28 December 2008

Seeing Salvation

Luke 2: 22-40

First Sunday After Christmas/ 28th December 2008

“Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word: for my eyes have seen your salvation which you have prepared in the presence of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” 

“.. For my eyes have seen your salvation…” My eyes, my heart are drawn to this portion of the text, to these words.  That’s what Simeon says when he sees the baby Jesus in the Temple.  He lifts him up in his arms and praises God for what he had seen.

It’s a curious turn of phrase ‘’seeing salvation.”  How does one see salvation?  Obviously he’s talking about Jesus, but what does he see in him which causes him to offer such extraordinary praise to a human being?

It’s worth noting that this exchange in the Temple is marvelously incarnational in that he is holding up the baby Jesus, holding him in his arms, touching him, feeling his weight in his arms, looking at his face.  There’s emotional affect in Simeon.  It’s a fleshly experience.  It’s a reminder to us that salvation is more than a concept or idea or the state of one’s soul; instead, it’s an experience, something real, phenomenal.  Simeon is not holding a religious idea or theological concept in his arms, but holding an embodied soul, a real person, that he not only feels, but can see.  It’s an experience of salvation that we have here – it’s real.  You can touch it, feel it, be moved by it.  It’s an experience encountered not in some after life, but in this life, here and now.  It’s an experience assuring the promise and presence of God.

Experience has come to mean a lot to me on my journey of late, specifically religious experience, encounters with the Holy.  Theologically-speaking, we Protestants (and all Christians in general) get nervous when we put too much emphasis upon experience.  We would rather try to sum up God in our creeds and confessions, assuming we have thus defined God; we would rather talk about God instead of experience God.  We would rather reduce God (along with everything else in Christianity) to an idea and concept, to argue and debate and fight over getting belief right, as if belief can be a substitute for an experience of God’s salvation.  We might have plenty who say they believe in God, but what about experiencing God?  We have plenty of Christians who think they are “saved” because they can affirm certain beliefs about Jesus and God, but what about an experience of encountering Jesus, of knowing what it feels like to be saved, of what salvation looks like?

Over and over again throughout scripture, what changes people’s lives is not intellectual assent to theological ideas, but encounters with the Living God, encounters with God in the flesh, of relating directly with the Personhood of God.  Believe me, I’m not being critical of rigorous theological thought.  With a doctorate in theology, trust, theology matters.  How we think informs our life.  But sometimes, I wonder if our penchant for theological arguments is a defense mechanism against having to encounter the One whom we try to talk about, only to discover the limit of our thought.  We can’t think our way toward salvation.  Salvation is an experience that comes upon us and our lives are changed as a result.

 Jesus is how we usually render the Hebrew word “Jeshua” or Joshua.  It means, “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is my salvation.” The word for salvation in Hebrew yasha means “to bring out into a wide open space.”  It doesn’t mean being saved from the burning fires of hell or escaping judgment, it doesn’t mean a state of life known after we die.  Salvation is an experience we have when we are brought out into a wide open space and allowed to stand there freely, safely.  It’s the feeling that comes being in a fortress on a hill and you can look out across a plain in every direction and see that there isn’t a threat in sight.  That’s salvation.  It’s the free space we’re given to live in.  Yasha, salvation, is not living in a cramped space, but in a wide-open space.  This means that yasha, salvation, is also the foundation of hope and a future.  Salvation means given a place to live, to breathe, to hope.  The motto of the Royal Burgh of St. Andrews, Scotland is Dum spiro spero.  “While I breathe I hope.” That’s what Simeon encountered in the face of this baby – a fuller reason to live with hope, with a promising future for Israel and for Gentiles, in seeing salvation he sees a wide-open space to live, to breathe – to be human. That’s what salvation looks like. 

Henrich Suso (c.1295-1366) once saw salvation.  It was an evening in 1328, the story goes, when German mystic and Dominican monk, Henrish Suso or Seuse had a vision.  An angel of the Lord approached him “brightly,” he wrote, “and said that God had sent him down to him, to bring him heavenly joys amid his sufferings; adding that he must casy off all his sorrows from his mind and bear them company, and that he must also dance with them in heavenly fashion.  Then they drew [Suso] by the hand into the dance, and the youth began a joyous song about the infant Jesus.”  When the vision ended, Suso wrote down the joyous song of the angels.  He called it In dulci jubilo, in sweetest jubilation; it’s the melody for “Good Christian Friends Rejoice.”[1]

As we bring the calendar year to an end this week, and as we emerge from Advent into a new liturgical year, what if we attuned our attention for experiences of God in our lives?  Periodically, I like to ask the Elders at a Session meeting, “Where have you seen God at work in this church over the last couple of months?”  “Where have you experienced God?”  “Where have you seen the spirit of Christ among us and within us?”  It’s a helpful spiritual discipline.

The more we ask this question in our lives, looking, anticipating an answer, the more our outlook and attitude and perspective will change.  There are experiences of God all around us, sightings of Jesus’ love and grace, holy moments when we know the Spirit is among us and within us.  Where have you seen salvation?

Just recently, I saw salvation at the Advent Service for Wholeness and Healing.  We had about eight people in attendance, but the energy and power in this space was amazing.   John Calvin (1509-1564) once said, “God is known where humanity is cared for.”  God’s Spirit was present as we cared for and provide a space for grief and hurt and sorrow and pain, and prayed together and provided hope.

Several weeks ago I was driving through Hampden and came upon the burned-out shell of a church, the Mt. Vernon United Methodist Church.  You could see the charred timbers in the steeple or tower.  It sits on the corner of 33rd Street and Chestnut.  There’s a fence around the site.  But inside the fence, situated on the corner of the lot is a large plastic, illuminated nativity scene.  By the looks of it, it appeared that the church fire was a recent event, given the crèche on the corner.  I did a Google-search and discovered that the fire took place on August 2.   The church was built 160 years ago and the building is now condemned. This means that the church leaders intentionally set up the crèche as a deliberate choice to make a profound statement: God’s hope still shining brightly amid the rubble of our charred lives.  That’s the Christmas experience.   It’s a powerful statement.  Seeing salvation – hope, promise of a future, life.

Where have you seen salvation this Advent and Christmas?  Where have you seen signs of Christ’s love?  Where have you been given space to hope, to breath, to live?

[1] Ian Bradley, The Penguin Book of Carols (London:  Penguin 1997), 150-153.

25 December 2008

When a Stable Sufficed

Christmas Eve 2008

In surveys of least favorite Christmas songs, there’s one that makes every list: “The Little Drummer Boy.” Some might even call it annoying; along with “Do you Hear What I Hear.” Although, I kind of like both of them.

“The Little Drummer Boy” is imaginative fiction, there’s nothing biblical about it, of course. Essayist and novelist, David James Duncan, grew up loving this song. It was his brother’s favorite carol, a brother who died as a child, making it all the more meaningful. That is, until one day, he stopped and looked at the song. There’s something wrong, he writes, with the song’s basic premise. “Here is some uninvited urchin, standing right next to the cradle of a newborn baby, banging away on a drum. Have any vindictive relatives ever given a child in your home a drum? Pah rum pah pum pum is an extremely kind description of the result. Yet, out of reverence and love, this unidentified ‘poor boy’ marches up to the manger of the (probably sleeping) Christ child and bangs the hell out of his drum.” He says he can picture the infant Jesus’s eyes, “so innocent and new that they were unable to focus, startling wide O-pen at the sudden banging.” He could “picture God the Father wincing On High, wanting to cover His beloved son’s ears, make the donkey kick the Drummer Boy senseless, send in the wise men to stop the banging, only to sigh, swallow His anger, and think, ‘Nope. These are the mortals. [This is what they do.] This is Earth. This is my beloved son among the mortals on Earth. Let the drummer boy drum.”

Every December, Duncan says the first time he hears “The Little Drummer Boy” -- especially when it’s sung by kids – the chills run from my spine to my eyes, sometimes spilling over as the truth of the fiction hits home. “That it’s a “poor boy, too” – same as Jesus, or me, or you: the truth of our spiritual poverty gets me every time.”(1) Then he smiled at me pah rum pah pum pum. From a stable. That’s where God chooses to be born, among brutal ear-pounding human noise, as one of us. Pah rum pah pah pum. Hope is born in the most unlikely places, when a stable sufficed for the throne of a boy born to rule the world with the scepter of love.

It’s the same world that tirelessly tries to pound out a cacophony of sounds to muffle the cry of this baby. In 1914, the guns pounded the fields of France and Belgium with a ferocity and cruelty never before witnessed by humanity. On Christmas of that year, the war was about five months old; it was supposed to be finished by then. It took almost four more Christmases before it was finally over, “the war to end all wars.” This year marks the 90th anniversary of the Armistice. For almost 90 years, on Christmas Eve, Gordon McCrea pulled out an envelope brown with age and took out the letter inside (the paper was coming apart at the folds). It was written by his father to his mother and he turned to it every Christmas Eve.

It’s dated 29th December 1914, Ypres, Flanders, Belgium. The rains that fall seemed to be endless, filling the trenches along each side of No Man’s Land. Despite bailing and pumping, the bottom of the trenches were soup-like mud, knee-deep. “The misery and stench is beyond anything I could have imagined,” he wrote. Overwhelmed by the inhumanity he witnessed, he longed to be home for Christmas. But he tells what happened.

Starting on the 23rd December through the 25th, all along the front, from Verdun to Dunkirk, the British spotted lights at the tops of the German trenches. Then the Germans lifted up trees with candles on them and heard Fritz singing, “O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum…” The Brits thought it was a trap. But they just listened as the Germans celebrate Christmas. “When their singing stopped, several of us, accompanied by a harmonica, sang, ‘Away in a manger, no crib for a bed…” Cheers and applause came back from Fritz’s trenches.” On Christmas Eve at midnight, Gordon writes, “we heard Fritz singing ‘Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Alles schläft, sinsam wacht.” And the English joined back, “Silent Night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” “Then the miracle: men without their rifles climbed out of our hell-holes and we met each other in no-man’s land, singing the same Christmas song in two languages. Cigarettes, chocolates, meerschaum pipes, pictures were shared…” More men moved into No-Man’s Land. The Germans and English began to celebrate together. On Christmas Day they played soccer. It never happened again. The British High Command reprimanded the officers for allowing fraternizing with the enemy.

What a sight that must have been. For that first Christmas the Royal Family sent a gift to every soldier on the front. It was called the Princess Mary Tin – it contained a greeting card, some cigarettes, chocolate, pencil, and pad. I actually have one – on the lid it reads, Christmas 1914. This is like a holy relic for me; I like to imagine that whoever received this tin witnessed that Christmas truce.

Gordon wrote, “I don’t know how long this ‘Peace on Earth’ will last, but it as if the angels thronged the air over Flanders, and grim earth, hard as iron, sufficed to house God’s Christ once again. Not just in churches and warm homes where lighted trees and presents await good children, but God declared that Flanders muck and stench would suffice. And for four days the guns fells silent for 100 miles. All was calm, if not bright.” (2)

The good news of this night, my sisters and brothers in Christ, is that stable-places still suffice, whether the stench and much of a manger, the stench and muck of Flanders fields, even the muck of our lives, every place where the bleak midwinter tries to smother our joy, God’s Christ continues to be born there.(3)   

On this Christmas Eve, we gather on this corner of the kingdom, surrounded by a world filled with people hungry for good news, many are just plain hungry and worried and afraid and scared. With the economy tanking, unemployment rising, anxiety seems to be in the air, almost palpable. I can feel it and can see it. So many loved ones and friends are sufferings from so many illnesses this Christmas, mourning the loss of loved ones, of friends, of broken marriages, missing their children. Poet, Royce Scherf speaks for many this night, when he wrote:

The heart is tired at Bethlehem,
No human dream unbroken stands;
Yet here God comes to mortal hands,
And hope renewed cries out: - “Amen!” (4)

The world can be oh so dark and the bleakest places are never very far away. It’s said that the night is darkest just before the first light of dawn. We are here to claim that in the darkness a new light emerges. In the bleakest of places, a new hope is born. In a world of senseless violence, at the tip of Caesar’s spear, a different peace comes to us from Bethlehem. In every lonely, troubling place, in every absence and place of deepest ache, there is a presence who fills every empty place with a peace and comfort and even joy that the deepest pain cannot take away. For God will not be pushed out of life. God will not be silenced. God seeks to be born among us – with us – within us, no matter what or where. For in the bleakest places and times, the light of Christ continues to be born and born again and again; the light of Christ continues to shine and shines even in the darkness, and the darkness shall never, ever over come it – ever. Ever!


(1)David James Duncan, God Laughs & Plays: Churchless Sermons in Response to the Preachments of the Fundamentalist Right (Great Barrington, MA: The Triad Insitute, 2006), 12-15.

(2)Letter cited in a sermon by Terry Schoener, “A Stable-Place Sufficed,” in Stories for Christmas Eve Telling (2008), 54-57.

(3)"A stable-place sufficed," taken from Christina Rosetti's (1830-1894) text used in the carol, "In the Bleak Midwinter."

(4)Text and music of Royce J. Scherf, arranged by Robert Scholz in the piece, “The Hills Are Bare at Bethlehem.”  CD:  Christmas at Saint Olaf, Volume VI – What Wondrous Love, 1993.

23 December 2008

God’s Glory – In the Flesh

Luke 1: 26-38
Fourth Sunday of Advent/ 21st December 2008

What kind of expression do you think Mary had on her face when Gabriel approached? Panic is one word that comes to mind. Shock, maybe. Enough to warrant Gabriel to say, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God.” And then in the next breath she learns what God has in store for her, of what God will conceive through her. You have to wonder if she really felt favored by God, given the weight of responsibility now placed upon her, as well as the blessing and burden, hurt and pain his birth and life will cause her.

Every year during Advent, I stand shocked and amazed by this story. This story we think we know by heart, yet contains countless levels of meaning and depth. It’s inexhaustible. I’m shocked and amazed by what the gospel writers give witness to, of their firm belief – because they witnessed it firsthand – that God was indeed in this Jesus reconciling the world to Godself. “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.” There’s really no precedence for such an act in the history of world religions. Sure, religions have deemed some births as miraculous or special, like Caesar Augustus (63 BC – 14 AD) . But here in this child the glory of the Living God – Yahweh – the Holy One of Israel who dwells in light inaccessible unknown, will begin to grow in Mary’s womb through the creative power of God. This child will be holy – meaning set apart for God. This child will be called Son of God. We need to remember it’s the same title given to Caesar Augustus, by the way, “Son of God.” But this child is holy, meaning different, conceived through the power of God, here is a true Son of God, unlike Caesar. And his name will be Jesus: Yeshua, meaning “Yahweh is my salvation.” Yahweh is the source of salvation, not Caesar.

Gabriel’s message points us to the profound theological claim of the New Testament, that in Jesus’ birth we are confronted with the mystery of the Incarnation. The glory of God, divinity, and the fullest, truest humanity meet in the person Jesus, the Christ.

Now, before we try to wrap our heads around this – don’t. Let me just say we can’t. And I’m not saying this as an excuse not to try. This isn’t a theological puzzle that needs to be solved, but an experience, an awareness of who God is. Think of it as an expression of doxology. The epistle lectionary reading from Romans, these few verses, is a doxology attached to the end of Paul’s epistle. Doxology, meaning, words of praise, is fitting at the summation of Paul’s profound letter. But it’s also fitting today. It’s the final lection reading of Advent, the last text read before the hearing of the birth narratives on Christmas Eve. It’s been said that all our knowledge ultimately leads toward doxology and true knowledge flows from doxology (1). It’s the rhythm of our life in God. Doxology – words of praise – are offered in response to the amazing work of God and from that doxology we gain new insight in the beauty and wonder of God’s creation.

The point here is that the lectionary intentionally links the Luke text of the Annunciation with the doxology at the end of Romans in the lectionary to lead us to this important insight: that in the coming and birth of Christ we are in over our heads in doxology and mystery. It overwhelms our senses, our expectations, and our reason. Praise is the appropriate posture as we await the coming of Christ. Doxology moves us toward God, away from ourselves. Doxology takes the focus way from ourselves and turns it toward God – toward the impossible thing God is about to do. Doxology moves us away from the present into the unfolding future God is about to give us.

This is the temptation: to make sense out of Jesus’ birth, to explain it all. What I hold out for us is a different way – let the mystery remain a mystery (don’t try to solve it), let God be God, let God’s glory do what God’s glory does, let doxology remain doxology instead of turning it into something else. For, if we don’t, doxology reduced to doctrine can be deadly. It’s deadly to our souls and to the soul of the church. When we do this, we suck the life and the joy and the glory out of this story, so much so that we’re not startled by it, surprised by it, shocked, even offended by Gabriel’s announcement.

The Brooklyn-based rock group, The Hold Steady’s wrote a piece called, “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night;” in this song there is a line that gets at what I’m trying to say, “We dictate our doxologies and try to get sleeping kids to sit up and listen.” Doxologies can’t be dictated without them losing their power. No wonder our children fall asleep – and we with them, bored by God because we’ve lost the sense of awe, of the power and majesty and mystery and wonder and God’s glory revealed in the birth of Jesus. If we’re bored by God, then something is seriously – seriously – wrong.

What will it take for a changed perspective? Maybe it takes remembering that it’s not just about God’s glory and the power of the Most High along, but remembering that the glory and power of God were born within Mary’s womb. It’s impossible for any man to fully fathom the experience of carrying a baby to birth and to experience the birth of a child. It’s well-nigh impossible for men and woman to imagine what it must feel like to bear the birth of a God. We might have no problem imagining the divinity of God (we expect God to be divine), but to talk about God’s humanity or the humanity of God, that pushes us into new territory. It’s an imaginative reach. Yet, that’s what we have with his birth. This is the beginning of wonder, wonder, and shock.

Not only are we pushed to imagine God in a new light, we are also confronted with a new image of humanity, of what it means to be human. Jesus becomes the glory of humanity, the truest, most faithful person the world has ever known, fully alive, deeply grounded in God, therefore free to reach out to others, to give his life away for the sake of his relationship with God. Human beings were created to be in relationship with God. Jesus was fully, truly human in that his relationship with God was unblemished.

And the relationship with God is lived out through the fragility of human flesh. In the two thousand year history of Christianity, we have affirmed in our creeds that Jesus was fully God and fully human. Yet, in our practice and attitudes we have problems holding the two together. We either say he was really only a man (not divine) or we focus on the divine part and say he was a special kind of human, not human like the rest of us are human. We say he was a special case. But that’s not what the Gospel writers say to us – there is no doubt in their mind who Jesus is. In fact, they have no problem affirming that the Jesus they see in the flesh (even as they are in the flesh) is an embodiment of the Living God.

Yet, we have problems with this. Back in the 1940s, Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957) wrote a play called, “The Man Born to be King,” which was transcribed for radio broadcast on the BBC during the Second World War. C. S. Lewis had a hand in getting the show produced. But what a ruckus it caused – who would play Christ? First, she writes, “The one kind of Christ I absolutely refuse to have at any price whatsoever, is a dull Christ; we have far too many of these in stained-glass windows.” And she said, it could be “Anybody other than a parson. …Well you, see,” she said, “they will sentimentalize it.” “There were no guidelines for the dramatist to follow or to prepare the audience and critics for the shock of hearing an everyday Christ.” Beyond this, there was actually a British law that “banned the representation on stage of any member of the Holy Trinity – God the Father, the Son or the Holy Spirit.” This led to the view that such representations were intrinsically wicked – as if embodiment were somehow bad – see how we have problems with the flesh? Sayers said the law didn’t apply to radio; therefore the Lord Chamberlain of London had no jurisdiction (2). You see, we really don’t know what do do with a fully-human God in our midst.

Last week I was reminded of what his birth means. I was out on my porch sawing off some branches at the bottom of my Christmas before bringing it into the house and placing it in the stand. Somehow the saw ended up being too close to my index finger and I cut a gash in it. It hurt and it started to bleed – a lot. It took me a while to get the bleeding to stop. As I thought about it, it seemed odd getting blood, my red blood, on the green Christmas tree and then it seemed to make perfect sense, even seem profound. Because his birth was really in the flesh, God’s glory in the flesh, like mine – a flesh that bled like mine bled and yours bleeds. I came to have a sense of wonder and awe in that moment – couldn’t explain it, but accepted it, yielded to the experience, the insight, the truth.

What if a messenger of the Living God approached you and said that you would bear the hope of the world in your body? What would you say if you discovered that someone would be birthed through your DNA, through your blood-line who would embody the power of the Most High? And what if we answered to this news, not with “how can this be?” but with humility, allowing the experience of God’s glory, God’s holiness come upon us, come over us, and overshadow and move us? It seems to me that this is the posture required for such an experience, required for Advent. Instead of resisting the holiness of God, what if we accepted it and yielded to it, with the posture of praise and doxology? What if we said with Mary, “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Imagine what could still be born of God through us.

For these weeks of Advent we’ve been preparing, getting ready for the birth of Christ. We prepare by getting out of the way and letting God do God’s new thing. We also prepare by yielding to the movement of God so that we can be swept up into the movement of God’s love poured out through Christ.

The great psychoanalyst, Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961), used one word to describe how we should respond to every experience of the Holy – surrender. No easy task, as Mary knew and as all of us know, which is why we resist Holiness so much, because we know it will inevitably change our lives. How could it not? But we can’t live out the purpose of our lives, the goal of our calling as humans, unless we attend to that which summons us to life and place our lives at the disposal of God’s will. “Surrender to God,” Jung wrote, “is a formidable adventure….He who can risk himself wholly to it finds himself directly in the hands of God…Christian faith insists on the deadly danger of the adventure (3).” That’s what Jesus came to know in his life. It’s what we have come to know about life in him. That’s what Advent is, the adventure that invites us to take the risk and receive and embrace what the mystery of his birth really means, with all its life-changing implications. That’s the adventure of the Christian life.

So, who knows what might be birthed in you again or for the first time on Christmas Eve. My guess it that it will be found in those moments of doxology and praise and wonder, when our praises lead us to God, the God who took on flesh to redeem us all, who showed us what it means to be really human.


Image: Fresco of The Annunciation attributed to Melozzo da Forli (c. 1438-1494),Church of Santa Maria ad Martyres (Pantheon), Rome (Photo: KEKovacs)

1The comment of pastoral theologian, James E. Loder (1931-2001).

2Cited in Justin Phillips, C. S. Lewis In A Time of War: The World War II Broadcasts That Riveted a Nation and Become the Classic Mere Christianity. Foreword by Douglas Hopper. (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002), pp. 204-206.

3C. G. Jung, “Letter to Pere Lachat,” in The Symbolic Life, vol. 18 of The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, para 178, cited in Ann Belford Ulanov and Alvin Dueck, The Living God and Our Living Psyche: What Christians Can Learn from Carl Jung (Grand Rapids: Eerdams, 2008), 50.

09 December 2008

Getting Out of God's Way

Isaiah 40: 1-11
Second Sunday in Advent/ 7th December

“Comfort, O comfort my people,” says your God. “Comfort, O comfort my people.” Words of assurance and hope. The words we expect to hear this time of year, especially during Advent. But when these words were originally heard, it was not what Israel was expecting to hear, it was not the news to which they had become accustomed. It was the possibility of an experience, to quote T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), “Not known, because not looked for,” but maybe – maybe, “Heard, half-heard in the stillness.”[1] But why be still to listen for news that has no hope of coming?

Isaiah’s words were heard by people in exile, violently removed from their homeland by the Babylonians, now living a strange place, amidst alien customs and gods. They were suffering exiles far from home. As exiles, they were slowly turning away from their God, gradually closing their hearts and mind to God, and letting their faith grow cold. They were giving up on the God of Israel who appeared absent and powerless.

In a sorrowful and hopeless situation, a new word breaks-in through the voice of the prophet; a new and unexpected voice announces a new and unexpected act of Yahweh. Israel heard a new word. Those in exile will be released. A new exodus is coming. Actually, it has already started. Yahweh is on the move and will bring his people home.

The tense of the text tells us that this is not in some far off future. It’s already happening. With a double-emphasis, “Comfort, O comfort my people,” a duplication that expressed urgency, Isaiah says prepare.[2] Once Yahweh speaks, something is bound to happen. For whenever God speaks, something always happens. This cry will not fall on deaf ears or return to God empty. “Comfort my people.” This divine imperative sets in motion liberation. It’s like a general who with one word mobilizes stationary troops waiting for their marching orders; the operation orders are passed down to every rank in the army, and every single soldier is now on the move in one concerted effort – not to bring war, but comfort. In order for the divine command to be fulfilled – that God’s people receive comfort – they have to prepare a way, prepare a way out, prepare a way through. A new road has to be built to convey the presence of Yahweh, because the old highways cannot transport God’s people home, the old ways cannot provide the new way, the old roads are inadequate and cannot bear, cannot convey the news Yahweh brings, so a new road has to be cut.

In talking about road, Isaiah didn’t just grab any metaphor out of the air. In ancient Bablyonian hymns “the highway” had special prominence. We know from the layout of the city of Babylon that they had a great processional highway where “the highways of the gods and the highways of kings meet.” One of their hymns went like this, listen:

Hasten to go out, (Nabu), son of Bel,

you know the ways and the customs.

Make his way good, renew his road,

make his path straight, hew him out a trail.[3]

Sound familiar? The Babylonians prepared grand highways for the triumphal entry of a god or the king. Archeological discoveries verify this. They were magnificent. They were symbols of Babylon’s might, the very roads that brought about Israel’s downfall. Babylon’s gods had their own highways. However, Yahweh will not take their roads; he will take them home by a different route. Yawheh will take them down “a road less travelled.[4] God’s majesty and glory will not be like that of the other gods. In order for God to move, they have to cut a new road, prepare a new way that no one had ever traveled upon before.

Yahweh is on the move. We always have to remember that Yahweh our God is not a noun, but a verb, who is doing something.[5] And the path Yahweh will take, the royal divine road to comfort cuts right through the wilderness; the road to Zion goes straight through the desert. The only thing separating these exiles from their home is the wilderness. The way out is right through the inhabitable, treacherous regions of the wilderness. It’s not surprising, given Yahweh’s preference for making great use of similar places in the past, that hope will emerge in the most unlikely places and circumstances, even in ones that appear to be life-threatening (such as a desert). “The God of Sinai is one who thrives on fierce landscapes, seemingly forcing God’s people into wild and wretched climes where trust must be absolute.”[6]

What Yahweh wants is comfort, not just to some, but for an entire people. The Hebrew word for comfort here means the removal of suffering, the setting aside of suffering, in order to help and to restore. This is God’s intent, God’s desire, and God is determined to do it, and will do it because God cannot go back on God’s word. Yahweh is on the move to restore a people, to release them from everything that binds them, to free them, and release them, to provide an unexpected way, in order to bring God’s people home.

Then the people of Yahweh were asked to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord’s glory. How does one prepare the way? By removing every obstacle that stands in the way of God’s purposes – uneven ground must become level, the rough places plain (Isaiah 40:4). Every obstacle needs to be removed, everything that hampers God’s coming, everything that hinders God’s comfort to be experienced by God’s people, everything in the world and in our lives that obstructs and deters the movement of God on the road back to Zion – all of it has to be removed!

Israel made it back to Jerusalem, just as was promised. But God’s intent to bring comfort to Israel and through Israel to all the nations did not end there. Something new was revealed and it remains ever new. This has always been God’s intent and remains God’s purpose: to extend comfort, liberty and release, to restore, and to bring God’s wayward exiles home. God will do whatever it takes to accomplish this, through whatever means.

A later people of God came to know that the royal road home to Zion cuts a path through the most unlikely places, through the muck of a manger, a road that winds even through the wilderness of a place called The Skull (Luke 23:33). God will accomplish what God promised long ago; that road still cuts a path through the wilderness places of our lives.

So we are asked to prepare for the advent of Yahweh: Yahweh is still on the move. We prepare by removing every obstacle in our lives or the lives of others which hampers or hinders the comfort of God’s people. God knows in these days just how much comfort we really need, how much assurance we require, and just how good those herald of good tidings sound in these times. I’m beginning to think that we prepare best simply by getting out of God’s way. So these are the questions I’m asking this Advent: How am I standing in the way of God’s comfort reaching my neighbor, where am I getting in the way? Am I an obstacle? How am I an obstacle? That is, how am I getting in the way of experiencing God’s comfort in my life?

We prepare by getting out of the way and allowing God to do the unexpected, to do the unheard of, to perform the miraculous in our lives. The impermanence of human life and the limits of every human effort remind us to turn our gaze toward God for our salvation (Isaiah 40:6-8). Can we really let God truly be God and allow God to care for us? Can we swallow our pride and the illusion of self-sufficiency and allow ourselves to be carried by the shepherd (Isaiah 40: 11) and conveyed down the road that leads home?

[1] T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” Four Quartets.

[2] Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969), 34.

[3] Cited in Westermann, 38.

[4] Robert Frost (1874-1963), “The Road Not Taken” from 1920.

[5] Cf. the Hebrew tetragrammaton (“four letters”), YHWH, is the name of God given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, “I AM.” It can be translated, “I was who I was; I am who I am; and I will be who I will be.” See Exodus 3: 13-15.

[6] Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 43.

Photo: Desert road near Abiquiu, New Mexico.