Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and 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.
3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every 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. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
6A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
9Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. (NRSV)
The Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem and scattered the Israelites to every corner of the empire. Nebuchadnezzar wanted to re-program the Hebrews, to breed the Jewishness right out of them. That is to say, he wanted to erase their memory. The formative people, places, and events of the past would no longer be part of their identity. From that point on, the Hebrews would have one endless Babylonian present.
It didn’t work. The people kept telling their stories.
The Israelites passed the stories of their faith from generation to generation not to mire themselves in the past, not to hold onto some impossible wish that things would return to “the way they used to be.” Sharing their spiritual history was an act of subversive faith. It prepared and empowered the community for embracing God’s ever-changing and always-becoming Creation.
The Hebrews’ God-memories followed them like a dust cloud and led them like a pillar of fire. Their spiritual memory transformed despair into hope and defeat into new beginnings. It said that while today may be burdened with suffering, nonetheless, we trust that the future is rich with possibility because we have experienced God’s faithfulness over and over.
Memory is crucial. It’s the soil in which faith grows. And the future is the harvest, so, the future tense is the mother tongue of faith.
Isaiah 40 begins what most scholars call Second Isaiah, and this new voice speaks directly to Hebrews languishing in exile. It starts with encouragement, “Comfort, O comfort my people.” Then Second Isaiah shows his prophetic empathy saying that things are so painful as to be unjust. In what can sound like an indictment of God, he says, Israel has “received…double for all her sins.” Nonetheless, despair does not define Israel’s future.
It’s interesting, faithlessness often comes disguised as pragmatism. That’s just the way the world works. It is what it is. Learn to live with it. Because the future can’t be known or guaranteed, pragmatism won’t trust it. From time to time, most of us wallow in that empty place of seeing only what seems to be. In a place of faithlessness, one can justify all manner of fearful speech, violent behavior, self-righteous prejudice and certainty. Life often seems safer and more reasonable when we avoid the future tense of faith. And yet, to people in exile, Isaiah offers a word to counter the apparent reasonableness of hope-choking faithlessness.
“Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level…Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.”
Such hope can sound foolish. And it certainly isn’t the experience of the Hebrews’ day-to-day existence in exile. As Isaiah speaks, though, his words flood their hearts like light flooding into a house that has been shuttered for years. By invoking the future tense, the prophet invites the people to return not just to Jerusalem, but to a posture of expectant faith. Empowered by memory, gratitude, and hope, faith declares the future to be a realm in which all that is broken will be healed, all that is unjust will be made just, and all that is violent and destructive will be redeemed by God’s promised Shalom.
Today’s text from Isaiah is a staple of Advent, and during Advent we focus on waiting and preparing. Advent is about more than preparing for Christmas, though. Advent is a liturgical metaphor for the life of faith itself. It’s about committing ourselves to the long, difficult work of living today in the light of God’s promise that exile is not forever. So, when Isaiah says, “Get you up to a high mountain…lift up your voice with strength…say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’”, he’s saying that God’s future has begun. And he’s calling Israel to live in God’s future—today.
No, things are not perfect, not for the Hebrews, and not for us. And while we’re made in the image God, we’re only an image. We wither and fade like flowers and grass. Yet even now—inasmuch as we live with humility, love with compassion, and work for justice—we do proclaim to the world, “Here is your God!”
The past year has burdened us with a kind of captivity. We’ve had to mask, distance, quarantine, Zoom, and wait throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. And the experience isn’t over, but we’re finally hearing words of comfort. We’re finally hearing intimations of a new future opening up. Just like the stories of exile would remain with the Hebrews, stories of the pandemic will remain with us. Indeed, all indications are that the virus itself will remain with us. But thanks be to God for modern medical science, we and our descendants will be able to receive vaccinations against and, perhaps, increasingly effective treatments for Covid-19.
The few individuals present in this sanctuary today represent this congregation’s first steps toward a return of the whole to public worship, fellowship, and service. Jonesborough Presbyterian hardly has the same significance to the Christian faith that Jerusalem did to Hebrew exiles in Babylon; nonetheless, today is a future-tense utterance of our collective faith that God is always with us.
Two things about that: First, there’s a very real sense in which today is less a return than a continuation. I’ve been delighted by, encouraged by, and at times in awe of the way this congregation has not stopped doing ministry. You haven’t stopped having ministry team meetings. You haven’t stopped loving and caring for each other. You haven’t stopped supporting the food pantry, Family Promise, Loaves and Fishes, the Day Reporting Center, and other outreach ministries. You haven’t stopped tithing. You haven’t stopped caring for this building. Those of you who can, haven’t stopped worshiping online or in the parking lot. In short, you have not stopped being Jonesborough Presbyterian Church. And I thank God for all of you!
Second, while today marks a return, it’s not a return to the way things were. It’s a new beginning. Too much has happened over the last year. Our faith stories and our human story have experienced too much since March of 2020. As we return, then, let’s expect to find some new life to live and to share. Let’s expect some new work to do. God doesn’t see us through painful times just to return us to some comfortable status quo. When God redeems the past, God also prepares us for some new and deeper calling. And whatever that calling may be, it has to do with lifting up valleys and leveling rough places.
It has to do, as Amos said, with doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God.
It has to do with participating in God’s ongoing redemption of the Creation.
It has to do with welcoming all human beings into God’s fold of holiness and wholeness.
I’m different than I was a year ago, and I bet most of you are, too. As we, one step at a time, move beyond pandemic exile, let’s discover our new selves. And let’s embrace our call to bear a bold new witness to the already-and-not-yet realm of God’s justice and peace.