SJF • Advent 2b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
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 plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.
We continue on this second Sunday of Advent with readings from the book of the prophet Isaiah. As I mentioned last week, these readings do not appear in our week-to-week worship in the same order as they do in the book of the prophet. But they do fall into a logical sequence as we’ve been reading them through the course of Advent and as we shall continue, almost as logical as “ready, set, go.”
Last week we heard Isaiah’s lament that God had abandoned and forgotten his people. We also heard his challenge to God to reveal himself, to tear open the heavens and come down, to shake the mountains and boil the sea if need be — to make himself known so that the nations might see, and tremble at his presence.
And today we hear word of God’s response. If, as I said last week, the initial appeal is like an injured child calling out for its mother to come and help, then today it is as if we hear the voice calling from the kitchen — I’ll be there in a minute!
God instructs the prophet to give the people a word of comfort, a word of assurance: God is most definitely coming and wants the way prepared, cleared, leveled out, all obstructions removed and a new four-lane highway built right through the desert so that God’s glory will be unmistakable when it is revealed, “and all flesh shall see it together” — as the text made unforgettable by Händel’s music puts it.
And there is a musical quality to this text today — just as last week we heard a dialogue, a duet of call and response between the prophet and God, so too in the midst of this text today there is a short interlude in the form of a duet — and I’m not going to try to sing.
The voice of God commands the prophet to cry out; and the prophet responds, “What shall I cry?” He then begins to fall back into some of that language of despondency and despair that we heard in last week’s reading. Shall I, the prophet asks, state the obvious: that people are as mortal as grass, as transient and frail and ephemeral as the flower of the field — living for a day or two and then parched by the heat of the sun or withered by the blast of a winter wind? Is that what God wants me to say? Where is the good news in that?
And in response, God orders not just the prophet but Zion itself and the holy city of Jerusalem to stand tall and proud and lift up voices full of strength as would a herald of good tidings, fearlessly crying out: Here is God! See, look! God is coming, the good Shepherd who will gather up the lost lambs, and lead the mother sheep.
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Today’s theme, then, is the primary Advent theme of preparation for the coming of the Lord. The apostle Peter reminds us that the coming of God will be sudden and unmistakable and that we are called to wait for that day, always being ready, always prepared by living lives of peace and purity and patience. And John the Baptist, while dressed in the costume of Elijah, fulfills the promise of Isaiah. He is the one who appears in the wilderness to call out for preparation — and indeed he does prepare the people with a baptism of repentance, to turn them back towards the place from which God will come, and the assurance that he is only the messenger and not the one for whom the promise was given; he is not the Messiah. No, he is not worthy even to take off the Messiah’s shoes, and while he has baptized with water, to prepare the people, the one to come will baptize with the Holy Spirit.
The preparation we are charged to undertake — as Isaiah makes clear — is a very personal preparation although Isaiah describes it in geological if not cosmic terms. The mountains that are to be removed and the valleys filled in to level out the way for building that four-lane highway for God’s coming are obstacles to us as much as they are to God. From the mountain of pride to the valley of despondency, these are obstacles that block God’s very entry into every human heart.
For that is where God seeks to enter in — through the empty desert of our needs and wants, past the fields of wilted grass and faded flowers of lost hopes and disappointments, filling in our deepest sense of inadequacy and weakness, as well as trimming down our pride and false self-sufficiency, leveling it down to size — past all these obstacles and impediments God seeks us out and bids us prepare for his coming by doing all we can — God giving us the power — to turn to him in faith, in hope, and with love.
For it is faith, as Jesus assured us, that can move mountains, even towering mountains of pride. It is hope that can guide us through the darkest valley, even the valley of the deepest sense of abandonment and despair, even the valley of the shadow of death. And it is love that will inspire us with the power of God’s own Holy Spirit to mount up on Zion and through the gates of Jerusalem to cry out to our beloved, Come, Lord Jesus Bridegroom, come! The Bride is ready. We have flung wide the portals of our hearts; Lord Jesus, enter in!+