Isaiah 40:1-11, NIV
Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord[a];
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.[b]
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will 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 like grass,
and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.”
You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,[c]
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.
He refers to it as his “Babylonian exile.”
Though he hasn’t actually been banished quite that far...only to the second floor. He’s been there for 21 days now - ever since the day, exactly three weeks ago, when I saw the doctor, who said, “Your test results won’t be back til Friday, but I’m telling you now that you look like the classic case of COVID. So don’t wait til Friday; start self-isolating right now. It’s great that your husband still feels fine, but we want to keep it that way (which we have, thank the Lord). He needs to sleep in a different bedroom, and use a different bathroom. If you must be in the same area of your house, wear masks and stay as far apart as possible.” So, for 3 weeks, have done as we were told. And although I haven’t actually called it “exile,” I do know how he feels. It is very strange to sleep apart from the one with whom you’ve slept for more than 33 years. It is weird to wear a mask inside your own home. It is even more odd to have to text “Good night” or “Good morning” or “Are you out of the kitchen yet?!!” to your dearly beloved. But it is what it is. And it’s almost over now (fingers crossed): one more day of no fever (and no fever reducing meds, of course), and then, the hour cometh when we can get “back to normal” - at least, the new normal, where masks and gloves and physical distancing are all measures for outside your own home. At this point, I’ll cheerfully settle for that...though, like everyone else, I am still wondering: When will vaccines be widely available? When will we reach a point of “herd immunity” that will allow us to live and move and have our being in a less restrictive way? When, O When, Lord, will this be over?
All of which has gotten me to thinking about the actual Babylonian exile, the one endured by the people of Israel over several decades. Of course, they were amply forewarned: prophet after prophet - including Brother Isaiah - had proclaimed to them “Thus saith the Lord: Change or Die.” (OK, so those weren’t his exact words, but it’s nonetheless a pretty faithful rendering; if you don’t believe me, just start an Advent reading project of working your way through the prophets.
Their messages are almost oppressively consistent: Change - or Else!) But no amount of prophetic warning seemed to sink in; why change your ways if everything seems to be going along reasonably well, pretty much as it always has? Until it doesn’t anymore...which is what happened to the Israelites, when the Babylonian forces overran their country, destroyed their most sacred places, and carried them off into exile. Then they were more receptive to listening to the Lord, though they still had a lot of questions to voice. Questions like “When are you coming to take us home? Where have you been all this time we’ve been in exile? When, O when, is this going to be over, Lord?”
And since their questions about exile remind me of my questions about the pandemic, I started paying closer attention to Isaiah 11. “Comfort my people,” says the Lord to Isaiah. “Tell them it’s almost over. And tell them to start preparing for my arrival: it’s time to level any obstacles and fill up any potholes in the road I’m going to travel to get to my people. Tell them not to wait any longer; it’s time to start preparing now. Because when I get there to take them home again, I want all of them to see my glory together.” And so that’s what Isaiah does; he delivers faithfully the message God has entrusted to him. But then, Isaiah adds a “P.S.” from God. “You who are bringing this good news to my people - get yourselves up on a high mountain and shout as loudly as you can: HERE is your God. Here IS your God. He IS sovereign; he IS powerful. And he IS tending to his flock like a shepherd.” The emphasis is mine, but the present tenses are right there in the text. God’s message to his beloved people is twofold: Yes, I will be coming, and soon, to carry you home again. What you’ve been waiting for is about to happen. But while you’re watching and waiting and preparing for the Big Day, you need to notice that I’ve been here with you all along. Even in your exile, I am still sovereign; and even in your exile, I am tending to you like a shepherd. So, people: be comforted.
It’s so remarkably similar to the message of John the Baptist to the Israelites of his own day: “One who is more powerful than I is coming after me. I’m going to baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with Holy Spirit.” John’s basic message (Better Get Ready and Repent!) is a present moment directive designed to prepare folks for the coming of the Messiah in the very near future. But, of course, the Messiah they’re waiting for is the very same Jesus who’s been amongst them for the last 30 years, hidden in plain sight, working away in the family business. They’re waiting for someone who’s already with them. It’s enough to remind me of what they taught me about in Preacher School, which is “The Divine Already and Yet, Not Yet.” The Already and the Not Yet don’t occupy two separate spaces. They are both real and both happening in the same timeframe, however hard we may find it to wrap our mortal minds around that conjunction. After all, who wants a God who can fit inside our minds? Not I. So we’ll just have to make up our minds to enjoy the marvel of it all, the Already Right Here With You! and the Coming Soon to a Location Near You! Like the absent minded preacher who spends 10 fruitless minutes looking for the reading glasses that were on top of her head all along, we’re waiting for Someone who is already with us in the person of the Holy Spirit, dwelling not only with us, but even in us. Like the country singer who’s been Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places, we’re craning our necks to catch a glimpse of the One who keeps looking right straight at us, out of the eyes of the poor, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned. Yes, it’s really important to celebrate the birth of Christ who came to us at Bethlehem. And it’s even more important to get ready for the Second Coming of Christ in all his glory. But it’s just as important to keep our eyes peeled for the Christ who is with us, even now. Who knows when or where we might find him, if only we keep looking?
O Little Town of Bethlehem, #230, vs. 4 only
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today.
we hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, a\bide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
Pastor Susan Pate Greenwood