“In the wilderness prepare the way” OR “What shall I cry?” | Advent 2 | December 10

Texts: Isaiah 40:1-6; Mark 1:1-8; Luke 1:46-55

Reading: Isaiah 40:1-4

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak 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.  3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  4Every 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.”  

Reflection:

Wilderness, desert, valley, mountain, uneven ground, a plain.  These are the features that inhabit the words of Isaiah to the Jewish exiles in Babylon.  And running through it all, a road, a highway straight and level.

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

For this way to become a way, valleys needed to be lifted up, mountains and hills brought low.  Obstacles would be removed, uneven spots leveled out.

The last time I was on a road in the wilderness was two weeks ago, although it was more a path than a road, and not so much a wilderness as a few acres of woods.  And there were plenty of uneven spots.  But stick with me.

It was the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, late afternoon, the final daylight hours of our family holiday on the farm in Bellefontaine.  It had been a sunny day, but we’d spent a solid four hours cooped up in the basement by the TV, watching young men collide into each other in an attempt to advance an oblong shaped ball down a field toward a designated zone.  With the game over, victory achieved, a renewed sense that all is well and right with the world, it was time for a walk.

We’d been wanting to do this all weekend.  Children and adults headed out toward the woods, an island of trees surrounded by farmland.

It’s difficult to make one’s way through these woods, even this time of year without the leaves or sprawling undergrowth.  But Dad had hired a friend who owned a large piece of equipment designed just for the task to come and clear out a path.  It had cut and ground its way through the dense thickets, avoiding the larger trees, making a path wide enough for a group of people to walk through comfortably.  It made a way in our little wilderness.

The trees are a mix of species, hickory and oak, black cherry, but the most common is honey locust.  A few years ago we had a forester walk through with us and he estimated the woods were about 50% honey locust.  That’s unusually high.

Honey locust is not a particularly pleasant tree.  Growing up, we just called them thorn trees.  This is because… they’re covered in thorns.  The trunks are covered with thorns, the branches are covered with thorns.  Even the thorns are covered with thorns.  There is a thornless variety that grows well in cities, but these aint no city trees.  One of my nephews, who goes barefoot just about everywhere, turned back part way into the hike after realizing the odds were not in his favor of returning without a bloody foot.

The woods are also overrun with honey-suckle, not to be confused with honey locust.  In this part of the world bush honeysuckle is known as an invasive.  It out-competes native species with its aggressive growth and prolific seed production.  It spreads fast.  It shades out the forest floor and prevents other seedlings from getting the sunlight they need to grow.  Without some kind of intervention the honey-suckle could keep choking out new generations of trees.  If it keeps doing that until all the other larger trees that got there first die out, it would be all that’s left.

These woods are not particularly healthy.

But they feature some beautiful old trees, including a burr oak that dad estimates is perhaps 200 years old.  It was there long before the honey locust and the honey suckle.  Standing under the extended branches of the burr oak is itself worth the trip back to the woods.  The path strategically goes right by it.

It’s not a perfectly smooth path, and it’s not a healthy woods.  Even in this peaceful corner of the world there are signs that all is not right and well.  But the path opens up a way to move through it all.  To witness and even enjoy it.

We arrive safely back to the house just as the sun is about the set in the west.

Flute: My soul cries out 1x (no refrain)

Vocals: My soul cries out, verse 1 (no refrain)

My soul cries out with a joyful shout
that the God of my heart is great,
And my spirit sings of the wondrous things
that you bring to the one who waits.
You fixed your sight on the servant’s plight,
and my weakness you did not spurn,
So from east to west shall my name be blest.
Could the world be about to turn?

Reading: Isaiah 40:1-5

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak 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.  3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  4Every 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. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”  6A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”  

Reflection

There’s so much that needs said, so much urging us to cry out, or just cry.

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”

Where to even start?

Isaiah starts with a road in the wilderness.  “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

For Isaiah, the way in the wilderness was a message of comfort.  It was good news, spoken to a people living with generational trauma from having been violently uprooted from their homeland.

When the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed its temple they claimed not only the land, but also what they considered to be the best of the population, for themselves.  Palestine was on the western tip of the fertile crescent, Babylon on the east.  The captors would have marched their captives up and around that fertile crescent, staying close to water sources and other life support systems as they went.   Below the fertile crescent, directly between Palestine and Babylon, was an infertile desert.

So when Isaiah cries out to prepare a highway in the desert for God, he’s speaking about the most direct path from exile to home.  It’s the shortest distance between two points, and when that line goes through a desert, you better make it a grand highway.  Lift up the valleys, make the mountains low.  Level out that uneven ground.  We’re about to cruise the sandy hypotenuse of the fertile crescent, with the Lord leading the caravan.

All this talk of raising up valleys and bringing the mountains low is also pregnant with signs of a great reckoning.  It was the powerful conquerors who stood tall like mountains, the conquered who were in the valley looking up.  The work of the Lord involves a great leveling.

Mary echoes these words in her magnificat, spoken during her pregnancy with Jesus.  The song “My soul cries out” sets these words to an Irish folk tune.

A voice says, “Cry out.”  And I said, “What shall I cry?”

And Mary says: “My soul cries out with a joyful shout…”

Vocals: My soul cries out, v. 3, with refrain

From the halls of power to the fortress tower,
not a stone will be left on stone.
Let the king beware for your justice tears
every tyrant from his throne.
The hungry poor shall weep no more,
for the food they can never earn;
There are tables spread, ev’ry mouth be fed,
for the world is about to turn. 

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.

We are witnessing, in these last weeks, a moral reckoning – the fall of powerful men, kings of cinema and politics and news media, being brought down from their thrones before our eyes.  Survivors of sexual assault are newly emboldened to cry out from the valley and speak the truth they have known for years.  It’s a densely populated valley.  And they’re being heard, and believed.

The prophet speaks of comfort and tender speech to a traumatized people.  It’s the kind of comfort that is good news, accompanied with a difficult reality.  “Comfort, o comfort my people.”  A way is opened up through wilderness.  But there’s a long journey ahead.  A collective journey through a desert where there is no guarantee of life support systems at every turn.  It’s a road that demands the valleys be raised up, the mountains be brought low.  It’s the direct route back home.

Flute: My soul cries out 1x + refrain

Reading: Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news[a] of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.[b]

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,[c]

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,[d]
    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[e] 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[f]water; but he will baptize you with[g] the Holy Spirit.”

 

Reflection

When John the baptizer cries out, the word on his lips is “Repent.”

In New Testament Greek the word is metanoia.  It literally means to change one’s mind.  In our age of neurological discovery, we can imagine metanoia as an act of literally rewiring the brain, forming new pathways that result in different destinations for how we live.  Repentance is nothing less than a collective change of consciousness.  In the wilderness that is our mind, the Lord prepares a way.  Baptism in the life giving waters of creation declares our intent to live a life of repentance.  To live in right relationship with creation, one another, and ourselves.  To have the high ego-inflated parts within us to be brought low, to raise up the parts of us that have been silenced or beaten down.  To receive the baptism of Holy Spirit that Jesus offers.

In Hebrew the word for repent Shuv.  It means to turn, or return.  Like you’re walking one direction, and then you turn, you repent, and walk another direction.  Or you return to the home you’ve either forsaken or that was taken from you.  The world is about to turn.

If John the Baptist was a tree he might be a honey locust.  Not because of the bizarre coincidence between this tree’s name and the fact that John survived on honey and locusts in the wilderness.  And not just for the fact that John came across as thorny, referring to people who came to him as poisonous snakes, almost provoking them to stay away lest they get punctured by his sharp language.

As unfriendly as the honey locust appears, it’s a tree that’s in the business of preparing the way.  It’s known as one of the succession trees, and from the forest’s perspective, it is one of those trees whose mission it is to reclaim lost, disturbed, injured land.

It can grow in compacted soil, alkaline and salty soil.  It’s heat and drought tolerant.

Honey locust is a preparer and a repairer.  Its deep fibrous tap root takes up and removes contaminates out of the soil.  It releases a heavy load of leaf matter each year, replenishing nutrients in the soil and building up biomass.  A recent Yale study showed that the leaf litter of honey locust also replenishes nitrogen in the soil, something few other trees do.  It replenishes what has been depleted.  It does difficult work, and trees in the generations that follow all benefit.  The thorns of the honey locust might be a way of the tree crying out: “Hey, I know it’s not pretty, but we’re doing some healing work here.  Step back and give us some space while we turn this place around.”

“In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord.”  Repent.  Change your mind.  Turn.

Flute: My soul cries out, 1x

Vocals: My soul cries out, verse 2 (no refrain)

Though I am small, my God, my all,
you work great things in me.
And your mercy will last from the depths of the past
to the end of the age to be.
Your very name puts the proud to shame,
and those who would for you yearn,
You will show your might, put the strong to flight,
for the world is about to turn.

Reading: Luke 1:46-55

46 And Mary[a] said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

 

Reflection

If 21st century humanity were a tree, or a shrub, we might be honey suckle.  We’re excelled at colonization and conquering territory for ourselves, shading out other life forms, causing them to go into exile, or disappear all-together.  We cast a heavy shadow.  It’s yet to be determined how we might find a balance among the community of life.  Can honey suckle repent?

If Isaiah and Mary were a tree, they might be an old burr oak.  These mother trees not only bear witness to the generations that come and go around them, but they feed the growth of new trees through their roots systems, connected in what’s been called the “wood wide web” through roots and channels of fungi.  They are so established, so certain of themselves, they have such an abundance of life to give that they pour it out beyond themselves.

Mary not only gives birth to Jesus but she accompanies him along the road of life, is by his side during the excruciating hours of crucifixion, and becomes a leader in the community of resurrection.  We share in this community and cry out with her.  This is our Advent prayer and baptismal vow.  It’s the most direct route we know toward home.

Flute + Vocals: My soul cries out, verse 4 + refrain

Though the nations rage from age to age,
we remember who holds us fast:
God’s mercy must deliver us
from the conqueror’s crushing grasp.
This saving word that our forebears heard
is the promise that holds us bound,
‘Til the spear and rod be crushed by God,
who is turning the world around.

My heart shall sing of the day you bring.
Let the fires of your justice burn.
Wipe away all tears,
For the dawn draws near,
And the world is about to turn.

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