“Crying in the Wilderness”

Isaiah 40:1-11
January 15, 2023

        This morning I’ve chosen this passage from the prophet Isaiah as our scripture reading for Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. weekend:

Comfort, O comfort my people,
   says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
   and cry to her
that she has served her term,
   that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
   double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
‘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,
   and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
   and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
   and all people shall see it together,
   for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
   And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
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.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
   but the word of our God will stand for ever.
Get you up to a high mountain,
   O Zion, herald of good tidings;*
lift up your voice with strength,
   O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,*
   lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
   ‘Here is your God!’
See, the Lord God comes with might,
   and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
   and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
   he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
   and gently lead the mother sheep.

A voice says, “Cry out!”  Can you hear it?  Maybe it’s the same voice Isaiah heard, a voice telling him to cry aloud, to shout, to proclaim a message.  And Isaiah knew whose voice it was, this voice that said, “Cry out!”  It was the voice of the Holy God.  And Isaiah said, “What shall I cry?”

It was a good question, especially for Isaiah.  His people, the Israelites, were living in exile, far from their homeland and their beloved city of Jerusalem.  It was a time of hopelessness.  So what could Isaiah cry?  What could he announce?  In the wilderness of exile, what is there to say?

“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.”

Those are sad words, aren’t they?  Words of someone who has seen the good and bad of life, someone who’s watched the bright promise of youth fade into unfulfilled dreams of mid- and later life. They’re the words of someone who has experienced what disappointment is all about.  Above all, they’re the words of someone who knows firsthand the frailty of humanity.  “Surely the people are grass,” says the prophet, and you can picture him saying it with a sad shake of his head.

A voice says “Cry out!”

Let’s say this time the voice is directed at you.  Let’s say that God is telling you to cry aloud, to proclaim a message.  What would you say?  Your response probably would be a lot like Isaiah’s:  “What shall I cry?”  Unfortunately, as you look around you at your life and your world, you too may be tempted by despair.

For many people, existence today is likely a continuing round of deadly routine and bad news — the same bleary-eyed waking up, the same breakfast, the same chores, the same hassles, the same relationships, same arguments, same bills, same life.  Just as we slogged through the worst of the COVID crisis, it keeps raising its ugly head, and we once again don our masks at the grocery store and other large gathering places.  So often it feels like the same old treadmill that we’re upon.  A psychologist once observed that “the average person’s back is breaking under an oppressive weight of tedium, drudgery, and boredom induced by constant attention to the trivial and inconsequential.”

What about the world around us?  We get our daily news about the latest political crisis, with each particular scandal fading within a week or two.  What about inflation?  What about the drugs, poverty and murders in our communities?  What about the war in Ukraine that seems to have no end?  What about global warming and floods and droughts?  What about all the stupid, selfish, sick behavior that happens every day in low places and high places?  

Doesn’t it feel an awful lot like a wilderness we’re living in?

A voice says “Cry out!”

And you answer, “What shall I cry?”  Surely the people are grass, surely the world is a wasteland, surely life is sour and sad.  There is every reason to despair.

But wait.  Listen again to Isaiah.  Despite his personal assessment of things, however gloomy, the message he’s given to announce is one of hope and of promise.  “Prepare the way of the Lord,” Isaiah cries.  “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low.  And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.”  Isaiah is proclaiming God’s intention of bringing the exiles home.  Their homeward journey will be joyous, and the hard-to-climb hills and valleys will disappear.  The Lord will be like a shepherd feeding a flock, and the lambs will be taken into God’s arms.

What a beautiful message of assurance and promise Isaiah announced.  More than that, it was an astonishing message, because Isaiah himself was filled with doubt and despair.  His message of hope was delivered despite his own hopelessness.  And the people to whom he was speaking were themselves hopeless.  The prospects for returning to their homeland were nil.  By every rational measurement, the promise of God seemed an impossibility.

But that’s the way it is with this God we worship, a God who delights in doing impossible things.

Like many of us, maybe you have to strain to hear God’s message.  Perhaps it comes to you muffled by the cloak of skepticism you keep wrapped around yourself.  Better to bury yourself in getting the grocery shopping done, juggling the calendar of activities, simply trying to make it through your daily routine.  The real message of Isaiah seems so naive, so unrealistic, so impossible.

If we share in that skepticism, then the only hope is to recognize how God keeps doing impossible things with impossible people.  God DOES bring the exiles home, God DOES put down the mighty and exalt those of low degree, God DOES bring new life to the discouraged, the defeated.

Who could have guessed in Isaiah’s time that Jerusalem would again become a holy city where the faithful sang psalms in the temple?  Who could have guessed that another prophet, John the Baptist, could have seen his prophecy realized in Jesus Christ?   Who could have guessed that Martin Luther King’s prophetic work would transform America, and that Black Lives Matter would become a common phrase?  What would early Americans think of Ketanji Brown Jackson sitting on the Supreme Court?  Or that gay marriage would be supported by roughly 70% of Americans, as it is today?  

          The institutions, the ideologies, the power structures that we thought were so absolute, so sovereign, are really NOT absolute or sovereign after all.  The impossible DOES happen, again and again.  And each time, it confounds our best laid plans and predictions.

We tend to be a society of planners and organizers, who worship at the shrine of knowing what’s to come.  But again and again, God seems to delight in overturning what we suppose isn’t overturnable.  How else can you explain God-with-us, the child worshipped by magi, the light we celebrate at Epiphany, who would grow up to be Savior of the world?

No one can measure the effect of small, faithful actions.  Sometimes, in comparison to the powers of this world, such actions seem pitifully puny.  Those who are faithful may rightfully feel that they are voices crying in the wilderness.

On this Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, we’re reminded again that a voice, even a solitary voice, raised to speak the truth, can become – by the power and grace of God – a voice that can help the impossible become possible.  We need even more of those voices today.  Nelson Mandela famously said that “[something] always seems impossible until it’s done.”

Who can measure the effect of prayers, no matter who makes them?  Who can calculate the power of deeds of kindness known only to God, of lonely voices that speak the truth to power, of a church faithful to its God?  They may not count for much at all by human standards.  But by such things, God turns impossibilities into realities.

For reasons known only to God, God chooses to remember those words, those deeds, those people that society chooses to forget.  God remembers and honors every voice raised in every wilderness.  In the words of the French philosopher, Jacques Ellul:

Nothing of our past history, nor of our present history, or our future history, is or will be lost:  no human cry, no human hope, no human despair.  God collects everything.  And with what God is collecting, God will make and give us the world to come.