|Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
Our mini-van squeezed into a parking spot just off the main road. Lucky to find any place at all, thought of our jaunt ahead made us wonder if we were pushing our luck too far! We stepped over the drainage gully onto the curb by a banana vendor, then turned down the hill toward the hive of commerce in the valley below. The market in Kumasi, Ghana seems the antithesis of a wilderness. It’s the largest open-air market in West Africa, as vast as our entire downtown. We tried to cross the main road skirting its edge with unceasing traffic. We scanned the pulsing mass of humanity ahead and knew we were in a foreign land. Anticipation entwined with a bit of fear. Adrenaline mingled with hope for what bargains we could find and potential danger of getting lost or who knows what? Maybe not unlike how people felt as they followed John into the wilderness.
Like ducklings waddling after their mother, or maybe in Isaiah’s imagery like sheep following their shepherd, we began to wind our way amid the pressing stream of people. Each vendor offered goods from stalls little larger than this pulpit area: jewelry and hygiene items, plastic chairs, fresh fruit, TVs and large appliances, clothes of all kinds – even underwear with Barack Obama on it! The scent of humanity swirled with diesel exhaust as we sniffed out a trail of gifts – earrings and necklaces, woven baskets, maps, and soccer team jerseys.
Several times we passed a man with huge speakers, an amplifier, and microphone – like a bullhorn on steroids. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, though his earnest, warning, rapturous tone often punctuated by the word Jesus, gave me a clue! Truth is, we weren’t so sure about communicating with our driver / guide either. Did he have a clue where he was leading us in this labyrinth? He seemed to understand what we said reasonably well, but it was hard for us to get his response. We kept waiting for a word, a sign, some promise of goodness to come.
As I think back, for me that gap reflected our trip to that point. You see, the first few days we shared beautiful and poignant moments – in an old slave castle, on palm-lined ocean beaches, walking through a rain-forest canopy, touring other cultural sites. But I loved that market excursion. Fears and communication gaps notwithstanding, amid the cries of vendors, the cacophony of sounds and senses, it was the first time I felt we got beyond the air-conditioned windows of our van to interact with the real-life experience of people in Ghana.
Fears. Communication gaps. Wandering in a wilderness amid the routines of everyday life. Looking for hope, waiting expectantly while continuing to walk, watching for a word, a sign, longing for a sense of promise to be fulfilled. Friends, advent reminds us of the fundamental question echoed throughout the Bible; a longing that resounds in our hearts the length of our days. Is God really with us or not?
A voice cries out. In Hebrew it implies with lamentation or appeal – crying out for an answer or at least for attention.
Now, in this season of watching, waiting, and shopping that can rival that market in Kumasi, Santa may compete with Jesus as the one to come in children’s expectation. Long before Santa, people yearned for a Savior, a Messiah. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,” cried Isaiah to his people held captive in ancient Babylon. The people must have wondered what they did to deserve destruction of their homes, disintegration of their traditions and routines as they tried to make their way day by day. Amid confusion and fear people lost any illusion of trust in political or military might, even in many religious assumptions torn down with their great Temple. People must have seemed a long way indeed over the rough terrain of miles and emotions separating them from the land of abundant life they called home.
Any sense they’d made of the world – its order and goodness and their meaning and purpose in it – must have felt as confused and alien as the sounds, sights, and smells of that foreign land. Unless I’m reading it all wrong, it’s something like the wilderness of uncertainty and concerns we’ve known, and maybe still do. How do we make our way each new day, echoing the cry “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” through hills and valleys of life transitions; through desert relationships; through the rough places of school hallways or youth friendships? How do we help someone we love, wondering: what did we do to deserve this? What can we really hope for ourselves, our families, our world as trusted institutions of society, assumptions of faith, illusions of life collapse around us? And suddenly all that seemed so familiar looks so different, so foreign.
That voice crying out sounds a lot like appeals that ring in my heart from the people we know and love and live among. How do we cry in the wilderness around us – for comfort? for hope? When the terrain gets a little too rough around our house, every once in a while I hear a cry something like that old TV ad for bath salts: Calgon, take me away! Far from simple escape the great hope of our faith, the promise of our bath in the font, is that God’s grace transforms our fear, hurt, and uncertainty into life filled with love, forgiveness, and peace.
Friends, hope begins with comfort in the wilderness. Because though virtues like gratitude and joy and even optimism are right in good times. Hope comes precisely in places of fear and uncertainty. You see, hope enables us to peer through the dangers and disappointments, the lost possibilities and debilitating threats to find the goodness of life still in us and possibilities among us. That’s what the repentance John proclaimed is really all about. We know who we are. We face limits of our lives and realities of our world often beyond our control. And as we look in the mirror, we also see God – the loving source of all life.
Hope is ultimately a relationship of trust that the power of God’s love can get the best any other in this world. Trust in God’s power of sacrificial love to bring new life even where it feels as fragile as a fading flower and withering grass. Trust in God’s steadfast love as faithful as a shepherd who will fend off wolves and seek out the lost; as gentle as a shepherdess cradling lambs, carefully leading mother sheep. This heavenly love came alive in Jesus to heal lepers, blindness and others confined in life; to reorder what’s important in our world; to eat with all manner of people no matter what – to proclaim: “here is your God!” And far beyond a stable in Bethlehem or an empty tomb in Jerusalem, you see, we proclaim the great promise, the glad tidings that God is with us to empower our lives here and now.
Open your heart and mind to hear it, to welcome it, to receive this good news even more than all the cards and invitations that fill our mailboxes. Then echo the voice of Isaiah and John giving others hope, sending out comfort and vision for the future, living right now as we believe God wants our world to be.
Friends, hope is hard work. Don’t we wish someone could guarantee the way to a better world? Don’t we wish there really were seven simple steps to success, to a “best life” beyond ourselves alone where all creation shares the fullness of God’s grace and peace? No one can make such a guarantee. And truth be told, I don’t really trust anyone who does – politicians, economists or even preachers. Maybe it’s obvious. Hope isn’t certainty, or proof, or having a plan that cannot fail. Hope isn’t some vague sense of optimism where we wish everything would be better. Hope isn’t unrealistic expectations that we’ll stop hurting each other with our selfish insensitivity or misunderstandings, that all students will always get A’s, that all leaders won’t be corrupt, that the Dow will always go up and up.
600 years after Isaiah Mark echoes his words of comfort and promise. Jewish people to whom he wrote faced similar realities. They felt the same longing, watching and waiting in their wilderness of Roman military, economic and religious control. Yet, they’d begun to see their familiar if foreign surroundings differently. They started to make sense of their world in light of the fullness of life Jesus brings. Beyond rational explanation, Mark tries to share glad tidings, to help his friends and acquaintances receive some good news of hope. Mark offers us truth about God’s Spirit fully alive in Jesus Christ. The way Mark tells the story, John the baptizer serves as a human greeting card, or party invitation to help people know how to welcome Jesus when he comes.
I wonder what it was really like for people following John into the wilderness. Did they flock to his buffet of locusts and honey? In the wilderness of the Kedjetia market we watched out for one another. It was often hard to hear over any distance at all. Once or twice we turned back a bit to gather again one of our company. Though we often felt lost, without a clue where we really were or where we were going, thanks to our trusty guide we came out right in the end to continue on our journey again.
In the wilderness of our life experience we watch out for one another. Though God understands all we say and experience, sometimes it can seem hard for us to get God’s response. Amid the bullhorns of some beliefs we hear, and the crazy cacophony of life together, we turn back to gather someone who seems a little separated. We keep on walking together, waiting for a word together, watching for a sign together; longing for some promise of goodness to come far beyond all we comprehend; trusting that like ducklings with their divine mother or sheep with their divine shepherd we will come through the wilderness places and carry on our beautiful, meaningful way through life again. You see friends, as God answers of our own cries for help and for hope, God gives us power to respond to others. A voice says cry out. And I say, “What shall we cry?” The same Hebrew word for appeal or lament also means to tell, to proclaim, to spread good news of great joy and glad tidings. Friends, get you up to a high mountain of hope and lift up your voice with strength!
Do you hear the cry of a woman who’s heard the medical terms and explanation? They may be beyond her comprehension, but she understands their meaning in her yearning for healing and abundant life. Do hear the tears of a spouse and sisters who feel the deeply the absence of one so beloved? Lift up your voice with comfort and say “Here is your God.”
Do you hear the cry of a man who tries to accept who he really is? He may not buy all the expectations or believe all the shame laid upon him by family or society. But still the loneliness hurts. Do you hear the cry of so many others out to buy and buy as joyful carols ring out … and a powerful longing reverberates deep within for something more than trinkets we acquire – for time, for relationship and meaning? Lift up your voice with a loving presence and affirmation and say “Here is your God.”
Do you hear cries of a curious teen who’s read a bit of theology and pondered a lot of reality? He may not quote famous scholars. He’s asking good questions and starting to get the implications as he tries to live Jesus’ great commandment. Or maybe it’s the voice of a young child who answers when an adult asks why we had communion the first Sunday of Advent. The child responds: “Because Jesus promised he would never leave us. It reminds us.” Lift up your voice with respect for them and support and say, “Here is your God.”
Do you hear the cries of a woman who came in here with all her papers in order to get help for her heat or the cries of school teachers and children seeking basic resources for success? Do you hear the unspoken or even unrecognized cries for abundant life of so many people all around us in society – maybe many of those who filled our pews this week for Christmas concerts? Like strains of music that filled this space and made eyes scan our arches and windows as if imploring heaven above, lift up your voice with the power of peace and say, “Here is your God.”
Do you hear the cry for life and love from deep within you that waves to children as they exit our sanctuary; as you search our bazaar for treasures and gifts like a market in Ghana; as you travel whatever miles and emotions lie ahead in the holy season. Amid all our uncertainties and anxieties, all our frailties that make us feel like flowers that fade or grass that withers, lift up your voice with courage. Lift it up and do not fear! Say here is our God!
Friends it’s almost 2000 years after Mark wrote his gospel of comfort and hope. The glad tidings of Jesus Christ begins again in you and me, in all we say and do this day. We have glad tidings to herald not just because we have goodness within us. We pass on glad tidings because the One to come is already among us urging us on! As we send our messages of this Christmas all around our little town, may all flesh see together that in some way it reflects what happened in that “little town of Bethlehem” long ago. Feel our hopes and fears of all the years meet in God’s grace, as we pray “O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us . . . be born in us today.” A voice cries out in the wilderness. What shall we cry? Lift up our voices with the strength of a clear tenor rising above all God’s people, then joined by a choir, and a whole congregation. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed!
Thanks be to God!