Text: Isaiah 40:1-11
This passage marks the transition between what many biblical scholars call “First Isaiah” and “Second Isaiah.” The first half of the book, it is widely believed, relates the words of the prophet of the Babylonian exile, while the second half of the book is comprised of the words of a prophet, or prophets, following in the tradition of the “original” Isaiah, who were speaking to the returning exiles. The prophecies of “First Isaiah” – the earlier chapters – are full of “doom and gloom.” This prophet pronounced that the society of his time, and especially its leadership, had been corrupted and was deserving of divine punishment. This was the reason given for the fall of the Judean monarchy, the destruction of the temple, and the exile of the people to Babylon for some 70 years. In contrast, “Second Isaiah” declares that the time of punishment has ended, and that God is ready to lead the people back home.
This transitional passage, in the 40th chapter, sets the stage for a great shift, with its imagery of a “highway in the desert,” mountains brought low and valleys brought up – a literal “level playing field,” a fresh start.
And it’s this passage that is quoted by the gospel writer of Mark, with his opening description of the ministry and preaching of John the Baptist. It’s time, the prophet declares, for a fresh start, a new beginning, out with the old way of corruption and in with the new – a newness marked by justice, a straight way, a way of righteousness.
In Advent 2020, we, too, find ourselves in a time of transition, looking with hope to the end of a long “exile” of isolation, political and racial division, and suffering — and a sense, for some, of punishment. It is not over yet, and we don’t know just when it will be over, but we sense we’re on the cusp of some great change. It’s a change, that, if it is to be lasting and driven by godly principles, will be marked by justice, by a righting of wrongs, by a leveling of the playing field.
In the center of this promised turbulent change, there is a voice of hopelessness, the voice of one who sees the fragility and futility of it all: “All flesh is like grass that withers and fades.” Nothing lasts. No kingdom, no dynasty, no political party, no human accomplishment. Not even an institution built in the name of God will last forever. Even the institution dedicated to God – an institution is flawed and human – will see change, just as God’s people of Isaiah’s time saw change. But God’s word, God’s justice, God’s power is eternal.
So the prophet cries out: “Raise your voice. Raise it; don’t be afraid.”
What this passage tells me is that God’s causes are bigger than we are. God’s timetable is not our timetable. But that is not something to be afraid of.
The problems we face may seem bigger than us, more massive than any effort to change or rectify. They may seem overwhelming. But God is bigger. God’s timetable maybe much longer than we can imagine. But God is God. And that means there is hope.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., reminded us that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
So our responsibility is to raise our voices, come what may, and leave the ultimate results up to God.
In addition to curating a collection of music, in preparing this series, Dr. Marcia McFee gathered a collection of films about the power of music. I hope you’ll take the time to view these films, if you’re able, as an extension of this worship experience and fodder for reflection. The first can be viewed on Amazon Prime, and was made in 2012. It’s a documentary entitled Defiant Requiem, and is an example of courageous “voice raising” in the face of what seems the overwhelming power of hatred, oppression and violence.
Rafael Schächter, the young Czech conductor illuminated in the film, raised his voice, and inspired 150 others to raise their voices together with him, in the midst of the Terezin concentration camp. Only a few would survive the horrors of that camp to tell the tale. Their lives were sustained by the hope he inspired.
(A heads up here: If you don’t have Amazon Prime, you might want to get a 30-day free trial for this month!)
Whether or not you sing, may you find a way to raise your voice – to declare justice, the righting of wrongs, the way of God. May you raise your voice for hope, and so give hope to others. And may, as the prophet says, “the Lord’s glory appear, and all humanity … see it together.” Amen.