Gazing out over the walls of Jerusalem, you would have thought that all was well. The King in those days, Hezekiah, had recovered, miraculously, from a terrible illness. And, on top of that, he had stopped Babylon, that insatiable empire, from destroying the last vestige of Solomon’s once-glorious kingdom. There was peace in Judea. Peace in a world at war. The end they all feared — from the kids playing ball to the elders sitting in the gate — had not come. Yet. “Hear the Word of the LORD of hosts,” the Prophet Isaiah said. “The day is coming, O King, when all that is in your house will be taken to Babylon. Even your own children will be taken there and serve in its courts.” And Hezekiah, thinking that there would be peace and security in his day, said, “The Word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.”
When the Prophet Isaiah recorded the exchange I’ve just mentioned, when he wrote that familiar cry in today’s OT lesson, Jerusalem was on the edge of disaster. The tension was palpable. Smoke rose from ruined cities to the North and to the East and to the South. Everyone knew that it was only a matter of time before Babylon came knocking on Jerusalem’s door. It didn’t matter what Hezekiah thought he heard. The time for intervention was up and the time Jerusalem’s reckoning was at hand.
There was little they could do but wait. There was little they could do but lament the failure of their leaders and regret the idolatry, the faithlessness that had brought them to this point. And there was little they could do but hope — for it was at that time that God said, “I am coming.”
During the season of Advent, we, too, walk that fine line between despair and hope, between the already and the not yet, between darkness of Sin and the light of salvation. During the season of Advent, we, too, feel that holy dissatisfaction with a world that is so out-of-step with the pain all around us. During the season of Advent, we, too, are the people of Israel, who wait for a miracle. Who wait for Someone to come and save us.
But during this season of Advent in particular, that feeling is stronger than it has been in years — because we can’t forget that we need saving.
Smoke rises from almost every corner of the globe. The poor are oppressed. The widow and the orphan go hungry. And the last vestige of virtue and civility, the foundation of our society, is crumbling away. Has crumbled away. To quote a Chinese curse I’m sure you’ve all heard, We live in interesting times. And we would like very much to have it any other way.
But the strength of our wishing doesn’t accomplish much. Like the people of Jerusalem, we watch as the end of something — whether the precarious post-Cold War peace, or the power and prestige of our own nation, or the blessings of modernity that we’ve long taken for granted — begins to wither away. Everyone knows we’re close to something dark and dangerous. And it doesn’t matter how much Christmas music is piped into every grocery store in town, we can’t drown out the silent scream of a people who can no longer see the humanity in each other for the fear and anger in their eyes.
Possessed by worry, hardened by hate, we all, every one of us — yes, us here, too — are in danger of losing our way, of losing our life, not to a literal physical death but to unreality. To non-being. To evil. Babylon is still among us, prowling around like a hungry lion, longing to devour the people of God. She knows we are weak. She knows we are vulnerable.
But that is precisely where our strength lies.
We never could live life on our own. We never could fight our battles like the last survivor in a sea of enemies. We never could find recovery or reach the good without Someone else’s help. And we never needed to.
The battle is over. The strife is ended. Although we so often live like war is raging around us, it is in fact finished. Darkness once covered our eyes, ice enclosed our hearts, and we did not know it. We lived as though asleep, asleep to the glory and the grandeur and the grace that is all around us. And yet Someone has been fighting on our behalf. Someone has been laboring for us, never ceasing to seek out and save the lost. No matter what condition we might be in.
Our Savior doesn’t wait. He doesn’t wait until all is well to make his Advent among us. He doesn’t wait until we are fit for his presence. He comes. He comes now.
And that is the beginning of the Gospel.
The voice of one is crying in the desert: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” He is on the way.
When our leaders have failed us, when doom is imminent, when all hope seems lost, God speaks — to our hearts. “Comfort, comfort my people.” Undeterred by the ruin, unafraid of the flames, unashamed of our faithlessness, Christ comes. Gaze fixed, heart sure, hands steady. He comes with might. He rules with strength. He would stretch out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that every one might come within the reach of his saving embrace.
Our Lord would gather us up, each one of us, with the tenderness of a shepherd with a lamb, with the tenderness of a mother with her newborn child. He gathers up the lame and the leper, the weak and the wounded and loves us back to life again.
His Advent is at hand. Not only at the end of time when he comes to judge the quick and the dead; not only in the manger where the one through whom all was made makes all things new, as he cries for his mother; but now. He comes now — into the wilderness of our hearts. He would raise the valleys and lower the mountains and dwell with those who need him, who have seen in their own selves their need for a Savior, and who are looking for him — only to find he’s been there all along.
As the psalmist said, God’s salvation is near to those who fear him — on our lips and in our hearts, speaking peace to a people who can hear that we are all poor in spirit, dry and dead without the living water of Christ to cleanse us and nourish us and lift our gaze once more toward the world where Christ is all in all, where his footsteps are there for us to follow.
“Comfort, comfort my people, says the LORD. I AM coming.” AMEN.