Sunday 7 December 2014
The Second Sunday of Advent
It was over 2500 years ago. The Northern Kingdom of Israel and its capital, Samaria, have already been conquered by the Assyrian Empire. The Southern Kingdom of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, have already been conquered by the Babylonian Empire. All of the elites in society, the politicians and priests and scholars and aristocrats, have been hauled off in a forced migration to Babylon, not far from modern Baghdad. The temple has been destroyed. But now, King Cyrus and the mighty Persian Empire have risen up out of modern Iran and is on the gates of Babylon. After 40 long years of captivity, a Hebrew prophet declares: “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”
The Hebrew people had been in exile. When the temple had been destroyed, many were afraid that the God who lived in that temple had been destroyed as well. Others were concerned that the God of Israel could not be with them in a foreign land. Everything they understood about God, everything they knew about religion, had been turned upside-down and inside-out.
Eventually, some of the exiles started to find new meaning and significance in the writings of their faith, scriptures that up until then had only been secondary to their experience of God. They found that in the reading and study of scripture, they could find God, even though they no longer had the temple and they were not in the land of their ancestors. Eventually they came to believe that the Spirit of God, the Shekhinah, that had once lived in the temple, had traveled with the exiles to Babylon after the temple had been destroyed.
But now things had changed. A liberator had come to set them free. King Cyrus of the Persians. Some thought he was the anointed one of God, the Mashiach, the Messiah. He had come from the east to set the prisoners free and rebuild the Temple of the Lord in Jerusalem.
And now God’s Spirit would be able to return from exile along with God’s people. The Spirit of the Lord would travel back to its home on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”
More than half a millennium later, the people of Israel were in crisis again. The temple had been destroyed yet again, this time by the Roman Empire. Once again there were questions about whether God was still with the people if the temple was not there. Had God deserted the chosen people? Or worse, had God been defeated by the gods of the Romans? This time, the people were exiles even in their own land.
And once again, they turned to the scriptures to try to make sense of the situation. As some of them read the writings from 500 years before, they found new meaning in those words, “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” Perhaps now they had a new Messiah, a new liberator. Perhaps this Jesus of Nazareth, the traveling preacher who had been executed by the Romans, but who some said had been raised from the dead, had a new authority to bring meaning to their lives. Perhaps he represented a new way to reach God.
And if he did, then that John the baptizer character must have been the voice crying out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the lord. John preached a message of repentance, of turning away from sin and turning toward God. And John pointed to one who would come after who would be even greater than he was. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Christians looked to the scriptures and they found a new meaning for their day. Isaiah had been talking about God returning over a very literal desert from Babylon back to the land of Israel. It was about the people returning from a very real exile.
But those words took on new meaning for a new day. Now believers had to return from a spiritual exile. Now God’s path through the desert had to be cleared of the obstacles of the human heart. It was not sage brush and sand dunes that cluttered God’s way, it was sin and malice. It was hatred and greed and division. “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”
So what are the things that stand between us and God today? What stands between us and the fulfillment of full discipleship? Which roads do we need to make straight? Which paths do we need to clear? How is it that we need to be prepare the way of the Lord? What is it that stands between us and the realization of God’s Kingdom?
It’s no accident that all this preparation happens in the wilderness. We know the stories of the Hebrew’s wandering in the wilderness while they sorted out their relationship with God. We know how Jesus was pushed out into the wilderness while he struggled with what it meant to be the Son of God. It is often in the wilderness that we make our most profound spiritual growth. It is in the wilderness where we see things more clearly, where we shed our distractions, where we struggle with our demons.
Of course, when we talk about the wilderness, we aren’t just talking about the outdoors. The wilderness we face isn’t just the arid desert or the threatening woods. Some of the most treacherous wilderness journeys we face lead us through the depths of our own hearts.
Some of us walk the wilderness of addiction. We have been led along false paths which go only in circles until we no longer know where we are are where we are headed. But God stands ready to take our hand and lead us, if we can give over our will and seek help.
Some of us walk the wilderness of depression and anxiety. We have begun to become comfortable with the loneliness, with the self-doubt. We no longer want to move, and when we do, we only want to move deeper into the darkness. But God stands ready to provide a light, to point us in the right direction, to bring us companions to help us find the way.
Some of us walk the wilderness of pride. We have become lost because we are unwilling to ask anyone for directions. We just forge boldly on, headless of the signs, harming not only ourselves, but others. But God stands ready to open our ears, to soften our hearts, and bring us home.
Some of us walk the wilderness of grief. The faster we try to get through it, the more treacherous the way becomes. But God is ready to take the slow and steady walk with us.
We walk together through a wilderness of inequality, prejudice, and violence. And sometimes we are discouraged when, despite all our efforts, we seem to keep stumbling down the same paths and getting caught in the same snares. We are shocked by our human capacity to harm one another. We still have a long way to go. But Christ walks with us. Wherever we struggle for justice and peace, Christ walks with us.
“A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD.” Now is the time to do it. Now is the time to remove the obstacles. Now is the time to knock down the barriers. Now is the time to make a path for Christ to enter into our world, into our church, into our hearts. “A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”