Comfort ye! Comfort ye my people, saith your God . . . speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare . . is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. A voice of him that cryeth in the wilderness, prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
For many people, these words from the 40th Chapter of Isaiah, sung (usually by a tenor, but hey) in Handel’s Messiah are a beautiful part of our preparations for Advent and Christmas. We find them, well, comforting; as though by singing them, the voice is opening a way through the desert to welcome the Christ child.
On this Second Sunday in Advent, we find these words from Isaiah weaving their way throughout all our readings: the prophet Baruch, scribe and friend of Jeremiah, crafts words of comfort for those returning from exile; the Benedictus of Zachariah breaks his silence after the birth of his son, John, by connecting him to the theme of salvation begun in the Hebrew scriptures; and later in the books of Luke-Acts, we come full circle, as John preaches the words from Isaiah 40, demanding, as did Baruch of the people returning to Jerusalem, that they repent and change their ways to prepare God’s way.
The short book of Baruch has three parts: first, a call to repentance, second a reminder of the mystery in God’s wisdom (to keep people from thinking that they had a complete handle on why disasters happen) and third, the comfort of knowing that Israel would safely travel on a level path to their new home.
Some of you, as well as me, have walked in Israel and Palestine. It’s not easy! There are many hills and valleys, it’s dry and hot, and there are lots and lots and lots of rocks! I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for this caravan of refugees — men, women and children, young and old, tired and frightened — as they returned to their homeland, hoping that indeed they would now be safe and welcomed.
Likewise, the prophet, John, the Baptist, was born to prepare the way for welcoming Jesus, the Lord, the Christ, the King of Kings. This follows the pattern all through the history of Israel, of prophets who accompanied, who advised, who supported, who performed the “opening act” so to speak for the Kings — pairs like Samuel for King Saul; Nathan for King David; Isaiah for King Uziah. John’s prophetic voice affirmed Jesus’ identity as a King and his place in David’s lineage.
The book of Luke/Acts, from which we read in both the Canticle and the Gospel reading, follows the history of salvation for God’s people. The authors begin with the Hebrew prophets and trace the theme all the way through to the Acts of Jesus apostles. Zechariah’s voice itself becomes a character in this story: John’s father becomes silenced when he doubts the angels’ message of God’s promise to give to the old man and his wife, Elizabeth, a child who would become prophet to the most high. When John is born, Zechariah regains his voice, praising God and affirming John’s role in preparing the way for the Messiah to come.
What does it mean to prepare? Certainly, during the month of December, we often become frantic with preparations – gifts, meals, social events — for the Christmas season. When we entertain guests, we prepare our homes: cleaning (a great reason to throw a party!), cooking, decorating. We think of those whom we will welcome, and prepare with them in mind.
I think of God preparing the way to welcome the exiles into Jerusalem, and I wonder: what might we, as Christians, do to prepare the way to welcome the stranger into our community, our church, our nation? How can empathy guide us, as we imagine how people might feel who are new to our faith tradition, to our language, our customs, our country? What valleys may we lift up — creating resources for those who come from afar — what hills or impediments can we make lower? Can we make welcome and access our theme for the coming year?
How do we prepare the way for the King of Heaven? The Holy One who became incarnated into our lives in the form of a vulnerable child, himself a refugee, traveling with his earthly parents far from their own country. Jesus tells us, over and over again, to love and treat others as we ourselves would like to be treated. To do this, we must both look within and honor the person God created us to become, and then turn loving eyes outward, feeling safe enough to consider the needs and perspectives of those who may be new to us, what comfort they may need, how to lift them up and to overcome adversities on our journey Together.
As part of our Advent journey and preparations, Patrick and I attended a choral concert this week; Pacific Lutheran University’s “Choir of the West” performed carols and religious music with their symphony at Benaroya Hall. College voices are so lovely, excellent and beautiful, but still innocent in some way. My mind and heart became aware of the preparation involved in music.
Of course there is the individual preparation of practice, when we work to develop skills and habits which make us the best possible instrument for the music. Then, as our choir and band know, there are rehearsals, when we come together as a body to perfect our communication, our “blend”, developing one voice which is magnified beyond what any one of us can accomplish alone. Finally, there is the moment: the point when the conductor’s hand goes up, and all the instruments “prepare”, they raise their bows, their instruments and take a breath together. They are poised, nervous, excited and ready to begin!
My friends, may we experience that moment of preparedness this Advent season — may we work to make ourselves ready for our Lord to conduct all of our voices, like Zechariah’s, in a heavenly chorus of good news, of praise and of welcome. May we share this comfort with everyone we encounter, and may there be peace, abiding peace for all. And all of God’s voices sing together AMEN!