call for comfort alone. Specifically, we are not meant to get comfortable, but to be comforted so we can then be moved into action. The way of the Lord is prepared in the midst of our mutual suffering. In our compassion for one another, the way of the Lord is made clear. The Good News breaks through with the promise of new life and a new way of being together.

Lift up your voice. From comfort, God’s people are called into action. Not just any action, but an action of proclamation and gathering together, centered on the unwavering promises of God. This call to action is for the whole body, not just a few specially gifted wordsmiths. What would it mean for us to take this call to lift our voices seriously? What keeps us as a community from unabashedly proclaiming the Good News of God for us? Too often, we allow our individualism and busyness to distract us from the call of God to a life of community. Our individual calendars and task lists put the proclamation of Good News low on the priority list. How often is proclamation honestly discussed together in congregational meetings or when organizing the yearly budget? This is a challenge that brings us to a variety of excuses, often using other words from scripture that allude to spiritual gifts or priestly duties. Yet again, we use our individuality to shield us from the very real call to gather and proclaim. Perhaps this is why following closely after the call to lift up our voices (with strength!) the prophet adds, “Do not fear.”

Say and see; the Lord God comes. God’s word, God’s promises, will stand forever. Here, as we rise to the call to action, we are given a vision of God arriving to fulfill God’s promises. These promises come by way of God’s might, but God’s might is not what we would think. God’s might is not wielded in the same manner of the winners of this world. Although a glorious promise, herein lies another challenge. Will we recognize and accept this kind of power, this new world to come? The truth is, we like being winners. While we may not always find ourselves in the winner’s circle, we enjoy the idea of being there someday. The rules are easier to understand in a world where there are winners and losers. In this world, we also retain our control, or at least our idea of control. If we are honest, we also like this version of the world because we can believe that we do not have to rely on anyone but ourselves. Yet, in today’s word from Isaiah, we hear clearly that God promises a world reliant on God. It is God who will gather us, care for us, and lead us home.

The Lord God comes with might. We rely on God’s might, under the rule of God’s arm. This rule is powerful but does not warp power in the same ways we are used to. Instead, the rule and power of God are about restoration. The rule of God’s arm brings recompense. Dictionary.com defines recompense in two ways: “To pay or give compensation for; make restitution or requital for (damage, injury, or the like),” and, “To make compensation for something; repay someone.” One can imagine that this is an especially powerful word for a community in exile. In what ways do you need the promise of recompense? In what ways does our world need the promise of God’s rule? Though challenging to our current way of life, we hear the cry for recompense echoing on city streets, barren farmlands, school classrooms, concert venues, and country churches. One thing is certain: our world needs a God of comfort and justice. That is Good News for which we are to hope. That is Good News to proclaim.

God’s rule for us. God’s rule is a promise. This is a promise to a scattered community, crying out in loss and pain. This is a promise that is not dependent on winners and losers, but dependent on the very being – the essence – of our God. The reward is our reliance on a trustworthy God who never leaves God’s people, no matter how bad things may get. In fact, our God enters into even the worst places of our world to gather and lead the beloved community into new life together, time and time again. This truth is where we find our comfort and hope. This truth is what we are called to proclaim to all because it is a truth for all. God’s might and reward are not for winners or losers, but for all. Our scripture today closes with the beautiful image of the new way of life under God’s rule, where we are gathered, held close, fed, and led gently. As a song goes, “Home is wherever I’m with you.” May we, along with the exiled peoples of the past and present, hold fast to the promise of our God, who comes to gather us home. It is this promise of home that we await in this Advent season, preparing for the Savior to come, born a loser in this world, to hang out with losers of this world, named Emmanuel, God with us, so that we may find home in God, with us, for us.

Casey Cross is the Young Disciples Director at Hope Lutheran Church (ELCA) in Eagle, ID. You can read more of her sermons, devotions, thoughts, and youth ministry ideas at caseykcross.wordpress.com.

Download the sermon for Advent 2 (B).

Finding comfort vs. being comfortable, 2 Advent (B) – 2014

December 7, 2014

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

“Comfort ye! … Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain made low.”

What heart-lifting words we hear from our God shouted across the millennia into our very own day. Isaiah offers us images in just 11 verses that have become the focus of artists and musicians who have turned the words into pictures and music that channel our thoughts deep into the heart of God. We lay grasped by God’s arms and held tightly – our fears and concerns known by this immanent God who wants us to share those worries, and trust they are as important to God as they are to us.

A tenor opens Handel’s “Messiah” with a delicate, yet brilliant “Comfort ye!” When you listen to it, does your hear not soar with the beauty? This is our God calling out to us in our world – this world torn by evil, war and debilitating poverty.

Can there be any comfort for us? Maybe, for those of us who live in a relatively safe country, for those of us who have more than we need – a roof over our heads, food, clothing, safety. We can become comfortable, which is different from finding comfort. And we can feel that being comfortable is enough, perhaps until life takes a disastrous turn.

We can take God’s presence in our hearts for granted. But this isn’t the comfort Isaiah is talking about. His comfort is an overwhelming truth that surpasses the feeling of having “enough,” his comfort is the comfort of our God, who lives deep in our lives, even when we don’t think about it, even if we may not believe it, even if our fear blinds us to that presence.

The prophet goes on to explain what the truth of God will do for us. Valleys will be raised up, mountains will be laid low! No, Isaiah is not talking about a disastrous environmental exercise, he’s, of course, using an image to explain how the coming of the Lord will level the way for all people to see God’s glory and share in God’s goodness.

What a wonderful image! Instead of struggling over the rocky wilderness paths up into the mountains and down across arid deserts, the people will have a safe highway, broad and smooth. Even in life’s most difficult moments, God leads the soul along that safe, broad highway.

“But,” we may want to argue, “look at our world. See the things happening to people that would make a rocky path and an arid desert walk look like a picnic in the park. This image doesn’t work.”

And that’s true. Life does seem to throw ever more obstacles into our paths. Where is this highway?

And so, we continue reading the prophet’s words and find that, yes, we are all grass, and grass withers and fades; we are mortal, and life is often difficult. So, to make this highway image work at all in our world, we are told we must work together. We must want this world to change, we must also see beyond this mortal life and trust in God’s promise of eternal life.

“All people shall see it together,” says Isaiah. One way to think about this image is that we won’t see it if we harbor exclusion in our hearts. When we choose to separate ourselves from any of our neighbors, we begin to see only ourselves. We may not be aware of it, but doing that makes us stumble along the rocky path of injustice and sadness – a path that causes us to circle only inward, blindly into the darkness of self.

Another way to think about it is to look at what happens when groups join forces out of hatred for others, or ignorance or fear. The Israelites sometimes found themselves carried off to foreign lands because of their unfaithfulness. Some then took on the practices and idolatry of the pagan nations, to their downfall. They lost everything. We see the same thing happening today. Children get caught up in bullying, out of fear or a need to be accepted. Young people join gangs. People are drawn into terrorist organizations, to the horror of their families and friends. Sadly, we can be lured off the highway of our God by temptation and the false, bright promises of evil.

But all is certainly not lost. If we keep reading, we come to the final image of our passage and can’t help but hear again Handel’s “Messiah,” when the soprano’s beautiful voice sings, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd and he shall gather the lambs with his arm … with his arm.”

On our worst days, the Shepherd is with us. We need only to turn back and allow him to offer comfort and forgiveness. The sheep of his flock are a community – a community like us. Together, a community can offer healing and love to those who have been excluded. A community can begin dealing with their issues of poverty and helplessness.

We don’t have to build that level highway; God does that for us if we open our eyes and hearts to the gifts God has placed in our midst. We can begin demolishing the lure of evil, the temptation of ill-gotten power and greed if we work together with our children, being unafraid to teach about the power and graciousness of our God – if we ourselves are unafraid to trust that God is our shepherd, that God is our comfort.

In just a few weeks, the Incarnation of our God will descend over us like a blanket of stars, and we will be filled with the song of angels, the gentle amazement of shepherds, and the humility of the kings. If the image and the songs of Bethlehem can fill us that day, we might pray during these last few weeks of waiting that our hearts will be filled with the comfort of God and strengthened to bring that Good News to all.

 

– The Rev. Dr. Susanna Metz is vicar of Petrockstowe in the Torridge Team, Diocese of Exeter, North Devon, England, and is the publisher of Tuesday Morning, a quarterly journal focused on lectionary-based preaching and ministry.

Doing what you can, 2 Advent (B) – 2011

December 4, 2011

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

In 2009 the Dutch filmmaker Enno de Jonge returned to Rio de Janeiro to find the street children he had photographed eighteen years before. He started his search where he had begun the project, at St. Martin’s Foundation. St. Martin’s is a citywide program for street children run by the Roman Catholic Carmelite order in Rio, where Enno had taken pictures of 30 homeless boys and girls from 7 to 18 years of age. But after a month of searching, he found only one: Maria, now 25 and the mother of two.

While Maria viewed Enno’s album of aging photographs, she pointed as she went, “This one is dead. This one too. This one died in the children’s massacre. This one has a son living on the street.” Enno estimated that at least a third of the kids were dead, half of the survivors were in prison, and the rest, except for Maria, were still on the street.

Who will hear the cry of Rio’s large population of street children to save them from hunger, misery, prison, and death? So far, society’s response has not been kind. It was not kind to the cries of John the Baptist some 2,000 years ago, nor is it kind now. Is the situation hopeless? Are these and the other causes for God’s Kingdom impossible? This season of Advent calls us to wake up, pay attention, and find the glimmers of light in the overwhelming darkness. Find hints of progress, take courage, and realize the Kingdom at work among us.

At about the same time the filmmaker returned to Rio, Americans Phil and Sarah arrived there, fulfilling a lifelong dream of becoming mission partners. They were to teach at a facility of St. Martin’s in the city’s northern zone that offers educational and recreational activities to Rio’s street children. One of their Brazilian sponsors, used to the unrealistic expectations of many foreign missionaries, had warned them, not unkindly, “These kids will never amount to anything. The most you can hope for is that they will stay with you while you keep them occupied.”

Phil and Sarah chose not to believe such voices. They had resources that included a dedicated building, classrooms, supplies, support staff, even a little money. While Sarah used her knowledge as a professional artist to teach poor children how to draw, Phil drew upon his years as a university language professor to teach English to a small group of adolescents. There were to be no textbooks and formal assignments to frighten the kids off, but rather simple dialogues that would build on one another, week after week, and eventually students would be able to sustain basic conversation.

Although Phil spent countless hours creating lesson plans, almost a year went by and his students were still struggling to master the first dialogue, based on “How are you? I am fine.” Every week he began his class with a review of that material, expecting to quickly move on, and every week almost the entire class hour was taken with just the review. By the time Phil and Sarah left Rio, the group’s English language skills were about where they were when they started. Phil gave thanks he had not invested money in textbooks.

Sarah, for her part, struggled with fortifying the children’s self-esteem. Many were convinced they could not draw, and the least confident used art class as a time to act out. One in particular, Christian, a boy of about 10, was known to be a troublemaker. Few of the staff allowed him into their classes. In Sarah’s workshop, he refused to draw; instead he preferred to create havoc among the other children by shouting and shoving. Sarah knew it was not worth indulging in lecture and punishment; that was probably already a constant in his short life. Instead, Sarah simply stayed with him, offering encouragement until one day the child began to draw. It took perseverance, but by the second month of classes, he was absorbed in his work – sometimes. Sarah never knew which Christian she would encounter on a given studio day – the troublemaker or the budding artist.

Both Phil and Sarah felt a bit like John the Baptist, described in today’s gospel reading, after the text of Isaiah, as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness”; as one to whom many flocked, but whose message went, if not unheard, unheeded.

At times like this, it might be well to recall that we are to repent from believing we are in control. None of us, not Phil and Sarah, not John, perhaps not even Jesus, is in control; the Spirit is. We lead lives of holiness by heeding St. Paul’s reminder to the Philippians that “it is God who works in you, inspiring both the will and the deed, for his own chosen purpose.” This puts a humble lowercase on the word “ministry.” We may think we know how and what we are doing, but in reality it is the Spirit working in and through us. Be patient, Advent mandates. Things are not as they seem; persevere in seeking and following even the smallest glimmer of God manifest. This is your repentance.

It wasn’t until the bitter end, when they were moving on to a new ministry in the south that Phil came to realize the worth of his work. He was stunned by the outpouring of affection he received from his students upon saying goodbye on his final day in Rio. They organized a going-away party and gave him a long-sleeved sweater, sorely needed in the cold south. And upon his arrival at the new site, he received a touching e-mail in which one of his Rio students said, ruefully, she had learned little English, which Phil knew, but she had gained admiration for the person who had left everything to serve the poor. Phil realized with some astonishment that English-language learning was the least of it. It was his presence among them that the teens had come to cherish.

Phil and Sarah thought back to the challenging words: “The most you can hope for is that they will stay with you,” and realized they had missed a sign. The English “stay” is only one translation of the Portuguese “ficar.” A more common translation is “be.” The missionaries had not been told the street children would stay with them as much as they would be with them. Their ministry was not one of doing, but one of being present to Jesus in their midst.

Sarah learned early on that her work was less about art and more about presence: she to the children but more, seeing Jesus in the children. This was not so hard to do on the good days, but when Christian was out of sorts, she struggled to hang on to the light of hope that Christian emitted on his better days.

John the Baptist was right; the Kingdom of God is at hand. It is right here, right now. Advent asks: Who of us will echo his voice? Who of us will respond?

Only the strong of heart have the courage to try. A Brazilian teacher at St. Martin’s likens it to the fable of the hummingbird who tries to put out the fire raging in its beautiful forest home by carrying in its beak one drop of water at a time to the blaze. When asked by the other animals why she even bothers, the hummingbird responds, “I’m doing what I can.”

John did what he could, one baptism at a time. St. Martin’s, as well as Phil and Sarah, are doing what they can, one child at a time. What are you doing?

 

— barbara baumgarten is a visual artist and author. She holds her doctorate from the Graduate Theological Union at Berkeley, California. David Catron is a linguist and writer with a Ph.D. in Romance Languages from the University of Michigan. Currently, barbara and David are partners in mission with the Igreja Episcopal Anglicana do Brasil (IEAB). 

Take the challenge, 2 Advent (B) – 2008

December 7, 2008

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

We encounter two voices crying out from the wilderness on this Second Sunday of Advent. The prophet Isaiah calls, “Comfort, O Comfort My People,” and John the Baptist shouts, “Prepare the Way of the Lord.” These stories are joined by more than the prophetic voice. In both our gospel reading and the reading from Isaiah, we take up a story after a significant gap of time.

The gospel reading for this morning was the opening eight verses of the Gospel of Mark. And after a brief preamble, in which the evangelist writes, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” letting us know what sort of story we are going to hear, we get a quote from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah foretold of one who would come to make straight the paths before the coming of the Lord. Then, so there will be no mistake about who this text refers to, Mark introduces the wild and wooly prophet of the New Testament, whom he calls John the Baptizer.

This is how Mark bridges the distance of roughly five centuries. Mark reduces that time gap of half a millennium by following the words of the prophet Isaiah with the words of John the Baptist. In doing so, Mark reveals that the story of God’s love, begun in the creation, is ongoing. As it was foretold long ago, so now God’s story takes up anew with the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God.

This gap between the Old and New Testaments is one more familiar to us. Even if you did not know how long a gap was involved, you probably already knew that there was a break between the two testaments. We encountered a similar break in Isaiah 40, though this one was less obvious.

The earliest Christian writers whose works were revered, but not included in the Bible are usually called as a group, the Church Fathers, and they wrote in the first five centuries of Christianity. These early commentators on scripture agree with modern scholars that there is a considerable gap of time between Isaiah 39 and Isaiah 40. In chapters 1-39, the prophet warns that if the people do not repent and return to the Lord then Jerusalem will fall to its enemies. History shows that this very thing happened.

In 587 B.C., the Babylonian army defeated Israel and took the bulk of the populace, including all of the leadership, into captivity in Babylon. The Jewish people remained in this Babylonian captivity for 48 years. Isaiah chapter 39 was written about Israel’s impending doom. For example, in chapter 39, verse 6, the prophet wrote, “Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left says the Lord.”

This prophecy did nothing to make Isaiah popular. You see, the people of Israel had assumed that as God’s people, God would protect them from any real harm. Surely God would not let Jerusalem and its Temple fall into the hands of the enemy.

Yet the prophets warned that the people were to repent – to turn away from sin, to turn back to God. The prophets warned that unless Israel acted like the People of God they were created to be, God’s protection would not hold.

Jerusalem did fall to the Babylonians, bringing a great social, political, and theological tragedy. After all, how do we know if God loves and cares for us when we see all we care about crumbling around us? Where is God when your dreams lie smashed at your feet?

Isaiah 40 comes into the crushing reality of defeat with a very different word from God. In the midst of the distress created by their defeat in battle and deportation to a foreign land, God sends the prophet to call out, “Comfort, O comfort my people.”

Then we get the words that connect this passage in Isaiah 40 to the opening of Mark’s gospel, for the prophet writes:

“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.’”

Prepare the way for the Lord. This was Isaiah’s message, and it is John’s message as the New Testament opens more than five centuries after Isaiah. Isaiah goes on with a not-too-comforting message, reminding us of how transitory human life is from God’s perspective. He writes, “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.”

What then is permanent? What then shall we count on?

The prophet answers that it is God’s word that never fails. He writes, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” It is this word of God that endures.

Isaiah, having reminded the people of how temporary they are, then reminds them of the everlasting nature of God’s word. Why do this? Because it was God’s word that the people ignored before they found themselves in captivity. And it is this word of God that has the power to reinvigorate them and return Israel to acknowledging that they are God’s people and to living into that knowledge.

The prophet then describes the comfort God gives with a reassuring image, “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.” These were written as words of comfort to a people who had come to wonder if God cared for them. They were not worried whether God existed. In experiencing judgment, they more likely came to the conclusion that there is a God, but that God is unloving. Then the prophet gives these words of comfort, reminding the people that “the Lord is our shepherd.”

The pattern is all too familiar. Tragedy strikes and the question rings out, “Where was God when this happened?”

How can we account for all the chances and changes of this life, from child abuse to wild fires? Scripture does speak to those concerns, but one can have trouble hearing the voice of God in scripture if the context for hearing the answer is wrong. Tragedy strikes; then we run to the Bible for answers. The text wasn’t designed to work that way. The Bible is not a troubleshooting guide for life. The Bible is God’s living word created to speak to your heart each day.

This has long been the Episcopal Church’s way to encounter scripture – as part of a pattern of daily reading. The daily offices of The Book of Common Prayer were designed centuries ago with daily reading of scripture in the context of worship for all the church. Forward Day by Day, a free daily devotional booklet that the church puts out each year, was created to encourage that daily reading of scripture. The same lectionary readings that are used in The Book of Common Prayer for morning and evening prayer are used in Forward Day by Day. Either source will take less than half an hour to read each day.

With this brief commitment of time added to your morning routine or your commute time, you can marinate your life in God’s word. What this will do for your outlook over time is revolutionary. Rather than encountering issues in life and running to the Bible for answers, you will immerse yourself in the Bible daily and live into the answers from that new outlook.

From God’s standpoint, human life is as fleeting as the grass of the field. Yet God has given our fleeting lives something enduring to which we can anchor – the words of scripture. These are the words that bring comfort and challenge as needed after a long pause of being away from God. These are the words that reveal God’s glory.

Take the challenge. Transform this coming year of your life. Read the Bible a little each day, and in so doing, prepare the way of the Lord.

 

— The Rev. Frank Logue is a church planter in the Diocese of Georgia and the vicar of King of Peace Episcopal Church in Kingsland, Georgia.

2 Advent (B) – 2005

December 4, 2005

Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8

In the year 539 BC, Cyrus, the ruler of the Persians, conquered the Babylonians. A relatively benign and tolerant ruler, in the following year Cyrus allowed the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem and Judea and resume their customs and traditions, provided that they recognized his authority. Around the time of Cyrus’ decree, the prophet Isaiah wrote these words”

“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. (Isaiah 40.1-2)

“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” (Isaiah 40.6-7).

When we read Isaiah we should remember that the prophets of Israel were poets. Modern translations of the Bible are helpful, because unlike older translations, the newer ones arrange many of the words of the prophets in poetic lines and verses. Not only was Isaiah a poet, there is an inherently musical quality in many of his words that musicians throughout the ages have recognized.

There can hardly be a person in most churches who can hear or read the first verse of Isaiah 40 without mentally hearing George Frederick Handel’s magnificent setting of the Authorized Version of this text: “Comfort ye, my people.” That setting, of course, is one of the arias in Handel’s Messiah, an oratorio that premiered in Dublin in 1751

But how many people also hear in their heads Johannes Brahms’ setting of verse 7: “The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it…” Brahms set Isaiah’s words for his moving German Requiem that premiered in Dresden in 1868.

The two settings could not be more different. Handel’s setting of the words “Comfort ye, my people” is tender, sweet, and lyrical. Brahms’ setting of “the grass withers, the flower fades” is rugged and stern. Handel’s music lulls and soothes us with its message of profound comfort; Brahms’ music is a chilling but necessary reminder of our mortality. Yet, there was one inspiration for both composers: Isaiah’s words spoken to Jewish exiles in faraway Babylon.

What possible connection could the two messages have? Could chapter 40 of Isaiah have been sung by the Jewish exiles in Babylon? We know that they sang. Psalm 137 records the poignant lament of the exiles: “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion… For there our captors asked us for songs and our tormentors asked for mirth… How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137.1-4) Music has a remarkable power to refresh, sustain, and lift spirits. Think of the African-American spirituals sung by captured Africans in their exile. Like the words of Isaiah, the words of the spirituals are both comforting and mournful: “Deep river … my home is over Jordan,”  “Steal away to Jesus,” and “Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.”

The Jewish exiles in Babylon needed comfort, for they knew all too well that human flesh was as weak and frail as the grass and flowers that briefly flourished on the Judean hillsides before being blasted and withered by the hot, dry winds. Like the scorching sirocco they had seen the Babylonian chariots sweep down on them. They had seen Jerusalem and Solomon’s great temple burn like so much dry grass. And like dry straw scattered in the wind they had been scattered; some of them had gone into exile in Egypt, most had been taken by the enemy to Babylon. What they had not yet seen was this “comfort” of which Isaiah spoke.

Advent reminds us that we, too, are exiles. The exiles in Babylon looked back to the days when they lived peacefully in their own lands and looked forward to their return. Like the exiles in Babylon, we live between the times, looking back to God’s coming among us in the babe of Bethlehem and to his coming again “in power and great glory”. Like the Jewish exiles and like African captives brought to America, we need songs to sustain us. We need songs to lift our spirits, because we also know that “all people are grass,” that human flesh is as insubstantial as a flower in the desert.

Interestingly, the word Isaiah used for breath, ruach, is also the word for wind and spirit. God sends the sirocco from the desert and the breath in our lungs and the spirit that sustains our being. The sirocco withers the grass; the body dies when the breath is withdrawn; and the spirit is God’s to send or withdraw as God pleases. Just as we fill our lungs with air to sing our songs of exile, so God’s Spirit fills our beings.

The familiar songs of Advent are often songs of longing and exile: “O come, O come, Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel that waits in lonely exile here.” But Advent points us toward a future when we will be given a new song to sing, not a song of exile but a song of triumphant redemption. For we journey through a world and a time when there is often little sign of God’s presence. The spirit or wind that touches our lives seems too often to be the hot, dry desert wind that withers the flowers of the field. But we journey on with God’s song on our lips and God’s breath in our lungs and God’s spirit sustaining us. We journey on toward a world and a time when the grass and the flowers will flourish, the trees will clap their hands, and all of God’s creation will sing joyously, “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.” Even so, quickly come, Lord Jesus.

 

— The Rev. Dr. J. Barry Vaughn, has preached at Harvard University’s Memorial Church, Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford, and the Chautauqua Institution. More than 50 of his sermons have been published. He holds degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Scotland’s University of St. Andrews. Presently, he teaches history at the University of Alabama.