Sermon delivered at Ballard First Lutheran Church, Seattle, WA
The prophet Isaiah says: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad… The eyes of the blind shall be opened… sorrow and sighing shall flee away…”
Almost every statement in this prophecy is about the future.
What if we take this beautiful, hopeful vision and turn it around? If everything is future tense, that certainly implies that this lesson from Isaiah is the collective vision of a yearning people. Where were they, in relation to his vision?
Turned around: we get a bleak—a disturbing—portrait of a people who are lost without a path in a scorching desert, surrounded by beasts of prey. A people who are deaf and blind; whose knees cannot support them, whose hands cannot grasp; a people who cannot speak—an isolated, abandoned people.
And yet, despite this devastation, these are people who have someone among them with a voice that bids them hope. Someone among them, like Isaiah, has the gift to imagine a new reality, an imagination that brings God’s voice nearer to all. That someone is called the Prophet, who, like Isaiah, says, look: “God will come and save you.”
Advent is a time in the Church’s calendar that is full of the prophecies about Christ. Cryptic stories about young, pregnant women with children to be called Immanuel. Hopeful stories about the lost line of Israel’s kings—the “branch of Jesse.” Miraculous stories about the Holy Paths of God and the blind receiving their sight, and so and so on.
As you might know: Prophets are a people who are given by God a voice that comes starkly counter to the way human culture is always shifting and trending to remind God’s children where God is calling them.
Did you hear how Jesus’ words about his healings and his miracles today are echoes from Isaiah? Not only this, Jesus, in his words from Matthew’s gospel, has alluded to—in one way or another—the prophecies of Elijah, Elisha, and Isaiah, and Malachi, and Moses, and the list goes on—all these tremendous characters, these Prophets of God.
Jesus gathers up every vision of spiritual and physical health and unhealth from all the prophecy in the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, and tells these messengers from John the Baptist: “Go and tell John what I’ve done.”
Jesus says, “What you all have been hoping and visioning and waiting for? I am.”
In some ways, Jesus is saying it’s the end of an era. The waiting time is over. “I am here.” For this reason, many theologians and lay people alike say that prophecy is dead. It’s joyfully gone. That it has to be. It has to be for the very reason that Jesus says He has done it all.
Nothing more is to come because Jesus has been born and has been raised from the dead already. The Church has been born. The waiting is over.
Now, you might say, it’s all a matter of “Going” and “Telling” what Jesus has done. What God has done. Go Tell it on the Mountain, right?
If that were true—that we could simply “Go and Tell”—I feel like our world, even our Church, would look much different. Who have you gone and told about Jesus’ coming and his finishing all prophecy forever? Even if every gung-ho vicar the world over slapped on their new collars and stopped every person on the street—what would they say, if I told them Jesus has been born?
Would they roll their eyes? Would they lose their temper?
Somehow, that seems too simple. Because, somehow, it has gone all wrong…Those hypothetical people I might confront certainly would feel a strong desire, I think, to direct my attention to every grocery and convenience store; every Wal-Mart and Target; and every pharmacy and dollar store; and definitely every department store, and show me the Green-and-Red bonanza of plastic baby Jesuses and Santa Clauses and Christmas lights that twinkle and change colors and Made-In-China-Hallmark-Angels covered in so much pink heavenly glitter…
They might roll their eyes and want to take me on December 26th to the monumental piles of dead and brown Xmas trees, all around the world… or to the immeasurable loads of discarded and destroyed wrapping paper and broken decorations and worn out toys and every other used up thing that sparkled for only instant and then was thrown away…
This news of God’s birth is everywhere starting immediately after Thanksgiving on a day, aptly called, Black Friday. A chocolate Jesus in a plastic manger, watched over by an imported Santa-Claus. And yet this news of God’s birth among us is nowhere.
All this Red-and-Green X-mas is so much cultural-noise that makes it almost impossible to hear a word of tenderness. How can I make out a word of Good News in the wake of such waste?
So, to those who say the waiting is over: I say no. And to those who say prophecy is dead: I say no. It goes on.
Remember, Prophets are a people who are given by God a voice that comes starkly counter to the way human culture is always shifting and trending to remind God’s children where God is calling them.
I say prophecy and the wait for its fulfillment is alive and well—Advent has us wait with a capital “W”, and Scripture too—whether Old Testament or New—always bids us to continue to be patient and wait.
In our second lesson from the letter of James, we’re asked to wait—to have the patience of a farmer. If any of you have been farmers, or have relatives who have farmed, or even if you yourself are a gardener, you know: the patience of a farmer is an anxious one.
James observes that a farmer is only as good as the weather and the terrain. A farmer is only as good as the environment they’re given. Even in our days of irrigation, pesticides, and crop insurance.
One early frost and a livelihood is lost—a farmer is dependent on things outside their control. So, a farmer’s patience is a trusting one. From the earliest Church James gives us this is the example of the “believer.” And James goes on, indeed, to liken the trusting farmer to the Prophet who both spoke and suffered in the name of the Lord.
So, all three readings today are saturated with this thing Prophecy.
Jesus says to us in today’s gospel: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?What did you expect the prophecies to sound like?”
Easy times? Easy answers? Soft robes and royal places?
Jesus of Nazareth and John the Baptist were strange, strange individuals. And let’s not forget that they were both murdered by the very same people they came to save. Everything they were and everything they did was absolutely upside-down for those who thought they were waiting for it.
If prophets are a people who are given by God a voice that comes starkly counter to the way human culture is always shifting and trending—how can we know that what we are waiting for has actually come? Especially, if even those in Scripture who saw Jesus face-to-face had no idea who they were looking at? Even John the Baptist had to ask Jesus who he was… just to make sure!
James says in his letter, “You, also, must be patient… for the coming of the Lord is near.”
“God will come and save you,” says Isaiah.
But, re-using the words of the prophet Malachi, Jesus says something slightly different: “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.”
When I first got to Seattle there was no end of people raving about the landscape. They told me about “The” mountain. They told me about the rains and the fogs and the hills and the mountains and the waters and the trees and the whole thing. They told me how people sort of set their internal clocks to the landscape and its majesty. Well, I gotta be honest with you, I didn’t really get it…
I didn’t mind the rain so much, but I just found myself comparing everything to the landscape back east that I was more familiar with. I figured because I didn’t love it here immediately, that I was not meant for it.
But recently, all that suddenly changed. I was riding the bus down to Faith Action Network a week or so ago. (That’s where, you might remember, I spend two days a week as a part of my internship.)
The bus-route goes over the Ballard Bridge, and usually the view of the Olympic Mountains is completely obscured by rain and clouds in the morning. So, after a while, I stopped craning my neck to get a view of them. I knew they were there, in theory, but I had no real way of seeing them. I lost interest.
However, one morning as I looked up on the Ballard Bridge, by accident, I noticed the sky was clear. And wham! —the magnetism of these massive, snow-sheathed peaks lit sideways-pink by the morning sun just blew me away. It was stunning—the sky, the Sound, the mountains, the boats, the whole shebang—in a flash I felt like I understood what everyone had been talking about…
To just describe Seattle and Washington—both weather, turf, terrain and a way of life—for me, I hate to say it, to describe it was actually pretty useless. I realized that morning what would have been useful preparation would have been to say,
“Wait. Allow the landscape and its relationship with you to happen on its own—but always trust it will happen.”
The comparison of my experience of the Olympic Mountains to the season of Advent—especially now as Advent becomes the losing and diminishing opponent to “Xmas time”—was like a revelation.
“Wait. Allow Christ and God’s relationship with you to happen on its own—but always trust and know, that by the Holy Spirit, it will happen.”
I hear Jesus again saying, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.”
To focus on waiting is so counter-cultural, it’s almost a cliché how counter-cultural it is. Almost everything in our economy is marketed to us because of its instantaneousness, its quickness, its speed, its efficiency, its effectiveness… Not, by the way, because marketers are bad, manipulative people, no, it’s just that they are perceptive and they notice that we, indeed, hate to wait!
The way that is prepared before us, the “Holy Way”, as Isaiah calls it, the way were no travellers or fools shall go astray? Is the way of patient waiting on the Lord.
During Advent God calls us to walk away from the “soft robes” and “royal places” of our wealth and our consumerism and makes of us prophets. This is the exciting thing! Because during Advent we all become like the prophet John the Baptist.
Prophets are a people who are given by God a voice that comes starkly counter to the way human culture is always shifting and trending to remind God’s children where God is calling them.
And we know this prophecy will come true…