Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8
Link to the video of this reflection: https://youtu.be/UN25YTLHgbc
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight – O Lord our strength and our redeemer. Amen
I was talking about Isaiah last week in my reflection for Advent Sunday. The passage for last week came from the time when God’s chosen people have returned to Jerusalem after the exile, and are rebuilding the temple (but the people had lost their way with faith in God yet again). Where as this week’s reading comes from more hopeful times – a bit earlier in the story when God’s chosen people were on the cusp of returning from the exile to Jerusalem).
For devotees of Carol Services this reading is very familiar and often one of the chosen ones. It starts in a place that makes us feel good too – Comfort, O comfort my people – says your God. The verb is even in the imperative – showing it to be a command. That is like saying – “better times are coming, breathe in God’s love for you now”. We can resonate with this kind of message as we so need this kind of comfort today. Comfort from God is a breath away if we get in touch with our inner sense of God travelling with us through the Holy Spirit Jesus left with us. This is a very deep well always available to us. Sometimes we just need to pause and pray it into our hearts. This has been most obvious in our pandemic days. As vaccine hopes are peaking over the horizon, let’s lean in to it once more to give us the strength we need to endure (however long it takes us). God’s strength and hope is for us
In places the Holy Spirit is called the comforter, and in this part of Isaiah the verb comfort is used repeatedly to signify encouragement or restoration to new life, but it may also denote that a need for a change of mind or direction is required or some element of repentance. In a way, our recent times have also made us think about all we have taken for granted up to this point, and some ways we will want to change to make the future for ourselves, our nearest and dearest, our communities and our world better. It may be that our pandemic times have made us realise things we had not previously – and I think where it is needed reflection and repentance is very good for our souls. It shows God where we now know we need to proceed differently from now on, and helps us to be open to the Holy Spirit’s work with us and within us.
The next few verses of the reading – are ones we read knowing they point to the coming of Jesus (rather than the immediate events of God’s chosen people as the original readers would have interpreted them to be). Where it starts A Voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God”. I am not going to talk about who the voice was today, to allow Penny to major on John the Baptist next week in our Advent journey. I want us instead to think about preparing the way. This time of year we generally do a lot of preparations – all kinds of things (cooking, shopping, decorating, writing cards, buying and wrapping presents, and so forth)… I suspect some of it is scaled back for most of us in our pandemic days. But I wonder if we should think about how each thing we are able to do is bringing us closer to the real message of Christmas, how God’s love came down with one intent to save us.
There have been wilderness aspects of our last year’s experience. I don’t think I have ever in my life time spent so much time by myself. I shall be hugely thankful for times when we can more easily mingle. Currently having to set out that we cannot socialise at all inside the church buildings because we are in tier 2 is a horrifying thing for me to say. I so wish this was not the case – as fellowship is such an important part of our journey. We may not be able to chat together in person and inside in the way that we might want but we can pray together and strengthen each other for the journey in that way.
The next part of the verse says “make straight in the desert a highway to our God”. What does that mean? For the original listeners it would have been heard as a call to return to Jerusalem, and in some cases it is translated as highways indicating the dispersed nature of the people of God in exile across the Babylonian empire when this part of Isaiah was inspired. It sounds like a need to make a journey – in the people of God’s case a journey leading back to Jerusalem.
For us we tend to think more of God’s action in sending Jesus, as being the straight highway to God. A direct and decisive intervention pointing to God which we mark each Christmas. A straight highway is not a bendy country lane – but a broad wide and the most direct path possible through the desert times to better places ahead. This must be making us think about how our lives are being lived currently. From the outside do they look like broad highways pointing to God’s love for us or would we look more like a narrow, bendy country lane where the importance of God’s love for us is not so obvious. Being focussed and direct about God’s love for us is also better for us in other ways, as it stops us letting other things crowd in and get in the way too.
These weeks leading to Christmas do afford us opportunities to be more explicit in how we live and what we say. Celebrating Christmas is not cancelled no matter how much we can’t do what we would normally do! There are layers of tradition and family myths, which we are all going to miss that aren’t practical or safe in 2020! There are people we aren’t going to see and activities we aren’t going to be able to indulge in. In this genre is our annual warm bath in a range of mostly Victorian Traditional Carols inside the Church.
Singing the story TOGETHER in Church (not being sung too) is very much part and parcel of Christmas. From our enforced abstinence in this activity inside the church buildings in 2020 we will really know how important this is to us and next year (hopefully) singing TOGETHER will be part of everything we can do then. Yet we still can sing these things in our households, and through various different outlets videos/tv services etc (I will be pointing us to sources of these as we get closer to Christmas too). It is the togetherness that is really missing, and it is a togetherness that points to God. A large packed church full of people singing Hark the herald angels sing – transports us in a different way into the immanence of God’s love for us. There is no doubt that I will (and many of us will) really miss that. It can feel a bit like being there on the hillside as the angels impart the good news of Jesus birth to the shepherds. Let’s remember that feeling and as we remember know deep in our heart that the good news of Jesus birth is still the best news we ever had. In 2020 – let’s hold on to that and hold on to it fast.
A bit further on in the Isaiah passage it brings home to us what the good news is. It says Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all the people shall see it together. For Isaiah’s original audience – the dispersed people of God in exile in the Babylonian empire – this is all about the sign of God’s presence and power once more being visible and experienced in Jerusalem as the temple is rebuilt. I wonder what they made of the second bit of that verse that ‘All people shall see it together’. I suspect they may have interpreted that as being all the scattered people of God would be together and see it and not that it meant something much more radical than that – that Jesus was coming for everyone. That the “All” was so much more inclusive. Remembering even from the very beginning we remember that Jesus’ birth was revealed first to shepherds amongst the poorest and marginalised groups within God’s chosen people and then to wise men from the East – who were beyond God’s chosen people in every sense!! As Jesus was born from the very start it was clear he was for everyone – a saviour for the world.
As we reflect on ‘all people shall see it together’, let’s remember the message of love coming down this Christmas and every Christmas is for everyone, and use it to inspire us to beacons pointing to that love in all that we do.
Let us pray: – God, you have comforted your people, making paths where there seemed no path. You have lifted up valleys, relieved droughts, and made high places low. You have gathered your people in the eternal place of love. You speak to our hearts, and you forgive us for our wandering ways. Your light and love and faithfulness and work are true, ever true, always lasting. We praise you, for the goodness you are, and the pathways you make before us. Amen.
The New Revised Standard Version (Anglicized Edition), copyright 1989, 1995
Prayer adapted from Rootsontheweb.com