“Being A People of Hope”

The title of today’s sermon is “Being a People of Hope.”  As I’ve pondered these texts, and read the newspapers, I’ve wondered what it means to be that. Our time is not so different than other times; many despair, many are cynical, some are wildly wealthy while others lose their homes and go without. Our two texts today emanate from the desolate places, from the wilderness. In Isaiah, a voice cries out, “Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Is 40:3). Not go down to (the already straight and paved) Hennepin Avenue and wait for our God. Not hang out on Broadway, or Wilshire Blvd or Rodeo Drive. The way that God will be coming is through the wilderness; it’s on the margins.

The audience of 2nd Isaiah (the middle third of the book of Isaiah) is addressing the Israelites who have been living in Babylonian exile for fifty years. “To this abandoned, battered community who supposed God had left them or had been defeated by stronger Babylonian gods, Second Isaiah announces that God approaches on the highway they are preparing.” With the words “Comfort, O comfort my people,”[1] God is announcing an end to their long exile. But as Cynthia Jarvis notes, “The way commanded is already a way known by God’s people: it is a way through the wilderness. The comfort promised, therefore, does not preclude a waiting and a wandering in the desert places.”[2]

What an advent notion that is! Comfort is coming, comfort is here. God is here with you, but not always in the ways we anticipate. Not on streets paved with gold. Not on an eight-laned super highway. But through the desert, in the midst of everything traveling through the desert entails: Sand storms; Danger; Thirst; Hunger; and deep longing. The Israelites are on a return trip, not to the land of milk and honey, but to a struggling land and a divided people. And it would be easy to be an embittered people, a frustrated and tired and despondent people.

Likewise in Mark, John the Baptist calls people to him in the wilderness to repent and be baptized because, and this is important, the one who is greater than I, is coming. John is not the messiah. He is simply one who is preparing the way. These texts are all about preparation. Prepare the way. Prepare yourself. Our God is coming, not through the center of town, or the center of our culture, but on a highway through the desert. John is a preparer.

You may have read the recent article in this month’s Chimes, about former First Church member, Dr. Maria Sanford. She was born in 1836 in Connecticut. At the age of 19 she began a distinguished teaching career that would span more than half a century. In 1870 at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania she became the first woman in the country to hold the rank of full professor and in 1880 she came to University of Minnesota to become its first female professor.

Her classes in elocution and rhetoric became some of the most popular on campus due largely to her enthusiasm for education and teaching young people.

She was known for her bare bones life style and for her tireless advocacy for numerous civic and woman’s organizations. Her vivacious oratory skills kept her in high demand throughout the state and later the country as a public speaker. She earned top honors with many groups and associations in the U.S., including the Woman’s Club of Minneapolis. And every Daughters of the American Revolution chapter in Minnesota made her an honorary member. Dr. Sanford also pioneered adult education programs, helped raise money for southern black churches, founded parent teacher organizations, and was a leader in conservation and beautification efforts in Minnesota. After witnessing how California women were using their voting rights to improve their communities she became an advocate of woman’s suffrage and lived to see The 19th Amendment added to the Constitution, though she never got to participate in an election.

Dr. Sanford was a preparer. She, like countless people who have gone before us, worked in large and small ways to “prepare the way of the Lord.” She was herself at the fringe, a trailblazer holding positions at the time as the only woman, in the male dominated sphere of higher education. Would I have had the opportunity to graduate from seminary without those like her? Those who prepared the way?

John the Baptist heralds the coming of Christ. Lillian Daniels points out, “Preparers of the way are still around. We may be preparers ourselves. But there is only one savior of the world. And in Advent we are still waiting.”[3] We await the promise of the Christ child, and the fulfillment of God’s dream in Christ’s return. Dr. Sanford was a preparer. I believe there are many preparers today in the Occupy Movement as well.

In a YouTube clip shared on the First Church Facebook page, people from Occupy Wall street talk about what it means to them to work toward a more just and democratic society.[4] They proclaim, “We are all part of this movement. We amplify each other’s voices, so we can hear one another . . . . Within our movement, it’s really important to have our means reflect the ends we’re trying to create. We want to have more representation in our government and in our economy. So, in trying to create that, every decision has been made through our process of general assemblies and through our process of working groups.” One man states, “When there’s a decision that is given to you from a Bishop or a President, your investment in it usually relies on how much you profit from it. Here, everybody works together to come to a decision.”

He then reflects, “Because I know what it’s like when somebody honors my voice, when it comes to an unpopular place, I rejoice in the opportunity to honor somebody else’s very different viewpoint.” And a woman goes on to say, “It’s messy and it’s complicated, and it’s slow sometimes, but you have to be willing to take that on. It’s in the nuance of things, and in the deep hashing out of things where everyone feels represented and heard; which is the only way we can actually change a system, I think.”

It’s messy, and it’s complicated, and it’s slow sometimes. That sounds like Advent to me. We wait in the tensions of what is here now, and what we hope for and work toward in the future. Dr. Sanford undoubtedly knew what it was to travel the desert places, and the lonely road of going ahead to prepare the way for others to have the educational and civic opportunities she dreamed of for all. The Occupiers have known the wilderness of pepper spray, arrests and tear gas in the midst of peaceful protests. But these are people of profound hope. People crying out in the wilderness that something new is coming. And we are called to proclaim this too. Something new is coming, prepare the way of the Lord.

John calls out to us across the centuries, to recognize and turn back from our collective sins and be baptized. We are called to belief in the God of compassion who commands, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid” (Is. 40:1). We, like Jerusalem, are called to lift up our voices in strength and herald God’s good news for all people; that God comes in might, and that that might looks like a shepherd caring for all God’s children, gathering them in her arms and carrying them in his bosom. This is what it means to be a people of hope. To be a people returning from exile; to be a people in solidarity with the “least of these.”

“Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Is. 40:5).  Amen.

[1]David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., Feasting On The Word: Year B Vol. 1, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 29.

[2] Ibid, 26.

[3] Ibid, 48.