Text: Isaiah 40:1-5, 28-31
Today is the First Sunday of Advent, a season to remember Christ’s coming among us and reflect on Christ’s coming again. It is a time of preparation for the great celebration of Jesus’ birth at Christmas.
It is also a time filled with activity. Family get-togethers, social gatherings, holiday parties – and of course shopping, even if a lot of that is done online anymore. There are school concerts and all kinds of seasonal special events. We will have our church Christmas Dinner in a couple of weeks, the first actual sit-down Christmas Dinner we have had since 2019, if you can believe that. The children and youth are busy with activities and we look forward to the Christmas Eve service.
One of the things I really love about this season is the music. Our choir is hard at work on a cantata that we will present at Northcrest on December 11 and then here in worship on December 18. Our Yuletide Orchestra will be playing soon. And as much as anything, I love all of the Christmas carols. There are so many wonderful, beautiful carols, and there is something about singing these songs that are so familiar and so full of meaning – and that we only sing during this season.
The sermons during this season will revolve around the messages of some of these much-loved carols. And so often, there is just a phrase that can capture the essence of the message.
This morning we sang “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus.” It was written by Charles Wesley. Charles was the brother of John Wesley, known as the founder of Methodism, and Charles was no slouch himself. Charles was a prolific hymn writer. Does anybody wants to guess how many hymns he wrote? One estimate is around 6500. That is almost beyond belief.
Wesley was a hymn writer for something in the neighborhood of 50 years. That would mean writing an average of close to 3 hymns a week. Every week. For 50 years. And he did not write in the praise chorus style, with just a few phrases sung repetitively. Some of his hymns had 18 or 22 stanzas. Charles Wesley was serious about hymn writing.
Sixteen Wesley hymns are in our blue hymnal, which isn’t bad for somebody who died 234 years ago. Among these are Christ the Lord is Risen Today, Love Divine All Loves Excelling, O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing, and two great Christmas carols, Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus.
Our scripture today comes from the 40th chapter of Isaiah, written during Israel’s captivity in Babylon. The people were in exile—away from their homeland, away from Jerusalem, away from all that was familiar and comforting. They were unable to worship in the temple in Jerusalem, which had been destroyed anyway. They were strangers living in a strange land.
It was at this point that the word of God came to them through the prophet Isaiah: “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.” Their exile, which came because the people had turned from God, was nearly over. God was coming for them.
“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."
The prophet Isaiah spoke a word of comfort and hope, and the great hope of Israel is capture by Wesley’s hymn. “Come, thou long-expected Jesus. Come to set thy people free.” But the need for such hope is not just a way back then thing. It may be that what we need most in this season is comfort and hope.
We live in a completely different world than the world of Isaiah’s time. We are not exiles living in a strange land. We live in the richest and most comfortable society in history – at least comfortable in terms of material things.
But it may be that in this season of the year, more than any other, that comfort--in the way of consolation and strength and assurance and hope—is in short supply. We get stressed out by an endless schedule of events and obligations. Some of us have lost a parent or a spouse or a child or a dear friend, and Christmas can be very difficult—it can be a bittersweet time. Even if the loss was some time ago, the pain can linger.
For some, family tensions are heightened in this season. There are those who are thinking, “Well, we barely made it through Thanksgiving, now we have to somehow get through Christmas.” Maybe not your family, but we all know it happens.
In the midst of all the seasonal merry-making and celebration, we may somehow feel like strangers in a strange land. And Isaiah’s message of comfort and hope to those in exile may be just what we need.
Isaiah spoke of God coming to bring deliverance, to bring comfort. To bring hope. And if there is anything we cannot live without, it is hope. Things may appear bleak, life may be difficult, but hope allows us to go on and to move forward, to strive toward a better day and a better future. We all need hope. As the carol puts it, “Hope of all the earth thou art.”
In order to receive God’s comfort, in order to find God’s hope, we have to be open to it. We need to be ready for it. “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
Archaeological discoveries in what was Babylon have confirmed the background of this passage. Triumphal highways were built to welcome a king into a city, specially constructed for an important event. Hills were leveled, valleys were filled, crooked roads were made straight. Everything was prepared, everything was in place.
With Zoe living in North Liberty, we frequently drive on Highway 30 over to Cedar Rapids. There has been road construction going on in the stretch from Tama to Cedar Rapids for years. For a while, there was the old highway going east and the new highway for the westbound lanes. The old road had you going up and down hills, up and down. But on the new highway, you just glide along. The low places had been filled in and the hills were not nearly so high. It is much smoother driving.
Things were made ready for the coming of the king. This time of year, many of us can relate to getting ready and making everything just right. We get ready for holiday parties or a visit from relatives by doing a little extra cleaning. We dust in places we don’t normally worry about. We do more baking than usual. (For some of us, any baking is more baking than usual.) We get out the Christmas decorations and we want things to look nice. We put up Christmas lights. We know about preparation, and there is a certain amount of preparation that takes place for important visitors.
The people were to prepare a place in the wilderness for God. In the wilderness. The Israelites knew about wilderness too. For 40 years they had wandered after leaving Egypt. God had seen them through the wilderness and brought them out, and God would bring them through this wilderness, this exile.
But wilderness is not simply a geographical term. It is a place of the heart, a place of the spirit. Sometimes we may feel like those Israelites, living in a strange land. Living in a wilderness. There are those times when we can find ourselves in a spiritual wilderness and not even realize it.
Fred Craddock was one of the great preachers of our time. He died a few years ago. Craddock told about a little girl who attended church faithfully at one of his first pastorates in Tennessee. Her parents sent her to church but never came with her. They would pull in the church’s circle drive, drop her off, and go out for Sunday breakfast. The father was an executive for a big chemical company, very ambitious, upwardly mobile.
The whole town knew about the parties they threw on Saturday nights, given not so much for entertainment or out of friendship, but as a part of his career advancement program. That determined who was invited. The whole town knew about the wild things that went on at those parties. But every Sunday morning, there was the little girl.
One Sunday Craddock looked out at his congregation and there she was. He thought, “There she is with a couple of adult friends.” Later, he realized that it was mom and dad sitting with her. When the invitation was given at the end of the service, mom and dad came down front to join the church.
After the service, Craddock, the young pastor, asked them what had prompted this. “Do you know about our parties?,” they asked. “Yeah, I’ve heard of your parties.”
“Well, we had one last night. It got a bit loud, kind of rough, lots of drinking. And it woke up our daughter, who was asleep upstairs. She came down the stairs and was on about the third step. And she saw the eating and drinking and said, “Oh, can I have the blessing? “God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food. Goodnight, everybody.” And she went back up the stairs.
Things quieted down quickly. People began to say, “It’s getting late, we really must be going, thanks for a great evening,” and within two minutes the whole place was empty.
Mom and dad started to pick up the crumpled napkins and half-eaten sandwiches and spilled peanuts, and then they looked at each other. And he said what they both were thinking: “What do we think we’re doing?”
God had come for them. It wasn’t the prophet Isaiah who had proclaimed “Prepare the way of the Lord,” it was their little girl.
God’s call comes to us in all sorts of ways, through various prophets, but the call is the same: prepare the way of the Lord. Preparing for God’s ways to take hold in our hearts is what Advent is about. For that to happen, we may need to make some changes in direction.
It may have to do with giving less attention to being comfortable and more attention to bringing the comfort of Christ to others. It might involve remembering someone who is lonely. It might mean being sensitive to those who have suffered pain and loss. It might involve spending time in scripture and in prayer so that God’s word can work in our hearts. It might involve making a tough decision or taking a difficult action that you know you need to make.
As we do these things, as we make these turns in life, God begins to lead us out of the wilderness we may find ourselves in and we begin to discover the comfort and hope of God. And we realize that this is not only our hope. Our world may be a mess, but we can sing with Charles Wesley, “hope of all the earth thou art.”
May we examine our hearts and prepare the way of the Lord, who does not promise a comfortable life but promises something even greater: the comfort of God’s own presence and the hope of all the earth. Prepare ye the way of the Lord! Amen.