It’s here again. I know you knew that. This season doesn’t sneak up on anyone any more. That used to be my opening line in Advent. “Wow, is it that time already?” It doesn’t work any more. Not because we are in better control of our calendars and are always ready ahead of time for every event that comes roaring around the corner at us. Not because we keep better track of where we are and what’s going on all around us, not because we keep our heads up and our eyes focused, not because we are leaning forward as we were told to lean forward into God’s promised advent. No, that’s not why it isn’t a surprise.
Rather, it’s not a surprise because marketing has been telling us it is the season long before it was the season. “Christmas as it is meant to be” a radio station says while we’re “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” “This is ‘Thanks-getting’ so be sure you get what you really want” says an electronics company. And does Santa drive a red imported sports car to deliver the presents or does he rely on an international shipping firm? Either way, no need to fear that you won’t get yours this year, because a big box store says “you aren’t ‘elf-in’ around” because gift giving and getting is serious business. They all say that. One way or another, they all say this is serious stuff. And who’s going to argue with them?
When our way of life is threatened, of course you’re going to lash back. If you don’t spend a lot of money this year, the terrorists win. That’s the underlying message, it seems to me. Buy our way out of the doldrums. Retail therapy some call it. More stuff. It insulates us from the emptiness, from what our hearts really long for. Hey, I like stuff too. I’ve got a list somewhere. It works, to a degree. For a while, we feel better. We feel loved. Which is good, and supportive and good enough. Until.
Until the arms of the new cozy arm chair, while comfy and soft, don’t pulse with life and love and acceptance. Until our gizmos and gadgets, who can talk to us and answer our questions, can’t wipe away the tears of loneliness and hold us until the empty spaces in our souls are filled in. Until ... well, you know. Sorry to be so cliche. It’s just that sometimes something we all know needs to be said again. That love needs to be embodied. Incarnated. Put on flesh. We need arms to gather us up. Not just the idea of arms. But real flesh and blood arms. We long to be gathered. To be loved. In a way we can feel. Even when we think we don’t. When we think we are doing just fine. We can get along with knowing we are loved. We don’t have to feel it. I mean, really, do we?
Isaiah 40:1-11 NRS Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 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. 3 A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 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. 5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken." 6 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. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 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!" 10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 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.
There’s a committee meeting going on in the Kingdom. I know, bad news for those of us who aren’t terribly fond of meetings. Those who just came through Charge Conference, sorry. I hope this won’t bring back the trauma. But Isaiah says there is a committee meeting going on in the Kingdom.
God has the floor. God’s pacing back and forth, ready to release the latest and greatest new idea from the divine office. The whole committee of heaven leans in, the archangels stop tapping their pens on the table. The cherubim stop eyeing the bagels on the side table. The seraphim put down their phones and start listening at last, because God’s about to speak. About to pass judgement, about the lower the boom, you know they thought so. But they never know. The One has this annoying - can the One be annoying? Of course not! - The One has this omniscient habit of saying something completely surprising on a regular basis.
“Comfort,” thunders the voice that made planets and galaxies, “O comfort my people!” Michael and Gabriel exchange furtive glances around the huge conference table. Brows knit and eyes narrow amongst the angelic beings high and low. “Did I hear “comfort”?” Comfort? Not judgement? Not burn or fry or .... Comfort? None question, however, because the Presence isn’t done yet. Just catching breath before the words come pouring out like a soaking rain on a parched ground. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.
The book of Isaiah covers such a span of time that there had to be more than one who wrote under that name. Chapters 1 - 39 is “first” Isaiah and is concerned about the faithfulness of the people of God. There is a variety of moods represented in those chapters, but the dominant one is judgement. The people were complacent, the people were selfish, self-centered, found their solace in things and not in the ever present Spirit of God in their midst. Isaiah preached until he was blue in the face and it didn’t amount to much. Until Babylon. Until Assyria. Double for all their sins. Northern Kingdom and Southern Kingdom both, overrun by enemies who caught them with their guard down and now there is desolation, there is desert in the middle of the Holy Land. Desert, a land forsaken. Now, Chapter 40, they are broken, now they are afraid, now they are longing for arms to gather them up and croon a lullaby.
After the initial shock, the beings around the table begin to nod along with the echoes of the Lord’s proclamation. And the Amen corner pipes up, a voice, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord!” In the wilderness that used to be a lush garden find an oasis. In a sandy windswept desert that used to be a marketplace, clear a path. But this road work, they understand and want us to understand isn’t so that we can get out. It’s so that God can get in. Make straight the highway for God.
It’s not that God’s GPS isn’t functioning, its that God needs to know we want a visit. The consummate gentle presence, God never comes where God isn’t welcomed. God never opens doors that we barricade. God never climbs the mountains we throw up to block access to the deepest parts of ourselves. The committee meeting becomes a gospel choir and as always happens in God’s kingdom, worship breaks out.
Around the table a voice says “Can I have an Amen?” Another says “What are we amen-ing?” Then one jumps onto the table and sings out, “That these troublesome, yet lovable, fragile and yet creatures beloved by God have access to eternity!” “In the Word,” the chorus rings out, “In the Word, is eternity! Is hope, is reclamation, is restoration!” AMEN, rumbles God as the I Am slides to the door to usher out the swaying angelic beings. “Head to the rooftops, to the mountaintops, shout and sing, again and again, until all can see. God is coming.”
They rush out to tell us. Again. And at the door stands the Word, who smiles and says, “Soon. I’ll be there soon. Save some room for me.”
Do you see what I see? That’s our Advent theme, based on the song and the musical we plan to present this Christmas Eve. But for now it is a reminder that there is plenty to see, if we’ll just look. Around the obvious, over the garish, behind the tinsel. Look a little deeper and see. See what’s in the way. And then see what’s coming. Do you see? Keep looking. Keep reaching. Keep wanting to find your way into those arms. Do you see?