Saturday, December 6, 2008

Sunday Sermon

Preparing in the Wilderness
Isaiah 40:1-11

"How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?" That’s the question I’d like to ask today, on this 2nd Sunday of Advent. "How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?" In fact, I’d like us all to ask this question together, as printed in your bulletin: "How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?" At first glance this might seem to be a strange question.
It might seem strange to us because this is, after all, the season of singing, or at least listening to music. There’s music everywhere: in the stores, on elevators, in offices, in our homes, in the car. It’s true, generally speaking, that most of the time, we don’t sing together like we used to.
Most of the year we leave it to the experts. It’s just at Christmas that we sing: "Joy to the World! The Lord is come!" "O Little Town of Bethlehem" "What Child is this" or even "Silent Night." We sing and we remember the promise of "peace on earth, good will to all." So, why is it that, now, of all times, I want us to consider the question of singing? "How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?" That’s going to be our question today. So – let’s say it again.

I want us to consider this question because it was, first and foremost, the Israelites’ question. It was the question that they were asking in the midst of their Babylonian captivity, so many years ago. It was a time of hopelessness and defeat and bondage for them. They had been defeated by the mighty armies of Babylon; Jerusalem had been destroyed. And many of them had been taken captive; they were living in exile in Babylon. They were living in a strange land where the people worshiped strange gods, and where no one knew Yahweh, and where no one respected their traditions or their god. And the question on their lips at that time was, "How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?" How can we keep God’s commandments? How can we practice our faith? Maybe even – how can we believe it’s still true?

I also want us to consider this question because this was a question that the people were asking when John the Baptist came on the scene, the voice crying in the wilderness in our gospel. In those days the Jewish people were strangers and in exile in their own land. They were occupied by the mighty Roman army. And so they too might have been asking this question, the question we are asking today, "How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?" But why are we asking this question? After all, we’re not strangers in a stranger land, are we? Their experience is not ours. We are not conquered. We are not displaced people, refugees, living in exile – are we? Or are we? Just what does it mean to be the church, God’s people, in the winter of 2008, in the season of Advent? What does it mean for us to hear the voice crying in the wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord!" What season are we preparing for, and what are we waiting for? What mountains need to be lowered and what valleys raised?

I ask this question after, last weekend hearing the story of the man who was trampled to death by shoppers at a Wal-Mart in Long Island. As I read, people were so eager for bargains, that they did not even want to make way for the ambulance crews that tried to save the man’s life. The "stuff" they were seeking was more important than the stranger dying on the floor. When you hear a story like that, do you ever feel as if you are living in a strange land? Or did you read the story yesterday – closer to home – about the nurses’ aides who taunted, abused and laughed at the residents in a nursing home in Albert Lea? The administrators, when they first heard the story, thought it must be an exaggeration or a lie – it couldn’t be true. When you read a story like that, do you ever feel like you are living in a strange land? And in the mean time, the furor over whether to say "Happy Holidays" or "Merry Christmas" is returning. And I have to say that it seems to me more important how we treat each other – at this time or at any time of year – than whether we say "Happy Holidays" or "Merry Christmas." What really matters is whether we see the man dying on the floor, the person in front of us in line at the grocery store, struggling to make change, the child born in a homeless shelter rather than a real home.

How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? How can we live as God’s people at this time and in this place? That’s the question.

There are many kinds of exile, and there are many ways we might feel like strangers in a strange land – especially at this time of year. People who are suffering any kind of loss or grief, people who have heard bad news, people who have gotten laid off from work, also feel a sort of exile in this season and in these times. They walk around hearing the carols and seeing the visions of abundant family celebrations, and abundant presents, but they are living in the foreign land of grief, or loneliness, or hunger, or death, and struggling to find hope. For so many of the messages of this season proclaim that our hope is in presents, our hope is in family, our hope is in good health. And perhaps they are wondering whether they can sing the Lord’s song this year – and when they will again.Perhaps they are wondering how they can live their faith – or even, believe it’s still true.

Just the other day I sat with a woman who is losing her battle with cancer. She and her family tried many different treatments and many different avenues of healing. But now, just recently they have gotten the news that none of those treatments have worked. So now they are learning to adjust their lives, adjust their hopes, and live each day in God’s promise of eternal life. As we sat the other day, we read the words of the prophet Isaiah, "Comfort, comfort my people," the Lord told the prophet. "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem; and cry to her that she has served her term.....A voice cries the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.....the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever." And as we spoke, tears welled up in her eyes, as if she were saying, "how can I sing the Lord’s song in this foreign land, in this wilderness" ... and as if God were answering her question, right there, in the Scripture. "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, for the Lord is coming to the wilderness."

Just as the prophet came to people living in exile so long ago, so also the prophet’s word comes to us today, "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.... every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the rough places will be made a plain." In the wilderness, in the foreign land, in a strange place .... prepare the way of the Lord.... for the Lord is coming to you, wherever you are, in whatever wilderness you find yourself today. If you are grieving, if you have strayed, if you feel like giving up, if you have put your hope in the wrong place, if you hunger and thirst for a righteousness you do not see .... prepare the way of the Lord .... for the Lord is coming to the wilderness.

It was back in 1981. I was living in Tokyo, Japan, although I was living among missionaries, and studying Japanese in a school with other foreigners from all over the world. I met many different people from different parts of the world. Some were in Japan to work, some to study. One of our classmates was a young woman from Germany. I believe she was a student, and I don’t think she had much connection to a faith at all. And though we were all studying Japanese together, we mostly conversed in English. On the last day of our school year in December, all of the students and teachers had a Christmas party. Strange in this place where only about 1% of the people claim to be Christian. But we brought treats and laughed and exchanged presents with one another. And we sang. Christmas carols. In English. And in Japanese. And I remember turning to this German girl, my classmate, as we began to sing "Silent Night," and she was singing in German, and she had tears in her eyes.

How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? How can we live as God’s people in the world right now, despite injustice, despite our sin, despite our grieving?

We sing because God is coming to us in a foreign land. We sing because God is coming to us in the wilderness. And we sing by working for justice in the places where strangers are trampled on. We sing by offering forgiveness in the places where people are lonely. We sing by learning new languages to share God’s love and by opening our hearts to the children who surround us. We sing by providing a place for the homeless and by working to end homelessness. We sing to prepare the way. And we sing because God is coming to us here, where we are, in the wilderness, where hopes are dashed, where people are broken, where children are homelesss

Prepare in the wilderness.
Sing the Lord’s song in a strange land. Sing of God’s mercy and work for God’s justice.
Raise up the valleys and make the hills low.
For the Lord is coming in the wilderness.

How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?
Let every heart prepare him room. AMEN


Jennifer said...

What an outstanding sermon.
I'd love to hear it preached!

mompriest said...

I am not preaching tomorrow and so have not prayed with the texts this week....I really appreciate the way you move through this passage and this sermon.

Songbird said...

Diane, this is beautiful. I can't bring myself to talk about the Wal-mart story, or haven't yet. I feel such despair about it. But it's important in understanding our role as "foreigners."

FranIAm said...

Oh my- this is so beautiful. I read it slowly and several times over. I cried at the end each time.

These words will live in my heart for a long time Diane.

Katherine E. said...

Thanks, Diane. This is a wonderful way to begin my Sunday.

Diane Vogel Ferri said...

Thank you for all of that - and AMEN.

Lindy said...

Thank you Diane.
Very well done.

Jane R said...

Gorgeous, Diane. I am late - it's after the 4th Sunday of Advent - but I heard this better than I would have two weeks ago. Thank you so much. A beautiful, timely, moving sermon, and so exquisitely wrought. I love the way your worked with the texts, and the theme of exile and strange land speaks deeply to me. You made me feel at home. May Godde continue to bless your ministry.