Isaiah 40:1-11 & Mark 1:1-8
Second Sunday of Advent, December 6, 2020
Candidating Sermon, Rev. Joshua Noah
About two or three years ago, I was eating at my favorite Chinese restaurant in the small town where I was serving as pastor. And of course, at the end of the meal, there were fortune cookies handed out, and I opened mine to see what fun little bit of wisdom was held inside. However, this time, the words on that tiny slip of paper took me aback. For some reason, they spoke to me loud and clear – like prophetic words shouted in the desert. I took the sliver of paper back to my office and taped it to the top of my laptop so that I would see those words every day while I was at work. “The road to glory will be rocky, but fulfilling.” And the next few years would prove those words to be true.
We all know from experience that the road of life is not so smooth and straight. Instead the road is rocky, with many twists and turns that can be difficult to navigate. That the anticipation of something new brings with it great anxiety and many questions. Where is the hope we were promised? Where is the good news we were told is coming? And how we will know it is right when it gets here? That kind of journey, that kind of anxiety is its own existential exile. And all we pray for during these moments is comfort and peace.
For the past 50 years, the people of God have been living in exile in the land of Babylon. For the past 50 years they’ve watched as the Babylonians literally paraded their conquering victory in front of them at the annual religious procession celebrating the Babylonian god Marduk – declaring Marduk as the most powerful of all gods – even more powerful than the Jewish God YHWH. For 50 years they’ve dreamt of returning to their promised land. For 50 years they’ve tried to make a home for themselves in this strange land. And for 50 years they have prayed and cried out to God to bring them comfort. To bring them peace. And finally – after a generation and a half of lament and prayer, their God is finally coming to comfort them. To bring them peace.
For a new prophet arises in the exile, often referred to in academia as “Second Isaiah.” The prophet is attributed with writing chapters 40-55 of the collected writings entitled “Isaiah,” and wrote them just before the people are freed from Babylon by the Persian leader Cyrus the Great and allowed to return to the promised land. And so, what we find in our Hebrew Scriptures today is the call story of Second Isaiah. But unlike most other prophet call narratives where the focus is on the prophet’s identity and the rebuke of the people, the call of Second Isaiah is focused on the message NOT the messenger. And the message is about anticipating peace NOT punishment.
As such the call narrative is broken up into four voices – each one giving an imperative, a command to both the prophet and the people. In verses 1-3 the Divine voice commands the prophet to “Comfort, oh comfort my people,” – that the prophet is to declare to the people that the time is near, the time of peace that they have been praying for is about to come. Because the people have suffered more than enough for the failures of their past. Then, in verses 3-5, another voice cries out like “thunder in the wilderness” commanding the people to “Prepare for God’s arrival!/ Make the road straight and smooth,/ a highway fit for our God. Much like the way the Babylonians flaunted Marduk’s power by building special processional paths to announce the god’s arrival, the same must be done by the people of God as they hold a grand processional from Babylon, through the wilderness, to Jerusalem to declare the return of God’s glory – much like a Second Exodus. A third voice then commands the prophet to “Shout!” to the people that though all things eventually wither and fade away, the word of YHWH – and its promises – stands forever. Finally, the prophet himself speaks directly to the people of God, calling them to, “Raise your voice. Make it good and loud, Jerusalem./ You’re the preacher of good news./ Speak loud and clear. Don’t be timid!” The arrival of God is to be declared not by the prophet individually, but by the people collectively. They are to shout this “good news” from the mountaintops, telling all who can hear that YHWH is coming, strong yet gentle.
We hear echoes of the prophet’s words in our Gospel lesson today. The eccentric prophet John suddenly appears right at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, like “Thunder in the desert!” And John announces that same prophetic statement for the people to hear, “Prepare for God’s arrival!/ Make the road smooth and straight!” It is time for yet another grand processional of God and for the announcement of more “good news” about God’s strength and gentleness. But, as always, God is doing something new. And this time, this something new is God literally dwelling among us in the incarnation of Jesus the Christ. And the gospel narrative we are about to read – much like the call of Second Isaiah – is merely the beginning – the beginning of this good news. The people themselves must take the next steps to continue declaring this “good news” to all they encounter. But they first must be at peace within themselves if they wish to leave the exile.
I personally know this kind of exile. I spent 38 years of my life exiled to the closet that society forced me into. It was only when I was at peace within myself, when I was comfortable with whom God created me to be, that I was able to “make the road smooth and straight” – well… maybe not straight. More like, gayly linear. And in making the road of my life smooth and gayly linear, I was able to experience fully that hope I heard preached about my entire life. I was able to experience not just the power and strength of God, but I was also able to experience the gentleness and grace of God who, as Isaiah tells us, “Like a shepherd,/ …care[s] for his flock,/ gather[s] the lambs in his arms,/ Hug[s] them as he carries them,/ [and] lead[s] the nursing ewes to good pasture.” Only then could I serve as the Spirit called me to serve – to “Comfort, O comfort my people” in the midst of the exile we call life.
I studied Pastor Ellen’s sermon last week, and I must thank her for the beautiful job she did in preparing the way for me to meet you all today. Like John the Baptist, she set things up for me to be here today. But I will tell you that I am no Jesus. Her words made smooth and straight the road that we all must travel together soon. In fact, I believe that she even paved the road with hope – the theme of the first Sunday of Advent. But even before the people of God in Isaiah could prepare to travel this road, they must first find peace and comfort within themselves. They must come to a sense of peace even within the midst of the exile.
For well over a year, you’ve known that Pastor Ellen was retiring. And transitions such as this can bring about great anxiety and questions. Such transitions can feel like an emotional exile. “Who will be our next pastor? Will I like them? Will they be like Ellen or will they be completely different? What will change when the new pastor arrives? What will stay the same? Will I be able to trust this new pastor?”
And I will be honest and tell you that I have also struggled with the same anxiety and questions. And as someone who clinically struggles from anxiety and depression, I can personally tell you that such moments can be especially difficult. In fact, earlier this week, the anxiety of being here today got to me, so I stayed home from work so I could focus on preparing for today and think about the reasons why I personally feel called to serve this congregation. Ultimately, I remembered that it came down to this reality: When the Search and Call Team asked me, “Why do you want to serve Open Table UCC?” I told them, “Because after studying and researching this church and its congregation, its ministry and mission, I realized that if I were to plant my own church, it would be Open Table.” And in reflecting on that response, I realized that we all share a common vision for what the Church can be, for what the Church should be, and (I believe) what the Church eventually will be – a truly Open Table where all people are welcome, where all people share what they have, where all are equal, where no one feels alone or outcast, where no one has to live in exile anymore.
It was in that moment of reflection that I found peace within myself to do this new thing, to travel this way of hope with you all. And together share not just the power and glory, but the grace and gentleness of God – for that is the good news that so many people need to hear today. And I feel confident in this because of the promises I have found in the W/word of God (both lower case and upper case “W/w”). Promises that have held me through the difficult times – like a shepherd holds a lamb to his chest. Promises that have celebrated with me in joyous times – like a grand and glorious parade. And promises that have fortified me in all the times in between. And in remembering these unfailing promises, I find the peace within me to proclaim the good news to all. And I look forward to us all doing so together.