“Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” These word from the prophet John the Baptist, and taken up by so many street-preachers of various degrees of sanity over the years, are hardly what we’d call comforting words. ‘Wake up!’ he’s saying. ‘Open your eyes and ears and hearts to what’s really happening around you, and within you! God is up to something and you want to be a part of it!’ Not comforting words, but challenging at best and terrifying at worst, depending on how committed one is to living an unexamined, sleep-walking sort of life, numb to the world’s problems and in denial of the true state of one’s heart.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition, these words of challenge associated with the one who came to prepare the way for Jesus. For Christians have always seen John in the words of the oracle in Isaiah 40, which famously begins with the words, “Comfort, Oh Comfort my people, says your God! Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term…” And so today I’d like to think through these lines of thought: comfort and challenge, as they connect to the end of Judah’s Exile, the coming of Jesus, and our own preparations for Christmas.
Whereas the first half of Isaiah addresses the century or so before the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of Babylon, the second half — especially chapters 40-55 — address the situation of Babylon’s fall to Persia and the end of the Exile. Accordingly, these chapters are full of hope and expectation of what God will do. In today’s text, after receiving the summons to comfort the people of God, the prophet picks up on the image of the road in the wilderness we saw in the last post, on Isaiah 35:
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 flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
Again we have the image of highway — like all the best highways: broad, straight, and flat — upon which God will lead the people of Judah back home. But this message of return is not the only message of ‘comfort’ the prophet is given:
A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass;
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
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 news;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good news;
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.
Where the first part of the message was unquestionably comforting for God’s people in Exile, this second part is a bit more ambivalent. It starts with a reminder of human frailty, mortality, and finitude. Grass is a perfect image here, for grasses’ ecological niche is all about quick, but short-lived growth. Like the grass, we humans, individually and our nations and cultures, seemingly spring up out of nowhere, flourish for a moment, then wither and die in what is in geological terms the blink of an eye: The Exiles’ ancestors in Jerusalem could not imagine the city’s walls being breached and its Temple destroyed. The Exiles themselves probably could not imagine mighty Babylon crumbling so quickly. Whatever our circumstances are, for good or bad, they seem like they’ll never end. And yet that’s not the way things work. Change is the only constant. Our lives, our cities, our cultures, our empires, are but grass, flourishing one day and gone the next.
The hope in this is that, while we’re subject to the ebbs and flows of history, we’re also held within God’s faithfulness. When all is lost, something happens and the survivors can say, “Here is your God!” I recently read a wonderful new book, The Incandescent Threads, by Richard Zimler. It follows the story of two cousins, who were the only ones in their family to survive the Holocaust. One day, decades later, one of them is in a museum listening to his grandson rattling off facts in the way only small children can, when he breaks down weeping. That moment of seeing his grandson thriving in his element made him realize for the first time that, no matter how horrible the losses they had suffered, his people had beaten Hitler. They had won. They were still there. I think this story speaks to the spirit of this oracle from Isaiah. Even though the eventual return to Jerusalem did not live up to their hopes and dreams, from the perspective of those who had seen it destroyed, who had been carted off to a strange land and made to live in strange ways, returning home was itself an unthinkably great miracle and a sign of God’s faithfulness. Here is your God!
This is, I think, where John the Baptist fits in. His message in his own day, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!,” captures this spirit of human frailty in the hands of a faithful God. Our days are like grass; we come and go; we would do well to wake up and be aware of what’s happening so we can use our time wisely. In John’s situation, in the midst of domestic political and religious wrangling and foreign oppression, God was doing something new in the coming of Jesus; and John’s job was to wake people up enough to see it.
Today as I reflect on this oracle, I can’t help up see a double identification for us. Yes, we are people struggling to remain faithful in a disheartening world, for whom this message comfort and hope hits home. But, as Christians, gifted with the Holy Spirit and called to be God’s witnesses on earth today, we are also called to be like Isaiah and John, to be that voice calling out with a message of comfort and hope to everyone, reminding people that, yes, we are finite, frail, and mortal, but are also held in the arms of a loving, faithful God through it all. And there is no better time to spread this message, through our words but most importantly our actions, than this Advent season, when we wait and prepare for the coming of Jesus, the greatest manifestation of God’s love and faithfulness.
We are grass. But we are loved. Here is our God!