Voices in the Wilderness

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent
December 10, 2023

Today’s scripture reading speaks to a people in exile. In it, God says, “Comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Tell her that her sad days are gone and her sins are pardoned.” And so the next part makes sense in this context—the part about a voice crying out in the wilderness to make a straight and level road so that the people can return to their true home [Isa. 40:1-4].

This straightening of roads and leveling of ground has another name. We use it in religion and we use it in word processing. That word, of course, is justification. In religion, Christians say that justification is when people are made righteous—or just—in God’s eyes. In word processing, it’s when we make margins straight, or flush. But here in Isaiah, it seems to be used in both ways: A road is being made straight and even, and the people are about to be made right.

So we see that there’s a specific historical context for this passage. But Christians view it in two ways. It refers to ancient Israel returning home. But it also speaks of something that happened in the life of Christ. There are many New Testament references to passages in the Hebrew scriptures. Most of them are about Jesus, of course. But this is one of the best known, and it doesn’t refer to Jesus at all, but to John the Baptist. Matthew and Luke may open with accounts about the birth of Messiah, but Mark opens with John the Baptist—and he quotes Isaiah 40 when he does so. John is the voice in the wilderness, saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord; straighten his path” [Mark 1:3].

For Christians, John was the forerunner, the one who came to clear the path for Messiah. He was a prophet like the ones centuries before him—coming out of the desert, living off the land, and dressing like someone who cares not for the opinions of others. People went to him to be baptized and ended up reorienting their lives—they left behind what used to be important and took up new priorities.

So it’s no wonder that it’s the season of Advent when we talk most about John the Baptist. Two thousand years ago, he helped people wait for the coming of Christ. And today, he still does. Of course, we want Advent to be about shopping and parties and decorations. But it’s not. It never has been. Those are all just the trimmings. The main course, the real purpose of Advent is getting ready for something amazing and different.

And our Advent wreath points the way. It’s a pleasant custom, of course. But it shows us what Christmas is really about. Each Sunday we light a candle that helps us understand what the birth of Jesus really means. Last Sunday it was hope. Today it’s peace. And coming up are joy and love. Lighting these candles shows us that these ideas are more than just empty concepts, more than just words on Christmas cards.

This little ritual we engage in in church is what makes us more than just passive observers of a popular holiday. It makes us—each of us—John the Baptist. If we really take seriously what we do here, we can point the way to Christ. It’s the candles that tell us how to do it. Just as John was a voice in the wilderness of first-century Judea, we are also voices in the wilderness of a people who seem to have lost their way. We are a light in the darkness of trouble and strife.

When those around us despair, saying that we’ve gone too far, things cannot get better, we point the way to the Baby in the manger and to hope. When wars rage around the world and gun violence reigns in our schools and in our streets and workplaces, we do not cease to pray for peace and to act on behalf of peace.

Since peace is the theme of the day, I’d like to share with you the words of a song you’ve already heard. But maybe you don’t know why it was written. You see, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow had forbidden his eldest son, Charles, from joining the army. But in 1863, he joined the Union army anyway. And that November, Longfellow received a telegram that Charles had been wounded in battle. On Christmas Day, his response was to write the following poem:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
their old, familiar carols play,
and mild and sweet the words repeat
of peace on earth, goodwill to men!

And thought how, as the day had come,
the belfries of all Christendom
had rolled along the unbroken song
of peace on earth, goodwill to men!

Then from each black, accursed mouth
the cannon thundered in the South,
and with the sound the carols drowned
of peace on earth, goodwill to men!

It was as if an earthquake rent
the hearthstones of a continent,
and made forlorn the households born
of peace on earth, goodwill to men!

And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
“for hate is strong, and mocks the song
of peace on earth, goodwill to men!"

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
the Wrong shall fail, the Right prevail,
with peace on earth, goodwill to men."

Longfellow’s response to war was a song of peace. On that sad Christmas Day, he was a voice in the wilderness pointing to the Prince of Peace.

In the same way—and in the Name of Christ—we, too can guide people to the quiet joy of the birth of a Child, even in the midst of despair. And when impatience and greed and hatred seem to take over, then let us use love to point the way to the manger. For it is he who came to show us what faith is all about—that “God is love, and all who live in love live in God, and God lives in them” [1 John 4:16].

May the messages of the candles this Advent season so fill our hearts, that when the Christ candle is lit on Christmas Eve, we may ourselves be the light of God shining in the night of the world’s despair, voices crying in the wilderness that God is with us, Emmanuel, never to depart.
—©2023 Sam Greening