December 8, 2019 – Second Sunday of Advent
Presbyterian Church of Chestertown
John T. Ames
Twenty or so years ago, in a galaxy far away, I was a member of a community choral group in Long Island. The Christmas concert for that year was part of Handel’s The Messiah. The group had not sung this in a number of years and I hadn’t sung it in a while either. Some people grumbled that it was hackneyed, and a few opted out, but they were wrong. The Messiah is not stale and trite and over-performed. That refers to The Little Drummer Boy. The Messiah is among the most glorious triumphs of human artistic accomplishment. I do not think it is possible that it could be over-performed.
One of the basses – a medical doctor – who sat beside me at rehearsal was one of the few members of the group who had not sung The Messiah before. He was absolutely transported. He was like a child with a new toy. Every measure, every melody, was a new experience for him when our rehearsals started. He couldn’t stop talking about the beauty of this gorgeous music. After “Hallelujah!” he said “if that doesn’t make them convert, they are dead. Nothing will work.”
He was not only Jewish – devout and practicing – he was a Jew from New York City which means that he had much less familiarity with Christianity and many fewer social contacts with gentiles than Jews elsewhere in the country do. And though he had no objection to singing Christian texts as a part of the Choral Society programs he said that he was astonished to discover that so much of Messiah was from the Old Testament. He thought it was all about Jesus, he said.
There was no time at rehearsals – nor was it appropriate – for me to chat about Christian theology with my friend; but I did tell him – what he was surprised to learn – that Christians know and believe the Hebrew scriptures, and that our faith is deeply rooted in the history and faith of Israel. I knew a whole lot more about what we call the Old Testament than he did, and I did point out to him that 3/4 of the texts in the so-called “Christmas part” of Messiah are from the Old Testament. He had no idea that Christians read and talked about Isaiah and Malachi. About Zechariah he said; “I thought he was one of our guys; it sure is a Jewish sounding name.”
The Messiah is about Jesus Christ, of course. For the story of Jesus Christ did not begin with shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch o’er their flocks by night. The story begins in the desperate cry of God’s people for deliverance and salvation. It began not with the birth of a baby in a manger, but in the mind and heart of God.
Handel could have opened The Messiah with Hebrew slaves toiling in the hot Egyptian sun, under the whip of a cruel overseer. He could have made the desperate cry to the Pharaoh, “Let my people go!” as the opening chorus. That would be fun for the basses to sing, but the patience of the audience – already tried by the three hours it takes to perform the whole thing – would probably not have tolerated any more.
Instead Handel opens with the tenor singing the gorgeous aria
Comfort ye. Comfort ye my people, sayeth thy God.
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.”
Make straight in the desert an highway for our God.
The voice of this prophet breaks into a situation of desperate human despair and hopelessness with a message of hope. We are sometimes inclined to have a one dimensional and mistaken idea of biblical prophets. We tend to think of them as angry zealots, armed with righteousness and indignation who denounce the community for its sin and wickedness. “Repent, or hell will swallow you up!”
Some of them were like that. Handel reflects that prophetic tradition when he uses Malachi’s words:
But who may abide the day of his coming?
And who shall stand when he appeareth?
For he is like a refiner’s fire.
And then the chorus comes in to finish with one of the basses favorite lines:
And he shall purify the sons of Levi.
The point, of course, was that the sons of Levi – the priests – didn’t want to be purified. This is the harsh, denouncing prophetic tradition.
And all too many modern preachers fall under the sway of that model. I’ve done it myself, and I could do it again. I would love to affect an air of moral superiority and identify the idolaters, the scoundrels, those who have broken the covenant, those who cheat and rob the poor, those who work for war instead of peace. When I was younger I rather enjoyed denouncing evil – at least the evils which are practiced by other people. But either I’m getting more mellow in my old age, or the world is more complex than it used to be, or my own virtue does not bear such close scrutiny. In any case, I seldom do that anymore.
So the prophetic voice can be a voice of thunder. But it is also – and much more importantly – a voice of hope – usually hope in the midst of despair. And this is the voice we hear today from the opening verses of the second section of Isaiah, and from John the Baptist. For the voice that cries in the wilderness is not crying denunciation or condemnation; it is crying hope.
These prophets are not saying “You have been wicked and God is going to punish you.” That was the voice of the first Isaiah, two hundred years earlier. This prophet is announcing good news to a people in exile. To a people for whom hope had been eradicated. He is announcing: “Good news. We are going home.”
He is not saying: “The Lord is going to punish you for your sins.” He is saying “Your punishment is over. The Lord is going to come down to deliver you.”
Comfort, comfort my people says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. And cry to her that her warfare is over. Her sins are pardoned.
Every valley shall be lifted up; every mountain and hill shall be made low. The uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.
This is not language of anger and denunciation and damnation. This is language of comfort, of consolation, of encouragement, of salvation.
And John the Baptist was this kind of prophet too. That is not the common image we have of John. He is generally thought of as a rough man – a fiery prophet in the tradition of the first Isaiah, or of Jeremiah or Malachi – denouncing the nation for its sin and calling the people to “Repent!” John the Baptist doesn’t fit the common image of the American advent, but there he is – every year on the second Sunday – wandering most inappropriately in and out of our advent liturgies. Grunewald’s famous painting of John captures the popular view – a gaunt, haggard figure – scraggly beard, wild eyes, and a bony finger pointing toward the Christ.
But the real work of the prophet is not to denounce the people for their sin. The essential prophetic task is to evaluate the life of the community in the light of the covenant. To help the community recognize when it is living up to the best of what God has provided, and also to recognize when it is failing to fulfill the will of God.
Sometimes this involves harsh denunciations. “You have sinned, and God is going to punish you.” But at other times it is a voice of hope, an assurance that God is faithful, a confidence that even in the midst of our despair, we can continue to trust God.
And that is the situation that faced both the author of the second section of Isaiah, and also John the Baptist. It is also the situation that faces us, and so these prophetic voices speak straight to us this December, in the year of our Lord, two thousand and nineteen.
In the 6th century BC, Israel had been in exile for three generations. God had allowed the Babylonians to take them into captivity for their sins. The nation was destroyed, the holy city was razed, the Temple in ruins, the entire royal family – the descendants of King David – was murdered in front of the whole assembly. Despair, exile, hopelessness.
They were forced to plod across 500 desert miles to Babylon where they lived among people who did not speak their language, who did not eat their food, who did not know their God.
Five hundred years later things were still not much better. They were back in their own land, but the Roman legion was the principle authority. The wicked Herods – theoretically Jewish, but actually usurpers and apostates – were but a parody of the great David. Religion had stultified into lifeless legalism. The promises of God seemed as far from fulfillment as ever.
It seems a little strange to mention these feelings of exile every year during Advent. After all, Advent is a time of great anticipation and preparation. We are getting ready to celebrate the presence of God with us through Jesus Christ. We are buying and wrapping presents, making costumes for little angels, collecting food and toys for those who have none. The wonderful smells of spiced cider and evergreens and cookies baking are in the air.
And this is a wonderful time. But it is also an awful time. Our nation has been bogged down in war for eighteen years. A war for which no one now even pretends to find justification. Some politicians have made the once noble calling of public service into something sick and shameful, and we are glued to television news as if we were watching a fight between a cobra and a mongoose.
A half million people were kicked off what we call food stamps this past week. In Kent County that mostly affects people in rural areas who have no transportation to get to what jobs are available to the unskilled. And in the midst of our fear and forced gaiety we come to church on the second Sunday of Advent. Or we go to a performance of Messiah. And we hear the ancient promise of the Advent hope. We hear the glorious tenor voice singing:
Comfort, comfort ye my people
John the Baptist quotes the same text when he proclaimed to a spiritually hungry people: “I am the voice crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” God is coming. God has heard your cries of despair. God is going to intervene in your life and in the life of our nation once again as he did when he liberated the exiles from Babylon. God is coming to us.
And this is prophecy in the deepest and most profound sense. This is the proclamation of hope amid despair. This is also the gospel which is ours to proclaim this Advent season. The annual celebration of the coming of Christ is our testimony to the decisive saving act of God in our history.
So the good news that God’s herald had to announce in 534 BC was more than “we are going home.” It was more like: “God is faithful, we have a ground for our hope once again.” Likewise, our good news this Advent-Christmas season is more than “a baby was born in a manger approximately 2,000 nineteen years ago. The good news is still: “God is faithful, we have a reason for our hope.”
This is the central celebration of the Christian faith. It is the message of the bible from Genesis to Revelation. It’s what we talk about on Christmas and Easter. It’s what we commemorate in the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. It’s the thing that assures us when disaster strikes. It is our only comfort in life and in death. “God is faithful. And my life, the life of our church, the life of our nation, is in God’s hands. All will be well. We are not afraid.”
That’s hard stuff to put into a Nativity pageant. It is not the kind of thing that you see on Christmas cards or that you would expect to hear being proclaimed by angels with tinsel wings from department store roofs. But it’s the story of hope that is the story of the coming of Jesus Christ.
Comfort comfort my people, says your God
Speak tenderly to my people – tell them that their troubles are over.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed; and all flesh shall see it together.
Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly.