Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8
Sing We Now of Christmas: O Come, O Come Emmanuel
O Come, O Come Emmanuel is one of the oldest hymns you’ll find in our hymnal. The melody itself is a bit younger – written in the 15th century – but the words are much older – dating back at least to the 9th century, written in Latin. These verses are all based on prophecies from Isaiah, and you might recognize the verses as corresponding to some of the passages from Isaiah we usually read during advent. Actually, the original form of the lyrics is not the hymn itself, but is found in your hymnal on the right side of page 211, where you see what are known as the “O Antiphons.” Antiphons are a spoken response that would alternate between verses of a chant or hymn. And these antiphons, in Latin, make up a kind of word game – a backwards acrostic. See, each antiphon is a title for the Messiah – Emmanuel, Wisdom, Adonai, Root of Jesse, Key of David, Dayspring, King of the Gentiles. And if you take the first letter of each of these words (in Latin), and put them in reverse order (are you still following me?), you come up with another Latin phrase, Ero Cras, which means, Tomorrow, I will come. It’s meant to be Christ’s response – we say the antiphons, calling for Christ to come, and Christ responds, yes, I will come. We long for the Messiah, and the Messiah responds. (1)
That’s the theme of both of our scripture lessons today. We long for Christ, or, even if we can’t name it is such, we are certainly longing for something. Hoping for something. Waiting. And we hear in the scriptures that something, someone is coming. The people are lost in a wilderness, and in the wilderness, a way is prepared, a path is cleared, and the Christ comes. That’s what Isaiah and John the gospel writer and John the Baptist are all talking about. We long for the Messiah to come. And he comes.
It’s this idea of wilderness that particularly captures my attention in these texts. Our scriptures are filled with stories of Gods’ people finding themselves in the wilderness. We spent a little time talking about this at our Wednesday night Advent gathering at my home last week. Today we might think of a wilderness as being out in the woods, in nature, kind of a peaceful, beautiful retreat. That is in part because of our local geography, and in part because of our society. We live in bustling places and work indoors and spend most of our lives indoors, and then retreat to nature to draw close to God. But in the scriptures, the word wilderness means desert – a solitary place, a lonely and desolate place, possibly a dangerous place. It is not a place that many choose to spend their time, except maybe those like John the Baptist, and since he was dressed in camel hair and eating locusts and wild honey, he isn’t really a good example of typical behavior.
We find this wilderness featured in the Old Testament, particularly in Exodus, as God’s people are led from a land of slavery to a land of hope and promise. In the forty years that it takes them to get from Egypt to the promised land, they spend their days traveling through the wilderness, the desert. These forty years bring them through some hard times with God and with one another and with Moses, their leader. The wilderness is a place of struggle for them, the in-between place they must traverse to get to their real destination. In the gospels, we read about Jesus spending time in the wilderness before he begins his preaching and teaching. It is there, in the desolate wilderness, that he is tempted by satan to reject God’s plan for his life and instead choose an easier path. The wilderness is a risky place to be in the scriptures. It’s a place where one is both alone, and exposed and vulnerable, this desert place.
So no, we don’t live in a desert climate here in Central New York, but I think that in the midst of the season of Advent, it is not too hard for us to see ourselves in the middle of a wilderness, wandering in a desolate place. Christmas begins in just three weeks, and though we are in the midst of a season of preparation, journeying towards a season of joy, a celebration of Christ’s birth, sometimes, on the way, things can get overwhelming. We may – in the midst of all the hustle and bustle, in the midst of trying to buy presents, preparing our homes, finalizing travel plans, and planning and attending activities at home, school, work, and church – we might feel a bit like we’ve lost our way, and that we are just wandering in the wilderness, waiting for someone to show us the way out and beyond this exhausting season. The holidays may be meant to be a season of joy. But actually, people often experience them as a season of distress, a season of loneliness, a season of marked financial strain, a season of depression. Sometimes the holidays highlight people's pains instead of highlighting their anticipation. You know what personal wilderness you are facing, and you know it doesn’t pause just because Christmas songs on the radio are telling you to be jolly!
It is just when the wilderness threatens to swallow us up that prophets are called to speak, to give a message of hope. Today, we read two passages, each with words from a prophet meant for people struggling through a wilderness, to remind them of the hope of the Messiah, the same promise we hear in our hymn: Tomorrow, I will come. Through the words of Isaiah and the preaching of John the Baptist, we find messages meant for those who find themselves in the wilderness, wondering what to do. The prophet Isaiah speaks to the people during a time in Israel’s history when the people had been taken from their homeland and exiled to Babylon, as the first verse of today’s hymn mentions – captive Israel. It was for them a time of deep pain as a people, when they were separated from their homes, when they were jumbled together and living in a foreign land under unfriendly rule. They longed for the day that they could return home and end this time of limbo, this time of waiting, this time of wilderness. Where was God? How would God get them out of this situation and to their destination – back home, back to the holy land and the holy city. And so God speaks to the prophet Isaiah and tells him, “Cry out!” “What shall I cry?” Isaiah wants to know what he could possibly say to the people. The response comes, “Comfort, O comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem . . . In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God . . . the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together . . . Here is your God, God will gather the lambs in God’s arms.”
In our gospel lesson, Mark starts things in a hurry and maintains his pace through a short but packed gospel account. Unlike Matthew and Luke, who talk about Jesus’ birth, describing the Christmas story, Mark gets right down to business. Who needs a nativity story when you can get straight to the point? Mark writes, The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God as his first verse, and in it he says who Jesus– he is the Christ, the Son of God. And his gospel certainly attests to why Jesus came. Of the birth of Jesus, Mark simply has no comment. John the baptizer appears in the wilderness, in the way of Isaiah, proclaiming baptism, repentance, and forgiveness, and announcing that someone was coming, the kingdom had arrived. Like during Isaiah’s time, again the people of Israel find themselves in a wilderness time. Israel was then under Roman occupation, and the Roman government was ruling over the people. Though the Jewish people were in their own homeland, still, they weren’t at home, because their lives were monitored and controlled by these occupying forces. A wilderness time. So people were coming to John, repenting of their sins and being baptized in anticipation of the one John said was coming, the one who would bring with him God’s kingdom.
So what do these words from prophets say to those who needed (and need) to hear those voices? Let’s think again of the Israelites when they were wandering, led by Moses, in the wilderness. I think one of the reasons why the Israelites had such a hard time when they were in the wilderness is that they were always trying to get out of it, so that they could get on with their lives, reach their destination. Forty years is a long time to live in transition with no set home. And it certainly doesn’t seem that the Israelites tried to make the best of it. Forty years is a long time to live in transition, but it is a good amount of time to live. You can do a lot of living in forty years. But the Israelites seem only to have done a lot of wishing they were somewhere else, wishing they were already at their destination, in the Promised Land.
I think the prophets’ message is to tell us that we don’t have to wait to find God at our destination points. If you are in the wilderness, good news: so is God. God is in the journey. God is in the wandering. God is with you in the desert. The words of our hymn equal the promise: I’m coming to you. John the Baptist says, “he is coming, I’m just preparing his way.” Isaiah cries, “Here, here is your God!” That, indeed, is the comfort that God seeks to bring to us, in the midst of a season that can fill us with so much anxiety. We don’t have to wait until Christmas to experience the God-with-us that will come in the Christ child. We don’t have to wait until we exchange presents. We don’t have to wait until the candlelight communion. We are waiting, waiting for the baby, but while we wait, God is already here. So let us prepare, right here, in the wilderness, for God to come, already, again, and soon. O Come, O Come Emmanuel. Amen.