Sermon for the Second Sunday in Advent
Sunday, December 6, 2020
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachusetts
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
There is bike trail just half a mile north of my parent’s farm in Iowa. It’s built on the bed of an abandoned Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. I love to walk along it when I visit my parents in Iowa – it provides quintessential views of the rural Midwest.
To get to the rail trail, I first walk north from my parent’s farm about half a mile and then I make a decision to turn left or right to walk along the trail. Turning to the left, and walking to the west, the fields fall away from the rail trail below on either side, offering sweeping views of my parent’s farm and to the small town I went to school in. Turning to the right, and walking east, the railroad cuts into the fields and you don’t get the same commanding views. Instead, on either side, are mounds of dirt where the original tracks were dug into the fields rise above it.
When the railroad was first built decades ago, it was built as railroads have always been built – to be as flat and straight as possible. To help the locomotives pull the heavy weight of the dozens of train cars stretched out behind it, the tracks were built up above, or dug into, the gently rolling prairies. Surprisingly, even in Iowa, there are times the bike trail rises above the surrounding fields, and times the fields roll up above the tracks.
One commentator suggests this might be a way we can understand Isaiah’s cry in our First Reading this morning. “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” (Isaiah 40:3-5).
Theologian Frederick Borsch suggests the image of “the way being prepared in the wilderness may derive from ancient Middle Eastern scenes of a king approaching his city while servants sought to smooth out the mounds and gullies.” When we hear Isaiah’s cry, and that familiar Advent hymn “Prepare the Royal Highway” we might think about a highway, prepared for a king, where the low places are filled in and the high places are leveled out.
One important effect of that work, is that it would make it as easy as possible for the king to enter the city. Think about it this way …imagine anxiously awaiting the arrival of a friend who just landed at Logan Airport in Boston. You haven’t seen your friend in years and you can’t wait to see him. But then, he tells you, he’s taking Rt. 9 from Boston to Worcester rather than the Mass Pike. “No,” you might respond. “Take the pike, its faster!”
To make straight the way of the Lord is to help hasten the Lord’s arrival. For Isaiah’s audience, this message was welcome relief and a hopeful message. Isaiah’s audience is described this way by theologian Brian Peterson: “Isaiah 40 addresses Israel in exile, people who have had all the stable structures of life ripped away, who have been caught in the turmoil of international power and politics, whose lives have become characterized by defeat and hopelessness.”
It was to this defeated, punished, and despairing people the prophet proclaimed the entrance of a king. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, says God, 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.” Isaiah proclaimed to the people their season of punishment had passed … the season of forgiveness and restoration had arrived. After half a century of exile and shame, a new word broke through the gloom and hopelessness of the exile. The royal and divine road comes from Babylon to Jerusalem.
Centuries later, in writing his gospel, St. Mark sees this prophecy fulfilled in John the Baptist announcing the arrival of Jesus. And like Isaiah drawing on a metaphor of kings in his day to announce God’s work, Mark also drew on royal imagery used in his day.
Theologian Brian Peterson points out that the term “Good News was commonly used in the Roman Empire to describe a new victory by Caesar’s armies, or the new emperor taking the throne … Imperial propaganda claimed that these are the things that have changed the whole world and brought peace and salvation. Mark, however, has something else in mind. Mark declares what is truly “Good News” what has actually changed the whole world, is Jesus Christ.”
Contrasting with the language used by emperors of his day, St. Mark suggests “Good News” is never found in the power of any earthly king. Good News is not found in the efforts of an earthly king clinging to power, or in the preparations of an earthly king assuming power. Rather, the Good News that brings peace and salvation, is the good news of Jesus Christ. And, where Isaiah prepared for the king by making the highway straight and level, John prepared for Jesus by calling for repentance.
The words from the original biblical languages we translate into repentance help us get at the meaning of repentance. The Greek word “metanoia” we translates into repentance can mean“a changing of heart and mind.” The Hebrew word “shuv” we translate into repentance means “a turning of life.” We prepare for Christ with a changing of heart and mind, with a turning of life.
My colleague Pastor Geoff Sinabaldo suggests this definition of repentance: “Repentance means naming our fears, sins, prejudices, complicity, and feelings of helplessness.” And then, listen to this: “To repent is to stop blaming others for the woes of the world and to start taking responsibility for our place in it.” We repent, when we acknowledge the ways we are part of the problem, and commit to being part of the solution.
To use Isaiah’s image of making the way straight for the Lord, perhaps we might see repentance as our work acknowledging the ways we make the ground uneven. When we repent, we confess the ways our sin dig valleys and build mountains in the lives of others preventing them from knowing God’s love. In repentance, we confess the valleys of despair, heartache, and pain we cause others with our gossip, our slandering, our cutting words, our lack of trust, our suspicions. In repentance, we confess the mountains of pain we cause by supporting systems that privilege some and oppress others.
In the spirit of repentance, and to make straight the way of the Lord, many in this congregation have been studying race and racism. On Tuesday night of this week, we will meet again via ZOOM with members of ST. John Lutheran, Sudbury. This time we will be discussing “Dear Church: A Love Letter Written to the Whitest Denomination in the United States.” By taking an honest, and repentant look at racial hierarchy and privilege, we can confess our complicity in the ways we have dug valleys and built mountains for people of color causing obstacles to them in experiencing the full blessing, abundance, and prosperity of American life.
In repentance, we make straight the way for the Lord, as we level out the playing field, and make sure all people are able to experience the love and mercy of God announced in Jesus Christ.
Ultimately, the Good News on this Second Sunday of Advent, is not found in our ability to adequately make straight the way of the Lord. It would be bad news if the Lord waited for us to get our acts together before the Lord entered. While we are called to meet the Lord in our acts of repentance, the Good News proclaimed by both Isaiah and John is that as God acts first.
As theologian Brian Peterson points out: “Just as Isaiah began his proclamation with God speaking, so Mark begins with God’s voice and God’s action … God always makes the first, gracious move … we do not build the highway and then wait for God to come. God has already drawn near to us before we repent.”
Here, in our confession and repentance … is the royal highway and the entrance of our living God! Here, in God’s Word proclaimed and received … is the entrance of God to broken hearts, to hurting people, to those oppressed/forgotten/rejected! Here in this community of the faithful gathered, in our confession and repentance … the prophecies of Isaiah and John the Baptist are fulfilled.
“There is nothing in all creation that can separate God from God’s people,” writes Brian Peterson, “not the might of Babylon, nor the loss of home and security, nor the years that have passed with silence from God. It is true that the people may wither in their faithfulness, but God’s word will not do so. This new project does not depend on the people’s reliability, but only on God’s promise. God’s word will remain, and will restore and renew the people’s life with God.”
In this Advent season, may the Holy Spirit fill you with all faith and believing. In repentance, may you make straight the way of the Lord. In repentance, may you meet Jesus Christ who has already entered into your hearts with grace, reconciliation, and healing.
Thanks be to God.