A VOICE CRYING
Charleston Wesley UMC
December 7, 2014
Bishop Jonathan D. Keaton
My wife and I saw our children and grandchildren this Thanksgiving. We met in Naperville, home of our son and his family. Our adult daughters traveled to Naperville and stayed with Mom and Dad in a hotel. As I slept the day after, a voice crying in the hall startled me. When her wailing reached a fever pitch, I sat up and listened intently for her words or the words of a parent. I heard nothing intelligible. What had gone awry in the hall? Had the child fallen, been punished, heard the word No or lost a tug of war with a sibling? More pointedly, was her sobbing a cry for help requiring outside intervention? Just as suddenly, the weeping subsided. But I was left with the mystery and memory of “a voice crying.”
The prophet Isaiah leaves no such mystery regarding God’s urgent appeal to his people. In his prophetic writing, Isaiah uses the voice of God, nature, humankind and life events to cry out, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God, etc.” The King is coming. God is desperate to be a redemptive force in the world and in our lives. To experience this needed redemption God requires that individuals and nations, “straighten up and fly right.”
Commentators have said that Isaiah 40-55 was written during a period of time when God’s chosen people were exiled in Babylon, ostensibly 500 miles from home. From among them, God called Isaiah. Isaiah preached to the exiles, led them in prayer, and convinced a dispirited group of people that God had not abandoned them even when things looked somewhat hopeless. Can’t you sense the dire hopelessness of the people of God in exile?
“By the rivers of Babylon--, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion…our captors demanded of us songs and our tormenters mirth saying, how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” (Psalm 137)
What are we to make of this situation? Two things: First, Israel finds herself in bondage because of the ascendancy of the Babylonian Empire. In 587 BC, Nebuchadnezzar sweeps into the Holy City leaving it in ruins. Solomon’s temple, exquisite architecture and habitations of its citizens go up in smoke as hundreds of its soldiers and innocent citizens go down in death. Survivors, among them the royal family and commoners, are taken in chains to Babylon. In Babylon, they live and die, long for home and plead for God to make a way out of no way. Bottom line, God’s chosen people find themselves in dire straits because they are at the mercy of their warring conqueror, Nebuchadnezzar. Martin Luther, the author of the Protestant Reformation, is somewhat correct: “War is the greatest plague that can affect humanity…any scourge is preferable to it,” then and now.
Isaiah offered another rationale for the predicament of God’s chosen people. Other gods became the object of their devotion. Power, prestige, money and selfishness had their upsides; but those gods caused the downfall of the biggest fish and the smallest fry. Isn’t that one of the consistent messages from television programs like America’s Most Wanted, Forensics Files, Miami Vice, American Greed and the Daily News? While bad things do happen to good people, our tendency to fall short of the glory of God does bring about human and divine judgment. The Apostle Paul makes our struggle with sin clear in Romans 7: 19. “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” At the same time the prophet Isaiah informs Israel that there is a price to be paid for our sins; God is always figuring out a way to redeem them…to bring them home again. Hence, we sense the yet and the not yet in the opening words of Isaiah 40. “Comfort Ye, comfort Ye my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, tell her that her warfare, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received double for her sins.” Isaiah’s message of hope is meant for any sinner who repents. If we can just straighten up and fly right, we serve a God who desires to abundantly pardon.
Most of us know of the famous incident in Bethany where Jesus wept. His BFF died. And God sent his Son to raise Lazarus from the dead. Few of us remember that Jesus displayed mixed emotions during his triumphant entry into Jerusalem. “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, Jesus wept over it and said ‘you knew the things that made for peace but now they are hidden from your eyes.’” Jerusalem had missed the opportunity to keep her people loving neighbor and loving God.
I do not know the number of times God used the fall of Jerusalem to make a point. But I discovered some interesting facts that certainly raised questions about one of the world’s oldest cities. Over the centuries, “Jerusalem has been destroyed twice, besieged 23 times, attacked 52 times and captured and recaptured 44 times.” The fight for Jerusalem continues to this very day. As we speak, tensions are being played out between Christianity, Judaism and Islam.
Based on our Lord’s approach to Jerusalem and what he saw that fed his tears, are there a lot of cities our Lord approaches today, offering the same lament, “You knew the things that made for peace, now they are hid from your eyes.” Today, I wonder if our Lord is weeping over cities like Charleston and Chicago, Illinois, Ferguson, Missouri and New York City, Cleveland, Ohio, Phoenix, Arizona, Washington D.C., Kabul and Baghdad. Is Jesus the Christ challenging the inhabitants of every city with a call to discipleship? Is God saying to protestors, demonstrators and bystanders “Find the ways that make for peace so that shalom does not remain hidden from our eyes?” Prepare my cities and hamlets, villages and towns for the coming of the Lord.
About 450 years after the prophet Isaiah wrote “Prepare ye the way of the Lord”, etc., gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John concluded that preparing for Lord dealt with one word, Repentance. When the gospel writers heard about or witnessed John the Baptist talking about his call to ministry, the importance of repentance was unmistakable. For Jesus’ cousin acknowledged that God called to preach “the baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
Second, Mathew, Mark, Luke and John concluded that John the Baptist was the voice crying in the wilderness whose coming Isaiah prophesied 450 years before JB arrived. By the hundreds, and maybe thousands, people made their way to the desert to hear him preach and be baptized. Why? They knew he was not afraid to tell them about their sins. They knew he would request them to confess their sins. And they knew John the Baptist would ask them to undergo the cleansing water of baptism and commit to lead new lives in Jesus Christ. But they came anyway. Between the haves and have nots, the tax collectors and soldiers, there was a lot of tension, bias and anger. Following baptism, a number of converts asked John what should they do, he made it simple. “If you have two coats, give one to someone who has none. If you’re a tax collector, stop ripping off people. If you’re a Roman soldier, don’t resort to extortion, physical threats over the powerless or false accusations with parties unable to defend themselves.” (Luke 3:10-14) Yes, John the Baptist called out the people, the clergy and the royal family. In response to calling out King Herod for taking his brother’s wife, JB lost his life. Herod’s wife requested JB’s head on a platter and got it.
Then and now repentance has two major components: turning away from sin and turning toward God. As one of the present day heralds’ of the gospel of repentance, I ask you what I ask myself. “When are we going to give our full attention to preparing for the coming of the Lord? When will repentance be a priority on our daily calendars, not just in the season of Advent or Lent?” Every time I have had the privilege and opportunity of standing at the Jordan River in Israel and touch the water (seven times), an admonition torments me as it does when introspection grips me in prayer and reflection. I think of my own sins. And I ask God for forgiveness. Invariably, I hear the retort of John the Baptist whose hearers desired the same thing. “So Bishop you want forgiveness” the spirit of John the Baptist asks. “Yes I do,” I respond. JB’s spirit replies. Then, “bear fruit that befits repentance.” At the Jordan River, John the Baptist and Jesus aren’t there in the flesh but the call to repent and lead a new life sure is. “Don’t wait too late to prepare for the coming of the Lord”, an inner voice cries.
An internet headline disappointed me Thursday night. It read “Marion Barry, Crack Mayor…dead at 78”. As mayor of Washington D.C., Barry served four terms. The F.B.I caught him smoking crack with a young woman during his third term. Loss of office followed as did a conviction, sentencing and prison. Saturday Night Live and numerous other programs and individuals made Marion Barry a national punchline of jokes because of his sins. After doing time for drug possession, Marion Barry ran for mayor again and was elected. With God’s help, Barry turned his life around. The Internet headline could have read “Marion Barry, repentant mayor…dead at 78.” Sad to say, the headline only recognized Barry’s fall from grace but ignored God’s act of amazing grace. Maybe Barry deserved no re-election. But folks re-elected him anyhow. Why? Marion Barry repented and paid for his political sin. He earned a second chance. That’s the kind of God we are preparing to meet this Christmas. That’s why we sing “Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King.”
Sometimes it is hard to believe that God will do what God says God will do. Life, what we believe or what we learn, can make us question even the enduring Word of God. Believing that the Lord has come is less problematic for our generation. We acknowledge the birth of Christ, his mother Mary as realities although none of us were there to see the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. Jesus’ birth fulfills the prophecy written centuries before his coming.
Believing in the enduring Word of God remains ever the challenge. For instance, Matthew 25:31-46 declares that our Lord, the God of love, will separate the sheep from the goats at the Last Judgment. Heaven will be the final resting place of sheep at home with God in glory. Hades will be the desolate abode of goats with the devil and his angels. Our Lord’s irrevocable decision will be made based on how we have treated the Least of These. Do we believe the Word of God to be true concerning the Last Judgment? How we respond may lead some persons to love Christ or hate him for being so judgmental.
Isaiah sees the Word of God standing forever as good news for the people of God. Over and over again, God states his preference to be a loving and redemptive God in the lives of people even when people cannot see that far. God pushes the exiles to adopt an audacity of hope grounded in the Word of God. The audacity of hope, that’s why the 23rd Psalm is heard at Funerals and Memorial Services. We want to hear the words of a repentant shepherd boy. “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.” The audacity of hope, that’s why a quote by the Great Reformer, Martin Luther, makes sense “Even if I knew tomorrow that the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.” The audacity of hope: “though he slay me, yet will I trust him” declares brother Job after losing all property and children to death in one day. (KJV)
Because of Isaiah’s prophecy, the exiles understood that God used the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar as punishment for their apostasy and rebellion against God. Now they had to wrestle with the credibility of Jeremiah’s prophecy. His prophecy suggested that God would use another conqueror to liberate the Babylonian captives. In essence, Jeremiah predicted that Jewish bondage in Babylon would last 70 years not 400 years experienced by an earlier generation of Jews in Egyptian bondage. Could God’s prophetic Word be trusted? Babylon was a superpower. Sure enough, another conqueror arose to challenge the Babylonian empire and Nebuchanezzar. Cyrus and the Persians stormed the capital city of Babylon and conquered it in 539 B.C. After discovering the situation of Babylonian exiles, Cyrus liberated them from captivity although he had the power to keep God’s people in bondage. Not only that, he sent them back to Jerusalem to rebuild their lives and the Holy City. Repentant exiles vowed to “never again be seduced by idolatry and the other gods.”
Shocked, surprised, weepy, caught in reality that seemed unreal, the Jewish exiles packed their bags for home. My imagination caught a vison of God’s people crying nay singing a new song not yet written. “Come ye that Love the Lord and let our joys be known. Join in a song with sweet accord, join in a song with sweet accord and thus surround the throne and this surround the throne. We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion. We’re marching upward to Zion, the beautiful city of God.” And we’re crying all the way. Amen.