Second Sunday of Advent
December 6, 2020
Zion Luthern Church, Pittsfield, MA
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.
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.’
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;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
‘Here is your God!’
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
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. – Isaiah 40:1-11
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight” ’,
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’ – Mark 1: 1-8
If you’ve ever been in an orchestra or attended a live rehearsal or concert of one, you may have experienced before the concert or rehearsal starts the onstage warmup of the musicians. This might happen less in some of the most professional orchestras, but even they sometimes warm up on stage. Over the dull roar of the crowd you might hear the musicians, each doing their own warmup – some are running scales, arpeggios, or etudes to warm up their fingers and instruments. Some are chatting with neighboring musicians joining their voices to the din of the crowd. Others are flipping through music running tricky passages one more time. Even if each one is perfectly in tune, no one is playing together and it’s more a cacophonous roar than anything resembling music. But then, when the time is right, perhaps following applause or a quickly gathered silence, or perhaps less often straight from the cacophony: a single, loud, persistent concert A sounds from the oboe – piercing the room with its clarity. A call to tune. The cacophony fades. The instruments begin again, this time bringing their instruments in tune with that solitary pitch piercing the room before breaking into the overlapping harmonies and melodies that bring orchestral music alive. In the wilderness, a voice.
When we think of John the Baptist out in the wilderness, perhaps we picture the rocky, arid desert that surrounds the Jordan River, a land not so far from bigger cities – in John’s time and ours – but which is a challenging place to make a living – at least without irrigation, imported goods, and other external supports to live in the dry, dust, conditions. There, eating locusts and wild honey, both one with and standing out from the wilderness surrounding him. A curious crowd gathers to hear. In the wilderness, a voice.
But wilderness isn’t found only in dry deserts – wilderness is anywhere that is disorienting. In fact, for us, in the modern world I think our wilderness sometimes looks like so many voices competing for our attention, so much stuff demanding our time and energy that we lose our direction and even our identity. Maybe it’s just me, but I find myself doomscrolling before I go to bed and when I wake up in the morning – reading post after post, article after article trying to grasp at some kind of control or understanding of the world we are living in. Trying to find the words that will pierce me with clarity about the way forward through COVID, through the transformation of systemic racism, through the climate disaster. I find myself wandering around a wilderness of endless words – a cacophony of voices screaming for my attention. And if I get overwhelmed by words the next app over on my phone will take me to another kind of cacophony – a world of endless goods, where I can seek some thing or things which will, I falsely hope, lead me out of this wilderness of desire for consumption of goods, a wilderness in which I start to lose touch with my identity. In this wilderness, is there a singular voice?
Sometimes I do find clarity and take my first tentative steps toward what I think is the way I’m supposed to live out God’s baptismal call to work for justice and peace in all the earth. And I misstep. Or I fail. Or I get tired. The work is long and hard and frustrating, and I never seem to get it all right all the time. As a white person I’ve committed to being an ongoing-learner about systemic racism, as I know some of you have. I’ve committed to engaging the work of dismantling racism where I can and pushing toward deeper work. And like so many other arenas in which I have committed to personal and communal change, the work doesn’t bear fruit in all the ways I want it to, in the timely way I want it to. Besides the fact that my own ideas about the path forward are not even close to 100% right all the time, the work is hard and ongoing, no matter where you are following that baptismal call to work for justice and peace. It can be exhausting and never-ending work. Somewhere in this wilderness, is there a voice?
And sometimes, despite the busyness of the world around us, our internal experience is barren. Exhaustion, depression, trauma, anxiety, all of which have become more common in this strange and challenging year – they leave us sometimes without words. Without hope. Without a discernable path forward. Disorienting wilderness. Longing for the abundant life we know God wants for us and all creation, but unable to connect to the possibility of that as a reality. “Cry out? What shall I cry out?” says Isaiah. Sometimes we don’t even know how to name the pain or grief or shame within, much less how to name the hope or promise. In this wilderness, is there a voice?
In Advent, we are waiting, expecting, not just for Christmas but for the incarnate reality of God’s kin-dom to be real among us. In the northern hemisphere we are in the time of the least daylight and we feel the cold settling in for winter. But we also feel the deep longing and groaning of creation and the deep longing and groaning within our souls. Whether from silence or from a cacophony of voices that leave us disoriented, Advent is a time of getting in touch with our deepest longing for wholeness. In this wilderness, do you hear a voice?
What we get in Advent is not yet the baby in the manger. It is not yet the thing we can touch and hold and grab onto. It is not yet the reality of what it is promised. But it is the promise. It is a voice piercing our wilderness. It is a voice that begins to tune the world into harmony. Comfort, comfort my people. In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Promise. Hope. In the wilderness, a voice.
If we return to the aural image of an orchestra moving from cacophony to tuning to polished harmony, advent is not yet the beginning of the concert. Advent is more like the moment when the dissonant sounds are still echoing in the room and the first hint of that tuning note from the oboe starts to ring. And the thing is that we hover in that tuning moment all of our lives. We live in perpetual advent, amidst the disorienting wilderness of the world. Sometimes we are the first to hear the note and quick to bring our own song in line with the tuning note. Other times we are distracted or not ready, failing to catch up in time and letting our voice fall out of tune with the center. Our Christian faith lived in that in-between advent time, always listening, waiting, learning how to bring our lives in line with the coming promised kin-dom of justice, and our advent waiting takes on the character of the one for whom we wait. Other times totally losing the voice in the midst of the noise or too tired to engage it if we do, and our advent waiting seems hopeless, even pointless. Either way it is a hard place to live. It is not the soaring harmonies of the angel chorus at Christmas. It is the single voice piercing, preparing, tuning. And sometimes I just want to get there, be there, skip ahead. But for now, in this wilderness, a voice.
A voice that speaks of water and words, a voice that invites and washes, a voice that calls and challenges, a voice that names you beloved. Comfort, comfort. Not a voice that makes us comfortable, no – Advent is anything but. The voice makes us recognize the dissonance and draws us in as beloved children of God, naming us, claiming us, tuning us. That’s the comfort. Because hear it or not, the concert is coming. There will be a time, there is now in God’s time outside of time, the reality of God’s reign of justice and peace singing into our longing, hoping, hurting world. In the wilderness, a voice.
-Pastor Steven Wilco