Isaiah 40: 1-11 12-10-17 ACCUCC Rev. Tony Clark
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.
The Advent theme, “Restore Us, O God,” leads us today to dreams and hopes. We heard a scripture about a prophetic dream, a dream that brings comfort to a people besieged by war, imprisoned, and taken in Exile to a far-away land. It is a dream of a savior, who is both a Warrior that would protect the people that have been trampled like grass, and is also a caring Shepherd who will lift the scared and shaking sheep into Divine arms and offer them comfort. This scripture is comfortable and comforting to many of us, and it is linked in our tradition to predicting and preparing for the birth of Christ.
The passage focuses our attention on Jerusalem and Mt. Zion, the home of God. Jerusalem has never been far from the minds of the faithful, and once again it is a centerpiece to our holiday preparations. Fighting over control of the city goes back more than 2500 years, and it has been fought over almost all of that time. It is a story that has resonance with many places across the world; in many ways, the issues are similar to our own little North Richmond, except without the world focus on it. The issues are always the same: fences that isolate a minority population, rich owners of home and work places who make decisions to help themselves but not the poor who work and rent from them, security guards that cannot or will not work with the most oppressed, and limited access to culturally important sites.
Like current day Palestinians and residents of North Richmond, the ancient Israelites cried out; Restore us, O God. Restore us, O God, and comfort us, that we may once again have dreams of peace and prosperity.
More than 2500 years ago, a prophet wrote a poem about Jerusalem, a place that had been under threat by various forces for more than 150 years. It finally succumbed to the Assyrians, in 587 BC, when the Temple and city of Jerusalem were destroyed, and most of the people were forced to march 500 miles east to Babylon. The straightest way from Jerusalem to Babylon was through the desert, which was harsh, waterless, and had very little food. The less direct way was through mountains and valleys where water and food was available, however, those roads came with their own dangers: valleys were dangerous because marauders would lie in wait around the curves, or above on the cliffs. Mountains were difficult to climb up and down. The city was demolished, the land was devastated, the people were demoralized, and they had been driven to a distant land. There they wrote one of the most poignant poems of loss and abandonment ever written, Psalm 137; “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’ How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” Jerusalem, the home and people of God was demolished and demoralized, their dreams dashed.
For a moment, close your eyes and imagine a ceiling above you. It is covered in plaster, a blank canvass for painting dreams on it. A scaffolding is set up, and you are a master muralist, climbing the scaffolding to start work. You have been commissioned to paint the hopes and dreams of your people. What dreams would get painted there? What dream would you paint if you were a refugee fleeing brutal civil war or environmental devastation? What dreams would you paint if you were living in a place where police had to be paid off to offer any sense of safety? What dreams would you paint if your village was cut off from everything else by a strange consortium of fences, factories, and political forces? You paint a dream of hope; what does it include?
Now imagine that it begins to rain, the roof leaks, and the plaster flakes and falls to the ground. The hopeful dream is dashed, and the people cry out, “Our dreams, painted on a ceiling of plaster, are dashed. The painted plaster has plunged to the floor and scattered and shattered in bits of matter in the Great Dream Dust Plaster Disaster. We sweep shattered dreams that fell from the ceiling with a long-handled broom and a frank feather duster and dump the dream dust in the dusted-dream dumpster.”
Jerusalem’s Dream Dust Disaster was the destruction of the Temple and the Exile, and a prophet took paintbrush in hand to repaint a poetic dream for his people. This dream of restoration, painted in bold beauty, was to comfort the people.
A hopeless, dreamless people, yet the prophet dreamed that God was with them through their demolition, devastation, and demoralization. God heard the people’s cries, and called together the royal court for counsel, and the prophet was invited to observe. The pantheon of all the local gods of the region gathered to give Israel’s God good advice, and to discuss their response to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile of the people. At the opening of the proceedings, the God of Israel rose and spoke to the Council, “Give comfort to my people. Speak tenderly to them. They have been through enough.”
In response, in gratitude for God’s desire for comfort, following a trumpet fanfare, a voice cried out -- perhaps the voice of another god on the council, “Prepare for our God and King’s arrival!! Make the road smooth, fill in the potholes, lay out the red carpet, put on your best clothes, and decorate with flowers! Clean up the mess from the Great Dream Dust Plaster Disaster. The heavenly court approaches.”
God’s people have suffered, and God will pay for the cost of restoration, and for the loss to the people. What was demolished will be cleaned up, what was demoralizing will be gone. And to celebrate, the One God Above All Other Gods will make a royal appearance, to tour the new building projects and bless the people.
Another voice on the council says, “Cry out!” and the prophet asks, “What shall I cry?” The answer is, “Tell the people that the ancient covenant between God and the people stands forever. Go up to a high mountain and tell them that this is their God-- One who comes in might and yet is also as gentle as a shepherd carrying a lamb.” This ruling God will not enslave you, nor take you in Exile, nor show power by demolishing and demoralizing you. This God will lift you up, hold you like a Shepherd holds a lamb, and restore your dreams. This is your God.
It is a truly prophetic dream. A dream of hope, of comfort, of restoration. It is a dream for a river of refugees. It is a dream for a hoard of hungry and homeless. It is a dream for those fenced in by factories and political forces.
It is a dream that all of heaven will restore what is demolished and destroyed, and the heavenly council will unite to comfort God’s people who are demoralized. Dreams will turn from nightmares to happy hopeful dreams. Difficult roads through dangerous valleys will become smooth and safe. Mountains you are made to march over become molehills. The hungry will be fed, God will grant voice and vote to the poor, immigrants will be treated as neighbor, racial divisions will be no more.
It is a dream that Jerusalem, North Richmond, Syria, Myanmar, and so many other places could use right now. It is a dream for us all, a dream of restoration to something more than we can imagine.
[pray] Restore us, O God. Restore the dreams and hopes of the people who feel mowed over, the people who walk on rough roads and travel in scary gullies and canyons, and the people who struggle with every step. Restore us, O God, and restore the dreams of the prophets, that even in war, in Exile, in hunger and poverty, your glory may shine for all to see. Amen.