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Advent 2, 12/07/2008

Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11, by David W. Hoster

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.


            The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

            As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

            "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

            who will prepare your way;

            the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

            `Prepare the way of the Lord,

            make his paths straight,'"

[Both passages NRSV]


The prophecy from Isaiah, revisited by Mark, tells us about the removal of obstacles.   "Make straight in the desert a highway for our God," they say:  "Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level." Heights and depths will be flattened so God can get wherever God wants to go.

We need to remember that this biblical landscape is pre-automobile.  You and I are simply not conscious of geological obstacles.  We just drive over or around valleys and hills.  We think of them as lovely and-incredibly to the Biblical mind-seek them out for their scenic value.  If it weren't so easy, we might respect them more, maybe even fear them.

In biblical times, a mountain meant a lot of hard work and lost time climbing steep and winding roads.  A deep and long enough valley could force days of detour.  Those of us who have read the Lord of the Rings remember how the maze of rugged valleys at the approaches to Mordor steered Frodo and Sam in circles and very nearly defeated them.

Before automobiles and roads, people didn't see natural beauty in rough terrain so much as they saw brutally hard and dangerous work ahead.  This is the mentality Isaiah ascribes to God as God surveys the human landscape and tries to plan the work of salvation.  If Isaiah is to be taken at his word, he doesn't believe that even God can make much headway with the peaks and chasms of humanity.  Even for God, the obstacles must be leveled before salvation can proceed.

What sort of obstacles could thwart the progress of God to such an extent?

I'm a big fan of simulation games, and one of the weirdest simulations I've ever encountered is a game called The Plot to Assassinate Hitler.  Every official of any consequence in the German hierarchy in 1944 is represented by a counter on an abstract game board, and each counter is numerically rated for its ability to charm or to intimidate, by its ability to form alliances with other types of officials, and by the amount of area around the counter on the game board that it can influence.  Players on opposite sides then maneuver their key officials to gain allies, purge or neutralize the other player's officials and so forth.  As the game proceeds, a look at this map board is literally a look at human landscape, where peaks of power and valleys of ineffectiveness are clear for all to see. 

Isaiah believes that everything from families, neighborhoods, school boards, workplaces, city councils all the way up to Congress and the West Wing can be mapped just like that game board.

In families, some members are very forceful while others are easily influenced.  Some project their power through intimidation, others through their ability to attract with affection. Some use manipulation while others build up good will and favors owed.  Some family members are very needy and suck down a lot of other people's energies.  Some are the glue that hold things together.  Some are frankly sort of crazy and wander around the landscape like billiard balls.  Some alliances are unbreakable, other loyalties, like those between teenage siblings, may be shifting.  There are things you don't talk about and places that throw up obstacles to your presence, while other topics and personalities are accessible and present few pitfalls.  The family presents a very complicated landscape, and it's just the beginning.

We all know, for instance, that there are people and situations we just can't change in our workplaces.  Sometimes people stubbornly resist force but can be moved by flattery (then you have to ask if you're the sort of person who is capable of flattery).  Many people climb down into defensive positions in the psychological valleys where their pet projects and chosen ways of goofing off can be protected.  When somebody is in charge who demands things that are immoral, you have a particularly unclimbable mountain.  Then there's the whole office landscape of gender and even sexual maneuvering, and there's plenty of hazard there. 

All this stuff is very real, and even understanding the lay of the land in family or office is not a skill that's easy to acquire.  Average people usually don't bother looking for the big picture but just scope out the paths of least resistance and stick to them.  We pretend that everything is really OK, that there aren't hard and fast emotional obstacles between us and our peace of mind and happiness. 

What's hard for us is even harder for God who does not blast his way through the landscape with dynamite, but focuses on winning hearts and minds with deep and quiet attractiveness.  God accepts the landscape people develop for themselves, which is why, down at the bottom of the deepest and darkest chasm imaginable, you will always find Jesus dying on a cross.

Isaiah can't imagine God making much progress in Jerusalem's temple or palace or marketplace or anywhere else.  That's why Isaiah says that the whole game has to be changed-relocated elsewhere.  The first three words out of his mouth in this prophecy, therefore, are: "In the wilderness."

"In the wilderness, prepare a way for the Lord."  Why in the wilderness?

Since I've talked about simulations, I'll mention another that we played on the St. George's Day School Board at our annual retreat seven or eight years ago.  We were formed into teams, and then told we'd been on a small airplane that had made a forced landing in the desert.  We were given a short list of the objects available to us and then we had to start making decisions about how to proceed with our survival. 

My team didn't do so well.  We had one member with a very forceful personality who was determined to bull his way through the situation.  He was not, by gosh, going to sit still-he would take control of his survival.  So he set out in the direction he thought civilization lay with a few essential survival items and whoever he could bully into going with him.  A few others and I stayed at the crash site with whatever was left and tried to survive while waiting rescue.  Of course, as anybody who has done this type of simulation knows, we all died. 

The point was that we had to stay together.  We had to spend our time taking care of each other.  We did not have the luxury of bullying or hiding out.  We had to develop systems for

sharing scarce resources that would enable our survival whether we stayed at the crash site or tried to make our way back to civilization.

The wilderness, therefore, is the great leveler.  It doesn't matter what a person was back in the world.  Out in the bush he or she has only their native wit and personal integrity to offer.  If you try to run your ego or play your little games of one upsmanship or crater and suck down other people's energies, you harm everybody.  I remember those English noblemen at Jamestown with Captain John Smith who eventually had to be told, "If you don't work, you don't eat."  In the wilderness, all flesh is grass, as Isaiah says-our egos and power games are transient, pointless and harmful.

To survive, people have to set their baggage aside and look out after each other wholeheartedly.  The peaks and valleys of the human landscape have to be leveled.  People have to love each other or they will die.  In this kind of a landscape, God can make real progress. Openness, trust, integrity, generosity-required by the wilderness-define the exact salvation that God brings.  All of those things that make life in the wilderness possible are also the characteristics of the kingdom of God.  It's very different from the human landscape back in the city.

Wilderness and love, thus, have much in common.  They both level human obstacles.  They both make it possible for God to reach us. 

To the extent that we appreciate that love is not a luxury but the essential component of our spiritual, even physical survival, we can begin to level obstacles to God right here, right now.  We don't have to head out into the desert if we can bring the desert's sense of urgency into our lives right now.  The truth is that without love, the desert will come to us and we will not survive.  All flesh is grass, whether here or in the wilderness.

Families without love, families with huge peaks and valleys, do not survive.  At their worst, they come to incorporate verbal abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse or neglect.  There are explosive tempers and areas you know not to go unless you want to create another peak of family uproar.  Lies are told to conceal the true landscape-lies like, "Deep down your father loves you so just ignore the beatings."  In families, people develop coping mechanisms that compromise their ability to live their lives effectively outside the warped home environment.

In the end, these families don't survive.  They end in divorce, or worse. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum are families full of love.  Family members take care of their own needs quietly and resist the temptation to force others to dance to their tune.  They support each other.  They can talk calmly about anything-there are no taboos, no tiptoeing around elephants in the living room.  Love is the primary yardstick against which all actions and choices are measured. 

These families not only survive, they prosper and send their healthy, energetic family members out into the world to make a positive contribution.

Most families lie somewhere between these two.  Most families blend some qualities of the dysfunctional family with others from the idealized family of love I just described.  Most individuals in normal families work with a lot of stress marked by emotional ups and downs, highs and lows.  Most families must search for the love that overcomes the peaks and valleys they live with on a daily basis.  Most of us lie halfway between angel and devil and must work to remember love.

To all of us who work the program of love on a daily basis, Isaiah, Mark and I say, look for the level ground, work for the level ground.  Work through love to dial down the peaks of other people's bad temper and your own.  Try to shine a light into the valleys of other people's discouragement and your own.  You will find the depths are not as deep as you thought, nor the heights so insurmountable.  Always offer yourself and your personal integrity because only such simple love can survive the emotional wasteland that surrounds us most days.

"Comfort, comfort, O my people," says Isaiah.  And Jesus responds, "for the kingdom of God is at hand."


The Rev. David W. Hoster
St. George?s Episcopal Church, Austin, Texas, USA
E-Mail: david.w.hoster@gmail.com