Dec. 6th, 2020 — homily on Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8 by Pastor Galen Zook
Company is Coming!
When I was growing up, it was “all hands on deck” to clean the house when company was coming over. If we had family arriving for a holiday meal, or guests coming over for dinner after church on a Sunday, my parents and my brother and I would spend the day (or sometimes several days) cleaning the house — dusting the knick knacks on the fireplace mantel, vacuuming the carpets and mopping the floors, straightening up pillows in the living room, cleaning out the cobwebs in the corners, and generally putting everything away where it belonged.
My father used to joke that we needed to have company come over periodically just so we had a reason to clean our house!
Of course the more special the guest, or the more rare their visit, the more time we spent getting the house ready for them.
Now this year most of us are not having the big holiday gatherings that we usually have due to the pandemic that we’re living in. Most of us will be spending our holidays alone or with just a few close friends or family members. And yet we still may feel the desire to ready our houses — to put up the tree and hang up the lights, to clean our rooms and make everything look festive. In fact, in many ways it feels like we need this holiday season more than ever, with the extremely difficult and challenging year we’ve had!
Our family put up our Christmas tree early this year, and we even bought extra lights to put up, since it feels like we all need just a bit more light this year.
Hope is on the Way
In the Bible, in the book of Isaiah, in chapter nine, the prophet told the people, “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned” (Isaiah 9:2). And he said, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6).
And now here in Isaiah chapter 40, God says to the prophet Isaiah “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’” (Isaiah 40:1-5).
There’s a sense here in Isaiah of joy and jubilation, of expectation, but also a sense of urgency. Prepare the way for the arrival of an honored guest! Clean up the house, dust off the mantle, sweep and mop the floors, hang up the Christmas lights. Every valley shall be lifted up, every mountain made low. Smooth out the rough places, so that the glory of the Lord can be revealed, and so that all the people shall see God.
The people were longing for God’s presence. Their city and nation lay in ruins. Their ancestors had turned away from God, worshipped false idols. As a nation and as individuals they had committed horrible sins, and they were forced to pay the penalty. God had repeatedly sent prophets to warn them of the city’s impending doom if they did not turn and repent, but they had ignored their warnings, failed to heed the word of the prophets, and eventually it was too late. The city of Jerusalem was besieged, and the walls were destroyed, and their leaders and all the best and brightest of their young people were taken hundreds of miles away to Babylon. The city lay in ruins and uninhabited.
But now in Isaiah 40, God tells the prophet Isaiah that Jerusalem “has served her term…her penalty is paid…she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:2).
Whereas it felt to many of the people that God had abandoned them, now they could rejoice and not be afraid, because God had heard their cries. God would return, as a King and as a shepherd, to return order and to rule, and to “feed his flock” (Isaiah 40:11). And Isaiah says, “he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep” (Isaiah 40:11). What a beautiful image given to people who felt abandoned and who had lost all hope.
Prepare the Way!
Now, although the people returned to Jerusalem, and rebuilt the temple and the walls of the city, and although order was restored to their nation, down through the centuries there was a feeling that God was still absent from them, and that they were never completely free.
For hundreds of years, they lived in hope and expectation, awaiting the time when their nation would be completely restored, and when they would be completely free, when they would no longer have to answer to anyone else, and when God would finally be present with them in the way they hoped and longed for.
And then, there, in the wilderness, wearing camel’s hair and a leather belt around his wait, was a prophet who stood in the tradition of the prophet Isaiah. A prophet who called out to the people to repent, to turn away from their sin and wrongdoing, and to “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mark 1:3). Like the prophet Isaiah before him, John the Baptist told of the One who was coming — of one who was so powerful that John himself was not even worthy to stoop down and untie his sandals.
John baptized people with water and proclaimed a baptism of repentance for their sins, a turning away from their wrongdoing, as they prepared for the One to come who would baptize them with the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:8).
John told the people to get ready! Prepare the way. Clean your houses, sweep the floors, dust off the mantle, because the One you have been waiting for for so many years is on the way. The honored Guest is soon to arrive! God is coming..
John didn’t want them to miss Jesus when He came. He wanted them to turn away from their sins and wrongdoing so they could see and experience the presence of God in their midst. He wanted them to stop the hustle and bustle of their daily activity, so they could experience the mystery and the miracle that was taking place in their midst. God, wrapped in flesh, had come to dwell among them — to heal and forgive, to bind up the broken, give sight to the blind, to free the oppressed, to restore what they had lost, and to point them in the way they should go.
Shepherd and a King
Like the people of John and Isaiah’s day, no doubt today many people feel like God has abandoned us. The events of the past year have put many of us more in touch with our own mortality than ever before. Sickness, death and disease are all around us, and many of us are living in fear and anxiety. Despite all of our best precautions, we feel our vulnerability.
Not only that, but in this midst of this pandemic, we’ve experienced social unrest over this past year. And racially and politically, our nation feels more divided than ever.
On a religious level, many churches and religious institutions are struggling to survive. For years, younger people have been leaving the church, and now more than ever, they are skeptical of any sort of organized religion.
In the midst of all of this, we may wonder, “where is God? Does God see us? Does God even care?”
But just like the message given to the prophet Isaiah, who proclaimed “to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” (Isaiah 40:9), through Christ, God has come to us. That’s the meaning of the word Emmanuel — “God with us! ” Through the Holy Spirit, Christ is here, in our midst.
Jesus wants to rule in our hearts, to feed us like a shepherd, and to gather us in his arms and carry us close to his heart (see Isaiah 40:11).
But Just as John the Baptist called for the people of his day to turn away from their sins and wrongdoing, to turn back to God, we too are being invited to turn. To repent of those ways in which we have gone astray, the ways in which we have turned our backs on God, and to open ourselves up to the love and grace and mercy and healing and forgiveness that Christ offers to all.
Not a Quick Fix
And this love and healing and grace that Jesus offers is not just for us individually — it’s also for us corporately, as a society.
Like the people of John the Baptist’s day, many people today are longing for change. The pandemic has unveiled the vast inequities that exist in our society. Many businesses and organizations (and yes even churches!) are being forced to reckon with the legacies of racism and inequality in our institutions, past and present. And many families and individuals are feeling restless or listless and ready for a change.
But what our world needs so desperately is not just a quick fix, or something to numb the pain. As a society, we don’t just need something new to distract us, or to turn our attention away from the pain and suffering that is all around us.
No! We need a complete reversal, a massive turning away from our sin and wrongdoing. We need a leveling of the hills and valleys, and smoothing of the rough places. We need a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, a complete renewal and a fresh start. We need God to make us over anew.
And so as we prepare ourselves for the coming of Christmas, and as we ready our hearts and our homes in expectation of the celebration of Christmas, let us also remember to proclaim to the world that in Christ, God is here, in our midst! And that one day Christ will return to make all things new.
Even now, God’s healing and grace and mercy and forgiveness is available to all who would turn and repent of their sins, and receive Jesus as their King and as their Shepherd.
So let us open our hearts to receive our King! Let us ready ourselves. And let us proclaim this Good News to the world!