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.

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