Sunday, December 9, 2012

"Prepare the Way" - Isaiah 40:1-5 - December 9, 2012

 We come to the second Sunday of Advent.  Last week we lit the first candle of Advent, the Candle of Expectation, calling us to live between God’s grand first act of grace seen in the gift of Jesus and God’s awaiting second grand act, Christ’s second coming.  Today we lit the second candle, the Candle of Preparation.  It seems normally when we tie the word preparation to Christmas we instantly begin to think about the endless preparation task list of decorating the house, assembling gift lists, endless runs to the mall to buy gifts, and attending the seemingly non-stop required Christmas gatherings. But the candle is not a reminder of thing we have to buy or places we have to go.  Instead it is lit to remind us to prepare our hearts and lives for God’s work in our lives.  So we come to one of the great Advent passages that draws us to the prophet Isaiah’s side and to John the Baptist’s ministry mission.

Ø  I know that the worship guide reads that our focal passage in Isaiah is verses three through five. While they are central to the message, I simply could not skip past the first two verses.  They set the course for our call to prepare the way.   They read: Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.

These words invite us hear God speaking to a heavenly court with a promise of comfort and redemption. It is a word intended for those who have struggled. It is a promise that they will find peace and that their – that our - sins will be wiped away, paid for in the gift of Christ.  The NIV claims the phrase, “speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” but a more accurate rendering would be to “speak to the heart of Jerusalem.” This promise of comfort is not generic proclamation, but is intended to speak directly and meaningfully into our hearts and lives.  The comforted offered is not a cheap grace that glosses over the sins of the past, but a comfort and a grace that wipes it out, that brings real pardon, that restores our relationship with God.[i]

I love how the Old Testament scholar David Peterson hears this passage.  He speaks to how quickly we claim these words in Christmas hymns, but the reality is that Christ did not come as a bolt from the blue into history, but comes prepared for in story and song. Jesus’ coming was foretold and expected. People stood ready; ready for the messiah; ready for the promised comfort from God. Peterson proclaims; Comfort comes to those who are prepared, who have waited, whose sins God had forgiven in Christ.[ii]

Ø  In the wake of God’s comfort and in the wake of God’s grace we hear the call to prepare the way.  Verse 3 reads: A voice of one calling: "In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.

One of my greatest challenges during my sabbatical was getting comfortable driving in England.  No, the prospect of driving on the other side of the road was not the problem. OK, it was a problem for the first week or so when I thought I might accidentally kill my family, but after that I settled in.  The big problem for me was the roads.  There were several M class roads, interstate quality highways where the lanes were broad and driving was easy.  Then there were the large single and double digit roads where traffic moved freely.  My problem was all of those triple digit roads and others like them where the lanes squeezed tighter and tighter – those times when you realize that many of these roads were first cut for horse drawn wagons and carriages – and would still probably fit them better.  These roads were twisted and turned and with every twist and turn they seemed to get smaller.  If you encountered another car on one of these county roads the two of you began a strange dance and dipping and diving, slipping and sliding until your cars could pass one another.  And wow be unto you if you encountered a truck or a tourist bus.  The longer I was there the more I could appreciate the running joke that if you ever find yourself on a straight road in England it was probably made by the Romans.

My experiences on the country roads of England give me new eyes to see and understand the call of the prophet to prepare the way, make straight the highway for God. The prophet claimed language the people would have understood to help them understand something much more profound. The hearers would have understood the idea that of prepare a road for a king.  These original hearers would know captivity in Babylon and would dream of a road that would carry then back home.  Here the call is to begin to prepare this great highway of God, but the preparation was not with stone and dirt, but was a matter of the heart.

Ø  The prophet expands the picture to describe everything being made ready.  Verses 4-5 read; Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken."

Our first year as missionaries in Thailand was spent in Bangkok in language school.  When the rainy season hit the skies opened and we thought they might never close again.  It rained in seemingly Noahesque amounts.  The city began to flood.  We came to understand that this was normal fare for rainy season in Thailand.  But, we heard a story of a rainy season a few years before our arrival where almost every part of the city was flooded.  The devastation was profound and the finger pointing between city leaders, provincial leaders, and national leaders.  Everyone was blaming everyone else and in the process nothing was happening.  The people languished in agony.  Then the King of Thailand appeared on television and announced that the next day he planned to go on a walk in a particular part of city.  While the King had little formal government power, his influence was and is unmistakable.  Suddenly the city, provincial and national government began to work together, dove into high gear, and by the time the King arrived for his walk, the flood damage that section of the city was ready for him. For two weeks he announced another section of the city where he would going for a walk and by the close of the two weeks life had fully returned to the city.

This is the kind of effort the prophet images.  Anything that would stand in God’s way would be cleared away. Mountains will be made low, valleys filled in, rough ground made level.   The picture is that anything and everything be done to make sure that nothing stands in the way of the work of God.  The glory of God is about to be revealed.  We can bank on it because God said it. 

The original hearer’s of the prophet’s pronouncement of this great promise of God would have dreamed of the day when the people of God would be restored.  The prophetic promise that spoke across generations was the promise that a Messiah was coming.  John the Baptist lived out his ministry mission of preparing the people of the land for Jesus.  When we hear this same call it demands something very different from us.  The advent call to prepare the way is for us to clear away anything that stands between us and God. We must set aside the distraction and tune out the voices that call us away from coming to the manger with awe and wonder.

We are recipients of prophet’s and John’s message and are to become voices crying out in the wilderness, sharing the good news with those who have forgotten or do not know.  We are the ones who are called to prepare the way for people to see God at work.  We are the ones whose sins have been paid by hand of God through God’s grace found in Jesus Christ. We are the ones that have become the living witnesses of God’s grace and glory.   Prepare the way in your life to remember the great gift of God.  Prepare the way so that others might know.  Prepare the way to relish in God’s grace and glory.

[i] Shaped by Kelly, Page H. Isaiah, Volume 5, The Broadman Bible Commentary, (Broadman Press: Nashville, 1971), p.297.
[ii] Peterson, David, Isaiah, Volume VI, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2001), p.339.

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