Like the prophet Isaiah, we proclaim that God is coming to change our world, but all manner of valleys and mountains block our vision of God’s glory. How can we be certain that God really is near? And how do we prepare for something we cannot see?
Vicar Jessica Christy
The Second Sunday of Advent, year B
Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
The year was 539 BCE, and the story should have been over. The nation of Judah had been conquered by the mighty Babylonian empire. The holy city of Jerusalem was destroyed, its temple lay in ruins, and its exiled leaders wept tears of helpless despair by the waters of Babylon. Like the lost tribes of Israel before them, the people of Judah and Benjamin had every reason to expect that violence, displacement, and forced assimilation were about to erase them from history. But then, history miraculously shifted around them. That mighty, brutal empire collapsed, and the exiles suddenly had hope that they could return home. And so an exiled prophet heard the voice of God saying, “Comfort, O comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term.” Isaiah learned that God was approaching through the wilderness to bring the chosen people home. The story wasn’t over after all.
But even though the prophet knows that God is coming near, not everyone can see that. He hears the promise: “Every valley will be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low, and then the glory of the Lord will be revealed.” Even at this amazing moment in history, there are hills and valleys that stand between the people and God, blocking their vision of God’s glory. So Isaiah is telling them to prepare for something they can’t fully see, and don’t yet understand. They have to take his word that God really is coming to meet them in a new way. God’s presence still isn’t clear.
That feels very true for us today, as we prepare once again to greet God’s arrival. 2500 years later, there are many things that still block our view of God. Valleys trap us, and mountains limit our line of sight. Many of those barriers are external to us. The world erects all sorts of obstacles that can get in the way of encountering God. For some people, like Isaiah’s own community, those obstacles can be painfully obvious. Violence, displacement, and injustice all make it hard to see that God is near. Too many of God’s children are still hemmed in by poverty, persecution, and war.
But there are more subtle barriers that also limit our vision. Our world puts up all manner of obstacles, idols, and distractions that get between us and God. For instance, as this congregation has been exploring in recent weeks, our economy is very good at setting itself up as a false God. It’s hard for us to search out God’s will when our minds and bodies are so subject to the idols of the market. We might say we worship the Triune God, but when push comes to shove, our decisions are usually dictated not by God, but by what makes good economic sense according to the rules of the system. It’s very hard for us to look over this barrier and even imagine that the world could be governed by a different set of rules, or set afire by a different set of dreams.
Or there are the sinful hierarchies that teach us that some humans are valuable, while others are disposable. Structures of inequality make us believe that certain people are less deserving of belonging, love, or even life itself, and so keep us from seeing the fullness of the body of Christ. We can keep looking for God as much as we want, but we can’t hope to see God when we refuse to see and love each other. But the world makes it hard for us to embrace all our neighbors as the image of God, so we keep on searching.
Or, in these past months, the news cycle has grown into quite the mountain range. It’s important to keep on top of what’s happening around us, but the obsessive onslaught of this past year has been something different. I can’t speak for you, but I know I’ve become fretful and distracted. I’m constantly checking the headlines, needing to know what disaster or humiliation or tragedy we’re going to be talking about this week. I can’t look away, and it drains me. And I wonder how much closer to God I’d feel if I spent half as much time praying as I spend refreshing my phone. But the distractions are everywhere, and it’s so easy to give in to them – and so God feels far away.
And then, in addition to all those external barriers, there are the internal barriers that make it hard for us to see God. Each of us must struggle through our own inner mountain ranges, where sin and anxiety cloud our vision. Ego tells us that we don’t need God, even as sin and self-doubt tell us that we’re not worthy of God’s love. Illness and addiction drag us down into valleys of despair. Impatience festers into resentment when God doesn’t show up on our terms, and our lack of faith whispers that we’re wasting our time waiting for God to arrive at all. It takes time and energy to find our way through this rocky terrain, but at this hectic time of year, it’s hard to even give ourselves space to breathe, and look around us, and see what God is doing in our lives. We can get so wrapped up in all that we need to do that we start to see each day as an obstacle to be overcome, not as a gift to be lived in the presence of God and one another. All our worries and commitments take God’s place at the center of our lives – and so our mountains grow taller, and our valleys deeper.
All of these barriers are real. Whether they’re mental or physical, whether they’re internal or external, whether they’re walls or chasms, there are serious obstacles that separate us from God and from each other. There are problems that are too big for us to overcome on our own – but these problems aren’t bigger than God. In the face of all these overwhelming peaks and valleys that fill our landscape, Isaiah says, Comfort, comfort my people. Comfort one another with the knowledge that God’s power is greater than any mountain, and God’s love runs deeper than any valley. Comfort each other with the sacred story that teaches us that there is no obstacle, no distance, no army, and no sin that can keep God away from us. Comfort each other with the proclamation that God is close at hand. “The uneven ground shall become level,” Isaiah proclaims, “The rough places shall become a plain, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.” Those seemingly insurmountable mountains and valleys that stood between us and God will vanish into nothing, and God’s awesome presence will be revealed. The prophet says that one day, all our barriers to God will melt away, and all humanity will see God together. Notice – God’s work does not end when just we catch a glimpse of God among us – God will keep coming again and again until every single person is united in the vision of glory. Isaiah claims it and we dare to believe him, because we believe that God’s love is greater than human ignorance, fear, and pride.
So how do we prepare for God’s approach? How do we help one another see God’s glory, when we haven’t fully seen it ourselves? We step out into the wilderness of this hurting world to chip away at those mountains of injustice that block our vision of God’s reign. We extend a hand to pull each other out of our valleys of despair. We comfort each other with the knowledge that our barriers to seeing God will not stand forever, and, secure in that knowledge, we get to work tearing them down. It’s what John the Baptist did. He went out into the desert and told his people that it was time for the world to change, and for them to change with it. He listened to their sins, he met them in their deepest inner valleys, then dared to tell them that they were forgiven, because God was near. And when he did that, the people who came to him got to see God in a new way. When he proclaimed God’s love and forgiveness, he brought God closer to his people.
John the Baptist did this work, and Isaiah before him, and now it’s our turn to look down that road in the wilderness and say that God is coming. And here’s the good news: we don’t do this alone. We don’t yet see the fullness of God’s reign, but in Christ, we know its presence. Yes, we are working and waiting and hoping for God’s glory to be revealed, but that very word, “revealed,” tells us that God is already here, just waiting to shine forth among us. God who makes a way in the wilderness is here. God who melts mountains is here. That will always be true, no matter what. But when we proclaim that truth, when we strive to reveal it to each other, then we see past our valleys and mountains, and touch that glory that will one day unite us all.