The Healing Journey Home
Given by Rev. April S. Blaine on Sunday, November 29, 2015
For the last few months, we have been journeying through the stories of the Bible, starting at the beginning. And we’ve been learning in these past few weeks about the story of the nation of Israel. It’s a bit of a sad tale that leads us to today’s scriptures.
The nation of Israel was designed to be a people set apart to follow God’s word. They were to be God’s chosen people who were grounded in the love of God and whose way of life was marked by compassion and justice. But things had not gone the way that they had planned. Israel had risen to power and influence under King David and King Solomon. They had built an enormous temple in Jerusalem under King Solomon and the city itself had amassed great amounts of riches. At first they were all in this together – all immigrants following the call of God. but as the generations went on, over the course of 450+ years – and particularly as the leaders from the north split off from the south, there grew an ever increasing wealth gap between the rich and the poor. They would follow the elaborate instructions for worship and sacrifices, but ignore the commandments for redistributing the wealth – and caring for the poor.
And over the years, God would send these pesky prophets – to try and call them back to God. One of those prophets was Isaiah – he told the people To remember the call to justice, to remember that God didn’t care that much about their burnt offerings but was much more interested in the ways that they were loving their neighbor.
And you can hear the people – care for the poor, let those immigrants come and settle in our land and offer them safe passage – but I’ve worked so hard for all that I’ve got. Why do I have to give out a handout? I mean, I have this promised land because God gave it to me and because I worked hard. I shouldn’t have to give up my hard work just because they were lazy. It’s not safe. What if they are spies from the north sent to overthrow us?
They didn’t listen to Isaiah or to God and eventually were overthrown by the Babylonian Empire,
Their temple was destroyed and the land of Judah and Israel was left in utter ruin. Many of the Israelites were deported to Babylon, some went to other regions of the empire and some stayed behind in the ruins.
It was an extremely crushing and trying time for the people of God. They had lost EVERYTHING. After 500 years of building their nation and making a name for themselves – they were back where they started. Under the rule of an oppressive empire. It was a face down on the ground moment .
It was a moment of utter humiliation – where everything they thought they understood about themselves and about God had been shaken to the core.
What did it mean to say that they were the people of God – when they had been so crushingly defeated? When they had no central place of worship? When they were scattered across the land? What kind of God would allow such a thing to happen?
The people of Israel began to shape a narrative from this place of fear and despair. The story was about a God who had chosen them but whose love had now turned to wrath. And now, as they were under attack, this God didn’t have the power to save them. God is punishing them for their sins and no longer loves them. Perhaps doesn’t even care.
This year, in the midst of some of my own face down on the ground moments – I’ve been reading a lot of Richard Rohr. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest in New Mexico who writes about the contemplative life – with a focus often on the moments that allow us to awaken to the presence of God in a new way.
And Richard writes a lot about the power of suffering, of seasons of darkness, of seasons of utter humiliation where everything that we built our identity on is stripped away.
And Richard writes that the greatest moments of spiritual awakening – the kind of awakening that Jesus speaks of and that is called for by the prophets – that these great moments of insight and connection and awareness most often come out of these seasons of darkness.
For absent of their temples and their structures, their status and their money, their land and their dignity – in the desert and in the wilderness – they must discover anew who they are and who God is to them.
Now, as we said, the role of Isaiah had been to call the people to turn back toward God. But here in this place of fear, on the shores of the Euphrates, far away from their homeland –
the new prophet that emerges comes to call them back to their center.
This new prophet was probably not Isaiah – but he wrote in the same tradition – his word is a part of the same story – and the story now comes to break through their narrative of fear and despair with a new, yet ancient story.
A story of hope.
That God is going to do a new thing. Where?
RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DESERT.
The Scripture that we read is the opening scene of the second half of Isaiah – and the scene opens – the curtain draws and we see God sitting on God’s heavenly throne amidst his heavenly council. It isn’t entirely clear who these people are – are they angels? Are they other gods of other nations? Are they divine messengers of some kind?
What IS clear is that the God of Israel – Yahweh is IN CHARGE. And God speaks to the heavenly council - and begins to give them the orders of what they are to do and say.
Comfort, Comfort my people.
You have paid your price.
In power and compassion, God sends out these heavenly messengers to deliver the good tidings that comfort and forgiveness is coming.
In the midst of their desert – In the wilderness – before they have found their way out of the mess where they are. The good tidings come.
Make a way!!!! For HERE COMES YOUR GOD!
Into this place of fear and confusion and despair –
The Good News comes first as news of COMFORT and compassion.
Acknowlegement of how hard it has been.
And that there is forgiveness. You have paid your price.
But the meat of the message is that there is a way being made right in the middle of their desert. Right in the middle of the wilderness. Right in the middle of their fear and confusion.
And God is coming. To bring them HOPE. And to lead them home again.
And these words have this powerful – transformational and pivotal impact on the community in Israel.
For in their face down moment – they are realizing some things about themselves and about God. That it was never about the promised land – or about having special status as a nation – it was never about whether they had a temple to worship in –
It was always about the relationship that God had with them and about God’s love for them. And nothing – not even the events that led to their time in Babylon – nothing could take that away.
It’s what the prophet Hosea was trying to say to the people last week in the passage we read.
And I think here – in the midst of their struggle and humiliation – here – in this moment of spiritual awakening as a nation they could finally begin to see it. They could finally begin to understand where things had gone wrong. And the story of hope could begin again.
Chapter 40 begins a set of chapters in the rest of Isaiah that start telling the story of the long healing journey home.
But this journey toward home – the healing – it began in the desert.
Today is the first Sunday in the season of Advent. In the Christian calendar, this is the first Sunday in a new year. Advent marks the 4 weeks before Christmas –It is a season where we are waiting and a season where we are preparing for the coming of Christ. It is a season of HOPING.
And this year, as we journey through these 4 weeks – we will be talking about healing. And the journey that each of us must take to find new life and hope again.
These words from chapter 40 are often words we hear this time of year – And part of that is because of the hopeful restorative nature of the text but part of it is because of the very interesting thing that the divine messengers do here -
– they take this message which is originally intended for Israel in their particular context – and they give it a kind of universality. A message that is for ALL People.
and so - over the years – these words have also been used by others – to claim a word of hope far beyond the initial context of the Israelites far from home.
John the Baptist – understood himself as a prophet in the same line as those tasked in the divine council to spread the message – and he quoted these words – make straight the paths – get ready – when he preached in the DESERT to the people about the coming of Jesus Christ.
Martin Luther King used this passage in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech as he spoke about the dream of every valley being exalted and every hill and mountain being made low. The rough places will be made plain. And the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.
They are words that call us out of our own seasons of fear and despair. Out of our own moments where we find ourselves face down and humiliated – they remind us of a God who is not distant from our pain – who sees us and loves us – and comforts us and carries us home –
but they are also words to a people to a nation – to be a part of the work of bringing the divine message – of hope to ALL people. So that we all see it together.
All people. Young and old. Black and white. Straight and gay. Male and female and non-gender conforming. Christian and Muslim. Americans and Syrians.
The story of hope is that God is doing this incredible work of transformation in the world in ways that are for all people.
Make way. Make way says the prophet – for the Lord is coming.
This Advent Season – I wonder where God is speaking to us – in our wilderness places, in our deserts, in our places of fear. And blindness and even our places of privilege.
And speaking a word of hope.
And asking us anew to MAKE WAY for God to do the new thing in our midst that God is going to do.