Second Sunday of Advent (10 December 2017)
JoAnn A. Post
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,’ ”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Hearers of a certain age will remember, with a wince, when near the end of the Cold War, President Ronald Reagan famously said, “’I’m no linguist but I have been told that in the Russian language there isn’t even a word for freedom.” He was quickly proven wrong, but his assertion that our Communist enemies were so depraved they didn’t even know freedom existed was wildly appealing.
The Inuit people of northern Canada boast 53 unique words for the thing we generically call “snow.” Each of their words connotes something unique about the quality of a particular snowfall—grainy, heavy, wet, blinding, blowing. 53 shades of snow may seem extreme to us, but if your whole livelihood depended on cold, snow and ice, you’d have a lot of words for it, too. My farmer father was not a fan of snow—snow makes farm work much harder than it needed to be. So he had a lot of words for snow, too, but they mostly don’t appear in any thesaurus, and most have four letters.
You might not have noticed that in this morning’s readings, the word “cry” is used five times. I am not sure how many words we have in the English language for “cry,” but on my own I quickly came up with 20, among them “caterwaul, blubber and keen.” In Hebrew, the language in which the prophet Isaiah wrote, there are seven unique words for the word today translated, “cry.”
“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term.”
Again, “a voice cries out.”
And later in today’s Old Testament reading, “What shall I cry?”
Isaiah wrote to the people of God in exile, dragged from home and temple to a foreign land where they were forced to live for a generation. I imagine that in the early days of their imprisonment tears had flowed freely, tears of anger and frustration and fear and sorrow and weariness. I wonder how long it took for them to run out of tears, to realize that no matter how they bawled and wailed and sobbed, it would make no difference. “Cry me a river,” their captors mocked. So, eventually, their tears stopped.
That’s why the cry Isaiah reports has nothing to do with tears. Their cry was more of a vocalization, a raw-voiced, tested, troubled, weary faith. It was an expression of desperation tinged with hope that God might still be listening. “Cry to her,” Isaiah orders. That cry would fall from cracked lips, parched throats, broken hearts. Long after all their tears had been shed, a shred of hope remained. Hope that one day they would be free. Cry that, Isaiah orders.
Some of you may remember the Englewood Four, the young black Chicago men falsely imprisoned for a brutal rape and murder in 1994. Since their exoneration in 2011, after serving almost two decades in prison, they speak of their confidence that one day the truth would be told, that they would breathe the air of free people. “We never stopped believing we would be free. But it got harder and harder.”
I think of them, of their desperate confidence when Isaiah writes, “Cry to them that they have served their term, that the penalty has been paid.” In my mind’s ear, Isaiah’s voice cracks with emotion and relief. “It’s over.”
The parish I served in Atlanta, when my older daughter was a toddler, had a robust relationship with a nearby women’s shelter. The director of the shelter, a remarkably soft-hearted woman considering the sorrow she saw every day, told me about a toddler who often came to the shelter’s noon meal trailing his homeless mother. He was small for his age. He would eat anything. And he never cried. For some reason, his silence troubled her and she pursued it with her own therapist. The therapist’s answer was simple, “A child cries because he expects someone to hear, to care, to come running. Why would a child born on the street to an addicted mother bother with tears? They wouldn’t make any difference.”
To that tearless little boy Isaiah cries, “God will gather you like a lamb in his arms and carry you near God’s heart.
A cry, whether tear-full or tear-less, assumes someone will hear it.
The 1st century writer Mark opens his gospel with what he claims to be “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” It doesn’t seem like the beginning of Jesus’ story to us. Where are Joseph and Mary, a child born in a barn, smelly shepherds and angel choirs? Though it seems surprising and even modestly offensive to us, we who are hyper-sentimental about Christmas, the circumstances of Jesus’ birth didn’t impress Mark at all. Mark’s “beginning” finds Jesus fully grown, about to be baptized. The thing that mattered for Mark, the first of the Gospel writers, was not Jesus’ infant cry but his full-throated response to the cry of God’s people.
Our introduction to Jesus comes via John the Baptizer “crying” in the wilderness. John was dressed as an Old Testament prophet (2 Kings. 1.8), announced with ancient prophecies (Malachi 3.1; Isaiah 40.3), bold and brash and baptizing as fast as he could. John the Baptizer’s cry—“Repent!”—resonated deeply with the desperate people of Judea and Jerusalem. Like Isaiah’s first hearers they were not free. They lived in their own homes, but Roman soldiers patrolled their streets; Roman political appointees occupied their government; Roman leaders colluded with Jewish leaders for personal gain. Though they wept for relief, no one came to help, so their tears dried.
The people of Judea and Jerusalem heard John’s cry and ran toward it. And when John had their attention, he told them of another, another more powerful than he, who would hear their bitter cries. That One would lead them to life where there is no crying, no tears and no pain. But that’s a story for another day.
Isaiah’s cry. John the Baptizer’s cry. Our cry. Though our eyes have run out of tears, our hearts still hope. It is that desperate but believing cry that falls from our lips and our lives in this holy season.
Every once in a while I meet people whose stories are more than heartbreaking, people who suffer such deep sorrow it makes my knees buckle. I met such a woman years ago, about five years after she had been widowed, orphaned and physically maimed in a car accident. She spoke freely of her grief, her desire to die rather than live with both shattered heart and body. Naively, I asked how long it took for her to reach the point where she didn’t think every day about dying. She smiled wearily. “Longer than I hoped, but not as long as I feared.”
God heard her cry. Not the caterwauling, blubbering, nose-running noise of self-pity, but the cracked and quiet voice of desperation tinged with hope.
She believed Isaiah when he wrote, “God is mighty.”
She believed Isaiah when he wrote, “God will carry you.”
She believed John the Baptizer when he promised, “God is coming.”
Buried among the many words we used to describe the world’s sorrow, is the simple word, “cry.” Not with weary tears but with hard-fought faith. Our cry will be heard. Christ is coming soon.