“An Uncertain Journey: Following the Prophets”

Sermon Preached at First Congregational Church, Loveland UCC www.lovelanducc.org

By Rev. Thandiwe Dale-Ferguson

Scripture Passages: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11 & Mark 1:1-8

Will you pray with me?

Holy God, speak to us in word and thought and silence. Open our hearts to hear your good news. Open our lives to respond. Open our mouths and our hands to proclaim that you are indeed with us, strengthening, sustaining and saving. Amen.

Comfort, comfort my people!

The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s son!

Here begin our scripture readings for today.

The first comes from what biblical scholars and historians call Second Isaiah, the writer of Isaiah 40-55, the exquisite poet who moved the prophetic narrative from confession of sin to confession of hope.

Comfort, comfort my people, this prophet proclaims to a people whose nation has been invaded, whose holy city and temple have been destroyed, whose economy has been interrupted and whose leaders and scholars have been exiled to Babylon, a foreign land. The writing of Second Isaiah “emerges in the decades after the invasion like a healing, life-creating song. It seeks to bring back to life a people crushed under a shroud of death.”[1] Sounds appropriate for us today, no?

The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s son! So begins our second reading from Mark’s gospel written soon after the Jewish War with Rome has ended, the temple destroyed again, the people divided, unsure of what is true and what is propaganda, suspicious of their neighbors. Sounds appropriate for us today, no?

And then the writer of Mark points back and back and back — quoting the great Hebrew prophets Isaiah and Micah. And, through the image of a man dressed in camel-hair clothing eating locusts and honey, the writer of Mark calls to mind the great prophet Elijah.

Comfort, comfort my people!

Good news!

These words are spoken not people sated on Thanksgiving feasts, not to people piling gifts high underneath their Christmas trees, not even to people whose routines have remained steady, their lives comfortably undisrupted. The prophets Isaiah and John the Baptist speak these words of comfort and good news to exile-weary, despairing, uncertain, trying-to-make sense of the world people of the 6th Century BCE, of the 1st Century CE and indeed to us.

For when in recent years have we needed such words as we do today — as the pandemic worsens around us. As the death toll rises.

As we gather for church after the first Thanksgiving perhaps in decades when we have not been with our families at table.

As we grieve yet another death in our circle of friends, wondering if perhaps WE are jinxed or cursed — surely it’s not normal to lose half a dozen friends in six short months.

As we numb ourselves to racial violence and hunger lines that wrap themselves around the block awaiting whatever will be left at the foodbank.

As the achievement divide among our nation’s children widens and 1 in 4 wonder, not whether they’ll pass their classes, but when they will next eat a hot meal.

As we wonder if Australia will go up in flames again as record-high temperatures hit the news.

As nostalgia hits us a little too hard —

As we grieve a beloved grandmother or prepare to say goodbye to another member of our family — this time far too soon, no rhyme or reason or sense. Only devastation. And heartbreak. [PAUSE]

These are the spaces into which our prophets speak.

Comfort, comfort my people!

[PAUSE] Can we even hear these words? Can we take them into our hearts? Could the Israelite people hear them some 2,600 years ago — their nation in ruins, wondering if it was even possible to piece back together the remnants of their culture and faith.

Speak compassionately to Jerusalem — proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended. This time of exile, this time of division, this time of pandemic will not last forever.

Comfort, comfort my people!

But comfort and compassion are just the beginning of the prophet’s call. For then there is the instruction to prepare:

A voice is crying out:

“Clear the Lord’s way in the desert!

    Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!

Take comfort. Receive God’s compassion. But that is not all. There is preparation to be done. Clear a way — through the desert, in the wilderness, through valleys and across mountains. Clear a way — make the path level and straight. Allow all that would stand in God’s way to be moved, to be leveled.

God’s glory is going to appear so that all humanity can see it. Preparations must be made!

These same calls for preparation appear in Mark’s Gospel, setting the stage for John the Baptist who calls people to prepare the Way for God by being baptized, by changing their hearts and lives.

Other translations tell us that John’s call is to repentance and confession — actions which “entail facing the truth about ourselves and changing the direction of our lives. And who wants to do either of those things? [PAUSE] So the good news can often sound like bad news, at least at first. Repentance and confession both require a searching and honest look back. [The 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous calls it making “a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”] There are no shortcuts.”[2]

Comfort! Good news!

Prepare a way for the Lord.

Repent: change your hearts and lives.

No wonder the prophets get a bad rep. They hold the tension with and for us — the truth that God offers us comfort and good news. Especially in the worst times. In the midst of what seems like an endless stream of bad news, uncertainty, and despair.

But the prophets don’t stop there. Then they call us to respond. To prepare. To make God’s paths straight.

Because the wild truth is that the two go together. We know God’s comfort when we prepare our hearts to receive it. The good news can take hold when we clear the clutter and make space for its absurdity and its beauty.

God’s glory will appear and ALL humanity will see it together! [PAUSE]

Can you see it? God’s glory?

We’ve seen glimpses — a son’s teary testament to his mother’s love, devotion and discipline.

A simple video of our children and youth carrying a candle in the darkness.

A toddler belting out Gloria in excelsis deo.

Children refusing to race to candy and instead grabbing hands and running together so that everyone can share.

A father’s love for his daughter.

A stranger’s kindness.

The beauty of the sun setting over snowy peaks. 

But honestly, God’s glory often looks and feels like pie in the sky — Harmony. A world without war or gun violence.

Recovery and healing of body and mind and soul.

A world in which no child ever goes to bed hungry. Where no one dies alone. Where we can laugh and hug and sing together.

A world where we do not condemn our neighbor because of their sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, language, political affiliation, marital status, race, age, style or religion. A world where neurodiversity and physical and intellectual diversity are celebrated.

A world where we know that God is SO BIG that God has room for all of us — where God is revealed in and through ALL of us!

God’s glory will appear and ALL humanity will see it together.

And then I remember. These words were spoken to a devastated people. John the baptist called for repentance and confession from a people divided, just like us today. A people unsure of how to make meaning TOGETHER.

Change your hearts and lives, he invited them.

Because it will set you free. Because then you will see God’s glory.

And these prophets, Isaiah and John — they didn’t know what was coming. In a world filled with uncertainty, they spoke of that which WAS certain: God’s unfailing goodness and presence,

God’s liberating love and justice,

God’s word that is and was and will always be.

So hear again the words from our prophets as we follow them on this uncertain journey:

Comfort! Comfort my people.

Hear the beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s son!

Prepare a way for God!

Repent and confess. Change your heart and life! 
Raise your voice and shout! Do not be afraid!

Say to those who languish in exile; to the lost and forsaken,

To the grieving and despairing, the hungry and thirsty,

To the prisoner and the ailing one:

Proclaim: Here is your God!

Who comes in strength.

No empty-handed but with gifts abounding.

Who is like a shepherd gathering her lambs into a tender embrace,

Lifting them onto her lap, gently guiding the nursing ewes.

Comfort, comfort my people. Hear the good news!

And prepare a way. Amen.

[1] Kathleen M. O’Connor. Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 1, 2nd Sunday of Advent, Isaiah 40:1-11, Exegetical Perspective.

[2] Martin B. Copenhaver. Feasting on the Word Year B Volume 1, 2nd Sunday of Advent, Matthew 1:1-8, Homiletical Perspective.

© 2020 Thandiwe Dale-Ferguson, all rights reserved. Please contact thandiwe@lovelanducc.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.

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