Dec. 10. 2017: Advent 2B (English)

Advent 2B: Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8
Zion Lutheran Church, December 10th, 2017

Grace be to you and peace from God our father and the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

I was about five years old when my parents had to leave town for a few days. They left me in the care of my Godfather and his family. I had been at their house often, knew the family well, and loved that they had kids about my age. Everything was fine.

Until I got sick. I developed some kind of fever. I don’t remember the exact nature of my illness, but I still have this image in my mind: Me lying on a fold-away bed in the corner of the living room under a blanket and crying. Everything had been great; but as soon as I got sick I wanted to be home. I wanted to be where I belonged. I wanted to be with the people who loved me most in the world.

And then the door opened and my mother came in. She sat down on the bed next to me and took me into her arms and said soothingly: “It’s okay. I am here now. I love you. And I will bring you home.”

Today, God is speaking very similar words to the people of Israel.

The people of Israel are in exile in Babylon. The Babylonian army had ransacked the Holy Land in a brutal war, had destroyed the temple, had looted the nation, and then had deported 10,000 of the leading citizens of Israel to Babylon. There they sat in captivity in a foreign land, stunned by what had happened to them. It is in this situation that Psalm 137 was written: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept. How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?”

They felt very far away from God, away from home, away from hope.

Into this situation, the Prophet Isaiah shows up with words of hope: “Comfort, o comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid. O Zion, herald of good tidings, say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’”

Israel was depressed and homesick and felt very alone and forsaken in the world. They were not unlike me as a small child under the blanket. I was feeling lonely and homesick and wishing for my mom to come and love me and bring me home. And she came and did just that.

Israel is receiving the same promise from God today. The Prophet tells God’s people that God is coming to comfort them. God is inviting the nation to start the journey back, back to the promised land, back into a loving, healthy, blessed relationship with God. Good things will be happening. The future holds so much promise, because God is coming with might to bring his people home.

John the Baptist has a very similar message. One is coming, he announces, one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. Get ready for him.

How should people get ready? By repenting. By turning their lives around. By moving in the direction of God. John encouraged people to be baptized, dunked in the Jordan River as an outward sign of washing away their past sins. From the water they emerge refreshed, with a new commitment to faithfulness.

Both Isaiah and John are prophets who announce that good things are coming, that God wants to repair his relationship with his people, that past sins are forgiven and a new path back to God is opening up. Turn your life around, repent, turn your life to God and God’s will for you. Start this journey now. For God is already on his way.

That journey is a journey of hope and leads to great blessings. However, that does not mean the journey is easy.

Israel will eventually be allowed to leave Babylon and return home to the Promised Land. The journey through the desert is hard. The land they arrive in is devastated. They have to start from scratch.

John will soon be arrested, thrown in prison, and eventually beheaded because of his message of repentance. Many of the disciples suffer hostility, prison terms, expulsion, and harassment once they turn their life around and focus on God’s will.

We, too, know how hard it is to change our life habits. Even when we know that good things wait at the end, we are stumbling on the path there. We know that losing some weight would be good for us; we would be healthier, more energetic, and have a lower risk of diabetis. Does knowing this make it easy to stick to a diet? No; especially not this time of year.

We know that our life would be richer and more fulfilled if we turned off our screens more often and instead interacted with live people, playing games, telling stories, serving others. But do we do it? No, we spent hours and hours in front of the TV or swiping our smart phone to read up about people we know on facebook. Turning that around is tough.

We know that our relationships with spouses and partners, children and parents, friends and co-workers would be improved if we would learn to listen better and invest time and patience and love in our relationships. Our lives would be so much richer and happier and more peaceful if we really worked on those relationships. But does knowing that make our efforts along this new path any easier? No.

The good news that God is going to bring his people home, that Jesus is bringing people back into his kingdom, comes with the challenge of taking the first steps in this journey.

That’s where this verse in Isaiah’s prophecy is so important: “Here is your God!” God is already here. Yes, God is leading you on a journey back home, to a more blessed life. But that doesn’t mean he is just waiting for you there at the end point until you get there. No. God is here now, God is with you now. God will help you on this journey. God will assist you when you take the first step and the second step and every step after that.

The comfort Isiah pronounces is not only the comfort of a glorious future with God. It is also the comfort of knowing God to be near now, while we are still captive or depressed or lost. “See, here is your God!” God is right here to encourage, strengthen, support, and bless your journey home to peace and reconciliation.

This week, my husband and I watched a movie that illustrates this truth beautifully. The movie is called “The Straight Story”. It tells the true story of a man named Alvin Straight who is growing old in a small town in Iowa. Alwin has a brother, Lyle, to whom he used to be very close, but about ten years ago they had a falling out and haven’t spoken since.

One day, Alwin gets word that his brother has had a stroke. Alwin decides that he needs to go and see his brother and reconcile with him before he dies. The problem is that Lyle lives in Wisconsin. Alwin no longer has a driver’s license because his eyes are bad. How will he make the journey to his brother?

Being a tough and determined man, Alwin builds a little trailer, hooks it up to his riding lawn mower, and sets out to drive the 240 miles. His lawn mower is 30 years old, his trailer is rickety plywood with a tarp over it, his mower has a top speed of 5 miles per hour, Alwin has bad hips and walks with two canes, and he has very little money. But Alwin is determined to make peace with his brother while he can, and off he goes.

It is a tough journey, sitting on the lawn mower hour after hour, getting into the dust from trucks on the road and grain harvests on the fields he passes, cooking wieners over a camp fire by night and sleeping in that rickety trailer.

There are dangers along the road. Once his breaks give out as he is coming down a steep slope into a small town. Alwin leaves home in September; five weeks into the trip, the weather is getting ever colder.

However, there are also blessings along this journey, signs that God is making this trek with him.

He meets a young woman who had run away from home. Around the campfire that night, they talk about the value of family. In the morning, she has already left to go back home to her parents.

He meets a war veteran. Together they sit in a restaurant and share painful memories from battle that they had not been able to share with anyone else.

He camps in a cemetery one night and the local pastor brings him dinner and sits and talks with him.

After his lawn mower breaks, a local man lets Alwin camp in his back yard, lets him use the phone to call his daughter, and joins him for conversations around the camp fire.

This man actually offers to drive Alwin the last 60 miles to his brother’s house, but Alwin replies: “I have to do this my way, on my own.” There are no short-cuts on the way home to peace and reconciliation.

Finally, after weeks of travel, Alwin arrives at his brother’s house. It is a ramshackle hut and looks deserted. But when Alwin calls his name, Lyle immediately recognized his brother’s voice and comes out onto the porch. The two old men stand there facing each other, one on two canes, the other on a walker. Lyle looks at the riding lawn mower with the rickety trailer and asks: “Did you came all that way on that thing to see me?”

Alwin says: “Yes.”

No other words are exchanged. But the two men sit there on the porch, smiling. Home. Reconciled. At peace.

It is that kind of journey that Isaiah and John urge us to make. It will require determination and commitment. It will be tough at times. But God will be there along the way with countless blessings. And the journey will lead us to the joy of feeling at home, having made peace with others, having a life in sync with God’s will, and having met God in ways we had never expected.

It is Advent. Let us prepare for Christ’s coming. Let us begin the journey. Amen.

And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

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