I’d like to take a moment to conduct a mini-survey. Do you enjoy being placed on hold, listening to that awful music, or suggestions that you visit a web site, or a repeated message about how important your call is? Do you enjoy waiting in a long, slow-moving line? Do you enjoy rearranging your day in order to wait for a repair person who is scheduled to arrive sometime within a six-hour window? Waiting is not something we enjoy, especially when we don’t know when the waiting will end.
What helps me wait is having something to do while I’m waiting. If I expect to be standing in a long line, I take my Kindle with me. I’m fortunate that I can do much of my work at home while I wait for a repair person. And, if I expect to be on hold for a long period of time, I make sure I have some easy task to do that I can drop when a human being finally answers. Waiting is just so much more tolerable when we have something to do while we wait.
These kinds of waiting are a far cry from what the Jewish exiles in Babylon were experiencing. But, as they waited for their long exile to end, God gave them some things to do. We can do these same things as we wait to celebrate God’s coming to earth in Jesus and as we wait for Christ’s return.
If you think back to last week, you’ll remember that the book of Isaiah has two—or maybe three—parts. The first 39 chapters contain warnings to the Jews in Judah and Jerusalem about the catastrophe that’s bound to happen if they keep up the faithless behavior they’ve indulged in. During Isaiah’s years as a prophet in Judah, the people had witnessed the downfall of the northern kingdom of Israel at the hands of Assyria, and Isaiah warns that they are I danger of a similar downfall.
First Isaiah ends with a conversation between Isaiah and King Hezekiah, who had just concluded a diplomatic meeting with some foreign dignitaries. Isaiah asked where the visitors had come from. Hezekiah said they had come from Babylon. Isaiah asked Hezekiah how much of Hezekiah’s household the Babylonians had seen. Hezekiah proudly announced that he had shown them everything. And, that would have been a lot, because at that point Judah was at the top of its game—prosperous and wealthy. Hezekiah announces, “They’ve seen everything in my house and there’s nothing in my storehouses that I didn’t show them.” You can probably guess where this is going.
So could Isaiah. Remember that prophets were not so much fortune tellers as astute observers and interpreters of current events and communicators of God’s will. They were able to see what was happening around them, grasp the likely to consequences, and then tell the truth about what they saw and how it did or didn’t conform with God’s will. What Isaiah saw was that Judah, as my dad used to say, was “cruising for a bruising.” Isaiah tells Hezekiah as much. The days are coming when all Judah’s wealth, its people, and even some of Hezekiah’s own sons will be taken away by Babylon. Hezekiah’s response? “Well, as long as there’s peace and security while I’m alive, it’s all good.” That’s where First Isaiah, and the words of the prophet Isaiah, end.
There’s a 150-year gap between Chapters 39 and 40, where Second Isaiah picks up the story. During that intervening century and a half, the events that the prophet Isaiah had foreseen, and worse, had come true. Babylon had stripped Judah of its wealth, taken many of its people away as slaves, destroyed the temple, and left behind a ruined city populated by the poor and unskilled. The authors and editors of Second Isaiah don’t describe those terrible years; their readers would have known the story well enough, perhaps so well that they couldn’t bear to revisit them.
Instead, Second Isaiah picks up at the moment when hope begins to dawn. Things are about to change for the better: the exile will soon be over. The Jewish exiles will return to their own land. The city and the temple will be rebuilt. Best of all, their relationship with God, will be restored. But in the meantime, while they wait, they have work to do, and our passage is a to-do list of imperatives that spell out what that work is.
First, God gives the messenger of Second Isaiah an assignment: to comfort God’s people. The Hebrew word for comfort means pretty much what we expect: to console, to ease someone’s mind. But Old Testament scholar John Oswalt points out that to comfort someone involves more than simply giving them a warm and fuzzy feeling. The English word “comfort” comes from Latin words that mean “to strengthen, to encourage, to fortify.” These words of comfort give hope for the future and the strength to work towards it.
This is what the exiles need as they look with hope towards restoration. For a hundred and fifty years, they’ve been asking questions. “Does God want to save us?” “Can God save us?” “Will God save us?” Our passage addresses those questions. To the 1st question “Does God want to save us?” God says, “Yes.” The messenger is to speak with tenderness to the people—to speak with kindness, from God’s own heart. The messenger is to comfort the people with the good news that God has not forgotten them. God loves them and wants them back. God wants to save them, not simply from the Babylonians but from their own sinfulness.
But the people will have a part to play in their reunion with God. The messenger announces the first thing they are to do while they wait is to prepare a highway for God to return by—one that is straight and level, right through the desert wilderness. Are there valleys in the way? Fill them in. Mountains and hills? Flatten them. Is the route crooked? Straighten it. Is the ground rough and uneven? Smooth it out. The people are to remove any obstacles that stand between them and God.
I don’t believe that God had a physical road-building project in mind. Instead, this road is one that leads straight into their hearts. God wants to come to them, but first they have to remove the barriers that are in the way.
Advent is our spiritual road-building time—a time when we think about what roadblocks stand in our way of fully receiving God into our hearts. The roads we walk each day may look more a winding path than a highway. They meander; they backtrack. There are temptations along the way that draw us away from God—to-do lists that crowd out time for prayer, that annoying co-worker you respond to in less-than-Christ-like ways, anger that hardens the heart and spirit. Spiritual growth brings new and uncomfortable understandings, but we back off rather than answer a new call on our lives. While we wait, we need to do a survey of the road we’re on to see where the crooked needs to be made straight.
We may need to fill in some valleys—places of discouragement or fear or sadness. That doesn’t mean that we deny the presence of those low places in our lives. Quite the opposite. We face them and ask ourselves what we need to raise us up. Maybe it’s more time spent in prayer and reading our Bibles so that our eyes are looking up towards God. Maybe we need to talk honestly with a friend or even to a professional counselor. Advent is a time to seek out ways to lift up our valleys.
There can be lots of rough, uneven places in the road to our hearts, especially this year, I think. It’s a year with so many ups and downs caused by the virus and the political situation. Relationships that once seemed secure are strained. Finances may be a worry. There’s the stress of adapting pretty much everything we do to the reality of COVID. The air of dissension and distrust in each other and our institutions fostered by some of our elected leaders just makes life in general seem unsettled. Even when we’re not facing any extreme challenges ourselves, a tinge of anxiety colors everyday life.
The bumpy places in the road aren’t as obvious as the valleys, but they absorb our attention and they can erode our trust in others and in God. We can use the same materials we use for filling in the valleys for smoothing out the rough places, too—prayer, Bible study, and talking with others who can help us put things in perspective.
Our road-building may require razing some mountains and hills: Hills with names like “Pride.” Mountains made of things like self-sufficiency that denies our dependence on God, prejudice that looks down on others, a narrow view of the world that allows us to ignore or discount the needs of people unlike ourselves. Bringing down these mountains may be a harder task than filling the valleys, because our spiritual mountains are harder for us to recognize in ourselves.
Perhaps this is why the voice crying out Isaiah says that when the glory of the Lord is revealed on that highway to our hearts, “all people shall see it together.” Road-building isn’t an individual project. It requires a crew—a community. We lift each other up. We hold each other accountable in loving ways. We lend a dependable arm when the going is slow or unsteady. We become messengers to one another, giving and receiving tender words of comfort and encouragement that strengthen us as we wait.
This was a prominent theme in our Advent study last week, when we talked about an altogether hope. An altogether hope—a complete hope—is made possible when we all experience it together. God’s arrival isn’t something we can fully experience alone. We experience it fully only in community with one another. We wait for it with “all together” hope.
While we are waiting, God tells us to speak tenderly and prepare, level and lift up, make low and make straight. But that’s not the end of the list. The messenger of 2nd Isaiah told the people to lift their voices with the good news of God’s coming. The exiles were to shout the answers to their questions, and we are to shout them, too: God wants to save God’s people, God can save them, and God will save them. God was coming with both power and compassion, as both mighty ruler and gentle shepherd.
We are preparing once again to receive the gift of Go coming to us in the Christ Child. We are building a highway into our hearts, so that nothing stands in the way of our receiving God in Christ when Christ comes again. While we wait, we make straight, lift up, make low, and even out. We lift up our voices to declare to each other and a waiting world that God wants to save us, God can save us, and God has saved us. These are the words of comfort that give us hope, while we wait. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young