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.
Sometimes, the world can’t wait. I know that sounds like a funny thing for a pastor to say during Advent- a season known to be a time of waiting— of prayerful expectation and hopeful anticipation. But sometimes, my friends, the world simply cannot wait. When it comes to those without homes or heat in the wintertime, for example, or when it comes to the growing disparity between the rich and the poor and people all around the world who live on less than $2 a day, the world simply cannot wait. When it comes to those who struggle to put food on the table, let alone put presents under the tree, or when it comes to the single mother who will run out of food stamps before Christmas or the father who has to tell his family that he still can’t find work, the world simply cannot wait. When it comes to children who are living in refugee camps, or babies starving in Yemen or Venezuela, or children killing other children with guns, the world simply cannot wait.
Advent is known to be a time of waiting, that is true. But as the prophet Isaiah makes clear in this morning’s reading, it is not a passive waiting that we are called to do. It is not sitting around waiting for God to come down and make everything better with one miraculous act. It is an active anticipation and participation— “prepare the way of the Lord,” the prophet Isaiah declares, make a highway for our God in this wilderness world. Tear down the mountains of inequality. Raise up the valleys of injustice. Make the rough places of oppression smooth. Don’t just sit around and wait. When the world can’t wait, prepare the way of the Lord.
Certainly, for the prophet Isaiah and his people, theirs was a world that could not wait. They had been living in exile for 70 years in Babylon. Their beloved city of Jerusalem had been sacked and destroyed and their cherished institutions, including the temple built by King Solomon himself, were in shambles. Their ability to practice their faith had been severely handicapped. And so it’s not so hard to imagine that after 70 years of exile, after 70 years of waiting for justice and freedom, many would have given up hope. And it was in that context that Isaiah’s words were first spoken. “Comfort, O comfort my people,” the Lord speaks tenderly to the people of Israel in exile. “Prepare the way of the Lord for all people and you shall see the glory of the Lord together.” Writer Maggi Dawn notes that the Hebrew word translated here as ‘comfort’ can actually be translated more accurately as ‘encourage.’ And so it wasn’t just passive comfort that Isaiah was offering his people as they sat around and waited for something to change. It was encouragement and motivation to act— it was encouragement to draw themselves up out of their despair, even in the midst of wilderness and exile, to keep going and not to give up. In a world that could not wait, God spoke to the people of Israel and told them to prepare the way.
Well, brothers and sisters, ours also is a world that cannot wait, and ours also is a world in which we are being called to prepare a way for people living in wilderness and exile. Earlier this week, I attended a clergy luncheon in which the keynote speaker, Rev. Kaji Spellman Dousa, spoke about a world that could not, and cannot, wait. She spoke about a time in our own country’s history when a massive movement was organized by people who saw an urgent need for mountains of injustice to be razed to the ground and for crooked ways of oppression to be made straight. She spoke of folks in the north and in the south who risked their lives to make a way for formerly enslaved Africans who sought freedom from the corrupt institution of American slavery. She spoke of the abolitionist legacy of congregational churches in New England, many of whom were literally helping to make a way by creating false floors in their sanctuaries or make-shift bedrooms in the attics of their parsonages to provide those seeking freedom with a place of sanctuary and refuge. This, our speaker explained, was the beginning of the sanctuary movement in the American church. It was the beginning, but it surely it was not to be the end. Because if there was ever a time for us to remember our history of providing safe haven for those in need, if ever there was a time when the world cannot wait for those of us in the church to once again prepare a way, I believe that time is now. Because my friends, the world is in crisis. The world is facing a migrant and refugee crisis of proportions never before seen in history. Whether it’s people starving in Yemen, people fleeing violence in Honduras, parents fleeing poverty in Guatemala or families fleeing civil war in Syria, there are millions upon millions of people in this world right now who simply cannot wait while we stand by and watch—arguing about what is economically sound or what is in our best interest as a nation. Because quite frankly, the brave men and women of the underground railroad did not consider what was in their best interest when they decided to harbor fugitive slaves. The bold churches that provided sanctuary for those slaves did not consider what was in their best interest when they opened up their sacred spaces. If they had considered their best interest, they would have stayed out of it. But they didn’t, because they knew that theirs was a world that could not wait. And they knew that they were being called to prepare a way.
For the millions of migrants and refugees seeking a way to safety and freedom, ours is a world that cannot wait. And yet, our borders grow more and more closed by the day. Two years ago it was Muslim refugees who found the door to safe haven shut. Now it’s Central Americans seeking asylum— refugees of poverty and violence— who find that even previously legal paths of migration have been barricaded and closed to them. From the poverty and violence they were experiencing, they heard the clarion call of liberty— it’s one we know well and it’s one we are very proud of— “give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” That’s the call that led them across miles of desert and danger. But when they arrived they found a mountain in their way. When they arrived they found a deep valley between themselves and the refuge they so desperately sought. When they arrived the path was not straight and there was no way prepared for them. But here is where Jesus is our ultimate example. For not only was Jesus himself a refugee when he was born—we really ought to do a better job of remembering that part of the Christmas story— but during his ministry, he crossed some of the most dangerous and closed borders of his time. And he certainly did not consider what was in his best interest when he did so— we all know how his story ends, after all. He did not consider generational prejudices or decades old hatreds. He did not consider those who would try and profit from people’s fear and anxiety. He did not consider temple economics or local politics. His only consideration was love. His only consideration was love.Which begs the question—what, my friends, are our considerations? When it comes to the millions of refugees around the world desperate for freedom, safety and hope, what are our considerations?
This morning, as we lit the candles of hope and peace on our Advent wreath, we proclaimed that during Advent, we watch and wait and pray for the coming of God’s light into the world. And this is true. We are always waiting for God’s light to be born anew. We are always watchful for how God will act in the world and in our lives, for God is still speaking, the Spirit is still breathing, and God is still moving in the world. God is always breaking into the world and breaking into our lives in new and surprising ways, and so we watch and wait and pray for these things, as we rightly should. But we also have a part to play in the coming of God’s kingdom. We are not passive bystanders, we are active agents of Christ’s peace and hope. And so perhaps the most pressing question for all of us this morning, this Advent season, and indeed for the way we live our lives all year long, is how? How do we build a highway for our God so that all people can see the glory of God together? How do we level the mountains of injustice? How do we raise up the valleys of inequality? How do we make the rough places of oppression smooth again? How and where do we even begin?
Maybe it seems hard and overwhelming, but I think maybe the first step is to exercise our imaginations— to focus not so much on the world as it is— a world in which there is no room at the inn, a world in which fear dictates whether we welcome or exclude— but rather, to imagine what the world could be if we opened our hearts and our doors to those seeking a way. To imagine a world in which we see Christ in the eyes of every refugee and migrant, knowing that he too began his life on earth as a refugee. To imagine a world in which borders can, as they should, delineate, but never, ever discriminate. Maybe the first step is to make the whole topic of migration and immigration less overwhelming, and maybe even less controversial, by reconfiguring our imaginations and re-tuning our hearts to see that migrants and refugees are not problems or issues to be solved but rather, just people—people with hopes and dreams and potential to be shared. And then, if we can open our imaginations and our hearts to what could be, we will have already started to make a way. And we continue to make the path smooth and straight simply by walking that path together. And the more of us there are walking the path of compassion, hope, possibility and peace the smoother the path becomes until we are all standing on even ground. And when we are all standing on even ground, we will have made a way. And when we have made a way for all people we will declare, as the prophet did so many thousands of years ago—“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.” May it ever be so, Amen.