In 1971 John Michael Tebelak and Stephen Swartz introduced us to Godspell, a musical that they suggest is based on Matthew’s gospel, but falls more inline with Mark’s gospel. The musical begins, like Mark’s gospel, with a player gathering a crowd as he sings:
Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Prepare ye the way of the Lord.
A messenger goes before Christ (Mark 1:1-3):
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
"See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’ "
Let’s turn to the text that launched Mark’s gospel and set the stage for one of Broadway’s longest running musicals.
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.
1) Comfort and Hope are God’s first messages of Advent.
Andrew Delbanco in The Real American Dream: A Meditation on Hope, argues that "Our hopes are a measure of our greatness. When they shrink, we ourselves are diminished." We live diminished lives, Delbanco argues, because we’re living in a world of shrinking hope.
He says that in the early days, the New England Puritans set their hope in God.
In the 19th century, USAmericans placed hope in the nation, as "the last best hope of mankind."
But in the late 20th century, America’s hope began to be focused on the self. Delbanco writes: "The story of American hope over the past two centuries is one of increasing narrowing" until in the late 20th century we "conspired to install instant gratification as the hallmark of hope of the good life. By the time the horizon of hope had shrunk to the scale of self-pampering."
(see John M. Buchanan, "Hope for the Long Haul," Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, Illinois, 2 December 2001).
2) God’s second message is to speak tenderly to them. This is the content that parallels the words of comfort.
The content of Isaiah’s message is compassion. Disobedient Israel has served her term, and now the penalty is paid in full. The tender words of the divine are filled with compassion. Compassion is comfort that has taken on legs in the lives of the people. There will be no more punishment from the hand of this compassionate God. There’s an unmarred future ahead, full of promise and possibility.
Compassion moves us to take action. Compassion offers hugs, but it also offers a hand up. Compassion finds the homeless a shelter for the night and a meal for the hungry. But compassion also works to transform the homeless into a member of the community, to find the hungry the means to always keep food on their own table.
Where are called to speak tenderly today? Let me name a few place:
Habitat for Humanity Workday – December 7 @ 8:00 AM.
Food Bank Workday – December 12 @ 9:00 AM.
Friend to Friend Workday – December 17 @ 9:00 AM.
Mississippi Work Team to Bay Saint Louis – January 15-20.
Adult support for Youth Work Team to Hinton Rural Life Center in the spring or summer.
In your neighborhood, with your family and friends.
3) The voice of the Lord that comes to Isaiah offers a third message that gives the wandering exiles a purpose and mission.
Now that the time of punishment is passed, God’s plans for the people are certainly not halting or hesitant. Still homeless, still outcast, still seemingly powerless in a hostile world, the Lord’s message nevertheless calls upon the faithful to prepare the way of the Lord. The preparations that God envisions are hardly cosmetic. Preparing the way means re-sculpting the contours of their world. To make a highway for God’s way, major changes in the infrastructure are required. Valleys must be lifted up, hills made low, broken ground made level.
Advent messengers of good tidings, of the Good News, don’t just talk. They DO. God doesn’t want us just to participate in some annual, cosmetic greening of the church. Advent messengers move purposefully into the world with the conviction that it can and must be changed in order to accommodate God’s highway.
God’s messengers don’t think small. We’re here to prepare the way of the Lord and that’s a big undertaking. It’s a mission that calls for radical changes and revolutionary causes. It’s a mission that boldly confronts those mountainous monoliths of greed, power, corruption, apathy, hate, and lust. It’s a mission that demands that these monoliths be lifted up, lowered down, and leveled out, according to the requirements of God’s highway plans.
In our time we settle for the little victories. Several years ago some folks considered themselves real Christians because they spelled out Christmas instead of using the abbreviation “Xmas.” Then we created the slogan “Jesus is the reason for the season.” And this week we have been cynically challenged to shop where they say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” by television networks that advertise “holiday ornaments” on their web site (By the way, they are now Christmas Ornaments, which makes is more cynical).
Look folks, Jesus did not come to help us create a national celebration of consumer spending. In fact Christmas was not made a national holiday in this country until late in the 19th century – our Puritan fathers and mothers thought the holiday was out of hand and banned its public celebration (see Yonat Shimron, “Groups launch Holy War against ‘Happy Holidays,’ “ The News & Observer, December 3, 2005; Leigh Schmidt, Consumer Rites, Princeton University Press:1995, pp. 106-191). A God whose way is created in a wilderness, whose way is created by leveling mountains and filling valleys will not be satisfied with creating a rhetorical molehills. Take time this Advent to dream God-sized dreams for yourself, your family, our church, our community, our world. Prepare ye the way of the Lord!
What is your/our purpose and mission in this time? In this place?