By John Sundara
Imagine you wake up one day and as far as your eyes can see, all that now remains are broken walls and smoldering buildings. Your eyes sting from the smoke, your hands are covered in ash and dust, your parched throat coughs as you try to breathe in some air and make sense of this great tragedy unfolding all around you.
People have been massacred or captured. Your city has been razed to the ground. Your temple has been dismantled brick by brick. And everything that it means to be Jewish has been crushed to dust by the armies of Babylon.
What would you do? How would you feel? You no longer have the kingdom of Judah or the great city of Jerusalem, only a refugee camp. You no longer have a king, only a pagan despot. You no longer have the Temple or its sacrifices — only dust and ash and a distant memory of the glory days. What was once a beautiful city is now a wilderness. What was once blessing is now a desert.
Eventually and painfully, your grief gives way to resolve and the need to move on.
You try to rebuild from the rubble what only a few possess in their memory. You try to comprehend why your city — that great Jerusalem, and your kingdom — that great Judah, was brought down to nothing and sold for a penny.
It was idolatry, your prophets prophesy — you forsook the true God who redeemed you out of slavery in Egypt, and instead worshipped false gods and goddesses made with hands from wood and stone — idolatry. It was the lust for power, as your embassies made alliances with pagan rulers, forsaking the God of Israel as her protector and defender — idolatry. It was the allure of sex, as the people of God married off their sons and daughters to the nations of the earth and sacrificed their children on pagan altars — idolatry.
You have abandoned your God, your prophets prophesy.
So, your God has abandoned you.
What do you do now?
You repent. And you try to make things right. You relearn the Torah. You try to teach your children to learn from the sins of the past. You try to rebuild that great city of Jerusalem, and you want to rebuild the Temple, the throne of your God.
And you realize something.
Nothing, nothing can restore Jerusalem to her former glory. Nothing can bring back her beauty. Nothing will renew her strength. Nothing will renew her youth on wings like eagles. Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
Except! Except if God himself were to return and fill her walls with his presence and take his seat upon his throne in her temple in all his majesty and all his glory!
You need God!
But who are you? Who are you that you could beckon God, the King of the universe, to do your bidding? Is he your maid, your peon, your slave, that if you said jump, he would jump, if you said come, he would come, if you said sit, he would sit?
You are flesh. And all flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the Lord blows upon it; surely you are grass. So then how can you, you lowly human who rejected and abandoned your God in your arrogance and pride, how can you possibly presume upon the Most High God to restore you, your city and your temple? Who are you?
And so you wait, and you do the best you can and hope and wish that God, if he still cares, if he still loves, if he still forgives, would perhaps take pity on you, and maybe stoop down to fix you.
And that’s exactly what God does!
He sends word through his prophet Isaiah: “Comfort, O comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry out to her that she has served her term. That her penalty is paid, that she has received from my hand double for all her sins.”
Did you catch that? Did you hear the Good News? God has taken pity on you! God has forgiven you! God has wiped away your sins and has declared that your punishment for your sin has been served, and it is finished!
And your prophet Isaiah cries out again, “In the wilderness” — remember the wilderness that once were the glorious cities of Judah? — “in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the desert a highway for our God! Every valley shall be lifted up. Every mountain and hill made low. The uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed!”
In other words, your God is coming back to you!
And your prophet Isaiah cries out again, “Your God will tend to you like a shepherd tends his flock! He will gather you in his arms like lambs; he will carry you in his bosom.”
Your God is coming back to you! And he is bringing with him comfort and joy for you!
And so you wait for your God to arrive. You wait patiently, diligently, and prayerfully. You set things right. And you ready yourself. You prepare the way and make straight the highway for the Lord. And you wait in silence like a watchman waits for the dawn and for the first ray of sunlight after a cold, wintry night.
The night draws on. And after 400 years of silent waiting, a cry pierces that night! A cry rings out through all the land, harkening the dawn of a new day! No, it is not the cry of another prophet, but the soft, innocent cry of a newborn baby.
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb!
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with man to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark the herald angels sing!
Glory to the newborn King!
Your God has arrived as your King! A baby has been born, Jesus our Emmanuel! He has come as the good shepherd to feed his flock! He has come to carry us lambs in his arms and in his bosom. He has come to gently lead us to new pastures.
Your God has arrived! And he comes as the good shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep, and takes it up again when he victoriously rises from the grave!
Your God has arrived!
But then he leaves again. He ascends back into heaven to be seated at the right hand of the Father. And in a weird case of dejà vu, we feel like we are back to waiting again.
This time, though, we wait longer than the 400 years that Israel waited in silence for God to come in Christ. This time we have been waiting for 2,000 years, and still the cold, wintery night draws on with little end in sight. Where is the dawn of the new day? When will Christ return bringing reward and recompense with his mighty arm, and restoring all things?
However, this season of waiting is also different than when our spiritual ancestors waited in the time of Isaiah. We may not have the kingdom of Judah or the great city of Jerusalem, but we also do not have only a refugee camp. We have the New Jerusalem, the Church, as our city and the kingdom of our God. We may not have an earthly king, but we do not have only a pagan despot, either.
Rather, we have Christ the King of the universe who reigns over heaven and earth and us, through his Holy Spirit. We may not have the temple any longer. But that’s because we are the temple of God, and he has sanctified and filled this temple with his presence, the Holy Spirit. We may not have sacrifices anymore of lamb and goat and grain and wine. Or prophetic oracles, for that matter. Rather, we have the life-giving body and blood of Jesus Christ, our Passover Lamb proclaimed for us in God’s Holy Word and in his Holy Sacraments.
In other words: God has not abandoned us. Nor do we live in times of divine silence. Rather, God is with us and speaks to us through his Holy Spirit, and in his Word and Sacraments in this new city, his Church.
So since we are not alone, nor living in times of divine silence, while we wait for Christ to return, we ready ourselves. And especially so in this season of Advent, while we celebrate Christ’s first coming and remind ourselves of his second coming, we ready ourselves through repentance.
We repent if we have forgotten the Lord who redeemed us out of slavery to sin and darkness because we turned instead to worship the false gods and goddesses of careerism, materialism, consumerism, and all the other -ism idols made with human hands. We repent of lusting after power and prestige in our vocations and relationships, in our workplaces and our homes, in our titles, our things and our treasure, instead of walking with God in humility and trust. We repent if we have married ourselves to the World and sacrificed our souls and bodies on earthly altars, instead of offering to God ourselves, our souls, and bodies as our rightful worship. We repent, and in our heart, in our souls, and our bodies.
Prepare ye the way of the Lord, and make straight highways for our God!
The Rev. John Sundara is vicar for worship and evangelism at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas.