Today, on this 2nd Sunday in Advent, we are steeped in the prophets. The patron saint of eccentrics is front and center: John the Baptist, with his camel skins, locusts, honey and bad temper. And just behind him that giant among prophets, Isaiah.
For the most part, and to oversimplify a little, the prophets tended to sing in two keys: a bright, sunny major key with visions of a more glorious future, visions of restoration, visions of a peaceable kingdom. And in a dark, stormy minor key: gloom and doom, lamentation, critique of the status quo.
These two modes of prophecy reflect a fundamental characteristic of human nature: to be discontent with things as they are and to imagine how they might be instead. The prophets were discontent; and they dreamed of a more glorious future. What is enshrined in the prophets is ordinary human characteristic writ large. If we are people of discontent and of dreams, they are people of BIG discontent and BIG dreams.
Let’s look at what they offer us this morning. These are, the prophets say, desert and wilderness times. And, Lord knows, we understand this. We know plenty about rough places, as Isaiah put it.
- We know the low-grade uphill grind of an economy still struggling, and see and feel income inequality setting in deeper and deeper
- We tremble at the deep canyons and cravasses of world events – girls kidnapped in Africa, terrorists ploughing people down with vans, or nuclear war-mongering in Asia.
- And now, closer to home, we are witnessing #Me, too expressions of the pain and the related disbelieving or openly defiant backlash
At the same time, we are a people who have known tremendous human achievement:
- medicine and public health here and abroad have eradicated or contained virulent diseases, remember Ebola?
- drug therapies are turning some cancers into something closer to diabetes, a condition one can live with if managed carefully
- the internet has changed how we access information: not sequentially from books but in a much faster and networked way
Life, for us, then, can feel contradictory:
- great human achievement stands beside great human failure;
- hope and fear mingle;
- a sense of human unity struggles with the reality of great divisions.
That is a good description of a wilderness with uneven ground and with plenty of rough places. Heights and depths. And in the midst of this uneven ground wilderness both Isaiah and John urge us to prepare the way of the Lord.
How do we do that? Well, Isaiah advises we first cry out. “What shall I cry?” the prophet asks and we might ask the same. How about:
- Not fair!
- Not right!
- Help us, Lord!
- Come quickly, Lord, and help us!
Those are some starters. But Isaiah insists that is not enough. It may well be a necessary first step, but it’s not enough. And so he urges us spiritually to get ourselves to a high mountain. He urges us to lift up our voices with strength and not to fear. To cry out to all who will hear, “Behold your God!”
And I don’t think the prophet meant this ironically. He wasn’t joking. He meant it in a direct, straight-forward way. In the midst of pain and suffering, in the midst of wonders and achievements, in the midst of all of it, pay attention! God is here. Right here. Right now. Look for him! Behold her.
No wonder Handel chose the music he did to accompany this passage in his oratorio “Messiah”. Millions of people, who feel no other link to religious faith crowd great concert halls when this is sung. It is stirring. It is profound, unambiguous, powerful. Behold your God.
How will you recognize God in your midst? Well, if Isaiah and John are right: look for might wrapped in gentleness:
See, the Lord GOD comes with might… 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.
Caring, sensitivity to others, concern are not signs of weakness but of God’s own self-giving power and might. Isaiah’s images of gathering lambs and gently leading them is a lovely image of God. It means we can behold God especially when you see concern for the most vulnerable in our midst.
- among those who need to fear not just the criminal but also the cop
- among those who wield little political power or authority
- among those who care for the hungry or sick or suffering – as I know this church family does for one another
Behold your God.
At the same time one of the functions of a shepherd is to make demands of his flock as a whole, to stretch them sometimes in ways that can be uncomfortable. Responding to the demands of our society takes true moral strength. Responding to church being done differently takes strength.
And I have enough experience with other parishes to be impressed with the courage it takes to do church differently. You are a wonderful, risk-taking new community. God is with you and you are not alone but I believe you are being invited to stretch:
- to reach out to folks in other congregations more
- to reach out to seekers who don’t know, trust, or like church
- and to learn to think of all of them less as “them” and more as “us”
We are all of us minor prophets. God’s vision, God’s dream of the new heaven and new earth actually needs the engine of our discontent, our dissatisfaction. Putting our dissatisfactions, our lack of fulfillment, even our suffering into this broader transformation is one way of trusting in Christ’s will to redeem it. We are all minor prophets. Here, among you, “Behold your God.”