Is. 40: 1-11; Ps. 85; 2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
The little group had been walking for a while. They were headed toward the river to sit and talk quietly with one other, hoping that some time by the rivers gentle green banks would be a balm, providing solace in these difficult times. Turning a corner off the wide city boulevard they were on, the little group spotted the water, sun light dappling on it's gently flowing surface, creating a shimmer of diamonds. Seeing the river they instinctively picked up their pace, anxious to leave behind the noise and smells of the great city of Babylonia: the city where they were held captive.
Nathaniel glanced sideways at his wife Rebekkah. Her eyes were swollen and red from crying. He hoped that some time by the waters edge would sooth her disquieted mood. The river always cheered her. Nathaniel then glanced to his other side, where his friend Benjamin was walking. Normally a free-spirit, Benjamin looked unsettled, even despondent. Nathaniel knew that the three of them were feeling the strains of their prolonged exile in this strange land - so far away from everything they held dear . Even he -"Nathaniel the eternal optimist" his family called him - was growing increasingly skeptical and cynical about the way life was going. All three hearts were weighed down with the same prevailing sense of darkness and gloom prevalent among all the Jewish people in the city, he thought. It was a fatal pessimism that was sucking the hope and life out of each and everyone of them.
It had been nearly sixty years since their people had been carried away to Babylon. Rebekkah, Benjamin and Nathaniel had all been children living in the Holy City of Jerusalem at the time when it happened. Nathaniel recalled that those had been dark days as well, with immanent threats of war and the nation in total disarray.
Compounding matters was the fact that all the institutions of national life - the royal palace, the Temple, the military, and just about every business - were corrupt to the core. Polls of the populace indicated that almost everyone in Judea had lost confidence in just about everything. King Jehoiakim had been hugely unpopular, because he consistently ignored all the warnings from the prophets that things were going badly, and would only get worse if he didn't amend his ways. But he was obstinate, and just kept on talking the party line to folks, hoping they would believe him and settle down. But they didn't.
The social order began to disintegrate, and some days it felt like life was just on the verge of utter chaos. Young men no longer wanted to serve in the army, because the king foolishly thought that he could do battle with the mighty Nebuchadnezzer and the Babylonian Empire. And after seeing what Tiglath-pileser and the Assyrians had done to their brothers and sisters in Israel just 135 years earlier, the Judeans knew this was only a fools folly. Those ignorant of history are condemned to repeat it, Nathaniel heard people say in the streets.
He remembered that no one paid any attention to the Temple and their worship lives, either. Instead, people had turned in droves to the idolatrous worship of money, materialism, and wonton sexual pleasure. Yahweh seemed to have been forgotten by most folks.
The economy was in trouble back then too, Nathaniel thought, although there was extravagant wealth for some folks, including Nathaniel's own family. But even as a small boy, he remembered seeing how many poor and hungry folks lived in hovels and sometimes even in the streets. He couldn't help but notice that many of them were widows, orphans and the chronically ill. He re-called thinking how awful this was, but every time he voiced his thoughts, his parents told him that such things were not their concern.
It had been a cynical and dark time in Jerusalem in those days, made even more so with the incessant dire prophesies of the prophets echoing throughout the streets. Nathaniel remembered their proclaiming that it would all end badly for the nation, if the government, the Temple, and all the people didn't change their evil ways. But no one seemed to take heed.
And then it finally happened: the Babylonians struck with their mighty armies. It was fierce and lightening quick. Nathaniel remembered how terrified the citizenry were and how many died as the armies invaded and rampaged. For Judea and Jerusalem, it was over before it began. Their destruction was complete. The Temple burned to the ground. The Holy City of Jerusalem in shambles. The army throughly defeated. And then something occurred which for Nathaniel seemed to be the worst of it: the Babylonians began rounding up all the remaining Jewish leaders and their families. They were to be exiled to Babylonia - away from their beloved city and the promised land of milk and honey. He could still see the sad expressions on his parents faces, as the family was put in fetters and forced to leave all their possessions, and made to march the long journey to a foreign land . . . that was an image which was indelibly ingrained on Nathaniel's memory.
And now it was sixty years later. Nathaniel stared at the flowing water of the river, which seemed to emulate the tears on the three faces. Would they ever be free, he wondered? "Sing a song to us Rebekkah," Nathaniel said, hoping some music would dispel the gloom. "Sing us one of the songs of Zion."
Rebekkah looked at Nathaniel, tears streaming down her face. "How can I sing the Lord's song in a strange land, Nathaniel? How can I sing the Lord's song in such difficult circumstances? How can I sing the Lord's song, when I no longer am sure that the Lord cares for us . . . or if there even is a Lord?"
The year was circa 539 B.C.E.: A year or so before Cyrus of Persia conquered Babylon and granted permission for the exiled Jews to finally return home to Jerusalem and the Promised Land. But the story, and the scriptures upon which it is based, speak as poignantly to our own circumstances today in 2005 . . . a full 2543 years later!
I received a letter not long ago from someone who was in despair about the seemingly ever deteriorating conditions of society, and the world in which we live. Wars, people dying from disease and bombs and guns, natural calamities, genocide (Genocide?! What ever happened to "never again"?), the loss of confidence in all institutions - government, church, educational institutions, medicine, the corporate world - due to financial corruption, scandal, selfishness, and the idolatry of power. An economy that increasingly benefits a few and diminishes the majority.
Where is God in all this, the writer asked? Does God have anything to say? Will God do anything to remedy the situation? Does God even care? A shroud of gloom and cynicism enveloped this letter. And I can't honestly say that on certain days, I don't feel this same sense of despair about the world, as well.
This past week David Brooks writing in The New York Times said that, "a brackish tide of pessimism has descended upon the country." He believes that the American people. . . "are now entering a period of skepticism . . . In theory, skepticism leads to prudence," Brooks writes, "not a bad trait. But when it is tinged with cynicism, as it is now, skepticism turns into passivity [and withdrawal.]"
In Advent we are forewarned to stay alert and not fall asleep, my friends. But, our society has fallen asleep, lulled by the desire to escape to "withdraw" as Brooks puts it, so to escape from all this darkness and gloom that hangs over us like a shroud. And when we are asleep, we cannot be watchful. We fail to heed the warning of Advent to be alert for God's presence, and God's incessant desire to come into our lives, to sustain and restore us, and a broken, sin-sick world.
There is an Advent quality to our lives today. We live in times of great change, great upheaval, uncertainty, destruction, and even great danger. How many people fear going to big city's? Use mass transit? Fly a plane? Go to a sports stadium? Take that same fear and imagine living in London, Tel Aviv, Madrid, Bagdad or Fallujah. Fear and a sense that nothing we do will alleviate that crippling fear have lead to hopelessness.
And this hopelessness has lead to our current cynicism, scepticism and despair. And so we withdraw and fall asleep. Fewer and fewer people feel they can sing a song - any song - in this strange, uncertain, fear-filled place we reside in.
But despair, hopelessness and cynicism are not the ways of people of faith. Biblical faith assures us that even in the midst of the deepest darkness, gloom and despair, God is present to us. God is never remote. Never ambivalent about our condition and our well-being. And if we have faith in God and his promises to us, what will eventually come out these challenging, skeptical times is not more scepticism and hopelessness, but the glory of the Lord.
The prophets Isaiah and John the Baptist brought glimmers of this hope to peoples mired in darkness. But . . . but, they were clear that the people would have to go the long way around to see God's glory. They would need to bite the bullet - not withdraw into scepticism and despair - face the deceit, corruption, and moral decadence in their lives and society, admit to their failures, repent and accept God's call to new life: New life embodied in the One who was coming: for the exiled Jews of Babylon this was God's servant Cyrus of Persia, and for the down trodden people of John's time, it was Jesus: God incarnate.
Isaiah and John both used the image of preparing a highway to prepare God's way, so that God could come into their midst and overcome the darkness. The highway they needed to prepare was the highway of their wayward hearts. Fill in the valleys of deceit and mean-spiritedness, make level the mountains of greed and lust within, Isaiah and John proclaimed. And the people did this, and God responded by being true to his promise. Gloom and darkness were dispelled, and the people were restored to the fullness of life that God desired for them! In both instances the glory of the Lord was revealed in majestic and mighty ways!
The hopeful promise of Isaiah and John calls out to us today. Heed God's call, they proclaim, and God will come among you as well, with great power and might.
The young man's shouting startled the three exiles. He was obviously very exited as he ran toward them. " I have great news" he managed to say, between gulping deep breaths. "What news?" Rebekkah, Benjamin and Nathaniel, asked simultaneously, as they eyed a small scroll in his hand. "It's just in from a caravan that came from Jerusalem", replied the man. "It's a message from the prophet Isaiah!"
"What does it say", they asked excitedly, "read it to us."
The young man unrolled the scroll and began to read, "Comfort, comfort ye my people, says our God."
1 David Brooks, The New York Times, "The Age of Scepticism", Op-Ed page, Thursday, December 1, 2005Back to the top