What do You Expect?

A Sermon for the 2nd Sunday of Advent

Year B – 7 December 2014

John Edward Miller, Rector


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.   Isaiah 40:1-11

The Collect

Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Advent is about expectancy. This is the season when we focus on what is coming, on what is about to happen. It is when the world feels pregnant with possibility. In Advent it is customary to feel as if hope is on the horizon.

However, in the Old Testament text today, we hear a prophet speaking to an audience that has no such hope. He is called “Isaiah” as a matter of convenience, because we do not know his name. All we know is that his sayings are attached to the scroll of an earlier prophet known by that name. His situation and time period do not match those of the Isaiah who prophesied in Jerusalem, when the city was under siege a century earlier.

The people that our latter-day “Isaiah” addressed are no longer concerned about defense and security. Their city had already been demolished, and they were dazed, confused, and deeply discouraged. Their whole world had collapsed. They had lost everything that mattered to them. And their future seemed blank, at best; at worst it was what William Styron called “darkness visible.” That is, they were sunk so low in the valley of hopelessness that they could see no light, only depression’s dark walls.

The setting for this reading for second Sunday of Advent is the city of Babylon, Mesopotamia’s shining capital, with its great terraced ziggurats reaching to the heavens like man-made mountains. Symbols of the Babylonian empire’s prowess were everywhere – statuary, massive idols, military hardware and soldiers, and civil engineering projects to pamper the nobility. Temples housed the altars to their pantheon of gods, tended to by a cadre of priests. This was prosperity time for the Babylonians. In the late 6th century B.C.E., the empire was at the height of its power. And the people of Babylon were fat and happy.

Clearly Isaiah wasn’t trying to comfort them. He was directing his message to another group – to his own countrymen from Judah. They were the ones languishing in despair, and they had ample reason to be in that sorry state. The former residents of Jerusalem were captives of the Babylonians. They weren’t imprisoned; they were homeless, living in exile far from their native land and the holy city.

The thing that caused all this misery was an ignominious defeat. In 587 B.C.E. the Babylonians had demolished the walls of Jerusalem, sacked and destroyed the Temple, captured the king and his court, decimated the nation’s army and population, and then they had rounded up and force-marched the who’s who of Jerusalem’s power structure to Babylon, some 500 miles away as the crow flies. This was Judah’s trail of tears, a long trek of shame to an alien place where they were treated as slaves. They were a displaced people with no power, no tradition, and no respect from their masters.

The exile would last for more than fifty years. But for the captives from Judah, the period felt interminable. Psalm 137 depicts the mental and spiritual condition of the exiles:


By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there  we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How shall we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!
Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, “Rase it, rase it!
Down to its foundations!” O daughter of Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall he be who requites you with what you have done to us!
Happy shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!


The sadness of the people is palpable in this little poem. They are lost, strangers in a strange land. They were disconnected from all of their life-support systems: the Land of Promise, the Temple and the Ark of the Covenant, the Davidic monarchy, and their holy Mount Zion. They are grieving all of their losses, including their relatives and friends killed in the siege. And they are angry – at the Babylonians, at the Edomites, their former neighbors, who cheered their demise, and most likely, at themselves for being such losers.

This was a tough audience for any prophet to address. But Isaiah accepted the task to speak to them, to offer them a word of hope from the LORD. The future of God’s people was hanging in the balance.

Without hope, they would surely drown in sorrow. Their identity would vanish, and there would be no vestige of the covenant people. Most likely they would simply die, or else accommodate to their captors – intermarrying with the Babylonians, adopting their customs, and worshipping their gods. When they had melted into that foreign culture the remnant of Jerusalem would lose their vision, their belief in God, and their purpose for being.

So the situation for the exiles in Babylon was a crisis of biblical proportions. The people of God were about to die; an intervention was necessary to prevent the life of Judah to go out with whimper. So God sought out a voice among the exiles through which he might speak, and he found one – the mysterious, but indispensable “Isaiah of Babylon.” He was the prophet who perceived that the LORD God was calling him to tell the truth to the exiles. This is what he heard; this was his commission:

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.

These words reassured the prophet that God was not only alive and well, but that God was in charge. The exile was not the end of God, and it was not the end of the covenant people. Isaiah’s mandate was to make this known, and to bind up the open wounds of a crushed nation. His charge was to treat them tenderly, and to encourage them to envision a future life beyond the withering death they were still enduring in Babylon.

Then he heard the LORD’s voice describe an unmistakable image of comfort. It said:

“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.”

What better way was there to defuse this ticking bomb than to meet it head-on with one of the greatest biblical themes of all – the Exodus? That’s exactly what Isaiah did. His prophetic message of hope was cast in the imagery of the Exodus from Egypt, the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from bondage, and the leading them out through the wilderness to the land promised to them by God, the land flowing with milk and honey.

In short, Isaiah told them to take heart, and to be of good courage, because they were going home. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,” he proclaimed. This was the shock that got his people’s heart beating again; their pulse began to pick up and become stronger with each word of hope. Isaiah promised that God would release them from Babylonian captivity, and would lead them forward – homeward through the wasteland of grief and doubt that had threatened to become their death valley.

And that’s what happened. Seemingly out of the blue, Cyrus the Great of Persia rose up and defeated the vaunted Babylonians, and took possession of their great city. And there he found a group of Hebrews living as conquered slaves. Cyrus saw an opportunity to extend his empire. He released the captives and sent them back to Jerusalem. Then he appointed a governor to help them rebuild their holy city and their sacred Temple. The repatriated citizens of Jerusalem received the gift of freedom, and wise Cyrus earned their loyalty as vassals. It was a mutually beneficial move, and the prophet declared, “God did it all.”

That claim was not made out of thin air. It was based on the experience of a people who never stood a chance on their own, but were nonetheless given a life of purpose and meaning with the greatest help there is: the grace of a loving God. The Apostle Peter described the impact of God’s giving nature in a letter to the early church, saying, “Once you were no people but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy but now you have received mercy.”[1] The biblical witness consistently says that’s the way God is: God gives freely and freely gives. God is with us, always promoting our best interest and helping us to overcome obstacles, whether they be self-made, or foisted upon us by circumstances and other powers beyond our control.

The prophet’s message was a powerful reminder to a broken people that all was not lost, in spite of the pain and fear they had experienced. Isaiah was gave them a wake-up call from God, a call that said, “Lift up your hearts!” He was telling his audience (and that includes us) that the future does not depend on you; it is being formed right now, although the picture of it is not yet clear. Trust the God who brought you out of bondage long ago. The LORD has not abandoned you. He is coming to save you. So, “get you to a high mountain,” and watch, because he is coming. The greatest sign of God’s nearness is the experience of grace and mercy. The prophet said, “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.”

Out of that pastoral vocabulary the vision of the coming Messiah took shape, and we are the inheritors of the promise. Like our forbearers, we believe that there is a future based on God’s grace. Christians look backward and forward in the season of Advent. Recalling the birth of the Messiah we anticipate the celebration of his First Advent at Christmas. And then we look toward the not-yet time, when he shall come again to complete the work of grace. For us Jesus is the expressed image of God. The Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called him our Omega Point.[2] He is the end toward which we are moving; he is the Prime Mover ahead, drawing us to himself. That Second Advent will occur, said Teilhard, when we evolve into him.

Today’s text from Isaiah 40 asks the question, “What do you expect?” This question was once asked of the exiles in Babylon, and now it is ours. As a parson and as a person I regularly experience circumstances that range from joy to sorrow, from birth to death, from doubt to faith, and from disillusionment and despair to hope. I am intrigued by the way people answer the question, “What do you expect?” It really is an Advent question; it deals with faith in a future, based on grace.

We are besieged with information, news, chatter, and opinion from multiple media. Consequently we are aware – often unbearably aware – of the world’s pain. And yet we are able to see the phoenix rise from the ashes time and time again. Despite evidence that would point to darkness rather than to light, people and nations recover their sense of meaning after mind-blowing loss. How can this be?

How does an impoverished country like Haiti go on after an earthquake’s total devastation? How did the Jews remain hopeful and build a new nation after the Nazi Holocaust? How does a veteran who has lost his limbs to an improvised explosive device rise up and move forward? How does a person who has lost the control of his body, but retains a brilliant mind, keep on looking forward to each new day? How does a person who has lost everything envision a future? Though it seems impossible, newness of life has happened in these situations.

The tragic dimension of life is not an illusion. It has tormented the human spirit from time immemorial. It is the subject of drama, and music, and philosophy, and religion because it is real, and it is inevitable. It is the rare soul who remains untouched by the tragedy for very long; in the end we all face it. Some have sought to deny it; some have sought to anesthetize themselves in order to forget it; some have sought to defy it, and to live life as a continuous Mardi Gras; some have chosen to withdraw from life, to detach themselves from the pain, to quiet the pangs of desire, and to remain untouched by loss; and then there are those who dive right into the deep end of life, and seek to redeem it from pain and loss by loving God and their neighbor.

That is where we come in. We Christians are Advent people. We maintain hope – not as wishful thinking, but as a sign that we believe in the grace of God. Our future is based on the experience of God with us, even in the shadow land of grief. He will not leave us to fend for ourselves. Instead, he will take us by the hand and lead us forward into a future that he creates for us. “The LORD is our hope and strength, a very present help in trouble.”[3] That is our comfort, and that is our joy. O come, o come, Emmanuel. Amen.

[1] I Peter 2:10 (Revised Standard Version).
[2] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Future of Man (New York: Harper and Row, Publishers,1950).
[3] Psalm 46:1.