December 4

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid, that she has received
from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.

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.

Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."’
A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.

The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion,
herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem,
herald of good tidings, l
ift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah,
‘Here is your God!’ See, the Lord GOD comes with might,
and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

--Isaiah 40:1-11 (NRSV)

I must have been about five years old when my father first took me to a performance of Handel’s Messiah. I felt unimaginably grown-up as I filed into the local concert hall, and I’m sure my eyes were out on stalks as I watched my first real orchestra tune up and begin the overture. For a while, all was activity, as the strings chased each other in restless counterpoint. Then the mode changed to one of calm expectancy…and it was into this that a tenor dropped his notes of liquid hope ‘Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people.’

A long time has elapsed since that first experience, but it’s still almost impossible for me to divorce these words from Handel's inspired music. I think I should, though, because what is going on in this passage is anything but tranquil for much of the time. Of course there is reassurance, that God will surely come along the royal road prepared for him, but before he does so there will need to be something very much like an earthquake. Nothing will ever be the same again. Roads aren’t built without a dramatic effect on the countryside. Every time a new highway is proposed here, the U.K. press is full of stories of protestors anxious not to see valleys and hills leveled, and the natural landscape altered beyond recognition. No matter that a greater good may be evident— perhaps an historic market town will be freed from the impact of streams of heavy goods vehicles, threatening the foundations of houses that have stood for centuries.

Despite this, we’re reluctant to opt for change, and this passage speaks of some pretty dramatic changes, including that which makes us most uneasy— our own changed state from earthly life to death. ‘The grass withers, the flower fades.’ Now the soundtrack in my head has changed, and I’m carried along by Brahms’ German Requiem, the drumbeats heavy with anticipation of the inevitable. There will have to be many small deaths as we prepare for the coming of God. The leveling of mountains and hills, the smoothing out of rough places in ourselves and in our community, will never be without cost.

So often Advent becomes a time of frenzied accumulation, as we hunt the length and breadth of town for the perfect gift for people with no material needs whatsoever. Rather than smoothing out valleys and hills, we make mountains out of molehills as the days fly past, until Christmas shopping has become a chore, and we are simply desperate to ensure that there is something, anything, to wrap and put under the tree by December 25th. But the message of Isaiah here reminds us of the transience of all these things, and even of their intended recipients. Instead of accumulation, he speaks of simplification, …and then—oh, then the glory of the Lord will be revealed! What’s more, after the images of earthquake and reminders of mortality, the God who comes in might meets us in gentleness. He recognizes the scars that our own inner landscapes bear after so much upheaval, and scoops us up tenderly, as a shepherd a young lamb.

This Advent, many are struggling because their familiar settings have been changed irrevocably, the landmarks of their neighborhood cleared away overnight by the forces of nature. The things they took for granted simply aren’t there any more, and like the people of Israel for whom Isaiah wrote, they are refugees, temporary residents in communities that don’t feel like home. So these words are for them, too: ‘Do not fear…Here is your God.’

Whatever happens to the ephemera around us, that is something we can rely on. May we keep God as the focus as we prepare the way for his coming to each of us at Christmas.

Loving God, in a world whose landscapes are often distorted, help us to clear a pathway for you. Enable us to recognize that your presence with us is all the good news that we need to carry us safely through Advent, and through life, until you welcome us in your loving arms, through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.



Blogger the reverend mommy said...

This is indeed a message I needed to hear today.
Blessings on you and yours.
Love always,

4:49 AM  

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