Advent 2: 12/10/17: Making Straight Our Path, Isaiah 40:1-11
Making Straight Our Paths
First Lesson: 2 Peter 3:8-15
Second Lesson: Isaiah 40:1-11
Rev. Scott Dickison
The people of Judah are in exile in Babylon, but the tide is beginning to turn. The Persians, led by their king, Cyrus the Great, have all but defeated the armies of Babylon, and have made it known that they have a much different plan in mind for those in exile, which is to send them home. So there in the wilderness of exile, the people of Judah now find themselves in a time of unexpected advent, waiting for their God to return them home. And it’s in this in-between time—and Advent is very much an in-between time—that God gives these words of hope to the people:
Comfort, O comfort my people: Speak tenderly to Jerusalem for me. (there’s that word again…) Tell them the worst is over. God knows their suffering and feels their pain, and they are coming home.
But in the Bible, the comfort that God offers, and that God expects us to offer others, doesn’t stop at the offering of condolences, or the acknowledgment of pain and suffering. It begins there, with God knowing and listening and feeling, but it never ends there. God’s message of comfort always includes a promise of God’s action. So after these initial words of comfort, this voice from above tells the prophet how God intends to do something about it:
A voice cries out:
You’re in the wilderness of exile now, but do not despair! The Lord is coming to bring you home. So clear a path for God to get to you. Lift up the valleys, cut down the mountains and hills—level the uneven ground, and clear out the rough places and the presence of God will be revealed in your midst, and all people will see it—the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
This voice from above tells the people that God is coming to take them home with strength and might, but also gentleness and compassion. God will gather them up in the heavenly arms like a shepherd with his sheep, and gently lead them. The voice says that God is going to do all of this for the people, but notice they have a part to play, too. And this is the other truth about God to which the whole of Scripture testifies: God knows and feels and then acts, but this action comes through us. God is coming to get God’s people, but they have a part to play: they’re to prepare a way for God to get to them.
And it’s interesting, as familiar as this passage is—not just here as we find it in Isaiah, but also in the gospels when we find it again on the lips of John the Baptist, crying out from the wilderness about the coming of Jesus—despite all this, I heard it anew this year. As I mentioned last week, I’ve been taken with a new book by Father Greg Boyle, a Catholic priest who runs Homeboy Industries, the nation’s largest gang intervention center based out of East Los Angeles. And at one point in the book when he’s making a point about how the “homies” as he calls them, in their recovery must find a way to open themselves to love and tenderness after so many years hardness and coldness and cruelty literally being beat into them as children. They’ve shut themselves down for so long the first step is getting them to be place where they’re willing to open themselves back up. He lifts up this passage and writes, “During Advent, we’re called to prepare the way…to ‘make straight the path’ and make smooth what is rocky. Our hardwiring is such that we hear these invitations as a demand to ‘straighten up' or ‘get our act together.’ But it’s not we who needs changing—it’s our crooked path that need to be smoothed…so we can be reached by God’s tenderness.” It’s a subtle difference, but one that seems crucial: it’s not we who need to be straighten out, he says, but our path. The path we either clear out and allow God a way to get to us, or that we don’t.
In other words: we don’t need to be perfect for God to get to us. We don’t need to “have it all together,” before God will come to us and take us home. We don’t have to make ourselves worthy to receive God’s love and God’s care, we’ve already got it. We’re already there—this is one of the incredible mysteries of faith that we see over and over again in scripture: that God loves us despite ourselves. That “nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” This is the definition of grace, that we don’t get what we deserve. That God’s love and favor is not something we earn but are freely given—it’s something we already have.
Like the prodigal son who goes off and squanders his inheritance and, coming to his senses, decides he’ll go home and beg his father’s forgiveness, and ask to be received back into the home of his birth not as a son but as a hired hand. Only when he turns the corner to the farm, his father—who must have been standing there at the window waiting for him—sees him first and runs down the driveway to meet him. And before his son can even get out a word of his well-rehearsed apology, his father wraps him up in his arms and says: I love you. What’s mine is yours. Thank God you’re home! Let’s celebrate.
He was already forgiven! He was already loved! Before he ever decided to return home, he was forgiven.
Now this is not to say we don’t need to work on ourselves—of course we do. We should always be works in progress, this is what it means to be human. We never stop being created. We must always be doing all we can to drop destructive rhythms, tear down old prejudices, rearrange our priorities to be more in line with the God we love and the Christ we follow, loving God with our whole heart and our neighbors as ourselves, clearing out all the mess we’ve collected to get to what the psalms call “a broad place” a spacious place, a place of peace—of course we do. But those conditions are not prerequisites to God’s arrival, they’re products of it. God isn’t waiting for us to fix ourselves before coming to us in comfort and tenderness. God is asking that we would merely open ourselves, with all our flaws, all our imperfections and pain and regret—that we clear enough of a path for God to get to us.
In fact, it’s exactly that tired thinking that we’re expected to be perfect before we’re worth enough for God to receive us that too often keeps us from receiving God.
Courtney Allen, a dear friend of mine who is pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Richmond, VA, passed along an incredible story recently about an initiative in the city of Philadelphia.
It seems there are over 1,000 musical instruments owned by the School District of Philadelphia that cannot be played because they are broken and there is no available budget to fix them. And so a number of organizations around the city, led by the Tyler School of Art at Temple University and ranging from the Philadelphia Orchestra to different schools and music, the school system itself, and hundreds of musicians have cone together to form something they’re calling, Symphony for a Broken Orchestra.
The idea is this. They’ve collected some 400 of these broken orchestral instruments heretofore lying unused in storage around the city, and taken on the work of seeing what kind of sounds they can make in their broken state. So they pluck on a broken violin to get a sense of the sound it’s capable of producing, or blow into a french horn that’s all warped and bent. Or if an instrument isn’t even capable of making its intended type of sound, they find another way to make music with it: lining up a bunch of busted cellos to be used as percussion, and so forth. They catalogued all these instruments and recorded all these sounds, and handed them over to a man by the name of David Lang, who’s a Pulitzer Prize winning composer, who then composed an original piece of music made especially for the sounds these instruments can only make in their broken state.
In talking about his approach to writing this music, Lang said, “I’m trying to make the brokenness kind of the foreground. I don't want to avoid the things that are broken. I don't want to make these instruments sound like we don't notice how changed they are. And so I tried to ask for things that would highlight the fact that they’re changed.”
They performed this piece last weekend to rave reviews, the assembled orchestra embodying the project itself. Someone called it the most diverse orchestra ever assembled, including students in grade school, amateurs and of course some professionals. I’m told the youngest performer was a 9 year-old cellist and the oldest an 82 year-old oboist.
And I love one reviewer’s description of the performance:
“As the 40-minute symphony progressed, the instruments roared to life with powerful force. Some musicians struggled, like a clarinetist who could get out only short spurts of sound and a French horn player who kept losing his mouthpiece. But together, the orchestra produced rich harmony.” This past week following the performance, each of the fixable instruments were to be sent away to be repaired, and then returned to the schools to be used by the students.
As one reporter put it: Next fall, children in the Philadelphia public schools will open the cases of their flutes and violins and find a note explaining how these wounded instruments were healed.
My God, is this a Symphony for a Broken Orchestra or the Church of Jesus Christ?
In the wilderness, prepare a way for the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for God to get to you.
Let go of this notion that you need to find your own way out of the wilderness, let go if this lie that you must mend your own brokenness, heal your own wounds—you already have God’s love. Let God do the mending. Let Christ do the healing.
This year—this year—simply clear a path. Don’t worry about it being a highway, any path will do. Take a deep breath, lift up your gaze, and allow the God of peace, for whose Advent we wait, to come to you and take you home—just as you are. Gathering you like lambs in the arms of a shepherd, holding you close and whispering to you about all you will be.
 Greg Boyle, Barking to the Choir, 18-19