Grace Presbyterian Church
December 8, 2019, Advent 2A
The description is from Isaiah 40:3. Because Matthew apparently refers to the Septuagint, the very early Greek translation of Hebrew Scripture that would have been highly circulated in his time, his quotation is slightly different from what you’d find if you looked up Isaiah 40:3 in your pew Bible. Still, it’s the same bit of prophetic outcry that was made famous by Handel in one of the early solos in his oratorio Messiah [note: it’s around 2:15]:
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness:
Prepare ye the way of the Lord!
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
If Broadway is more your speed, you might remember the opening song from the musical Godspell, first sung by a solo singer, then eventually by the full cast. Pre-ee-ee-pare ye the waaaay oooooffff the Lord…..”
It’s a catchy little bit of prophecy, you might say, and easily set to music.
It is also in some ways a high point of a panel of readings that come togther on this second Sunday of Advent. The responsive reading we spoke together gives a glimpse into the people’s yearning for a just and righteous king. From the very beginning of the psalm we hear the plea for a ruler who embodies and enacts two things that were far too often lacking in the kings of Israel and Judah: justice and righteousness.
You can read, back in the eighth chapter of 1 Samuel, how at a time when Samuel the prophet was getting old and his sons weren’t living up to his legacy, the people of Israel took their grievances to Samuel, complaining and asking to have a king “to govern us, like other nations.” As God pointed out to Samuel at the time, it wasn’t Samuel the people were rejecting, but God’s own kingship over them. Nonetheless God told Samuel to give them what they wanted.
Suffice it to say that by the time of both the Psalms and Isaiah readings, the people had experienced plenty of opportunity to regret that choice, even if they never admitted it. The psalm reading demonstrates clearly what the people had given up in rejecting God’s rule all those years before. Justice and righteousness were absent from their rule far too often, oppression ran rampant, and the poor and needy were defenseless and abused routinely. The psalmist pleads for a king who rules with justice and righteousness, with favor for the needy and oppressed – in other words, a king who ruled the way God ruled.
The account from the prophet Isaiah comes from an even more stark and bleak perspective. By this time Israel and Judah have both been conquered, and their leaders, unjust and unrighteous as they were, turned out also to be quite powerless and incompetent in the face of those kings the people of Israel (the ones Israel had apparently been jealous about back in Samuel’s time). The people of the two kingdoms saw their rulers hauled off like common prisoners and humiliated, sometimes brutally, before all the enemies of Israel and Judah. Rather than becoming a big and tough and powerful kingdom standing tall on the world stage, Israel and Judah had become laughingstocks. Imagine that; putting your trust in a human leader only to be humiliated and become a joke to the world.
Given that devastating experience of the consequences of rejecting God’s leadership, the prophetic oracle recorded here in Isaiah 11 is remarkable indeed. Jesse of course refers to the father of David, so pretty clearly the promise is of one from David’s line emerging as a true ruler, in not only David’s lineage but in God’s own path, an exuberant hope indeed. The promise of a leader upon whom God’s spirit rests, characterized by wisdom and understanding and good counsel and might and knowledge and fear of the Lord, one who judges in righteousness – yes, there’s that word again – and favors the lowly and meek – another repeated idea; again this promise is coming from Isaiah at a particularly bleak and seemingly hopeless time in the history of the two kingdoms that were once one.
The sheer overwhelming hopefulness of this promised leader then leads to this ind-twisting, yet characteristic image from Isaiah; a world in which the things we think are fixed and unchangeable no longer hold. Predators and prey live at peace, and not at a safe distance like at a zoo or a Disney park. Wolf and lamb, leopard and baby goat, calf and lion, cow and bear, are being together all cozy and comfy. Lions don’t prey; they graze. Children can play with snakes and not be hurt. (This is where I insert the warning: don’t try this at home, children.) Even nature is repaired and restored by this Promised One.
Of course, by the time we get to the events of Matthew’s gospel, centuries have passed and neither the king sought by the psalmist nor the branch of Jesse’s family tree proclaimed by Isaiah have come along. Exile has ended and come again, and after many years the Roman Empire has established its rule over the people of what once had been Judah and Israel. Those words still rang in ears of the people, though, and more than a few would-be prophets had sought to tickle the ears of the people claiming to be the long-awaited deliverer, only to find out what happened to those who dared challenge the Roman Empire (they disappeared quickly).
So when the word started to get around about this guy preaching out in the wastelands away from Jerusalem, maybe it was a hopeful thing for some. Might this possibly be “the voice of one crying in the wilderness” from Isaiah 40? Or maybe there was a mixture of hope – “maybe this is the one” – and cynicism – “oh, boy, here we go again” – in the reaction of the folks in the city. Whatever their reaction, they came out to see him. And what they saw, as it turned out, wasn’t anything like they expected.
For one thing, he would admit that – unlike so many of these wannabe prophets – he wasn’t preaching about himself, as he himself admits starting in verse 11. For another, well…look at the guy. That’s not a normal wardrobe. And munching on wild locusts and honey adds to the look. Also, he’s not really promising the kind of things the folk were hearing in the psalms and the prophets. No glossy visions of predators and prey at peace, no idealized versions of a coming ruler are found here; John’s message is pretty one-note. The note is this: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” That’s it, as far as Matthew records.
The kicker is yet to come. John’s message does change on one occasion: when the religious leaders started showing up. Anyone who thought John was a odd but fiery preacher got something new to see and hear.
By the time of Matthew’s gospel, it was pretty well-established that the religious leaders of Jerusalem were, to put it bluntly, collaborators with the occupying Romans. It was a calculated thing to be sure; cooperate, and maybe fewer people get hurt. Go along and get along, don’t let any trouble get started, and everything stays peaceful (and you get to keep your power to some degree). This would have been less the case outside the city. At any rate, hearing this crazy guy in the camel-hair coat rip into the religious leaders as soon as they got within earshot of him probably had its own particular entertainment appeal as far as this wilderness-preaching scenario went.
Still, this? Really? This is the prophet? This is the setting? No beautiful sweet Hallmark-card visions of wolf and lamb lying down together? No idealized vision of a just and righteous leader to rescue us all? Just “repent,” and some guy coming with a winnowing fork and baptizing with fire somehow? You might not know whether to be amused or slightly disturbed.
No, it doesn’t appear that God chose a very traditional prophet to be “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness.” And the message delivered by this unconventional messenger felt a bit darker and less hopeful. Still…maybe? By this time any hope was something. But what to do about it?
Well, repentance sure seems necessary. That level of self-examination and change of life – not merely saying sorry for your sins, but changing your life so as not to live in that sin anymore – seems to be a first and indispensible step in preparing for the Promised One, for the reign of God come near. John’s not ambiguous about it, and the message especially seems to apply to those who would seem to be at the top of the food chain, so to speak – those who claim, or are trusted with, any kind of spiritual authority. It’s fearful stuff to contemplate from this pulpit, you can be sure of that. But nobody is off the hook; the call to “repent” is for all who seek the One to come.
What else? Maybe we take our clues from the early church, the folks to whom Paul (among other apostles) was writing and preaching and teaching. These are, after all, our ancestors in the life of Advent as a two-way street – living in the wake of the first Advent while longing for the second.
Mind you, “Christmas” had not, so to speak, been invented yet. It wasn’t a big huge festival occasion for the early church the way it is today (for one thing, no one agreed on the date). But certainly the birth of Jesus was a known part of their theology and learning – the Savior born of a human, born like one of us, was as an essential a part of the church’s understanding then as it is now. And at the same time, those Romans and others to whom Paul was writing were also waiting, perhaps with even greater, more imminent expectation, for the return of that same Jesus. While by the time of this letter to the church in Rome it was becoming clear that such return wasn’t going to happen quite as quickly as Paul had hoped, it was still something he expected and taught the churches he visited and experienced to expect as well.
So what was expected in living the perpetual life of preparation for that Advent? Well, be steadfast, have hope, and be encouraged by the scriptures. Live in harmony “in accordance with Christ Jesus,” and glorify God by doing so. Welcome one another – Gentile as well as Jew as things stood in the Roman church, fulfilling the word of the prophets that this Promised One was promised for all. These all seem simple, or maybe not. Hope is hard to come by. Harmony is a challenge. Welcome seems quite countercultural these days. And yet living in preparation seems to involve these things, somehow.
Preparing, and being prepared, doesn’t have quite the same ring here as it does in the world around us. Being prepared, if it’s not being used as the Boy Scouts motto, can take on a darker tone these days. You have to have health insurance and life insurance to be prepared for your health to fail; you have to put in a massive security system to be prepared for someone to try to break into your home; you have to stock up on supplies to be prepared when a hurricane is coming. But Advent is not about preparing for a threat; it is about preparing for hope, for the reign of God to come near, for the fulfillment of all that has been promised. We may not get petting zoos where wolves and lambs cavort together, but we do await, and watch for, and prepare for that reign of God to come. Let us prepare, and live prepared.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise indicated): #106, Prepare the Way, O Zion; #—, Prepare Your Hearts; #96, On Jordan’s Bank the Baptist’s Cry; #105, People, Look East