December 7, 2008

Isaiah 40:1-11
Mark 1:1-8

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.”

When we hear those familiar words from the prophet Isaiah, or when we hear them repeated in the story of John the Baptist’s work, we automatically think about Jesus and his coming. The Lord we are waiting for is Jesus the Christ, his coming is into our world as an infant born to a young woman in small-town Israel many years ago. And the preparation that we are all called to do is something to do with confession and repentance. But, just for now, let’s remember the things that were happening back when the prophet Isaiah spoke these words the people of his own time.

A long time ago, more than five hundred years before the birth of Jesus, God’s people, the people of Israel were in exile in a place called Babylon. You see, the powerful kingdom of the Babylonians had taken over their land and made some of them move away to the land called Babylon. It began with the upper classes, with those who had any sort of political power, and over time, three groups of exiles were sent away from Jerusalem and Judah to make their lives in a foreign country and among foreign gods.

The exile was a very challenging and distressing time for God’s people. Not only did they enjoy living in Judah, and didn’t want to go somewhere else, but they believed that they had lost the promised land, the land that God had chosen and provided for them. They felt like they were not only losing their land, but also their relationship with God.

The Temple was located in the capital city of Jerusalem, of course. And the Temple was the place where the ark of the covenant was kept, where God’s commandments were housed. The Temple and its inner sanctuary — the Holy of holies – symbolized God’s very presence with God’s people. Exiled to Babylon, they felt very far away from God. They had no place to worship God, and they felt very lonely and scared.

When I think about the exile, I always think of the sad song that God’s people sang beside the river in Babylon: “By the waters, the waters of Babylon, we sat down and wept, and wept for you Zion. We remember, we remember, we remember Zion.” (Based on Psalm 137)

While some of the people struggled to continue their relationship with the one God of Israel, others adjusted both their culture and religion to fit in with the local beliefs, with the many gods that their neighbours worshipped. Some attempted to remember Jerusalem, the Temple, and their faith in God, and others assumed that God had left them and they got on with life in Babylon without God.

But the prophet Isaiah was one example of a Judahite who remained very close to God. He kept on praying and talking to God while they were in Babylon, listening to God’s guiding, and speaking God’s words and wisdom to the people in exile.

Our text today, from Isaiah 40, refers to a time approximately 45 years after the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple. And it is a message of comfort and hope for God’s people. God is telling Isaiah to tell the people that, “It’s time for my people to go home to Jerusalem!”

What had happened was that Babylon was conquered by another powerful kingdom, Persia. And the king of Persia, Cyrus, decided to let the Jews go back to their land in Judah. Cyrus decreed that the Temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt, and that the Jews who wanted to return to Jerusalem and help with the building of the Temple were free to do so. He even sent back some of the sacred vessels which had been taken from the Temple, as well as a considerable sum of money to buy building materials with.

What we hear from the prophet Isaiah in our text today, is not just the historical facts concerning the Edict of Cyrus and the good news that God’s people were going home. But we also hear a theological interpretation of the historical events. The fact that Jerusalem had been conquered and the Temple had been destroyed was a sign of God’s displeasure with the people. Their exile into Babylon was a punishment for their sins, for their failure to be faithful to God, to worship God only, and to follow God’s commandments. And the Edict of Cyrus that allowed them to go home again and rebuild the Temple was interpreted as God’s forgiving grace. They had done their time. They had suffered enough. And now God was going to restore them to their land and to their relationship with God again.

But as a modern interpreter looking back, I’m not so willing to accept the idea that God was punishing God’s people by letting them get conquered. I’m not so accepting of the idea that when they sat by the river in Babylon, that God had actually abandoned them there. I can understand that they FELT abandoned. I can relate to the idea that without their central place of worship, they felt cut off from God. But I can’t accept the idea that God would turn God’s back on them — or on anyone.

Still, I know that there are times in all of our lives when we feel very far away from God. Maybe it’s because you haven’t been to church in a while… Like the people of Judah who lost their Temple, we may have a hard time maintaining our relationship with God if we haven’t been able to participate in regular religious practices.

Or maybe even if you have been at church, maybe you are feeling far away from God because church has become just a habit, not something that you let pervade your life, not something that you allow to get into your heart and change you. Maybe you need some time to think and pray about what difference your faith actually makes to your life… what is God calling you, individually, to do with your life?

Or perhaps you’re feeling distant from God because you’re going through some hard times… some bad things have happened to you lately, and you’ve had a hard time finding God in the midst of your struggles. If that is the case for you, you’re just like God’s people in exile. Sometimes it feels like God is very far away. Sometimes it feels like God isn’t paying attention. Sometimes it feels like some kind of punishment for your sins — like God has abandoned you because you weren’t good enough.

But just like I don’t believe that God abandoned the people in Babylon, I don’t believe that God abandons any one of us today either. God sent prophets like Isaiah to speak to the people, to encourage them, and to give them hope. And God sends people into our lives as well, friends, family members, sisters and brothers in the Christian community, and even preachers sometimes, to speak words of comfort and encouragement, to offer a helping hand, and to be God’s loving presence in the midst of our struggles and our doubts.

The prophet cried out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” The people have felt very far away from God for a long time, and the prophet makes it sound like God is about to march back into their lives: Make a big, wide highway for God… cause God is coming back!

It’s interesting, because it’s the people who were about to go on a journey through the wilderness back to Jerusalem. God wasn’t going anywhere! But as they physically travelled back to Jerusalem, the prophet was encouraging them to invite God back into their lives.

They’d been away from Jerusalem and away from their faith for a long time. Though I don’t think that God had really left them at all, they certainly felt abandoned by God, and many of them had given up and stopped paying any attention to the one God of Israel. It was time to let God back into their lives. It was time to make a highway for God, a route for God to travel to get back into relationship with God’s own people.

Isaiah wrote about that highway opening up, and said: “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.”

I invite you to pause and think about what it’s like to travel on a highway here in Saskatchewan. Wide open… straight road for as far as the eye can see… easy driving… use your cruise control and practically go to sleep… Now think about a highway through the mountains and valleys B.C. Your car has to work harder climbing the steep hills. You need to pay attention, following the tight curves in the road. It actually requires a lot more skill to drive through the mountains safely. And it can be a bit nerve-racking and scary when you look down the steep cliffs beside the road.

That is the metaphor for what the prophet is telling us to do with our lives. Smooth them out. Open them up. Make space for God to travel.

Yes, our lives are busy and complicated. And we may yet have a lot of questions about God, about the meaning of our lives, about the suffering that we experience, about why bad things happen and where God is in the midst of all that. But the prophet Isaiah invites us, as he invited God’s people so many years ago, to make a highway for God. He invites us to make space in our lives to let God in again.

The author of the Gospel of Mark quotes today’s passage from the prophet Isaiah when he tells the story of John the Baptist and his ministry. Once again, God’s people are being invited to prepare the way of the Lord. It’s not that God has abandoned the people and that he’s finally coming back. It’s mostly that they have abandoned God, forgotten about God, or come to believe that God has no interest in them.

They are about to learn that God is actually still around, still paying attention, still longing to be in relationship with each of them. When Jesus comes on the scene, they will experience God’s presence and love more nearly and physically than ever before. And so in preparation, John invites the people to prepare the way of the Lord… to make straight his paths… to make a highway for God’s coming to them.

How are they called to prepare the way?… by laying out a red carpet? … by preparing gifts for the Holy One? No… the preparation they are to do is about preparing themselves, turning away from sin and towards God’s ways, being baptized, being cleansed, preparing their hearts to meet God once again.

On the 2nd Sunday of Advent each year, we are invited to prepare the way of the Lord. Amidst all the busyness and bustle of secular Christmas preparations, and even in the midst of our religious preparations to celebrate the birth of Christ, we are invited to prepare a highway for God.

It’s not that God has been away and is planning to come back. But at times, we have been away from God. Or, we’ve haven’t been letting God into our very hearts and lives.

How do we make a highway for God into our hearts?

Confession might be part of that… confessing and letting go of our failures, regrets, and guilty feelings.

Discipline might be part of that… determining to add worship, prayer, bible reading, and service to our daily and weekly life.

Openness, quietness, waiting, & listening might be part of that… expecting to see God around us in the people we meet, anticipating meeting Jesus again in the Xmas story, in Xmas worship…

And maybe in Communion too… As we gather at the table of the Lord today, let this be a time for us to prepare a highway for our God in our lives. As we pray, and give thanks, and receive from God’s abundance, let us open our hearts, our minds, and our lives to receive Jesus once again. Amen.