COMFORT IN EVERY DARK VALLEY
A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent
Based on Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8
Richard L. Jeske, Vicar
You’ve often heard me tell you at this time of year that the season of Advent is the season for prophets, while Christmas is the season for story-tellers. On Christmas we’ll hear again of the stories of Jesus’ birth, told so well by Luke and Matthew they they’ve inspired artists and musicians and authors and poets throughout the centuries. Today, the Second Sunday in Advent, lets us hear from two prophets – Isaiah and John the Baptist, and the first one is getting quoted by the second one. So let’s see whether we can find a special message from God to us from these Advent readings for today.
Have you ever felt so down that you’ve needed a word of comfort? Can you remember a time in your life when you felt so depressed that you thought you would never get up again? Maybe it was a moment of sadness when you experienced the death of a parent or a close relative or a loved one. Maybe it was a time when your marriage broke down and the one to whom you promised your life simply wanted out and never to see you again. Maybe it was when you lost a job, or when you were betrayed by a friend you trusted, or when your doctor told you that you had a serious illness that threatened your life and you needed surgery right away. Anxiety, sadness, depression brought you to the point of tears, and you needed someone to help you out of it, someone to give you a credible word of comfort.
I think of many people today in California who have just lost their homes to raging wildfires – lost everything in them, the heirlooms given to them by their parents, family and wedding pictures, college yearbooks, medals they won in competition – all gone, every trace of their life’s past, gone, up in smoke. I think of the families split apart during the times of slavery in this country, or by wars in all parts of the world, or by immigration laws that don’t care about family unity, or by simple unplanned human error. I think of the mother whose addiction caused her to lose control of her car and run head-on into another car fatally injuring the two people in it, and I think of her first Christmas away from her three children, the first of eight Christmases to come, in a prison six hours’ drive away from them.
I think of Isaiah the prophet, and his people who have seen the destruction of their city and have experienced their forcible removal from it to a land unknown to them. Their homes, their extended families, their orchards, their vineyards, their herds, and their Temple, built by King Solomon, with its Holy Place where God’s presence dwelled – all destroyed, all gone; their king and his sons slaughtered, the king from whose lineage the Messiah would come – all ended now, and gone. How could that happen? They had forty years in exile in Babylon to think about that now. Whatever happened to all those promises their God had given them? Had he abandoned them – and if so, who were they to call upon now? Was the god of the Babylonians stronger than their own God, more worth believing in now?
And all of a sudden God has a word to give them from one of his prophets, and that word is “comfort.” “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God, and speak it tenderly….” God is speaking to his prophet and telling him what to say, even if the people have a hard time hearing it: “lift up your voice with strength, don’t be afraid to do it, say to my people, “comfort.” “Your God is coming to you with might … his reward is with him … and 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.” It is the beginning of the end of their exile, because a new world order has taken place: Cyrus, ruler of the Persians, had defeated their captors and is now sending the exiles back to their city, back to Jerusalem, where they can rebuild it again, and start anew (Isaiah 44:28).
Now you know that Iraq and Iran are not friends. Iraq is Sunni and Iran Shia. They don’t like each other. But long before there was an Islam, long before there were Sunnis and Shias, they hated each other. Babylonia (old Iraq) and Persia (old Iran) were enemies. And one day Isaiah looked up and saw that Cyrus the Persian had come and overrun Babylon, and was now telling the Jewish exiles that they could go home again. Some of the exiles thought that Messiah had come – they even called Cyrus God’s “anointed one” (Isaiah 45:1), and that through him God had acted to call his people home (Isaiah 44:28). (How times have changed! Iran wants to run Israel into the Mediterranean Sea now too.)
But after Cyrus liberated the exiles, they could leave Babylon. They are now being told that their God would lead them again into the desert to return home. The desert was an old memory – a place of wandering for forty years after their release from slavery in Egypt, the place where the people often lost their way, often lost their faith, the place of temptation where devils could get at them. It was a scary place, and they should now go out there again?
But this time it was different: no more wrong turns, no more getting lost in the valleys and mountains and hills; God was leveling them all, and there would be a straight highway, and they would all see their way straight home. Would everyone believe it? Oh yes, there was one more thing the prophet should tell them. Don’t put your trust in human beings – no matter what strongmen would rule over them, Cyrus or no Cyrus, because “all people are grass, and their constancy is like the flower of the field. Grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”
And that’s where our Gospel reading for today comes in. It’s a repeat – no, a correction of Isaiah. The real Messiah had appeared, and John the Baptizer had paved the way. He called people to start again – there out in the wilderness to get baptized, which was a way of starting again. Confess your sins, he said, and get your lives uncluttered, God is making his way to you again, in a straight path to you. Prepare yourselves for it, John said, as he “proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” Just know this: I’m not the Messiah, just like Cyrus wasn’t. We’re only people, and we’re like grass that blows away in the wind. There’s someone more powerful than either of us, and I’m not worthy to untie his shoelaces. I give you water, to help you start again, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit – that’s something that does not blow away in the wind; it’s something that will be with you forever.
And you know what that Holy Spirit was called? The “Comforter.” John’s Gospel talks a lot about the Spirit that would come to Jesus’ disciples when he departed from them to go to his cross. Even with the cross of Jesus God would not leave them without hope; at Jesus’ request God would send them “the Comforter.” The Greek term is “paraclete” (John 14:15, 25; 15:26), which Luther translated “the Comforter”; our English versions use the term “Advocate,” or “Helper.” (One of our churches in Poughkeepsie is called The Church of the Holy Comforter.) The work of the Holy Spirit is to “to call, gather, enlighten, and make holy the entire Christian Church on earth, and keep it with Jesus Christ in the one common, true faith” (Luther’s Catechism, explanation to the third article of the Apostles’ Creed). That’s the work of the Holy Spirit, to call Christians together into a loving, energetic company that can provide comfort when we need it, and strengthen us when we are burdened with the often crushing realities of our lives.
So Isaiah became important for Christians, because in what Isaiah wrote they could see God working at an eternal level, where God’s word of comfort can last forever. Our baptism guarantees that – and it brings us into the company of believers where our sins are washed away and our tears can be overcome, because in baptism we take upon ourselves Jesus’ own victory over sin and death, and over every one of life’s wilderness devils that assault us. We are strengthened so that we can pass on that word of comfort that God gives us when we have our doubts about ourselves, and our doubts about the world in general.
And this is the place where we meet that Holy Spirit of God again and receive strength to continue the wilderness journey, to rebuild our lives, and to come back home where God wants us to be.
-- Richard L. Jeske