God Will Speak
Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
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.” These are familiar words for Advent. They begin the second section of the Biblical book Isaiah. The words were good news for a people in exile, far from the Promised Land. Returning home meant traveling through inhospitable land. “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord!”
I was privileged, this year, to travel through wilderness areas in the west. The picture on the front of the bulletin is one of those areas, Goosenecks State Park in Utah. Our tour stopped there for a picnic lunch. That place has stayed with me because it was a place, at least for me, of utter desolation and danger. We pulled into a spot where seven goosenecks surrounded the parking area. My impression was that the terrain was lifeless. (Of course, that is probably not an accurate assumption.) I also couldn’t imagine bringing children to that park. There wasn’t a guardrail in sight. One could, it seemed, easily walk right off the edge and plummet to the river far, far below.
Yesterday morning, as I walked, I listened to Rick Steves’ conversation with Terry Tempest Williams, an author and college professor. She recently published a book about our National Parks. She talked about those set aside wilderness places being necessary for human beings. They provide, she suggested, a place for us to breathe. At the same time, they have the power to instill in us humility.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition— breathing and humility. Breathing sounds, in some ways, self-serving. Humility is not. Humility calls us to see beyond ourselves.
Yet her recognition of the wilderness’ ability to give breathing room and foster humility is very Biblical. The Hebrew slaves left the oppression of Egypt and found breathing room in the wilderness. It was also in the wilderness that they learned their need for God. They were dependent on God’s providence. They recognized the gift of water and food as God’s loving gift.
Tempest Williams acknowledged that access to the National Parks is not possible for many. Those of us who have been to any of the parks need to recognize our privilege. She noted that many, many people in this world have little or no access to places that have not been transformed by human hands. We are becoming an increasingly urban world. Some cities are conscious of the need for green spaces, for glimpses of the natural world. Others grow and grow and grow, building upon building, with people crammed together.
Our world today knows a different kind of wilderness, a different kind of desert landscape. And, in this wilderness, it is hard to breathe. When I met with Lakeview’s session a few weeks ago, they spoke of the community garden they are re-establishing. One reason for the garden is that the area around the church has been declared a food desert. There is no grocery store that is easily accessible to those without transportation. People have little access to good, fresh food. The church is hoping that the community will embrace the idea of the garden and use the food that it produces. In our area, we could speak of the education desert and wilderness, those schools that chronically underperform because of poverty and the unwillingness of the larger community to provide adequate resources. We could and should recognize the wilderness and desert we experience in our lives when everything falls apart: health, the health of a loved one, job loss, relationships fracturing, financial stresses, grief. It’s hard to breathe.
There is humility, but it is the humility of despair and powerlessness. It is the humility of a sense of utter insignificance.
“Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people, to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts. Surely his salvation is at hand for those who fear him, that his glory may dwell in our land. Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other,” the Psalmist said. “Comfort, O Comfort my people,” the prophet proclaimed. It was not a command, it was a declaration that God’s comfort was at hand. It was the word of peace and hope that the exiles needed to hear. They were not in the natural wilderness, but they were in the wilderness of captivity.
Karoline Lewis wrote of Advent: “The wilderness is a critical context for Advent… As soon as we find ourselves comfortable in an Advent that simply sits around in anticipation and waiting, that comfort will quickly turn into complacency. As soon as we treat Advent as nothing other than looking forward to and toward the big event of Jesus’ birth, we have bypassed the wilderness for the sake of easing our own consciences and placating our constituencies.”
We see the wilderness as a place where God is absent, where we are forgotten.
But, we can’t bypass the wilderness. We might strive to deceive ourselves and proclaim that all is right in this world, but we know that such a proclamation is naïve at best. Oftentimes, such a proclamation does more harm; it denies the pain and the suffering that surround us. It even silences our own cries.
“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, all all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’”
The prophet’s words speak of God’s presence in the wilderness— a presence that leads toward an unknown future that embodies God’s promises. These words were first spoken to those in exile who knew not only that particular wilderness, but the perceived obstacle of the wilderness between them and the future, between them and the promised land. The prophet’s words reminded them that God was and would be present. “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.”
Advent is not a time to flee the wilderness, but to know that God is present in the wilderness, offering comfort, proclaiming peace. God’s people are not asked to escape or deny our own realities or the realities of those around us. We are asked to listen for and to God who is speaking in the midst of the world we know. We look for the ways of breathing deeply and finding the humility that comes not from despair, but from living in the knowledge and the presence of God who refuses to abandon us.
And, as we live, intentionally, in that wilderness, we are to listen and look for our God who has never stopped speaking our working in our midst. There are the seasonal signs — all those who take time to remember the less fortunate, giving gifts and visiting and feeding the hungry. Our Advent time is practice time. We practice an awareness to carry us through the year so that we don’t miss God’s presence. Lakeview has seen the food desert — and is creating a vegetable garden. The paper called attention to our education deserts; and folks are striving to hold those in charge accountable, creating the necessary changes so that the poor are given opportunities to learn.
Sometimes, we don’t recognize God’s voice. We don’t see God speaking in the machinations of human life. We forget that God speaks through advances in science and medicine. We forget that God speaks through the vulnerable of this world who cry out for justice. We forget that God speaks through those who take risks, who stand up against the arrogant and the greedy who claim the world’s riches for themselves and ignore the plight of others. We forget that God speaks through the voices of friends and family who sit with us in our grief and in our pain. The Advent news is that God chose and chooses to come into the midst of the world in which we live, with all its sorrows, with all its injustice, with all its pain. God has not promised not escape, but presence — loving, transforming, comforting presence.
A colleague’s Advent post yesterday said, “Just breathe!” He then quoted Anne Lamott who said, “I think this is how we are supposed to be in this world — present and in awe.” That’s what Terry Tempest Williams found in the wild places of this earth. The natural wildernesses may attune our senses to awe — the humility that comes in God’s presence. It’s more challenging to find it in those human wild places. Advent reminds us that God is present there, too. “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak, for he will speak peace to his people….steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other.”