Making a Way for Hope
Although this is the first of four Sundays of Advent, we’re just three weeks from Christmas. Because of the way the calendar falls this year, the fourth and final Sunday of Advent also happens to be Christmas Eve. So three weeks from today, we’ll have one Sunday morning service — at 10am in the Sanctuary — that will celebrate the Fourth Sunday of Advent. Then we’ll all come back that evening for one (or more) of three services for Christmas Eve. 4pm Family Service at Mosaic. 7pm Candlelight Communion with a sermon in the Sanctuary. And 11pm Candlelight Communion in the Sanctuary, with no sermon but some special music. We can make a whole day of it, experiencing four different worship services along the way!
Because of the way the calendar falls, then, even though there are four Sundays of Advent, the Advent season this year is only three weeks long. Now, sometimes we think of Advent as the season of preparation for Christmas, almost a countdown to Christmas Day. I myself sometimes make that mistake. Probably because I love Christmas so much that, in a very real sense, all 51 weeks leading up to it are a countdown to Christmas for me.
But that’s not exactly what Advent is all about. Instead, Advent is a season of spiritual preparation, during which we are called to reflect on the meaning of Christ in our lives. It’s a season to think through what it means to welcome Christ into our hearts and souls. It’s a season of preparation, to be sure. Not for a holiday — even one as awesome as Christmas. But rather for the Incarnation of God that changed the world forever, and that has the power to change our lives, too, if we let him in.
So our Advent sermon series this year is called “Making a Way.” That title comes from our Scripture for this morning from the prophet Isaiah: “…prepare the way of the Lord,” the prophet says. Centuries after it was written, the Gospel authors of the New Testament connected this Isaiah text to John the Baptist, seeing in John the one who prepared the way for Jesus. We’re borrowing the phrase to describe our Advent journey, and the various meanings we find in the one we call our Messiah. Our focus this week is about how in Christ we find our hope.
Before we read our passage from Isaiah, we need to set the stage. The Book of Isaiah is actually the product of several different prophets, writing during entirely different times in the history of our faith ancestors. The original prophet Isaiah did his ministry during the 8th century BC. Found in chapters 1-39, so-called First Isaiah was written during this period. It’s very much concerned with warning Judah about the threat from neighboring kingdoms.
Judah’s kings and political leaders frequently trusted their own ability more than God, often entering into foolish alliances and political intrigue. First Isaiah urged them to remain faithful to the covenant and trust in God. He warned that foreign alliances would lead to worship of foreign gods. He warned Israel’s leaders that placing their faith in their own ability to save their kingdom was wishful thinking. Wishful thinking that would result in military and political disaster. There’s a tone of doom and judgment in the first 39 chapters of Isaiah.
And it turns out that First Isaiah’s warnings were well-founded. In the year 587BC, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon invaded and conquered Judah. Jerusalem was completely destroyed, and the Babylonians inflicted a practice called deportation on our defeated ancestors in the faith. The vast majority of Judah’s religious, military, political, and cultural leaders were taken away from their homes and into Exile in Babylon. This is sometimes called “the Babylonian Captivity.”
It’s impossible to know the figures with any certainty, but Scripture implies that Judah was left utterly desolate and largely emptied of population. The Bible does not give us much of a picture of conditions in Babylon for those in Exile. Ultimately, our faith ancestors would build settlements and begin to rebuild their lives. Some, in fact, would never return home. It’s impossible to overstate how traumatic this event was in the history of our faith.
Theologians in Exile would come to understand the Exile as God’s judgment for the sins of God’s people, especially the sins of their kings and other leaders. But these theologians also believed that there would come a day when God’s grace would lead God’s people home. Our faith ancestors began to look forward to a glorious day when the Exile would end.
Our passage for this morning is the beginning of what scholars refer to as Second Isaiah. Found in chapters 40-55, Second Isaiah was written in the final years of the Exile, looking forward to an anticipated return home. Second Isaiah gives us a sharp turn in theology. Unlike the doom and judgment of First Isaiah, Second Isaiah is about restoration, and about God’s grace towards God’s people.
That’s the context of our passage this morning…
[Read Isaiah 40:1-11]
Isaiah’s prediction would once again prove true. The Babylonians would be conquered by the Persians. And the Persian King Cyrus would issue an edict allowing God’s people to return home. But until then, the Exile would end up lasting almost fifty years. Which meant that entire generations were born and raised in Babylon, generations who only knew of Judah from the stories their parents and grandparents told them. Stories that created a vision in the minds of those who had never been there of the home to which they hoped to return some day.
I think it’s hard for us to wrap our heads around just how traumatic the Exile was for our ancestors in the faith. I mean, imagine if some foreign power with an entirely different language, culture, and religion invaded and conquered Sherman today, completely destroyed everything that we had spent our lives building, and carted us all off to some foreign land. For the purpose of this thought experiment, imagine an army of atheist French Canadiens carrying us off to exile in Quebec. What would we do if, God forbid, something like that happened?
We’d want our kids and grandkids to know about home. We’d want to keep the memory of Sherman alive for them. So we’d tell them about our beautiful church, and the wonderful improvements that were just being completed when disaster struck. We’d talk about the places around town that we loved — Huck’s and MGs and Old Iron Post. We tell them about the fishing on Lake Texoma. We might talk about the brand new high school that was about to be built, and about how the community had worked so hard to pass that bond. We’d surely talk about this incredible tradition known as the Battle of the Axe. (Although if Denison got carted off to Quebec with us, we’d probably still be playing that game in front of a bunch of atheist French Canadiens each year.)
And of course, we’d keep our holiday traditions alive, celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas in a strange place that did not put pumpkin spice and peppermint in everything this time of year. We’d sing Christmas carols to our kids and grandkids, since they wouldn’t hear them in every shop and public place from mid-November through December. We’d describe how houses this time of year were beautifully decorated. And how the courthouse square had an towering Christmas tree. And how our entire society shared in the celebration of the birth of Christ even if they didn’t always understand what it was all about.
And we’d remember our home with deep affection and longing. And we’d grieve what we’d lost. And we’d try not to fall into despair. The Exile had to have been something like that for our ancestors in the faith.
In our passage this morning, God, through the prophet, is promising that the Exile is about to end. There is no need to despair, because God’s people are about to go home. It’s no wonder Second Isaiah begins with the words, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” (40:1).
Second Isaiah is one of the most beautiful examples in Scripture of a vital biblical concept — hope. Now, in our modern vernacular, “hope” has to do with wishing for something, or wanting something. Something which may or may not ultimately come true. For example, I hope that my beloved Notre Dame Fighting Irish will win another national title in football in my lifetime. Or, closer to home, I hope the Cowboys make the playoffs this year. (Needless to say, “hope” as a secular concept contains a fair amount of uncertainty, because it depends upon our limited human abilities.)
Theologically speaking, on the other hand, “hope” is another matter. In Scripture, hope is the expectation of a favorable future under God’s direction. In other words, we expect that God is going to do what God has said God is going to do! It’s one thing for us to tell each other everything’s going to be ok. It’s another thing entirely for God to say, “Comfort, O comfort my people.” The former is a wish, a desire that we really, really, really want to be true. The latter is a promise that we can trust is true.
Now, for God’s people in Exile, hope centered around return home. Eventually, though, there developed an expectation for a Messiah, for One who would redeem and save God’s people. For centuries, that hope centered around a political leader who would throw off foreign rule and restore the kingdom of David. What we know, of course, is that God had something different in mind. A Messiah who would indeed redeem and save. Just not in the way God’s people thought.
On the first Sunday of Advent, we read the prophet Isaiah and are reminded that our comfort, our hope, is in Christ. Christ who is with us always. Christ who is our Lord and Redeemer. Christ who saves us and in whom we have eternal life. Our circumstance is not exile, thank God. But we do have spiritual longings and spiritual needs that only God-in-Christ can meet.
With three weeks to go until Christmas, I’m sure there are those here this morning who need a little hope. We all bring wishes and desires to this time of year — the secular “hope” that all too often disappoints. Wishes for something that we don’t have. Or for something to be different than it is. A desire for some change that seems too frightening or too difficult to manage on our own. Or a desire that things could somehow be the way they used to be, in the midst of uncertainty and pain. There are challenges in our lives that are sometimes too overwhelming or too frightening or too sad to bear on our own.
The promise that God has made to us in Jesus Christ is that we are not alone. That God walks with us through all of life — the good and the bad, the joyful and the sorrowful. And that as members of the Body of Christ, we have each other. Both to lean on in difficult times and to celebrate with in happy times. Making a way for hope means trusting in these promises of God.
When we lit our first Advent candle this morning, we prayed: “We light this candle as a symbol of Christ our Hope. May the light sent from God shine in the darkness to show us the way.”
As we begin our (abbreviated) Advent journey, may we allow the hope of Christ to comfort and sustain us. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 HarperCollins Bible Dictionary; Paul Achtemeier, ed.; pg. 434