A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
-from Isaiah 40
Most of you know Regina Haag from her time working here as the assistant pastor at this meeting. I first came in contact with her, though, because she’s the pastor of Adirondack Friends Meeting.
I mention this, really, because I grew up in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, and didn’t know at the time that Quakers still existed. It was weird to find out that Quakers not only existed, but lived right here in my own cultural milieu of handmade dulcimers and Robert Frost and Canadian sorts of accents. How could I not have heard of them before?
Here’s the thing, though- I went to Google Maps and checked out how long it would take me to get from my parents’ house to Adirondack Friends Meeting, and under the best of circumstances, it would take me three hours and fourteen minutes. That’s nuts! They’re not that far apart!
The quickest route from my parents’ house to Regina’s meeting isn’t the most direct one, though. You head south, almost to Syracuse, then cut east toward Albany, then angle north to eventually meet up with the Hudson River in the town of Glens Falls. If my parents left home around seven in the morning, they’d be at Regina’s meeting in time for morning worship.
The problem, of course, is the mountains. There’s just no way to go directly, unless you own a helicopter or a tunneling device or the sort of elephants that Hannibal used to cross the Alps. If you start adjusting the map because you don’t want to drive forty-five minutes south in order to drive forty five minutes north – you just want to go straight from point A to point B – the trip gets longer and longer as you wind along scenic but impractical backroads.
And even then, the path isn’t straight! Assuming that you’re planning to drive, you can’t travel straight from my folks’ house to Glens Falls because there just aren’t any roads that go that direction. You just can’t get there from here.
Wouldn’t it be convenient, if someone would just blast a path down the middle of the mountains? I mean, I love those mountains, so understand that I’m not really advocating for this. If you’re five miles outside of Lacona NY, though, and you’re trying to get to Glens Falls in time for church, the option of just using a whole lot of dynamite kind of makes sense.
It’d be pretty great, if you could just blow the mountains out of your way and make your own road.
Pathways play a pretty central role in the Old Testament stories that we’ve been telling this fall. Adam and Eve made a hard journey out of Paradise and into the wilderness. Abraham did the same thing, in a sense- but in his case God was calling him to step out in faith. Jacob went on an epic journey that left him with a limp from wrestling with God Almighty.
There’s just something about journeying that marks the story of the people of God.
Famine hit, and Jacob moved his rather impressively large family to Egypt where there was food to be had. We don’t get a lot about the story of that move, but the story of the next set of moves gives us the name of an Old Testament book: Exodus. God miraculously gives the Hebrew people a way out of slavery in Egypt.
The people journey out into the desert, where they have a powerful experience of God as the law is given and learn to walk with God in their midst in the tabernacle. Eventually they make it to the Promised Land, but while we’ve taken our time telling the stories of the time they spent there, truth be told they didn’t stay long.
We saw Saul, the first king, he who meant well but didn’t consistently choose to trust in God. Then we say David, the second king, who made much more terrible mistakes than Saul but was always willing to ask for forgiveness and celebrate God’s grace.
After David, we watched the whole kingdom slowly fall apart. There was a civil war, and the northern tribes broke away and set up their own idols to worship. God loved them. God sent prophets to call them, to try to draw their hearts back. It didn’t work- they were overtaken by the Assyrians and not heard from again until we start reading about “Samaritans” in the New Testament.
The southern kingdom lasted a while longer. They had their share of bad kings, but they also had their good kings – like Josiah, who we talked about last week. He wanted to repair God’s temple, and while the people were working on that project they found a scroll containing the Book of the Covenant – probably an early form of Deuteronomy. King Josiah tore down the idols across the land and demanded that the people celebrate the Passover – the holiday commemorating the great journey the Hebrew people took out of slavery in Egypt.
Josiah’s reforms weren’t enough, though, and soon the Hebrews were on a different kind of journey.
The Assyrian empire took out the northern tribes, but by the time that the southern tribes of Judah and Benjamin were ready to fall, the Babylonians had defeated the Assyrians. So, in the late 500’s BC, it’s the Babylonian empire that marches so many of the residents of Jerusalem off into exile.
It’s hard for us, I think, to picture this idea of forced deportations. It’s not something that contemporary empires generally bother with, upon winning a war. This is a remarkably effective way, though, of preventing rebellion in your newly conquered provinces: you gather up anyone who might be in a position to provide leadership and force them to march themselves off to another city. In their place, you provide foreign governors who have no allegiance to the people and a deep investment in making sure that you – the emperor – are well served.
Who’s going to lead a rebellion, after you do that? Not many.
So, here’s another journey that the people are on: the journey to Babylon. They’re bound as slaves and off to serve in the capital city of their hated oppressor. It’s the opposite of an Exodus. It’s a journey from hope into despair.
William Butler Yeats, in a poem called The Second Coming that expresses the experience of living in post World War One Europe, uses this line: Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. The center cannot hold- how better to express the absolute devastation of the journey that the leaders of Israel are on?
A center implies an orbit, something around which we can revolve. In this story, that center is the temple- the physical place where God dwells with God’s people. So, sure: the people being marched away to Babylon may have neglected the worship and the commands of the God whose temple was in Jerusalem.
That neglect, though, doesn’t equip them to process the devastation of the temple no longer standing, nor the trauma of being forcibly led away from the homeland of their God.
See, these primitive people believed that their God was one of many. Their God was the god of their land, Israel. Other gods ruled other lands. When they went to battle with other countries, it was really their God fighting against the god of the other army.
When they won, it was because their God went before them victorious in battle! When they lost, it was because their God was weaker than the god of their opponents. Their God was only the god of the ground that they knew.
I described these people as primitive, but of course they’re not so different from us. You and I, we have also sometimes bought into this belief that the God we worship is necessarily connected to the particular of our culture, of our time, of our place. So, I think we can empathize with the horror that the Hebrew exiles felt, as they were marched away from their holy city and everything they held dear.
There’s a whole book of the Bible, called Lamentations, that deals with the grief of seeing one’s city devastated. After five chapters of brokenhearted poetry, it ends with this ambiguity:
You, Lord, reign forever;
your throne endures from generation to generation.
Why do you always forget us?
Why do you forsake us so long?
Restore us to yourself, Lord, that we may return;
renew our days as of old
unless you have utterly rejected us and are angry with us beyond measure.
We know the end of the story, Friends. We know that this is a story of redemption, of grace beyond measure, of a God who will never utterly reject us. But stay, for a moment, with the questions that this broken community is asking.
Are we forgotten? Are we forsaken? Are we rejected? Are we, finally, alone?
These are the questions that the exiles were asking, as they walked toward Babylon, as they tried to make sense of their new lives in a foreign empire.
But aren’t these our questions, too? When we see another shooting in the news – when we experience another rejection that tears at our hearts – when we worry that another war is on the horizon – when we find that the community we loved doesn’t love us back any more – when we lose the person whose loss we cannot bear – these are the questions we ask.
Are we forgotten? Are we forsaken? Are we, finally, alone? Is there no power that can rescue us?
The journey that we’re talking about, today, is a difficult one. Today’s topic, though, isn’t the hard walk to Babylon- it’s the hard walk home. When you’re weary and hopeless and walking into exile, you don’t have to decide to put one foot in front of the other; that decision is being made for you. But when you’re walking home – when you’re heading back to Jerusalem – sometimes those steps of faith are the hardest. It’s hard to come back from Babylon.
But this is the message of Christmas, Friends: returning is always an option! You can always come home, not because you know the way, but because the God who loves you will make a way.
Listen: each and every one of you are prophets. I’m not saying that lightly. I’m saying that you all are prophets because you all – as members of the body of Christ – are empowered and charged to share this message that all are invited to come on home.
To prophesy is not to tell the future, after all, like a woman in a tent at the edge of the fair, the one with the glass ball and the multicolored scarves who offers to tell you what time has in store. Prophecy is not the same as a horoscope.
To prophesy, Friends, is not to tell the future but to tell the present. Which is to say: it’s a much harder job. If I tell you to tell me what the year 2100 will be like, you can each make your predictions, and who’s to say whether you’re right or wrong? If you want to be judged right by the future, then tell the future today in vague in poetic terms. It worked for Nostradamus, right?
But that’s not the task that stands before us. We’re called, not to tell the future, but to tell the present: to clear our minds and hearts and take a deep breath and look honestly at what’s going on around us. We can trust that the Word of God will speak to tomorrow, but that’s not our concern. We need to be focused, instead, on how the Word of God is speaking today.
So, you have a map on the cover of your bulletin. It shows you the reasonable paths that a person might take, when traveling from Babylon from Jerusalem. If you were an exiled Hebrew in Babylon, and you typed Jerusalem into your GPS, this is the route it would recommend.
But your God, though – the one that you thought had forgotten you – has a more direct route in mind.
Here in this terribly discomforting experience of exile, we hear a prophetic voice offering the hope that we were waiting to hear: Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…
Tender speech is not, perhaps, what we had even been bold enough to hope for. We here in this exiled community – so far from the temple where our God resides – we were expecting more judgment. We were expecting something harsher, some grim description of all the ways in which our actions do not reflect the heart of the God of our homeland.
But, no, instead we hear the voice of one calling: In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.
Isaiah imagines, here, a highway that will blast straight through the wilderness from where the people are to where God is. God is done with all this judgment and exile nonsense. God just wants the people to come home.
In a few short weeks, we will celebrate the God who loves us enough to be born as a defenseless baby, a child born in a forsaken corner of the Roman Empire. On Christmas, we will celebrate a God who is willing to take an unconventional route to be with us.
In light of that Christmas truth, I have a two part challenge for you. First, can you believe in this God who so wants you to be present with the Mystery that it would tear down any mountains that stood in the way? Can you hear, though all the noise of the holiday season, the voice of the God that is calling you to return home?
And, second, can you be a bulldozer? So many boulders and barricades and mountains stand between the people that you love and the God who wants to love them. Can you rev your gears and get ready to plow down some walls?