Sermon for Advent II, Year B, 2008
Sunday, December 7th, 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Isaiah 40:1-11
“Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”
Over the last couple of weeks we have been speaking about apocalyptic literature. It has been recognized that the images in apocalyptic literature have the potential to stir up great fear. To be sure, certain groups will capitalize on this fear, using it to encourage conversion. However, if our faith if based on fear, we are not set free as the gospel promises, but are enslaved. For the Word of the Lord is not a word of fear but a word of hope. It is a word that touches us in our deepest inner selves and transforms us, changes us, and empowers us. It is a word, as spoken through the prophet Isaiah that not only calls us forth and changes us, but calls the people of God to speak it aloud to the whole world, “O Zion that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, behold your God!”
Be not afraid. As we confront some of the biblical images written about in the prophets and in book of Revelation, and yes, even in the gospels themselves, there is a temptation for us to be afraid. And why are we afraid? We are afraid because maybe, just maybe, the images are not so distant, not so esoteric. Maybe, just maybe, they speak of real evil in the world; they speak of real brokenness; they speak of a people without hope. And we wonder, are these texts speaking about our world, our lives, our sense of hopelessness? When we consider this possibility, these are texts that make us tremble.
But do we miss the point, though, when we allow ourselves to be overcome by the frightening images of apocalyptic literature? I believe we do. A couple of weeks ago, it was asked of me, how do we know the false prophets of any age? The false prophets are the ones that use fear to further their cause and enslave the people. I will say it again; the Word of the Lord is a word of hope that sets free, not a word that enslaves through fear. Consider those moments in Holy Scripture when God reaches out to humanity. How does God greet his people? He does so with the words, “Fear not!”
Consider for a moment Hagar, in her desperation in the wilderness as she was about to abandon her son, an angel of the Lord appeared to her with the words, “Fear not!” And as the Hebrew people were pursued into the wilderness and to the shore of the Red Sea, what were the words that Moses spoke to them? “Fear not! Stand firm, and see the deliverance the Lord will accomplish for you this day!” And when a man named Joseph considered putting away an unwed pregnant woman to whom he was betrothed, an angel of the Lord appeared with these words “Fear not, take her as your wife!” And to an aging priest of the Temple named Zechariah, who had no offspring, who was seized by terror at the appearing of an angel of the Lord, that same angel uttered these words, “Fear not!” And to a young woman trembling at the call to be the mother of God incarnate came this angelic proclamation: “Fear not, Mary, for the Lord is with you!” And to shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night, an angelic chorus singing of the glorious birth of the Saviour of the world, greeted those frightened shepherds with these words, “Fear not!” At the tomb of the Lord an angel spoke to the frightened women who had come to anoint his body, “Fear not, he is not here, he is risen.” And finally, as our Lord appeared to those same women and sent them forth with a message to the apostles, he did so with these very words, “fear not.”
Is this not the revelation, or apocalypse, of our Lord? The very words that are spoken whenever an angel appears or whenever God greets his people? “Fear not.” This is the revelation of our God to his people, and this is his encouragement and promise, that whatever the world has to throw at us, we need not fear. To those who are alone, fear not! To those who have made terrible mistakes, fear not! To those who are sick or suffering, fear not. And even to those who walk through thick darkness, and the valley of the shadow of death, fear not, for I am with thee.
Fear not, because the rough places through which you travel are being made plain. Fear not because the mountains that block your way are being made low. Fear not because the crooked pathway is being made straight.
It is one thing, though, to believe that this message is a message for us, the faithful people of God. Yet, can we believe that it is also a message for the world. Do we realize or understand our role in shouting that message from the high places? Do we make it part of our faith journey to say to a hurting world, to those around us, without fear, that God in Christ is alive and well, that his word endures forever, and that amidst the brokenness of human lives and the hopelessness that is proclaimed by the powers of this world that Jesus enters in to our lives and comes again and again to those in need, sorrow or distress?
One of my favourite all-time movies about Jesus is the movie musical Godspell. The film begins with John the Baptist portrayed as a New York busker coming across the Brooklyn Bridge singing “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” He soon calls a series of ordinary folk together, from the drudgery of their hopeless, nameless existence to follow Jesus. As the film unfolds the disciples gather around Jesus in a seemingly empty New York City. The ensemble cast take up many roles, even playing the parts of the antagonists, thus demonstrating the good and evil in each one of us. Finally, the story reaches its climax in the death of Jesus. The most interesting thing about this interpretation of the Jesus story is the fact that there is no resurrection proper. Instead, the disciples take up the body of Jesus, and carry him into the world. Yet, they return to a world once again populated by crowds, carrying the body of their Lord, not in a solemn funeral procession but with joy and singing, reprising the opening joyful song, prepare ye the way of the Lord.
In fact, I believe the Resurrection is preached and depicted in this musical adaptation of the story of Jesus. The disciples begin the story surrounded by an oppressive New York city that doesn’t care about them and holds no hope. Yet they are captivated by a Word, a Word that calls them forth, a Word that transforms them, a Word that gives them hope. Then, when all hope should seem to be lost in the death of their master, their hope is not lost, and they return to that old world, but with different eyes and with a different power and with a sense of joy and hope. What has changed for them? They carry the body of the Lord into the world. They are no longer a people gripped by fear but a people transformed by hope. The Lord has transformed them and through them he is transforming the world.
If they had returned to the world without him, they would be powerless. Yet, they leap into the world as if every mountain has been made low and every rough place plain, because for them, in Christ it has. They return into the world, beholding their God. Without fear and with the great hope that what God has done for them in Christ, he will do for the world, they return into that world. And they cannot contain themselves. The lives of those that carry him may come to an end, but the Word of Hope will never die. The grass withers and fadeth away but the Word of the Lord endures forever. As his body has been brought into the world and as his word is heard, so shall the lives of men and women in every age be changed and transformed, and so, too, shall they take his body in their hands and proclaim with loud voices the hope that is set before them. Beholding their God they take up the call in a glorious procession, for all others to hear: Prepare ye the way of the Lord!
And with these words, our Lord comes to us again this season. Our call to watch and wait is transformed into a call to proclaim the day of his coming. Behold your God, and be not afraid. Take up his call without fear, without regret, without trepidation, because you know the good news of glad tidings that he brings. You know the joy and hope that he has given us. And you know that it is he that makes straight the crooked paths of our lives, makes smooth the rough places of our spirits, and lifts us from the deep valleys of our broken hearts. Carry his body into the world, proclaim the Word from every high place. Behold your God, and be not afraid.
Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This sermon may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.