Sermon Advent II 2023 Isaiah 40:1-11                              Rev. Betsy Hogan

If I say the words “traffic-calmed neighbourhood”, do you know what that means? 

I only just recently noticed that according to a sign just down the street from our house, we apparently live in a “traffic-calmed neighbourhood”. Which frankly seems like an odd choice, given that we live on a fairly well-travelled connector between Quinpool and Chebucto on the way to Halifax Shops…

But at any rate, I guess wisdom dictated that it be a “traffic-calmed neighbourhood” and so a “traffic-calmed neighbourhood” it is. 

The only funny part, to me, is how lovely and peaceful and gentle the sign makes that SOUND …. And what it’s actually like on the ground.

Because what it actually means, that sign announcing that this is a “traffic-calmed neighbourhood” is that we have speed bumps. And so if what we used to hear in the PRE traffic-calmed days was the quiet hum of cars driving by… what we hear now?

Is a quiet hum broken charmingly and regularly with the sound KA-THUNK. Right in front of our house. All day long and well into the night. Sometimes, something that SOUNDS very lovely and peaceful and gentle… isn’t quite so lovely and peaceful and gentle when it comes to what it actually means.

Which brings us to these words from Isaiah in Chapter 40, which might be familiar to some of us, beloved of traditional choral singers all over the western world – Comfort, O Comfort my people. For God shall feed the flock like a shepherd, and gather the lambs in God’s arms.

They’re not the sort of words that the prophets in the Bible usually found themselves inspired by God's spirit to proclaim. And we can sometimes forget that, because if we've been around for loads of years we've heard them probably every Christmas.

Not only from Isaiah Chapter 40, but also paraphrased by John the Baptist, seven centuries later. Who admittedly follows them up in his proclaiming of the coming of Jesus by then howling at his listeners that they're nothing but a "brood of vipers" – but in Isaiah’s original version? So different. So gentle. And actually quite extraordinary.

Because the prophets in the Bible, and Isaiah among them, their usual role and the content of their usual proclamations – to put it mildly, "gentle" wouldn't be the first word that comes to mind.

In fact, the whole point of the prophets was to be relentlessly, incisively, provocatively UNgentle. In calling God's people to account. In shaking God's people out of their complacency. 

In forcing God's people to look with eyes wide open at the ways they’re perpetrating injustice or letting it happen. Forgetting responsibility for the vulnerable, failing to protect the weakest, leaving the poorest behind to fall through the cracks.

The prophets, and Isaiah among them, they’re outrage personified. Righteous holy anger embodied, searing in their condemnation of people's greed and selfishness. And they’re DEMANDING.

They DEMAND repentance: turning away from wrong and back to God's way of love and justice. They DEMAND change, they DEMAND better, they RAIL constantly at their listeners to stop, look around..... and get it together. 

Even in the prophetic tradition of lament that I spoke about last week, the prophets are STILL outraged and furious and demanding – just at God rather than at the people. 

So they were not, to put it mildly, "gentle". The prophets were what happened to God's people when "gentle" really wasn't getting the job done. John the Baptist with “you brood of vipers” – he fits right in.

And Isaiah's no different. A prophet like the others, AS furious, AS provocative, AS uncompromising and outraged and demanding. Challenging God’s to stop already, and look around at the pervasiveness of the injustice they’re perpetrating , and get it together. Isaiah’s just like all the others.

Until suddenly we hit “Comfort, comfort my people” and he's not. Until suddenly his role as God's voice speaking into the people seems to completely change.

Biblical scholars have long drawn a line between Isaiah chapter 39 and Isaiah chapter 40. Because the whole tenor and tone – not to mention the language and poetic style – shifts so radically at that point in the book. From the usual and expected provocation of the prophet – to this sudden gentleness of Comfort, Comfort my people.

It's unprecedented. It isn't what prophets are for, it isn't the point of prophets, until suddenly – when God's people are in despair, when they're suffering, when all around them is chaos and uncertainty and fear – suddenly it IS what Isaiah’s for.

Except it isn’t actually quite so sudden. Because in fact, Biblical scholarship since the 18th century has established pretty unquestionably that in that shift from Isaiah chapter 39 to Isaiah chapter 40… about 150 years have passed. And so this is no longer the First Isaiah who’s speaking, but a Second Isaiah. A later bearer of that Isaiah tradition. 

It’s a bit like if we heard someone preach mightily for justice to roll down like the waters in a way that seemed to move mountains – and we said they were like a new Martin Luther King.

Second Isaiah is like the new First Isaiah, preaching in the tradition of Isaiah -- but into a whole new age. Because the former time for furious outrage and shouting ‘get it together’ at God’s people for the injustice they’re perpetuating… it’s passed.

And God’s people Israel reaped what they sowed, just as First Isaiah had warned them they would. They were crushed by the Babylonians and dragged into the misery of exile, where they languished in slavery for generations. Imagining, assuming, that God had abandoned them. That this was their punishment for losing their way so egregiously. 

For forgetting GOD’S way so egregiously: failing to be responsible to and for each other, failing to keep people from hunger, failing to protect the vulnerable and ensure their well-being. They’d been warned by Isaiah the prophet to ‘get it together or else’ and they didn’t. And they were dragged into exile in Babylon.

But now…. everything’s changed. And so God’s raised up a new prophet, a new Isaiah, to speak into God’s people Israel with God's voice, in this new moment.

Not to condemn them, not to shame them, not to demand their repentance – but instead to “comfort, comfort my people” says God. “Speak to them, and cry out that they have served their term, that their penalty is paid.”

Because the exile is over. Cyrus of Persia has crushed the kingdom of Babylon and released them from their bondage. And they’ll be going home. And “God will feed the flock like a shepherd and gather the lambs in God’s arms and carry them in God’s bosom and gently lead those who are with young”.

They’re going home. And yes, Isaiah cries it out with joy, and get thee up to the heights and sing! – but from the comfort, comfort my people at the beginning to the little lambs in God’s arms at the end, the whole passage is just so lovely and peaceful and gentle…

Almost like the imagined sound of a traffic-calmed neighbourhood. And then we remember that what that really means… is speed bumps.

Isaiah may well be bringing to Israel in exile a surprisingly happy un-prophet-like message of good tidings of great joy for all the people… but Isaiah’s still a prophet. And the speed bumps are real. 

We want the peace so much. The real peace in which it’s not just quiet, but no one’s hungry, homeless, in danger, beleaguered, oppressed, in ways that make desperation and anger and simmer, in ways that make for war.

We want the peace so much. The real peace that arises when we don’t just relegate  God up to heaven and behave toward each other however we feel like it, but instead welcome God into our midst and treat each other like each other might BE God in our midst.

We want to get to that peace so much, that peace where God is too, but it’s NOT just lovely and quiet and gentle. It takes work. And it’s hard.

Isaiah proclaims to Israel that their exile is over and it’s like, ooooo, perfect. Traffic-calmed neighbourhood. Ya, not so fast, says Isaiah. Because what that actually means? Is speed bumps.

The way home, the way to peace, through the wilderness -- the way home, the way to peace -- through the desert, it takes work. It’s setting out, full of commitment, full of hope, but also full of readiness to be building the road on the way. Straight and flat and even.

Every valley lifted up, Isaiah says. Every mountain and hill made low, the uneven ground made level and the rough places a plain. Inch by inch and piece by piece, metaphorically building the road on the way. 

Getting to the peace takes work. Straight and flat and even. No valleys where people can get lost and just forgotten, where discouragement can overwhelm. Fill them up. No mountains and hills that grant distance and erase responsibility, that privilege the strongest. Flatten them down.

No uneven ground, throwing some off kilter, left stuck spinning their wheels. Rough rocks and stones that block the way forward, cause stumbles, cause falls. Clear it all, smooth it all -- it’s make straight through that desert a highway, Isaiah says. God is with you, but this isn’t magic. Getting to the peace takes work.

We want that peace so much. This year the churches in actual Bethlehem won’t have services on Christmas Eve. God is with us, but this isn’t magic. Getting to the peace takes work. And when those on the ground in the actual birthplace of actual baby Jesus find themselves in the midst of the actual season of his Nativity desperate for water and digging out of rubble and burying their children by the thousands, that work is ours.

Because it can’t be theirs right now. These words from Isaiah are ringing out for people in Israel too. Who want that peace so much, and who also recognize that the work is theirs. Because it can’t be their Palestinian neighbours’ work right now – not in the midst of the catastrophic destruction being rained down on them by the Israeli Defense Force.

The work is ours. All of us who want that peace so much. Who are praying so hard. Who are lighting Advent candles and Hanukkah candles that remind us of God’s love and God’s faithfulness and God’s promise that we’re not alone. 

The work is ours -- to look out over every speed bump of political machination and ideological rhetoric, to look out over the rubble and its mountains and its valleys -- and make through it a straight path, a highway for our God, raising our voices over it one inch at a time. Ceasefire ceasefire ceasefire, negotiated truce, enough.

May God in great mercy help us all get to peace. Amen.