God's Way of Love Lasts Forever

God's Way of Love Lasts Forever

Sunday, December 10
Second Sunday of Advent Year B

Focus Theme:
God's Way of Love Lasts Forever

Focus Prayer:
God of hope, you call us from the exile of our sin with the good news of restoration; you build a highway through the wilderness; you come to us and bring us home. Comfort us with the expectation of your saving power, made known to us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak 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.

A voice cries out:
"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.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken."

A voice says, "Cry out!"
    And I said, "What shall I cry?"
All people are grass,
    their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
    when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
    surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
    but the word of our God will stand for ever.
Get 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!"
See, the Lord God comes with might,
    and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
    and his recompense before him.
He 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.

All readings for this Sunday:
Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Focus Questions:

1. Why do you think the Gospel writers quote this passage of the Old Testament?

2. Do you understand your life as a story of "achievements" or of "miracles"?

3. How do you picture life in exile in Babylon? Would you have found it tempting?

4. How might Brueggemann's description of Babylon describe our culture today?

5. What are the signs that things are about to change?

Reflection:
by Kate Matthews

Imagine an ordination service for a prophet, except that church officials in robes are replaced by God on a throne, and the congregation by a host of angels and heavenly messengers. (The music in this service would be particularly good.) The prophet Isaiah is charged to deliver a message from God to the people of God, the people of Israel in captivity in Babylon.

The people of sixth-century B.C.E. Israel had lost their temple, their great city Jerusalem and all that it symbolized, and their land as well, their leaders carried off into exile in Babylon. However, even before this disaster, their system (like any system) had never really known exactly what to do with a true prophet. So we assume that the ordination service for Second Isaiah was experienced as a call from God to speak a word to the people, and it's that call, that service, that message, that are described by our text on this Second Sunday in Advent, more than twenty-five centuries later.

God's faithfulness in every age

For the first thirty-nine chapters of the book of the Prophet Isaiah, the prophet scholars call "First Isaiah" delivered a word of warning, threats of God's judgment, to the people of 8th century B.C.E. Jerusalem. Two hundred years later, as Second Isaiah answers his call to speak, much has happened: First Isaiah spoke of the threat of the mighty empire of Assyria, but in Second Isaiah's time, the Babylonian Empire has destroyed Jerusalem and carried the people off to captivity.

The disaster has, like all disasters, provoked theological reflection and much lamentation. In fact, Walter Brueggemann says that the Book of Lamentations "sits" between First and Second Isaiah, a book full of grief over the exile, with "only one moment of hope...:'The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, [God's] mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulnessÖtherefore I will hope in [God]'(3:21-24)."

All about hope

Only one word of hope amid all that long grief, but then, Second Isaiah comes along (thanks to God's great compassion) to cry comfort to the people, release and forgiveness, the promise of restoration and a great homecoming. Second Isaiah is all about hope, a hope rooted not in the people's strength or wits or goodness, but in the faithfulness of God. It's a surprising, unexpected word of hope, and a challenging one as well.

Many of the Jewish people must have wondered where God had gone. They felt cut off, far away, from God. We know that people in every age have felt that distance caused by sin and guilt, and struggled to reach across it, but God will not forget God's people or the covenant God has with them. "The Hebrew word for 'beauty' in verse 6 is hesed, which has the connotation of 'covenant faithfulness and love,'" Elizabeth Achtemeier writes. While God is persistent, faithful, and dependable, our response is inconsistent, fleeting, and undependable, no matter what we promise or intend; despite "our moments of dedication," Achtemeier writes, "our faithfulness is like the flower of the field, beautiful at the moment but rapidly failing when trouble and distraction come upon us."

God's "anyway" love

Nevertheless, the prophet reassures us of God's "anyway" love for us: we sin, but we can always count on God's faithfulness, on the Word of God that "will stand forever" (v. 80). The God we meet in the Old Testament has commonly been described as a God of fear and threat, while the God of the New Testament, it has been said, is all about love and tenderness. Second Isaiah paints a fuller portrait of God. Yes, "the God who comes" (like ancient deities, including the gods of their captors, Babylon) is mighty and glorious and powerful. But the God of Israel is also a gentle shepherd who feeds the flock, gathers up lambs and holds them close.

The people, then, are urged to make way for this good news in their lives, a transformation of their situation. The powers that be, in this case the fearsome empire of Babylon, have been overturned. The mighty have fallen, and the "little" ones can dance with joy.

Speaking to the heart and the head

All of this is good news and the stuff of joy, but it's also unbelievable while you're still sunk in despair under the heel of the oppressor. At his "ordination," Second Isaiah is told to "speak tenderly to Jerusalem" (v. 2): "The Hebrew actually reads 'speak to the heart,'" Dianne Bergant writes. "Since the heart was considered the organ of thought, the phrase means 'convince Jerusalem' rather than 'be tender toward her.'"

So in this season of Advent reflection in the church (a season that once was a penitential season of preparation), while the world has already started its celebration in decorations, parties, music, and shopping, our heads have some work to do before our hearts are carried away by holiday joy. Will this image of the prophet speaking to both hearts and minds help you to hear God's call, God's way of love, as good news, and a challenge, for us today, not just for the people thousands of years ago? What speaks to your heart and mind?

Preparing the way

Bill Goettler's Advent reflection in the Christian Century (11-29-11) hears the question posed by a man who begs at his door, repeatedly, as expressing the dream of things made right at last: "Is this the way it's supposed to be?" Goettler admits his discomfort and the reluctance with which he gives the man money and other help, even as he's challenged by the Advent Scripture texts about all things made right: "Daring to hope for such a new creation requires the sort of self-reflection on this creation and on my life that I'm not anxious to endure."

It's so much easier to talk about the promise of a babe in a manger--or even to go ahead and sing Christmas carols during Advent; Goettler notes that we "want the good news of Christmas without the challenge....the birth narrative without the prophet....redemption without judgment." As you look around during this Advent season, where do you see "the way" being prepared for God to come into our lives? Are rough and uneven roads being made wide and smooth? Can we hear the voice of the prophet in the midst of holiday sounds?

Opening our lives to transforming grace

Just as the people of Israel long ago were told to clear a path for God, to make a way where there appeared to be no way, the text tells us, too, to make a way for God to come into our lives, to remove the obstacles and impediments, to tear down rather than build up walls, to clear out old animosities and grievances, to cut back the weeds of doubt and greed, not just to make a nice little bed for the newborn babe but to open up our lives to transforming grace.

In Advent, we attune our hearts and minds to the many ways that God enters our own lives and the life of the world, the holiness in the everyday reality of our lives and the momentous lives of nations in every age. The scholars writing on this text focus little on our private holiness and personal sins, and much more on the way we've collectively organized our lives, and the deep longing of the people for hope in the midst of the larger events in history.

However, we can't underestimate the collective effect of individuals seeking to welcome God's grace into their own lives and to encounter God each and every day, in most unexpected but wonder-filled ways. As Anne Lamott has said about this season, "in Advent, we show up when we are needed, with grit and kindness; we try to help, we prepare for an end to the despair. And we do this together."

Have we lost hope?

A new Jerusalem, a homecoming to the great city--restored--is the dream and the promise of this text. Brueggemann writes evocatively of this hope when he imagines that "the canon has gathered together all the candidates for the Martin Luther King award. They have learned to say, in distinct, harmonious tones: I have a dream, I have a dream, I have a dreamÖthe long nightmare of loss is over." (Can you imagine what that "choir" would sound like?)

Thousands of years later, we have experienced heart-breaking loss and discouragement, too, including war, poverty, violence (too often caused by the distortion and abuse of religion itself), irreparable harm to God's beautiful creation, economic injustice, and hatred; as Brueggemann writes, "the city as we know it is defeated and failed." We have lost hope, he says, that we can fix all these problems and right all these wrongs, and perhaps that's true, "given the categories of imagination now operative."

If Brueggemann is right, and I think he is, I wonder if Advent should be re-described: instead of the season of preparation or waiting or penitence, it could be called the season of imagination. I've been reading Sarah Vowell's book, The Wordy Shipmates, which seemed like a good read in this season, though she doesn't focus on the Pilgrims but on the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay colony. I'm struck by how often the image of "a city on a hill" sustained that little group of people of faith during hardship and controversy. What is the image that inspires our imagination in the midst of the challenges we face today?

Despair surrounded by splendor

The great preacher Gardner C. Taylor reads this Isaiah text through the lens of a people captive in slavery in the midst of splendor--the hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the ancient wonders of the world, surrounded by colossal architecture that surely impressed upon them their own insignificance, at least in the eyes of the Babylonians and their gods: "The humble, ill-clad slaves looking at this dazzling sight must have felt a terrible despair and an aching longing for homeÖ.What could some slaves mean midst all these achievements when they had only some exotic ways of worship and an invisible God upon whom to call midst the galling yoke and heavy oppression of their captivity?"

To Gardner, verses 7-8 declare the impermanence of such glory compared to the glory and steadfast faithfulness of the God of Israel: "Isaiah took one look at all of this heathen splendor and pagan power and saw the fatal void at the heart of it all....'Never mind,' he must have mused, 'how green and lush the grass may seem. Never mind how bright and picturesque the blossoming flowers may appear.'" Nothing lasts like the Word of God, he imagines the prophet saying: "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the word of our God shall stand for ever" (v. 7).

Sustained by poetry

Brueggemann describes God's response to the suffering of the people as poetry that will sustain them. The surprise in his reflection is the possibility that there were those who were perhaps beginning to get comfortable there in Babylon, settling into the safety and security of "a political-military superpower....an advanced, sophisticated, winsome culture with its own theological rationale and its own moral justifications."

The empire was a system, like all systems (like all "empires"!), that worked for some (usually a few) and not for others, but you had a better chance if you knew where to place your allegiance and energy. It must have been tempting to throw in your lot with the seductive culture around you, to find ways not only to survive but to thrive, even if it meant forgetting who and whose you were.

Messages that change everything

Then a prophet comes along, Brueggemann says, changing everything with the message that "redescribes the world" as "under new management," the gracious God who would provide a home, a restored home for a restored people, freed from the burden of empire and captivity. Such poetry is so powerful that it "cannot be unsaid, for [t]he word has been uttered and the juices of alternative possibility have begun to flow."

Perhaps this is a comforting word, but it also disturbs and may even make us a bit anxious, presumably explaining the title of Brueggeman's book, The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word; how do you describe the feeling of being "decentered"? What do even captives have to lose, if things change too much, too quickly, too "imaginatively"? (Is that what we call "radical" change, or even revolution?)

What is at the center of our lives, giving us security that may at times feel like captivity? What are the larger forces and systems that we can't control--or even choose--that we have to find our place within? For example, capitalism, with its strengths and weaknesses, and/or our need/dependence on a military that consumes a huge share of our resources?

Looking back and looking forward

The testimony of Israel, Brueggemann writes, remembers God's great wonders in the past, God's miracles that remind us that we're not the ones who save ourselves, even as it looks forward to an empire-free future without "violence, brutality, competitiveness, and scarcity." But today matters, too, because we live our own lives in the present, and we are presented with the possibility--the call--of caring for those around us, our "neighbors," even if "the empire" in which we live finds them "objectionable and unproductive." How do you respond to Brueggemann's reflection, in a time when so many of the most vulnerable among us are being labeled "illegal," "other" and "undeserving"?

It does matter how we organize our shared life today, in the face of the obvious empires of materialism and militarism that surround us, but also the more subtle and insidious empires that may appear at first as "good" things: for example, our drivenness toward achievement and winning--"What I've amassed is all mine; I've earned it myself" or "I don't have time for Sabbath; I have too much work to do"--no matter what toll it takes, including the loss of those neighbors we should cherish above achievement or wealth or power. Brueggemann uses a term that caught my attention, "a passion for private shalom." Perhaps we should take some time to reflect on the term, "private shalom."

Preparing for Jesus

This text is not only about return, about repentance, but also about evangelism, that is, sharing the good news of God's love and faithfulness. Knowing what we know about the Jesus for whom we wait, we can agree with Brueggemann that "it is no wonder that part of this poem is quoted in all four Gospels, a text that voices the radical newness that is to be initiated in the story of Jesus."

To what oppressors are the people in your church captive? Indeed, do you think of yourselves as captives, or as oppressors? As you look around at our culture, what forces press in on us and on others, personally and communally? What "categories of imagination" are "operative" in your life? How does the image of a gentle shepherd speak to a world that tells us to succeed and to own and to acquire, to step on others and outlast them in order to reach our goals, to rely on military might for the nation's security, and a gun in our home for our personal safety? How do faithful Christians reconcile the image of the shepherd with such a culture?

Speaking to the heart in a weaponized culture

Perhaps we are becoming numb to the news. Every few days, a mass shooting large enough to "deserve" our attention--and non-stop media coverage, at least for a little while--evokes cries of frustration, anger, grief, followed by mind-numbing inaction on the part of those who might change things...and then we go back to our lives and hope the next tragedy doesn't touch us. North Korea fires off another frightening missile, our government "responds" but clearly not in a way that prevents the next missile being fired...and then days pass and we go back to our lives and hope that things will settle down but in any case that nothing will "reach" us.

People are gunned down in the streets of our cities--police officers and young men of color as well as those victims of mass shooters--terrible, heart-breaking tragedies for everyone concerned, and they appall and outrage us...and then we go back to our lives and hope and pray that our loved ones will never be in that line of fire. We feel the wrenching sorrow of such loss and the violence that drenches our culture, the world in which it all unfolds. We feel the rent in the fabric of our neighborhoods, our cities and towns, every community and the nation itself, and the world that grows smaller each day, the world in which we are all neighbors, all sisters and brothers, longing for peace.

Can we imagine peace?

When I read and listen to the news, along with the argumentative social media threads in which many of us struggle to make sense of it all, offering our reactions and suggestions along with our anger and grief, placing blame and holding accountable various individuals rather than all of us for the un-neighborly things that are happening every day, everywhere, my mind and heart grow so weary that I am almost numb, almost immobilized.

And I find myself longing even more deeply for that word of comfort, for that larger shalom that we imagine and lean toward during this Advent season, the promise of peace and healing and reconciliation and no more war, no more violence, no more threats, no more fear, no more heartache. Can we even imagine such a time? Is it just too tempting to hope for, and work for, a "private shalom" that seems more "achievable," more "reasonable," even if its blessings never touch the rest of our neighbors?

Peace in the midst of war

I love the video (a commercial, ironically) on the Internet, telling the story of World War I soldiers who came out of their trenches on Christmas in a truce to share Christmas greetings, to play soccer and exchange small gifts, to engage one another as real persons, as their neighbors, their brothers, not as enemies. It is almost unbearable to watch, as they shake hands and recognize the bitter reality of having to return to their trenches and resume the effort to kill one another for some unknown and unworthy reason. (And again, the long threads of biting commentary exchanged in comments sections below the video are disheartening).

It seems as if, for one moment, peace broke through all the violence and enmity and destruction. I don't know how any parent--any human being--can shake that image from our hearts and minds as we speak so freely of "peace on earth" this December, while our culture continues to send our children off to such violence.

Seeking signs of God's promise

We live in the midst of our own "Babylons," our own overwhelming brokenness, and seek to find the signs of God's promise that lifts our spirits and our eyes to the hidden reality of shalom, breaking forth in spite of our best, or rather worst, efforts to keep it buried deep, below our fragile and under-exercised faculties of hope and imagination. Can we see those signs, that shalom, even so, in this present hour, despite all evidence to the contrary, despite the massive structures of despair and domination around us that try to tell us that we, or at least some of us, are not precious in the eyes of God?

In this season of Advent, what are you preparing for? What sort of road needs to be made "broad and smooth" in your heart in preparation for the coming of the One who shepherds us? Is it easier to believe in God when you're in captivity than it is to believe that the captivity is really over? What are the signs that things are about to change? Are you courageous enough to hope for such a thing to happen?

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired last year after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

Joan Baez, 20th century
"Peace might sell, but who's buying?"

E.F. Schumacher, 20th century
"Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius ó and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction."

Richard Rohr, 21st century, in Falling Upward
"We need to unlearn a lot, it seems, to get back to that foundational life which is 'hidden in God' (Colossians 3:3). Yes, transformation is often more about unlearning than learning, which is why the religious traditions call it 'conversion' or 'repentance.'"

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 20th century
"Wonderfully secured by a mighty power, we await with confidence whatever may come. God is with us - in the evening, in the morning, and entirely certain on each new day."

Edward Hays, A Pilgrim's Almanac
"Advent is a winter training camp for those who desire peace."

Finley Peter Dunne, 20th century
"Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable."

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, 20th century
"Sorrow is one of the vibrations that proves the fact of living."

German proverb
"Joy and sorrow are next-door neighbors."

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