I preached from both Isaiah 40:1-8 and Mark 1:1-8 because the latter echoes the former.
Friday morning I got a text from my cousin who is still in ICU with COVID pneumonia. “Today is the first day I don’t feel like doing this,” she wrote. “I’m beat. Three weeks is too long.”
The night before, I wrote this poem at the end of a long day. It’s called “tired words.”
the word exhaust
means to empty
but I feel full of tired
and grief weighed
down with weary
that’s not intended
to be a question
I know you do
I see the loss in
your eyes the bend
in your back
I don’t have much
to offer tonight
except to say
tired is not
the last word
neither is grief
but whatever the
last word is
I’m not even sure
we’re even close
to starting the
let us sleep
even if it’s not rest
I need to sleep
if you dream
remember to tell me
These exhausting days offer us a new connection with our texts this morning. Isaiah spoke after seventy years of Babylonian exile. John the Baptist showed up after a hundred years of Roman occupation, and Mark wrote his gospel another seventy or eighty years after that–and the Romans were still there. Our scripture passages for today were written and spoken for and by tired people.
Isaiah starts with God saying, “Comfort my people,” and then moves on to say words that are echoed in Mark, as a setup for John the Baptist:
“A voice cries out, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
When Isaiah spoke those words, he wasn’t predicting the future. He was talking in real time to people coming back to a land where there was nothing to come back to. Most everything felt like wilderness, I imagine, and in the middle of their exhaustion, the prophet said, “Get ready for God; start building a way for God to do something.”
In the next section, a voice tells the prophet to cry out. When Isaiah asks what to say, the voice says, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.” It sounds like the voice knew the people were tired and felt blown about.
These are days when we feel about as permanent as the flowers that mostly passed with autumn. The colors have changed from pinks and blues and greens to the oranges, reds, and yellows of fall to the greys and browns of the coming winter. I spent part of one afternoon this week spreading dead leaves to cover our mostly dormant vegetable beds, stepping between the skeletons of marigolds and wilted kale. I understand when the voice says we are like flowers and grass. And the reason I was spreading leaves is that it helps get the ground ready for new life next spring.
In that same spirit, the voice didn’t stop with the withering grass. “God is coming,” she says, “to gather us up into God’s arms.”
John was in the wilderness calling people to repentance in the face of oppression and despair. He wanted them to see a change in themselves as the beginning of a change in the world. They couldn’t control the Romans, but they could control how they treated each other. It was another way to say, “God is coming.”
We are living in tough days. We may not be at the hands of a foreign oppressor, but we have much to remind us we are in need of words of both comfort and repentance. We are unsettled, exhausted, grieving; maybe even angry and confused. And, as Advent pulls us towards Christmas, we are called once more to prepare away in our present wilderness because God is coming.
How do we do that when we cannot be physically together? How do we do that when we are a country that feels at war with itself? How do keep going when we feel so tired?
In 1849, Edmund Sears was a pastor in Wayland, Massachusetts. He suffered personally from melancholy, or what we would call depression. The nation had just come out of a brutal war with Mexico and was beginning to manifest deeper and deeper divisions over slavery. Europe was in upheaval. A fellow pastor from Quincy asked him to write a carol. What he wrote is perhaps my favorite: “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.” One of the verses rarely shows up in our hymnals, but it speaks to the same sort of circumstances we are enduring:
Yet with the woes of sin and strife
The world has suffered long;
Beneath the angel-strain have rolled
Two thousand years of wrong;
And man, at war with man, hears not
The love-song which they bring;
O hush the noise, ye men of strife,
And hear the angels sing.
It’s not exactly “Joy to the World,” is it? But he follows it with a verse that is the reason I love the carol so much:
And you, beneath life’s crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
come swiftly on the wing.
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!
I don’t know if the glad and golden hours are going to come swiftly, but I do know we are feeling the crushing load of life and we long for a song of peace and comfort. I know we are ready for things to be different. We can’t change most of our circumstances. We can change how we respond to them. We can commit ourselves to sharing the crushing load with one another, step by step along the weary road.
And so today we have lighted the candles of hope and peace, even as we bear the weight of life. We hear the call of the prophets to comfort one another and to repent—to look for ways we can change in words and actions to help change the world around us. Weariness and wonder are not mutually exclusive. These are heavy days, and they are hopeful days. Maybe that is what Paul meant when he talked to the Philippians about a peace that passes all understanding. Rest, repent, get ready for God. Amen.
powerful piece, as usual.
You always provide words to sustain us. God bless you, Milton