A voice is crying out: “Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!”Isaiah 40:3
(This post is adapted from a sermon for the second Sunday of Advent. It is based on Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8. All scripture quotations are taken from the Common English Bible, 2011.)
There are plenty of voices crying out in our world today. These voices are crying: Lord, help me. I lost my job and I can’t afford rent! Close the restaurants! Open the restaurants! Wear a mask! Wearing a mask infringes on my personal rights! The election was rigged! These votes are fraudulent! The results are clear. Let’s move forward! We need a vaccine! Vaccines are harmful to my children! My business is suffering! I’m tired of staying home! I’m afraid to go out!
Right now, the cries in our culture are cacophonous. The world’s woes are so loud, they may seem deafening. You even may feel the need to tune out the cries as a way to protect your souls. You may have stopped watching the news because it is frustrating or depressing. You may have stopped reading the papers too.
While those are not harmful practices — and may even be considered good self-care in the middle of a pandemic — listening to all these cries is an opportunity too. If you can keep your emotions from becoming entangled as you listen to all the noise, you can hear the heart of the world. You can feel its pulse. No matter your political allegiances, your personal opinions and practices, it’s true that all these cries expose a large amount of angst and anxiety, weariness and vulnerability.
People are tired of being flexible and having to change their patterns of daily living to accommodate an unwanted virus. We want to be finished with the feeling that our foundations — our economy, our democracy, our toilet paper — are unsure. Even though we may be somewhat used to the disruptions 2020 has brought us, we don’t like them. We chafe against them. We want the freedom and carefree living back that we used to know. We want an end to this mess. We want a smooth and clear path forward.
So now I have to say — what a special connection we have to the ancient Israelites! They cried out when they were conquered by foreigners and exiled into strange lands and cultures. Everything was unstable and foreign to them for a long time.
And what angsty waiting we now share in common with first century Jews! They were desperate to have their Messiah come and overthrow the corruptions they saw destroying their people and their beloved Promised Land — corruptions done by Roman rule, crooked tax collectors, and even their own religious leaders. Everything likely felt unstable and uncertain and frustrating to common first century Jews.
When I listen and reflect, it seems to me that the 2020 world has uniquely prepared our hearts to hear the opening words from Isaiah 40, “Comfort, comfort my people!” These were not written for us, but how fitting for our circumstances and our hearts!
We want our world righted, don’t we? We want our lives back. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a prophet come across your TV screen and speak compassionately, saying, “I hear your voices crying out. God hears you. So make way for God! He’s coming to rescue you in your desperation!”
Like our Israelite ancestors, we want a clear and safe path forward. Our hoped-for path is a safe one through the pandemic and other disturbing events in our day. But we know that there are things that only God can right. And we know from the pages of the Bible, that relief and rescue are not always immediate, nor will they be on our desired timeline.
In calm and reflective moments, we know that there is much we could learn in the angsty waiting of 2020, don’t we? We know there are even things to be gained as we wade through the messiness of the pandemic, the faltering economy, and civil unrest. In this chaos, haven’t we realized how precious it is to spend time with our loved ones? Haven’t we reevaluated and boosted the value of a handshake or a hug in greeting?
As much as I would love for there to be a modern-day prophet like Isaiah to come bring us words of comfort from God, we have a greater need than to receive comfort. In these days, we people of God have a call to be the prophets in our world. As much as the world of 2020 may feel like a kind of exile, or oppression, or an unstable mass of negativity, we are not the victims.
Hear me say this. Chew on this truth today, as difficult as it may be to believe… You are not victims of 2020. You are the prophets. You are not in exile. You are in advent.
We are God’s people on earth, and in times of fear, instability, uncertainty, and even plague, we can be prophets like Moses, Isaiah, and John the Baptist. We can be the faithful followers of God who stand up to a culture and to people overwhelmed by fearful circumstances. To them we can speak words of peace.
We can be the prophets who remind those around us that the world is yes, certainly wrestling against evils right now, but also that something greater is coming. We can remind them that we have the God of angel armies on our side; and no evil forces can stand against him.
We are the prophets who remind people that the God who created the heavens and the earth can make these towering, treacherous mountains before us fall flat — these mountains called Covid, and Economic Collapse, and Shortage of Medical Staff. God can smooth them by his powerful hand and make a clear path ahead.
We are the prophets of the desert wandering period we call 2020. We are the ones who can remind our fellow humans that even if this season of unrest lasts 40 years, we will never be abandoned by the God who loves us. Because ours is the God who lights up the darkness. Who leads people through deserts. Who frees the enslaved. Who rescues the exiled. And who leads them to a place of abundance.
You are not victims of 2020. You are the prophets.
You are not in exile. You are in advent.
We are advent people. Our main work in Advent is to wait well. But don’t just sit there waiting. Waiting is not passive. Become an advent prophet. Through scripture we see advent prophets making way for the coming of Jesus. The two tasks of waiting well and making way are intertwined. We wait for the culmination of God’s interventions in the brokenness around us…until the pandemic is over and there is more peace in our world and our hearts. And while we wait, we make way for Jesus.
We wait well and make way by emulating Moses, and Isaiah, and John the baptist. They all lived in difficult and unsettled times. They didn’t rail against their circumstances like helpless victims. They didn’t shrivel up and succumb to fear. Instead, they spoke to the broken world around them. They told the truth of God’s character and actions to others. They announced that God was coming to right all the wrong around them.
We can do this too. We can make way for the coming of the goodness of Jesus in 2020, just like Moses and Isaiah and John did in their time. To be a successful advent prophet is to be a calm, and faithful messenger of the arrival of Jesus.
I see at least four habits of advent prophets in scripture. First, advent prophets keep calm when the world around them is not. Moses went up against the most powerful man in his world. We remember that Moses felt insecure to act as God’s spokesman — something about a stutter or a fear of public speaking — but he did what God asked. Moses witnessed the plagues God used to release the Hebrews from Pharoah’s grip. Moses led the Hebrews on the 40-year winding trek through the desert. In all the uncertainty he stayed the course. He served God faithfully. He spoke for God, even when the people were angry, afraid, or discontent.
Second, advent prophets trust in things they cannot see. Isaiah is a great example of this. Isaiah himself never saw the Israelites freed from exile. He never saw them return to the Promised Land. He never met Jesus. But he spoke out tirelessly about God’s coming rescue. He foretold the coming of a king in the line of David who would bring peace to the world. You’ll remember his famous prophecies, “A shoot from the stump of Jesse” and “For unto us a child is born…and the government will be on his shoulders…a Prince of Peace.” Isaiah never lived to see these things happen, but he believed they would because God told him so. Isaiah shared these extraordinary hopes with the people around him.
Third, advent prophets speak up. Often they had to raise their voices to be heard amid the noise of the world around them. This is what Isaiah said:
Go up on a high mountain,Isaiah 40:9
Raise your voice and shout,
Raise it; don’t be afraid;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
Mark 1:4 says that the prophet John (the Baptist) was in the wilderness “calling for people.”
To be an advent prophet for Jesus is to speak up. No good advent prophet keeps silent. Silence is antithetical to being a messenger. Think of the angels. When they show up in Bible stories, they speak. They announce. They are heralds of the good news of God. Prophets are the same. They speak up and speak out. And their message is our fourth point. For advent prophets, their message always points to God.
Moses never used his speech to focus on himself and announce his own importance. Moses announced the coming of God’s plagues to Pharaoh. Once the Hewbrews were free, he announced God’s law to them. When they misbehaved in the desert season, he announced God’s judgement and mercy.
Isaiah was also outspoken. His message gave hope to a weary and frightened people.
The Lord’s glory will appear,
and all humanity will see it together;
the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.” (40:5)
“Here is your God!
Here is the Lord God,
coming with strength,
with a triumphant arm,
bringing his reward with him
and his payment before him.” (40:9b-10)
As a prophet, Isaiah faced a lot of opposition from disbelieving Jews and misbehaving Israelite kings. But he stayed focused on pointing people toward righteousness and hope in their just God.
John the Baptist was a humble, unconventional guy. He lived in the desert. He had few resources. His clothes were rustic. He ate locusts and wild honey. He had gained notoriety and people traveled to hear him because they were curious about his message, but John didn’t bask in his growing popularity. When people came to him, even when they greatly admired him, he pointed them on toward Jesus. In Mark 1:7, John the Baptist announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals.”
The advent prophets of scripture were focused not on the chaos around them, nor on their own presitigue. They were singularly focused on announcing the coming of God’s goodness. We can follow in their footsteps. Remember, no matter what you are feeling inside, no matter what the chaos and uncertainty of the world predicts, there is bedrock truth that overcomes all of it…
Jesus is the good news of God that breaks into the noise of the world. Jesus is the Prince of Peace. Jesus is the one who can release people from their fear of Covid. Their worries of financial crisis. Their pessimistic doubts about the future.
Jesus is coming to the broken world and the broken people of 2020. He will restore us and our world as God has done in every difficult season throughout human history. Even though we can’t see it, even if we have trouble believing it, God is on the move around our globe. God is calming fears, inspiring scientists toward a vaccine, propping up weary health care workers, and helping people come up with creative and innovative ways to do business and school and family gatherings that mitigate the risks of passing the virus.
We are adapting and surviving and learning how to live (and maybe even thrive) while times are hard. God is producing all this in us. Remember, we are not in exile. We are in advent. And as we wait and endure, we are not victims. We are prophets.
So today my task as an advent prophet is to say — You are doing well. You are doing a good job riding the waves of the tumultuous tide of 2020. You may feel like you are failing, but that’s just because you are evaluating yourself with the same scale you used before the pandemic…and the election season…and the racial unrest and the looting…and the recession. You are not failing when you feel discouraged. You are enduring. Though it doesn’t feel good, you are waiting well.
Struggling and feeling discouraged are good signs, really. Feelings like these show that your spirit has some fight left. It means your heart and soul know that there is more to life than all this struggle. You are battling back against the messages that say that the future is gloom and doom. Your heart is crying out for something more, something better, something whole and abundant. And my job today is to remind you that something is coming.
Our Jesus is coming. Our rescuing God is on the move to restore our world and our hearts. We don’t know what that will look like and how soon it will happen, but take heart: It. Will. Happen.
We are advent prophets, and we trust in things we cannot see. We rely on and hope in a God who has proven himself faithful to generation upon generation. He will not fail us.
So friends, it’s time to get up. It’s time to take up your call to be advent prophets. It’s time to speak up and speak out about the truths you know from God’s word. It’s time to comfort our discouraged and fearful neighbors with words of assurance. It’s time to get up and live in a way that says, “Here is your God! Here is the Lord God, coming with strength, with a triumphant arm to bring restoration and peace to our bleak world.”
Raise your voice against the noise of the world. Raise it and speak words of hope to those who are lost. And while you do, hold on to this truth:
The grass dries up;Isaiah 40:8
the flower withers,
but our God’s word will exist forever.