This week has been really interesting to observe on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Most of my “friends” on social media are clergy, and I always like to read their posts in response to world events, what’s happening in their church communities, great theological wrestlings they’re encountering, book suggestions, that sort of thing.
So many of my colleagues are responding to the lack of indictments in both the Michael Brown case and the Eric Garner case. They are crying out about injustice, inequality, and the continued problems around race that our country faces. Many are participating in protest marches, opening their churches for places of quiet solitude, writing letters to the editor.
For many of my other colleagues, the start of Advent has been a great theological and liturgical debate. They are wrestling with issues around which is the preferred color of the season--blue or purple. They are discussing the perpetual virginity of Mary. They are examining their thoughts and feelings about the incarnation, and the second coming of Christ as described in last week’s gospel and this week’s 2nd letter to Peter.
As I stand between these two sets of colleagues, I see the complexity of the prophet Isaiah’s statement to “prepare the way for the Lord”. What does it mean to “prepare the way”?
For the prophet Isaiah, his original audience was the Jewish community that had lived in exile for about 150 years. To be in exile means to be put out, away from your homeland and the people were literally and figuratively “in the wilderness”. For the early Jewish people, their spiritual identity was connected to the land, and they had been forced out by the Babylonians. They were also struggling with the wrath and punishment of God for their sins. Like sheep, they were scattered and couldn’t find their way back home. So when we read Isaiah 40 this morning, we’re reading the beginning of the second half of the story...the people are returning home and they are experiencing God’s forgiveness and mercy. This moment in Isaiah is the beginning of what the Jewish people would think of as the coming Kingdom of God.
And what would this Kingdom of God look like? The valleys would be lifted up and the mountains made low...in other words, there would be equanimity. In the Kingdom of God, the word of God will stand forever, and God will come like a shepherd to lead the people home. In this Kingdom of God, there is redemption, so lift up your voice and herald the good news.
When we get to the gospel lesson, the words of Isaiah are again needed...prepare the way for the coming Kingdom of God. In Mark, the original audience was living under Roman occupation. While these Jewish people have not been exiled from their home, they have been subject to the laws of Emperors, civil wars, and oppression. And this strange looking man clothed in camel’s hair, eating honey and locusts, is in the wilderness, baptising folks in the river, and calling out to prepare the way for the Kingdom of God, to prepare the way for the Messiah.
And while Mark doesn’t quote John repeating all of Isaiah’s message, John does say that salvation and redemption is coming.
Since we know how the story of Jesus plays out--his ministry, his work with the apostles, his death, resurrection and ascension, we know that Jesus did indeed usher in a new Kingdom of God. He lifted up the lowly, he healed the sick, he offered care and consolation to the widows and orphans, AND he didn’t do anything that a “Messiah” in the traditional sense was supposed to do--he wasn’t a military leader, he didn’t overthrow an emperor, and he didn’t incite a riot. Instead he offered peace and reconciliation. He was a shepherd for his people. And this is how God chose to be incarnate--in the form of a man who lived in the midst of the human struggle.
So what is it exactly that we are preparing for? How do we envision the coming Kingdom of God?
I like to think of things in concentric circles. In the smallest, most immediate circle, we may be preparing our homes for Christmas--we made our advent wreaths last Sunday, we’re starting to put up the tree and the lights, and perhaps we’re preparing for family gatherings. In the next circle, the circle of our community, we may be looking at ways that we participate in the Kingdom of God through our outreach and service ministry--preparing and distributing food at FISH, volunteering at the warming shelter, shopping for gifts for needy children. Then in the next circle, the circle of our larger community--our nation, we may be speaking up, lifting our voices, about the need for equality instead of continued division, or ways in which to protect the most vulnerable and marginalized. And in the biggest circle, the global or international circle, we may be praying for peace, we may be praying for healing and reconciliation, we may be praying for an end to injustice and oppression, for clean water and an end to illness in villages and towns.
Going back to my Facebook account...I don’t know that either of my colleague groups are more right or wrong than the other in their Advent experiences. Some are focused on that most immediate circle of decorations for the church and some are focused on the larger circles of the community. One is not better than the other. As a matter of fact, all preparations for the coming of the Kingdom of God are important--how we welcome the friend and the stranger, how we help to bind up the wounded and broken hearted, and how we open our hearts and prepare for the in-breaking of God in our lives.
Let us pray:
O Holy One, thank you for coming to us anew this day. Prepare our hearts and reawaken our love for you as we discern your call within us. May we join with you in making level the path for all people. Amen.
(Daily Prayer for all Seasons)
I don't know what the future of the church is, but I know that we will continue to be a place of sanctuary and hope, working towards healing in the world.