Tuesday, December 05, 2017

The Glory of God Revealed - Lectionary Reflection for Advent 2B (Isaiah 40)

Isaiah 40:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

40 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 forever.
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!”
10 See, the Lord God comes with might,
    and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
    and his recompense before him.
11 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.

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                Second Isaiah speaks words of comfort to Israel, promising that its time of exile is coming to an end. Israel served its term and the penalty has been paid. This is, the prophet declares, a day of new beginnings. So, it is time then to prepare away in the wilderness for the glory of God to come and be revealed.


The words we read from Isaiah 40 are very familiar. They help frame the message of Advent, and they gave words to Handel, so he might write one of the great pieces of music. It also forms the backdrop to the reading from Mark 1, which introduces John the Baptist as one crying in the wilderness, preparing the way for the Lord to come (Mark 1:1-8). This reminds us that Advent is a multi-faceted season. We not only prepare for the birth of Christ, but also the beginning of Christ’s ministry, and the future consummation of the realm of God.

                The words of the prophet to the Judean exiles, was a counsel of patience. It was a call to wait on God to act to liberate them from their present distress. The prophet lifts up the glory of God as a reminder that God is faithful to God’s promises. The people may whither like grass in the heat of the day, but the word of God, the promise of God, stands forever. We make a mistake when we apply the metaphor—word of God—in this passage to scripture. It takes away from the intent of the prophet to uphold God’s faithfulness to the covenant promises. This isn’t about a book. It’s about a relationship between God and God’s people. It is a reminder that God will not renege on the covenant made with Abraham and Sarah (and their descendants), including those now living in exile. The time will come when exile will end. Their current situation may be the result of their disobedience, but they have paid the price, and so the exile will not last forever.

                The words of the prophets often chasten the hearer. Israel had a calling. It failed in many ways. It suffered judgment (exile), but God stood with them, and now it is time to return home. There is here a word of judgment, but also of restoration. When we look back at the period of the exile, we see a transformation of Israel (or the remnant nation of Judah). There was a purging of idols that distracted from the call of God. In many ways the identity of the people was forged during this period. Thus, the exile was a time of purification. In the end, the people would be restored to the Land.

                In the meantime, as they await redemption, Isaiah wants the people to understand that God has not abandoned them. The God of Israel has not been defeated by stronger Babylonian gods. Their redemption is coming, so prepare the way for the Lord. Make yourselves ready. Build that highway that leads from Babylon through the hills and back to Israel, because the glory of God will be revealed!

                Advent has often been seen as a penitential season, much like Lent, in which we prepare ourselves spiritually for the celebration that is to follow. It is difficult to engage in penance during December. There are too many things happening that mitigate against such a vision of Advent. But, we can use this time to pause for a moment and consider the meaning of the coming reign of God (at least in its fullness). We can open ourselves up to making a way forward for the glory of God to be revealed in our midst. It is true, that in the context of modern life, Advent can be quickly swallowed by the Christmas rush, which starts earlier and earlier each year. Nevertheless, these words of comfort that come with Advent, these of the one crying in the wilderness, need not be drowned out by the sounds of the more secular version of the season. We may need to tune our ears to hear the word of God, the good tidings about the promise of salvation. Yes, there is need to welcome the glory of God that is being revealed in our midst, so that the shepherd might feed the flock and gather up the lambs in the arms of God.  

                Therefore, let us not only prepare ourselves to receive the babe born in Bethlehem, whose birth announces that God is with us, but also let us prepare for that second advent, the one that is yet to come. Living as we do in the interregnum, that period between Christ’s departure into the heavens (the Ascension) and the consummation of the ages (second advent), we are called by the God who is faithful to God’s promises, to prepare the way so that the glory of God might be revealed.

                Perhaps it is good to hear these words anew, at this time of history, when the church seems to be experiencing exile. The days of Christendom seem to have passed. While many still flay at the times, trying to go back to the time before Christendom’s fall, that seems to be a lost cause. We can philosophize about it. We can weep about it. But the corner has been turned. When Judah returned form exile it was not the same community. The Davidic monarchy wasn’t restored. Yes, a temple was built (and rebuilt), but exile changed the community. If we live as exiles, no longer having power as before, how will we live? What is the nature of our lives on earth? How is the realm of God being revealed in our lives?

                This is, according to the Advent calendar, peace Sunday. How are we living out this call to peace in our time and place? If we look around at the world, peace is not with us. We face the prospect of nuclear war, something we’ve not really contemplated in decades. The United States has been at war in Afghanistan since 2001 and in Iraq since 2003. That’s longer than we were in Vietnam. So, how do we read these words of comfort? How do we understand the revelation of God’s glory in this time of our lives? We are not the shepherds, but we do have a responsibility. We are called to prepare the way of the Lord, so that God’s glory might be revealed, not just to the church, but to all of creation. This is truly a cosmic vision into which we have been invited.

                O Come, Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind;

                Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease, fill the world word with heaven’s peace. 
                                                                                                            (Veni Emmanuel).

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