Remind, Reveal, Reinforce
The End of the Break
Sunday, December 6, 2020
Second Sunday of Advent Year B
Remind, Reveal, Reinforce
Laboring God, with axe and winnowing fork, you clear a holy space where hurt and destruction have no place, and a little child holds sway. Clear our lives of hatred and despair, sow seeds of joy and peace, that shoots of hope may spring forth and we may live in harmony with one another. Amen.
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 forever.
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:
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
1. Do you understand God to be on your side?
2. Does God use absence as a punishment?
3. Have you ever felt as if you were on a break from God?
4. What words of comfort do you think God has for this time?
5. Where is the Holy Spirit leading the people of God today?
By Cheryl Lindsay
Have you taken a break from God? Has God taken a break from you? Have there been moments that stretched into seasons of waiting for God to show up?
This passage marks the end of a significant period of time when it appeared that God had taken a break from God’s children. When considering the structural division contained in the Book of Isaiah, whether you divide it into two or three parts, it is easy to forget that there was a significant gap in time found in the space between chapter 39 and 40. Gary Light refers to it as “a long intermission” during which “as far as some were concerned, the relationship between YHWH and the covenant community was over.” Walter Brueggemann refers to it as a “God-muted time.” It seemed that the people and the God of the covenant were on a break. In what is widely accepted as the beginning of Second Isaiah, chapter 40 begins a new era after a season of distance. Exile in Babylon will come to an end, and the people will be able to go home after living as foreigners in a hostile land. There may have been a break from the manifestation of the covenant in the lives of the people, but the covenant is not broken.
Opening this text, we hear words deploying the heavenly council to bring comfort to the exiled people and unfolding as a parent consoling a wayward child that their punishment has ended, and they can resume their normal activities. That punishment has been harsh, and the text suggests that God amplified the intensity of it by “double.” We are challenged to consider whether the Sovereign God is a loving one or a punishing one. Is the law a means to execute mercy or reprimand? Those two possibilities would seem to be in conflict. Either God forgives freely, or God holds a grudge until satisfied.
It is likely that during their exile, the children of the covenant pondered such questions. They probably had deepening doubts that they would be restored as a people with a land—a home—to claim for themselves. Even worse, they might have assumed that the God of their ancestors had forgotten them and the covenant that bound them together. As Chris Franke notes,
Convincing people who suffered under such conditions for half a century that God was on their side would have been a difficult task. They would need constant and reliable reassurance that God is aware of their existence. [Isaiah] not only acknowledges their long term of suffering but in a stunning admission also acknowledges that they ‘received from YHWH’s hand’ twice as much punishment as they deserved for their sins. Their fortunes are soon to be reversed. A way will be prepared in the wilderness, and God will lead them back home.
COVID-19 has led many to question what role God has to play in the human condition and our suffering. During the early days of quarantine, many of our online worship services saw a spike in attendance and reach as the new platform coupled with the common experience of staying-at-home provided an opportunity to engage an audience who would never enter our physical spaces. Being forced out of our buildings enabled the community to gather in a new way and made our homes our sanctuary. Our common suffering and uncertainty fostered a shared question, where is God in all this? Underneath it all was a shared hope that the God who parted the Red Seas and forged together a people could intervene in our plight through science, through the miraculous or some combination of the two. We too, wanted a return.
Today, we live in a form of exile that separates us from our normal routines, from those we love, and from the places that provide us comfort. The forced confinement and isolation of a global pandemic are not that different from the forced exile in Babylon. We have not been wrenched from our homes; we have been exiled there. So, the return we desire is not so much to a place as to a way of being. We want to reclaim our version of normal. In some of our faith communities, that manifests as a reinvigorated desire to return to our church buildings even as we experience an alarming rise in cases across the country. Those physical spaces represent comfort, familiarity, and normalcy.
It is natural, in times of prolonged or acute crisis, to seek comfort. “Comfort my people,” God says, but this isn’t just an idle command, it is a word of empowerment. The use of the term “my people” signifies that the covenant is still in effect. God not only remembers them; God still claims them as children of God and of the covenant. That is the source of their encouragement, redemption, and endurance. For the people who wondered if God abandoned them completely, God reminded them of their belonging to one another. For the people who questioned if God was on their side, God revealed God’s presence. For the people who doubted if the covenant still stood, God reinforced its standing.
It is important to note that this passage was an announcement of good news to come. They were being prepared for a reversal of their condition. It was not the manifestation itself; it was the advance notice of a change to come. That is what Advent provides for us as a season separate from Christmas. Advent lends space for expectation for a better future. It makes way for hope. The announcement of multiple paths to a vaccine for the coronavirus promises an end to our suffering that is not instantaneous but is coming. Advent allows us to wait in anticipation and expectation for the good that has been promised. We are reminded of the promises of God to never leave us nor forsake us that are true whether they meet our preferred time frame or not. As 2 Peter 3:9-10a states, “The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief.” A thief doesn’t ask permission or schedule entry like an appointment. A thief comes in and claims what is before them. In God’s appointed time, God claims us as “my people.”
We are also reminded that Advent is not just a set of days leading up to Christmas celebrations, but it is a season of its own that reminds us not only of the promises of God, but also that waiting is an active practice and not a passive activity. In the waiting, we are called to remembrance, to revelation, and to reinforcement.
Revisiting these words from Isaiah that were, and continue to be, used in Jewish liturgical settings, were referenced and directed quoted by New Testament writers, and form and infuse our worship today, reminds Christians of our connectedness to all of humanity. We hold these sacred texts, but they originate from a shared tradition. That in a time when so many feel the sharp pangs of isolation, there is a connection that runs deeper than physical proximity, cultural sameness, or religious practice. Even the reference to the shepherd, which was commonly attributed to many of the gods worshiped and the monarchs who ruled in ancient times, underscores the linkages human beings experience with one another in knowledge and identity. There is no shortage for the need for comfort, and this is not the first time that the Sovereign God has stepped in and charged the heavenly realm to bring comfort to those that God has claimed. The call to comfort is first a call to remind us of endurance during hardship and victory in trials because the Holy One was with us then, and that same Everlasting God is with us now.
Further, God will show up even when it seems as though the Mighty God has left us to our own devices and to bear the consequences of our actions without mercy. This passage, which on its face suggests a punishing God who desires the people to suffer for their sins, actually highlights the expansiveness of God’s forgiveness. Shalom Paul frames it in this way:
The time of calamity has passed, and God has finally forgiven His people. The context does not imply repentance on the part of the nation, nor reprieve for the sake of their forefathers, but rather that God, who was responsible for the people’s sentencing, has decided that the time for reconciliation is at hand. Early observers of Advent viewed it much like Lent, a time for repentance and remembrance. Isaiah 40 informs us that while God wants us to turn (repent), God will initiate reconciliation. The covenant isn’t broken, it’s reinforced and will be made even stronger.
There was an episode of the popular sitcom, Friends, where the characters Ross and Rachel had taken a step back from their love relationship because, at the time, it wasn’t working according to their expectations. During that period, Ross had an encounter with someone else. After Rachel and Ross found their way back together, this other relationship came to light. Rachel felt betrayed, but Ross thought they had broken up and didn’t understand why she felt that way. This misunderstanding led to yet another break-up of the pair. The most memorable scene of the episode comes when Ross exclaims in frustration, “We were on a break!”
There is no break from the love of God. We may feel disconnected, isolated, and abandoned, but God is still with us and will be revealed in Her timing. Patience may be a virtue and a fruit of the Spirit, but it doesn’t come easily. It must be tended, cultivated, and nourished to grow. That is true individually and collectively. We see, after months of living with pandemic, that our collective and communal patience is being stretched and tested. Many in the public sphere call for continued patience and shared sacrifice even as we wait for the vaccinations to begin. At times, it seems as though the closer we get to the end, and we aren’t yet close, the harder it becomes to maintain our patience. We haven’t learned to savor the anticipation or receive the blessing found in the waiting. We just want to get to the end.
Biblical historians will tell us there was an even greater period of time (break) between the events depicted during the Old and New Testaments. Again, God seemed absent from the lives of the covenant people. This time, the break spanned centuries rather than generations contained in Isaiah. And that silence was broken by the introduction and words of a new messenger, John the Baptist, proclaiming the coming of Christ. The words of Isaiah echo in the language of the Gospel according to Mark, reminding the hearers that the promises of comfort and reconciliation shall be manifested and as now is the time. The end of the break has come. We often think of the word “end,” in its chronological sense. The end of something is the last of a series of events, activities, or conditions. The end is opposite of the beginning. Whatever we have been doing or enduring has reached its conclusion. But there is another meaning at work here. The end can also denote fulfillment, purpose, or destination. To reach an end in this sense is to get to the point, to serve the function, or to resolve what was in conflict or disjointed. This end reveals a new beginning that builds upon rather than finishes the past.
“Prepare the way of the Lord” is a call to Advent, to the anticipation and preparation of waiting to reach the promised end of suffering and separation, difficulties and distance, burdens and brokenness to make way for the glory of Emmanuel. That is the end of Advent, the meaning and point of observing this season on the liturgical calendar. The call is to comfort and to encourage by proclaiming this good news. Isaiah heeded the command to “cry out!” John the Baptist did the same. We too are charged, amid our season of waiting, to remind, to reveal, and to reinforce this good news, “Here is your God!” There is no break. The end.
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
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