I will have to admit that this is only one of a couple of sermons I have ever preached on Isaiah. In my ten years of ministry I have attempted to stick with the Gospel texts within the lectionary but I have wondered here an there into the epistles, and the Old Testament once in a while. We may go for a long time without hearing anything from this Prophet within our modern Church but this is a very important book for the Hebrew people.
Isaiah was alive when the Jewish kingdom was split. There was Israel or the Northern kingdom and then there was Judah or the Southern Kingdom. Isaiah spoke with the classic southern drawl and did most of his ministry in the southern kingdom. There he was an advisor for the kings. He went through four kings until the last one got tired of him and had him sawed in half. During his reign as advisor he prophesied that the wealth and flourishing nature of the kingdom would not last forever. There would be a time of reckoning and judgment. The people of Judah needed to turn away from their wicked ways, repent and follow God. This is what many scholars call First Isaiah. It is only one book, so it is not like 1 and 2 Corinthians, but within the book of Isaiah there are two distinct sections. First Isaiah has a tone of a Sidewalk Preacher who is calling his community to task.
“But the people have not returned to him who struck them, nor have they sought the Lord Almighty. So the Lord will cut off Israel both head and tail, both palm branch and reed in a single day; the elders and prominent mean are the head, the prophets who teach lies are the tail. Those who guide this people mislead them, and those who are guided are led astray. Therefore the Lord will take no pleasure in the young men, nor will he pity the fatherless and widows, for everyone is ungodly and wicked, every mouth speaks vileness. Yet for all this, his hanger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised.” (Isaiah 9:13-17) First Isaiah is full of warnings, threats and prophecies that the kingdom will come to an end.
Then in this 40th chapter Isaiah’s tone and focus switches. Instead of being a hard hammer hitting people over the head, Isaiah turns into a more gentle, compassionate, and loving prophet. In his messages there is a sense of hope and a deep promise of final deliverance. Isaiah has been called the Shakespeare of Hebrew Literature and the New Testament quotes from Isaiah the most over all other books; more than the Psalms, or even the first five books of the Bible, the Torah. Every year at Advent we also dive back into the promise that comes from this prophet, the promise that what is, will not always be.
Jump ahead about 800 years or so and you we meet a man who is extremely excited. He had just worked up enough courage to ask his girlfriend, Mary, to marry him and she said yes. They had run through the town they lived in sharing the good news with everyone, “We’re going to be married!” Their checks were still sore from smiling. In the Jewish custom there was something called betrothal, we still sort of use that word today. It was meant a type of relationship that was more committed than what we call engaged but not as far as marriage. As my study Bible put it, “A betrothal was more binding than an engagement; it could only be broken with an act of divorce. And if a betrothed woman became pregnant, she was regarded as an adulteress.”
You can see how this man who was very excited to finally be taking their relationship to the next level was crushed when he heard the words come out of Mary’s mouth. “I’m pregnant.” I wonder if he heard anything else that followed. “I didn’t cheat. I’m still a virgin. God sent an angel to tell me that I will carry God’s Son into this world. I promise Joseph, I am still a virgin.” I don’t care who you are, that is not a story many people will believe from the mouth of a teenager.
But Matthew’s Gospel tells us he was a righteous man. He “did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” This was the kindest, most honorable, and loving thing Joseph could have done in this situation and in this time. You can tell that Mary and Joseph held a deep and committed love for one another, even deeper than Edward and Bella. Last week we put ourselves into the shoes of Mary, talking about the feelings of expectations. This week kick those shoes off and try on Joseph’s. What kind of feelings would you have dedicating yourself, and raising someone else’s child? What about the social stigmas he had to face as his friends, family and neighbors put two and two together that this kid named Jesus wasn’t his? People can do the math. They had a June wedding but Jesus was born in December?
But Joseph went through with the marriage and relationship because he was a man of God and when an angel told him to do what he did. Even though there was a celestial confirmation I guarantee that there were moments when Joseph felt like he was walking in the middle of the wilderness. Have you had any of those moments? You are walking through life but you have no clue the direction, the destination or even the next step you are to take. Joseph was in the middle of that wilderness but there was something there with him.
If we look back at the history of the Hebrew people, we know that Isaiah’s prophesies came true. Soon both the northern and southern kingdoms were taken away in what was called the Second Exile. This time, instead of going to Egypt, they headed to Babylon. Their history, their promised land, their heritage, and their temple were all taken away. They walked through the wilderness into Babylon only to live in a spiritual wilderness for many generations to come. Yet, like the Israelites who crossed the Red Sea before them and Joseph who wandered in the wilderness of step-parenthood, there was something there with them.
As we sink into the middle of the Advent season there are many in this world that this time of year does not bring the joy and splendor as it does other. It is not a Scrooge or Grinch thing. It is the fact that in our lives there is immense pain. There is sorrow. There is mourning. There is an empty house that once was full of life. Where there use to be someone sitting in the chair across from us, or next to us on the coach or in the car, now there is no one. The kids and spouse that used to fill the house with joy have moved away. The marriage that once was, this Christmas will be celebrated at two different houses. Like in the video today, there are those who are in our community who are new, people who are escaping, searching, lost and hungry. There are others who will be kicked out of their houses or sit down to the dinner table and not have food. If any of this describes you, you may say, “I’m in the wilderness, a wilderness filled with high mountains, deep valleys and full of darkness and decay.”
We lit the second Advent Candle today. Last week the candle represented hope. This week it represents peace. We have this notion that we can make peace. Peace seems like a commodity we can trade or something we can purchase. Yet that is not necessarily. We build up walls, put up barbed wire, watchtowers and armed men in order to “keep the peace” and this is just when our mother-in-laws visit. We go through metal detectors at football games, start wars to stop violence, and hurt others to make ourselves feel better. All in the name of peace.
Yet here is the secret about peace. You can’t get it by yourself. True peace is not the kind that comes from watching a sunset, looking over an overlook at the Parkway, or having the waves hit your feet at the beach. That is only sentimentalizing peace. True peace, the inner peace is only found in right relationship with God. It is a gift from God. Peace is the knowledge that you have been accepted by God and that you have accepted the life you have.
Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a prayer that speaks to this; we know it as the Serenity Prayer. “Lord, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Joseph looked at his life, listened to God, and then accepted the wilderness path he was on. Isaiah prophesied to Judah that the time would come when their people would be marched out of the Holy Land but then we hear the words today, “Comfort, Comfort my people.” The wilderness is a place God can mold us but it is not the place we stay forever.
The peace that we receive in the manger at Christmas is the peace in accepting the fact that what is, will not always be. What has come to pass, will pass. The sorrow we feel, the mourning, the hurt, the struggles, there will be an end. We will know peace and that is our promise. Isaiah turns in this chapter from the past tense to the future tense. The don of Cambridge, George Steiner says that when we dare speak in the future tense, when we use the words “to be,” the power of death has been negated.
Everything that leads us to the birth of Christ points beyond this moment and beyond itself. It moves us from the present and into the promised future. This future, the one where “every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain,” will come to be. That is our promise as God’s people and there is peace in accepting that as our truth.
And all God’s people said, Amen.