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Advent 2, 12/07/2008

Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11, by John H. Loving

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 for ever.
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.


"God's Dream"

It was Martin Luther King who reminded us some forty-five years ago about the power of a dream.  Even those who at the time questioned his tactics and his motivation are stirred today by the eloquence and simplicity of that speech delivered before some 200,000 people who converged on the nation's capital.  The "I have a dream" speech continues to challenge and to prod us to work for a society that reflects the goals he set before us.

It is not only political, religious, and social leaders who have dreams.  God also has a dream for the world that has been given us.  God's dream is suggested in the stirring prophecies of this Advent season

Today's prophecy was addressed to the exiles in Babylon.  It had been forty-seven years since they were brought in chains out of Jerusalem and led a thousand miles to this distant capital.  Many had abandoned hope of ever seeing their homeland again.  A new generation had grown up who knew the land of Judah only through the stories of parents and grandparents and through Sabbath worship in home or synagogue.  But now suddenly there were shifts on the international scene.  The Persian king Cyrus was "on the march" and the anonymous prophet of the Exile, whose oracles are found in chapters 40-55 in the book of Isaiah, dared to speak God's dream aloud:

"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."  Judah had paid the price for her unfaithfulness and rebellion set forth by Jeremiah and his predecessors.  Freedom is just around the corner.  Just as Yahweh had brought the children of Israel out of bondage in Egypt, so God was about to act to bring freedom and redemption to the Babylonian exiles.

In our age, too, we look for a word of hope and encouragement.  But the morning paper and the evening news are filled with the horrors of war, the economy in chaos, and the uncertainty of the future.

The pressure of life seems to accelerate at this very season when we should be pulling back and looking within.  I could not help reading with a certain amusement and sympathy about the parents who were literally fighting over the children's toys that are all the rage this Christmas.    A couple of years ago two desperate parents actually came to blows over the last "Nintendo" set on the shelf of one store.  I could not help thinking back to the time that my wife Nancy and I drove sixty miles from Farmville, Virginia into Richmond and sixty miles back to pick up one Godzilla!  I said at the time it was the ugliest thing I had ever seen in my life!  I guess that was part of his charm!

Caught up in this world of nightmares, how do we share the dream of God?  First of all, we have to allow ourselves to be formed and oriented by the Scriptures.  Don't just let it bounce off you on Sunday morning, but read over the Sunday lessons several days in advance or several days after that particular Sunday.  Especially during Advent, I suggest that you focus on the Old Testament readings.  Next week we'll be reading from Isaiah 65, and the week following from II Samuel chapter 7.

Read several different versions and give your imagination free reign.  Picture those rugged rocky mountains, the valleys, the desert grass, and the shepherd holding the lamb to his breast.  Fr William Barry, a Jesuit priest from Boston says that when we read the prophets in this way something deep within us is stirred.  "We feel the tug of God's dream," he says.  "We want to live that way, to live without the overriding fears and suspicions that bedevil so many of our relationships.  God's own spirit dwelling in our hearts gently, and sometimes forcefully, impels us to desire what God desires, to intend what God intends.  Perhaps the surest indication that these texts do reveal God's intention is that they stir us so deeply."

And once we have been moved by God's dream, we realize that it is a vision to be shared.  It relates to a common destiny.

In one of his autobiographical works Frederick Buechner tells of getting a fantastic contract from a prominent publisher on his first novel.  He was on "cloud nine" until, on leaving the office, he ran into one of his classmates who was working there as a messenger boy.  Suddenly, he was embarrassed or almost ashamed of his triumph.  He says that that chance meeting made him realize that "there can be no real joy for anybody until there is joy finally for us all."

God's dream breaks down the barriers between people.  So much of our life seems to be "them" and "us".  Tragically, that is part of how we build our identity and come to understand who we are. 

I'll never forget the first program on HIV and AIDS that I attended in Ponca City, Oklahoma.  I went as rector of Grace Church for information and to learn what resources were available for education for the young people of the parish.  The presenter spoke for just a few minutes and then introduced her guest:  a young man suffering from AIDS.  I had an immediate gut reaction:  What is he doing here?  I came for information, not for this!  I felt like I was part of a captive audience and became very resentful.  And yet as the young man began to speak, AIDS took on a human face.  He talked about what it was like to hear the diagnosis, having to break the news to his family, deciding whether or not to discuss this with his employer.  Later there was the tragic rejection on the part of some of the lay leaders in his parish church, and wrenching decisions about various medications and forms of treatment.  Being in the room with him and hearing him speak made me realize that it's not just "them and us" but we are all in this thing together, and it's the same with cancer, with ministry to those in prison, and in nursing homes.

As we begin to move closer to "the other", another little warning voice goes off in our heads.  "It's a pipe dream to think that we could ever attain such a state here on earth.  It's a dog-eat-dog world and the sooner you accept that and play by those rules, the better."  Fr Barry points out that hope is a very fragile virtue, easily stifled by reason or ungodly prudence.  If the voices that we hear stifle hope, then they are not of God.  If those voices sanction the status quo of mistrust and enmity, then they are voices of sin and not of God. 

What we all want most is to live without fear and in harmony with one another.  If our actions are predominantly motivated by fear, we act defensively.  We are not ourselves with one another, and so we do not become friends or the relationship becomes polarized.  God does not intend our frustration or unhappiness.  The greatest hindrance to our happiness and fulfillment is our own fear and suspicion.  We must beg God to heal our fears, to give us hopeful expectations, to help us to act out of love rather than fear.  ‘All things are possible with God.'

"I have a dream," God says--whenever we pay close attention to the prophets of the Old Testament.  God wants us to share that dream.  And our happiness, even in this earthly life, lies in such sharing, and in acting in tune with that dream.

"In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God."         


Rev., Interim Assistant John H. Loving
Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd
Austin, Texas

E-Mail: jloving3@austin.rr.com