A sermon for the second Sunday of Advent

Today, the second Sunday of Advent, we light the second candle on the Advent wreath, the one that’s meant to remind us of the prophets, according to one old church tradition. And we hear in the Gospel the beginning of the public ministry of John the Baptist in the wilderness. John was sort of a bridge figure from those Old Testament prophets to the New Testament. He picks up their message and he points to Jesus. So half of today’s Gospel is actually a quote from Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight His paths.”

We remember the prophets in the two prayers we said at the beginning of the service: the candle-lighting prayer, and the collect for the day. We pray for grace to hear the message of the prophets, to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus into our hearts and into the world. To be ready so that we might be able to greet his coming with joy.

Especially in this season, when we think of the prophets, we remember those familiar verses that point to the coming of a Messiah. The first-century Christians poured over those texts as they were struggling to understand exactly what the coming of this Jesus Christ meant, and how to interpret it. Many of these prophetic texts are quoted in the New Testament. So they’re familiar to us because we hear them in church—in our readings, and our hymns—and outside of music in music like that great piece, Handel’s Messiah, which is performed secularly, but certainly is a religious composition. Maybe if you’re a Messiah fan, when I read, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” and when I got to the “every valley” part, maybe you heard that beautiful tenor air. I know I did in my head. Luckily for you, I didn’t burst into song.

These texts are so familiar to us. “A virgin shall conceive a child,” and, “A little child shall lead them.” “A child is born to us. A son is given to us.” They’re so familiar that we tend to think that the writings of the prophets were all about predicting the Messiah. And in fact, that’s just one of three things we remember them for.

First and most importantly: In their own time, six and seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, they were speaking critically to their society, pointing out where people were failing in their relationship with God. But also, although their preaching had a very specific meaning for their own times, it turns out that their words have meaning for us also, illuminating our own relationship with God.

I think maybe one of the best examples of that is the greatToday, the second Sunday of Advent, we light the second candle on the Advent wreath, the one that’s meant to remind us of the prophets, according to one old church tradition.

And we hear in the Gospel the beginning of the public ministry of John the Baptist in the wilderness. John was sort of a bridge figure from those Old Testament prophets to the New Testament. He picks up their message and he points to Jesus. So half of today’s Gospel is actually a quote from Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight His paths.”

We remember the prophets in the two prayers we said at the beginning of the service: the candle-lighting prayer, and the collect for the day. We pray for grace to hear the message of the prophets, to prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus into our hearts and into the world. To be ready so that we might be able to greet his coming with joy.

Especially in this season, when we think of the prophets, we remember those familiar verses that point to the coming of a Messiah. The first-century Christians poured over those texts as they were struggling to understand exactly what the coming of this Jesus Christ meant, and how to interpret it. Many of these prophetic texts are quoted in the New Testament. So they’re familiar to us because we hear them in church—in our readings, and our hymns—and outside of music in music like that great piece, Handel’s Messiah, which is performed secularly, but certainly is a religious composition. Maybe if you’re a Messiah fan, when I read, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” and when I got to the “every valley” part, maybe you heard that beautiful tenor air. I know I did in my head. Luckily for you, I didn’t burst into song.

These texts are so familiar to us. “A virgin shall conceive a child,” and, “A little child shall lead them.” “A child is born to us. A son is given to us.” They’re so familiar that we tend to think that the writings of the prophets were all about predicting the Messiah. And in fact, that’s just one of three things we remember them for.

First and most importantly: In their own time, six and seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, they were speaking critically to their society, pointing out where people were failing in their relationship with God. But also, although their preaching had a very specific meaning for their own times, it turns out that their words have meaning for us also, illuminating our own relationship with God.

I think maybe one of the best examples of that is the great prophet Amos, who was active about 750 years before Christ. He was the first of the really great prophets. And his message was, in particular, as with many of the prophets, about justice, about how the poor were being treated. He had harsh words for those who went to church, as it were, and prayed devoutly, and then went out and turned their backs on the poor, and exploited the poor.

That’s a message for us too, in our society. Probably the verse in Amos that is most familiar to us today is something we know because the Rev. Doctor Martin Luther King used it in his preaching. It’s the one that talks about letting justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. So Amos is a wonderful example of a prophet who criticized his own society and spoke a message that we need to take to heart in our own times.

So many of these prophetic texts have been set to music, not only in pieces like Messiah, but in hymns and carols that we know in church. Connecting the words with music has a way of pinning them to our hearts. The hymn we sang right before the gospel, “Comfort, comfort ye my people,” is also something comes from Isaiah. In fact, it’s in the same chapter that was quoted in the Gospel. These words come from the part that’s right before that: “Comfort, comfort ye my people.”

The woman I mentioned last week, the writer Paula Gooder, who wrote the book called The Meaning Is in the Waiting.” It’s the best book about Advent that I’ve ever read. It illuminated so much about the season, and how Advent waiting isn’t empty: it’s active, and it’s meaningful to us.

Gooder says that those words in English translation—that whole “Comfort, comfort ye my people” section of Isaiah 40–Gooder says the English translation really fails to convey the sense of echoing voices; the sense that God is not just offering comfort, God is looking for people to proclaim the message of comfort. The message is proclaimed, and picked up, and passed from person to person, until all the hills resound with the cry, “Comfort, comfort my people.” So it’s a message that begins with hearing, and it leads to transformation. And the next step in transformation is picking up the cry, and echoing it ourselves.

This hymn, I know we just sang it, all the words just came out of our mouths, but when I looked at it last week, several times, I just thought it was so rich with meaning. No only that meaning of comfort and transformation, but so much about what the prophets that we look to at Advent are about. What I thought I would like to do, is read it to you again. I’ve asked Vaughn to provide just a little bit of musical background. I’m not going to sing it, I’m going to read it. Close your eyes if you want to. Listen carefully. Hear it as a message of comfort, but also take that message to heart, and let yourselves be transformed. And maybe go out of here singing, or at least remembering to echo that message of comfort to the world.

Comfort, comfort ye my people, speak ye peace, thus saith our God;
comfort those who sit in darkness mourning ’neath their sorrows’ load.
Speak ye to Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them;
tell her that her sins I cover, and her warfare now is over.

Hark, the voice of one that crieth in the desert far and near,
calling us to new repentance since the kingdom now is here.
Oh, that warning cry obey! Now prepare for God a way;
let the valleys rise to meet him and the hills bow down to greet him.

Make ye straight what long was crooked, make the rougher places plain;
let your hearts be true and humble, as befits his holy reign.
For the glory of the Lord now o’er earth is shed abroad;
and all flesh shall see the token that the word is never broken.