It’s still Advent. I know you knew that. This season doesn’t sneak up on anyone anymore. I know I used it last week: “Wow, is it that time already?” But it doesn’t really work anymore. Not because we are in better control of our calendars, always ready for every event that comes roaring around the corner at us. Not because we keep better track of where we are and what’s going on all around us, not because we keep our heads up and our eyes focused, not because we are leaning forward as we were told to lean forward into God’s promised advent. No, that’s not why it isn’t a surprise.
Rather, it’s not a surprise because marketing has been telling us it is the season long before it was the season. “Christmas as it is meant to be,” a radio station says, while we’re “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” “This is ‘Thanks-getting’ so be sure you get what you really want,” says an electronics company. And does Santa drive a red imported sports car to deliver the presents or does he rely on an international shipping firm? Either way, no need to fear that you won’t get your gifts this year, because a big-box store says “you aren’t ‘elf-in’ around” because gift giving and getting is serious business. They all say that. And who’s going to argue with them?
When our way of life is threatened, of course, we lash back. If we don’t spend a lot of money this year, our enemies win. That’s the underlying message, it seems to me. Buy our way out of the doldrums. “Retail therapy” some call it. More stuff. It insulates us from the emptiness, from what our hearts really long for. From what is wrong with us as individuals and as a nation. Let’s splurge this Christmas on our way to peace. Hey, I like stuff, too. I’ve got a list somewhere. It works, to a degree. For a while, we feel better. We feel loved. Which is good enough. Until.
Until the arms of the new cozy armchair, while comfy and soft, don’t pulse with life and love and acceptance. Until our gizmos and gadgets that can talk to us and answer our questions can’t wipe away the tears of loneliness and hold us until the empty spaces in our souls are filled. Until the brokenness we know surrounds us as a society, as a people, overwhelms our consumer contentment, and we decide that maybe Christmas needs to mean a little bit more – thanks for that, Mr. Grinch! Sorry to be so cliche. It’s just that sometimes something we all know needs to be said again. That love needs to be embodied. Incarnated. That peace needs to put on flesh. We need real flesh-and-blood arms to gather us up. We long to be gathered. To be loved. To know justice and peace. In a way, we can feel, even when we think we don’t. When we think we are doing just fine. We can get along with knowing we are loved. We don’t have to feel it. I mean, really, do we?
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” (Isaiah 40:1, NRSV) There’s a committee meeting going on in the Kingdom. I know, bad news for those of us who aren’t terribly fond of meetings. Those who just came through charge conference, sorry. I hope this won’t bring back the trauma. But Isaiah says a committee meeting is going on in the Kingdom.
God has the floor, pacing back and forth, ready to release the latest and greatest new idea from the divine office. The whole committee of heaven leans in, the archangels stop tapping their pens on the table. The cherubim stop eyeing the bagels on the side table. The seraphim put down their phones and start listening at last, because God’s about to speak. About to pass judgment, about to lower the boom, they think. But they never know. The One has this annoying - can the One be annoying? Of course not! The One has this omniscient habit of saying something completely surprising on a regular basis.
“Comfort,” thunders the voice that made planets and galaxies, “O comfort my people!” Michael and Gabriel exchange furtive glances around the huge conference table. Brows knit and eyes narrow among the angelic beings high and low. “Did I hear ’comfort’?” Comfort? Not judgment? Not burn or fry but comfort? No one questions, however, because the Presence isn’t done yet. Just catching breath before the words come pouring out like a soaking rain on a parched ground. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.”
The book of Isaiah covers such a span of time that there had to be more than one person who wrote under that name. Chapters 1 through 39 is “first” Isaiah and is concerned about the faithfulness of the people of God. A variety of moods are represented in those chapters, but the dominant one is judgment. The people were complacent, selfish and self-centered. They found solace in things and not in the ever-present Spirit of God in their midst. Isaiah preached until he was blue in the face, and it didn’t amount to much. Until Babylon. Until Assyria. Double for all their sins. Northern Kingdom and Southern Kingdom both, overrun by enemies who caught them with their guard down, and now there is desolation, desert in the middle of the Holy Land. Desert, a land forsaken. Now, in Chapter 40, they are broken, afraid, longing for arms to gather them up and croon a lullaby.
After the initial shock, the beings around the table begin to nod along with the echoes of the Lord’s proclamation. And the amen corner pipes up, a voice, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” In the wilderness that used to be a lush garden, find an oasis. In a sandy, windswept desert that used to be a marketplace, clear a path. But this roadwork, they understand and want us to understand isn’t so that we can get out. It’s so that God can get in. Make straight the highway for God.
It’s not that God’s GPS isn’t functioning; it’s that God needs to know we want a visit. The consummate gentle presence, God never comes where God isn’t welcomed. God never opens doors that we barricade. God never climbs the mountains we build to block access to the deepest parts of ourselves. The committee meeting becomes a gospel choir and as always happens in God’s kingdom, worship breaks out.
Around the table a voice says, “Can I have an amen?” Another says, “What are we amen-ing?” Then one jumps onto the table and sings out, “That these troublesome, yet lovable, fragile and yet creatures beloved by God have access to eternity!” “In the Word,” the chorus rings out, “In the Word, is eternity, hope, reclamation, restoration!” “AMEN,” rumbles God as the I Am slides to the door to usher out the swaying angelic beings. “Head to the rooftops, to the mountaintops; shout, and sing, again and again, until all can see. God is coming.”
They rush out to tell us. Again. And at the door stands the Word, who smiles and says, “Soon. I’ll be there soon. Save some room for me.” And the chorus echoes all the way through the years to John, sitting in the desert, eating his bugs ‘n honey breakfast cereal, and his head starts to bob, and his toes start to tap. “Amen,” rumbles from the core of his being, as he becomes the voice that repeats the words and prepares the way.
But wait! Is John’s message in our Gospel text one of peace? Of comfort? Notice that he includes the words about preparing, but he skips the comfort bit. John isn’t about comfort. Or at least comfort as we imagine it. Comfort as in taking it easy. Comfort as in lying back and letting go. That’s not a John sort of sermon. He’s stirring up, not lying back; he’s about working hard and not taking it easy. He’s not about soothing troubled waters but about turning things upside down. And that is certainly true. But beneath the words and the bluster and the creative costumes, John is confident that the One who is coming will offer true peace. A peace that transforms, equips and unites. A just peace that lifts up those who have been pressed down, gathers in those who have been ignored, strengthens those who have been made weak. We are called to move beyond individualistic thinking. The comfort proclaimed in Isaiah and echoed by John in the Gospel of Mark is not my comfort or your comfort, but it is our comfort. We are called to think beyond the “I” into the “we,” from the “me” to the “us.” That’s the Advent call, the invitation to invite God to inhabit our world by working together to open the roads, remove the barriers and fill in the pits so that we can see God coming and rush to worship together.