A sermon by Greg Ledbetter | Preached on December 7, 2008 at Shell Ridge Community Church | Second Sunday in Advent, Year B
Sermon Text: Isaiah 40:1-11
I gathered with a dozen or so of my American Baptist colleagues in ministry this week. We had come together to talk about the unique challenges of being a senior or solo pastor of a congregation. As you might imagine, every kind of ministry has its own particular realities and demands and we had gathered to look for ways to be more supportive of one another in our ministry.
We began our time together with a period of informal worship. I led a few songs of the Advent season and then we entered a time of reflection and study of this morning's text from Isaiah—the first eleven verses of the 40th chapter. Most of us gathered there would be preaching on that text in a few days, as I am now. We approached the text through the practice of lectio divina … it is a sacred reading that combines multiple readings and periods of reflection. For most preachers, it's what they do every time they prepare to preach. It is a practice that we have engaged in on a number of occasions here at Shell Ridge.
During a silent reading and out loud readings in two different voices, we looked for words and phrases and ideas to emerge for us, to speak to us, to invite us into their meaning and their world, or to minister to us. And then in a time of reflection following the readings, I asked those gathered to reflect aloud on which word spoke most particularly to them in their particular lives and needs.
And not surprisingly, as with any gathering, different parts of the passage spoke to different people. Some felt touched by the tender words of comfort that open the passage. Others were struck by the "geography of grace" in which balance is restored on earth: mountains brought low, low places lifted up, uneven places made smooth. Some of these preachers were drawn to the words of the prophet that seem uniquely suited for those in their calling: "Cry out … get you up to a high mountain, herald of good tidings, lift up your voice with strength." One pastor, drawn to the words: "the grass withers, the flower fades" said: "I am reminded of one of the constants of my ministry: I am surrounded by beloved people who move from vitality to frailty to death." We all gave a deep, knowing sigh at those words.
I then asked these pastors to reflect on a word that seemed particularly apt for their congregation. And again there were comments about tender words of comfort needed … or words of challenge for which their people were ready. One pastor took note of the phrase: "Here is your God", putting special emphasis on the word "HERE" … wanting to draw his parishioners' attention away from the shrines of their lesser gods and back to the God for whom Isaiah spoke.
And we here, we all of us could have a similarly fruitful and helpful sacred conversation over this texts—over all of the texts this morning. What words in Isaiah or the Psalm or the opening gospel reading or the words from II Peter caught at you … snagged your eye or caught at your ear? In many ways, every time every pastor seeks to preach, it is in part with a certain degree of wonderment at what particular word might stand out for you … trying to see the text through your eyes, your needs, your sensibilities, your yearning.
When I read this morning's passage from Isaiah, it's hard for me to get beyond the opening phrase: "Comfort, O comfort my people … speak tenderly … the penalty is paid … the suffering is soon to be over." And I know the heartbreak and the struggle that so many who hear these words spoken this morning have had to face in their lifetime … may be facing now. I have to read those words and then stop … and collect my emotions. It's not a bad thing to let your emotions mingle with the emotions of the text. This is a part of the sacred reading of lectio divina.
I know that these words were first spoken to a people who'd borne the pain of exile and separation for a number of generations. The wound that had inflicted by their exile had never healed, the ache had never subsided. And in the midst of their exile, they had done a pretty good job of beating themselves up—for surely, they reasoned, God's absence and this exile are signs of our failings … somewhere, somehow. And now a pastoral soul, speaking in the tradition of the first prophet Isaiah, speaks this gentle, healing word. If there were any failings, it is, nonetheless, God who is now taking the initiative to restore you … to restore your hope and your joy, to restore you as a people. This morning's passage ends with one of the most beautiful passages in scripture:
God will feed God's flock like a shepherd;
God will gather the lambs in God's arms,
and carry them in God's bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
We know that we are in a season of the year that seems to have a knack for exposing the hair-line cracks in our souls. Things that we bear up under more capably during the sunny days of summer can nearly wipe us out in December. I wrote in my column this month about the challenges of living "under pressure", and in a moment of mutual ministry, one of you noted reading that column and wondered if I'd … like to borrow some Prozac. I'm still mulling the offer. How does that song go? "I only human …"? I've heard pastors and people alike say: "I'm looking forward to the end of the holidays." I've heard myself utter those words.
And you know one tragic thing about saying this is noting that the word "Holiday" is a contraction of the words: "Holy Day". These are to be Holy Days for us … days where the sacred and the divine are present to us in ways that bring comfort and healing and wholeness to our lives.
And you wonder why we preachers and pastors grumble about the great American commercial enterprise to whose altar we are beckoned with every flip of the TV channel and every turn of the newspaper page. It's hard to be chained and enslaved to the commercially fueled expectations of this season and ALSO be laid open to the great, holy wonder of incarnation and birth and re-birth. These are two masters that are hard to serve simultaneously.
There are those among us … perhaps many among us … who long to recover … rediscover the holy in the holidays. We don't wish for this season to simply become one we're glad to be through with, but one that we have been deeply blessed to have gone through.
And I think that the second passage in this morning's reading from Isaiah offers us some hope here. These are the words that each of the four gospel writers chose to include as being essential to the coming of Christ … the incarnating and birthing of God's love into human form in our world … in our midst. These are the words that we heard Elliot intone this morning in the Baptist's Cry.
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."
One of my colleagues said of this passage: "Balance is restored" … and another called it Isaiah's "Geography of Grace". And he was right. The prophet is using visual image of the leveling re-sculpting of the surface of the earth to speak of the leveling and the re-sculpting that must occur within our human ordering, our society, before the glory of God will be revealed. And wouldn't you know that this is a part of the "sin" that Israel looks back upon and calculates into the penalty that their exile has become for them. Then as now, the rich got richer, the poor got poorer … the mountains grew taller and overshadowed completely the deepening valleys where the suffering of so many grew more and more distant. Isaiah cries out: "Let's bring those mountains DOWN … let's lift those valleys UP … when we have succeeded in more nearly leveling the playing field, then … only then will the way be smooth enough for the Lord to come … then, and only then will the glory of the Lord be revealed.
In regard to this leveling of the playing field, someone once wrote: "I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written,
'The one who had much did not have too much,
and the one who had little did not have too little.'
So who do you think wrote those words? Marx? Or maybe it's something Obama said that drew accusations of socialism? Would you believe Paul? The Apostle? It is Paul, writing in his second letter to the Corinthians. Our model, Paul said, is Jesus himself: 9For you know grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
So we're preparing the way for THAT Jesus … the one who leveled the playing field with his own life … his own decisions … his own commitments even, unto death.
And we have to admit that it's a pretty big field that needs leveling. I don't know if Isaiah knew just how big and complicated this whole human family would become. "Every valley shall be exalted …" sounds pretty good when you sing it in the Messiah, but where do you and I fit into the real world practice of this?
Well … a place to start is to go to where Jesus got his start. A local synagogue. It's a place where you'll hear Isaiah read on a pretty regular basis. It's also a place where we happen to have linked our lives with the lives of the good folk at Congregation B'nai Tikvah. Together we are seeking to repair one of the breaches in the social net of compassion and care around us. You have to drive up a pretty steep hill to get to B'nai Tikvah, but that steep drive up helps you come down a bit from whatever mountain of prosperity you or I currently dwell on. As it happens to be true with surmounting other problems like homophobia, getting close in, having face to face contact, getting to know the names and the stories of these valley-dwelling friends and neighbors, offering ourselves and our substance … these are some of the many ways that we can help battle homelessness … and poverty … and the very natural despair that comes with these things. Did we not hear that despair given voice last night? And these are some of the many ways that we can battle the many other kinds of mountain and valley realities that surround us.
Let us be assured of the deep truth of these words: None are saved … until all are saved.
If, the prophet tells us, if you and I help to lower the high places—whatever and wherever they may be, and if you help lift up the low places—whatever and wherever they may be, you will help hasten the time when ALL people shall get to see the glory of God TOGETHER … a Holy Day and a Holiday for one and for all.
The preparing of the way for the incarnation of love is a gift for all people and for all earth.