Sunday, December 7th, 2014 – Second Sunday of Advent
Gower Christian Church, Gower, MO
Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8
Hymns: “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling”, “Here I Am to Worship”, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear”, “Angels We Have Heard on High”
Awake, My Soul! Pt. II
“In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord.”
I don’t know about you, but I feel like we’ve been down this road before, you and I. About, say, 364 days ago? A year ago tomorrow, the first time I stood on the chancel of this church and proclaimed the Word. I stood up here, I sang a song by Mumford and Sons, and then I preached a sermon in which I – at great length – discussed the Eisenhower Interstate Highway system.
But that was then, and this is now. A year ago, I spoke on John the Baptist’s message that the way had to be prepared so that the Lord could come and separate the wheat from the chaff, casting away the sin and saving the sinner, pouring out salvation as he thundered by on his highway in the wilderness. Today, however, I wish to speak not of the highway, but rather of the wilderness.
Wilderness has long been a significant part of the story for northwest Missouri. I would hazard a guess that most of you here have, at some point or another, at the very least driven through the intersection at 40th St. and Broadway, in the Westport district of Kansas City, where the Oregon, California, and Santa Fe Trails all came together before jumping off toward their respective destinations on the Western frontier. Today, it stands in the center of a part of the city that has become known for its unusually high population of a certain part of society known as “hipsters”, but in the mid-19th century, it served as the beginning of three highways into the wilderness.
Now, if you’re about my age, or a couple of years older or younger, you probably at some point in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s played a 16 bit computer game on either an early Mac or a 286-series PC, named The Oregon Trail. It was, of course, an educational game, based on the experiences of the travelers on the real Oregon Trail. And chances are, if you played that game, you at some point in your experience got this fun little message from the game:
And those of us who DID receive that message laugh, and if I’m not too terribly mistaken, my sister even has a shirt with that graphic on it, because for us, it’s a bit of nostalgia, a throwback to childhood. But for the people who actually embarked on those three trails, this was no laughing matter. Dysentery, cholera, snakebite, drowning in rivers, fires, stampeding oxen, raids by Native Americans who were less than pleased about the white man invading their land, freezing winters, baking hot summers, and in the case of the Donner Party, being eaten by your fellow travelers were all hazards that were encountered by the travelers on these three trails. The wilderness was an inhospitable place, and blazing the highway in that wilderness was risky business.
But for many of the people who nearly two hundred years ago set their eyes toward the Rockies and the Pacific Ocean and headed west, it was a risk that most of them had no choice but to take. To be sure, some pushed west because they could, and they wanted an adventure, but most headed west because their options in the eastern United States were virtually nil. Poverty, disease, crowding in the major cities had forced them into an exile of sorts, and so they headed toward the West Coast, following in the wake of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
The journeys were undertaken at great cost. Tens of thousands of graves – some still marked, but most unmarked – litter the trails that were blazed over the Rocky Mountains, across the Dakota Badlands, through the Utah deserts, pushing ever onward to reach the promised lands of the New Mexico highlands, the Willamette Valley, and the San Francisco Bay. But in spite of the cost, those who reached their new lands knew that they had arrived at home – their exile in the wilderness was at an end.
Comfort, oh comfort my people, says your God.
Much like the travelers on the trails to the West Coast, so too were the people of Israel lost in exile. Centuries of warfare against Assyria and Egypt had left them crippled and weak, and so when the Babylonians swept in early in the sixth century BC, they were powerless and defenseless. The armies of King Nebuchadnezzar laid waste to Jerusalem, ransacked the temple, and placed the people of Israel into bondage, marching them off to Babylon. Many died in the wilderness, and those who survived were forced into exile.
We see accounts throughout the books of the major prophets of the dismal and despairing lives of the Israelites in exile. Whether in the attempted murders of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego for their refusal to worship a false god in the golden statue of Nebuchadnezzar, or in the casting of Daniel into the pit of lions for his continued worship of the God of Israel, or in the desecration of the sacred objects from the Jerusalem temple by King Belshazzar, Israel suffers wave after wave of horrors as they waste away in exile in Babylon.
Finally, King Darius of Persia came riding victoriously into Babylon after some seven decades of exile for the people of Israel. Though it was he who had Daniel cast into the lions’ den based on the deceitful actions of his advisors, it was also he who liberated the people of Israel, permitting them to return to Jerusalem and funding the reconstruction of the temple, thus winning him the support of the priests of Israel and the traditional title of Darius the Great.
The prophet Isaiah, in the 40th chapter, speaks to this coming liberation. It is the comfort of which the Lord speaks to the people Israel, for the sins of the kings of Israel have been repaid not just in full, but double. “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord,” the people are told. They are to go forth from Babylon, returning to Jerusalem, and making straight in the desert the highway for their God.
And so, joyfully, victoriously, the people Israel returned to Jerusalem, their exile over. But even then… future disaster yet loomed.
Disaster was the furthest thing from the mind of Admiral Husband Kimmel and General Walter Short on the morning of Sunday, December 7th, 1941. Both knew that war with the Empire of Japan was likely imminent, but peace negotiations were ongoing between the United States and Japan, and the outlook was hopeful. As such, even though both had recognized the possibility of a sneak attack by Japanese submarine forces on the United States Pacific Fleet Command at Pearl Harbor, they were thoroughly unprepared when Japan’s naval aviation forces raided the harbor that morning.
It was just about this time of the morning when the first inbound aircraft were spotted on the Army’s radars on Hawaii; however, they were initially believed to be a flight of Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bombers inbound from California. By the time the soldiers manning the radars realized their mistake, it was too late.
The attack was swift, brutal, and complete: sixteen Navy ships were damaged or sank, with USS Arizona being completely destroyed. One hundred eighty-eight aircraft were destroyed, and American forces suffered three thousand, five hundred eighty-one casualties, with just over twenty-four hundred of those casualties being fatal. Under international law, the attack was later deemed to be a war crime, as Japan had not formally declared war, but such a verdict was of little comfort to the men and women at Pearl Harbor on that morning seventy-three years ago today.
On that morning, as the battle raged, the called servants of God continued their tasks as they always would, speaking comfort to God’s people even in the midst of turmoil and horror. Of those, Captain Thomas Kirkpatrick, on board USS Arizona, and Lieutenant Aloysius Schmitt, on board USS Oklahoma, both were killed as they administered pastoral care to the sailors on those battleships. As in Israel before them, not even the priests were spared the onslaught of the enemy. And when the smoke cleared and the desolation was exposed to the shining light of day, there was no doubt that a disaster had befallen the people. The grass had withered, the flower faded. In a time such as this, it would be hard to consider that the word of God would stand forever.
So too were the people of Israel suffering once more at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark. In the five hundred or so years since the end of the Babylonian exile, they had seen their nation be invaded again and again and again, by the Greeks, the Seleucids, and now the Romans. A hundred and sixty years before the birth of John the Baptist, the Maccabee Uprising had defeated the occupying Seleucids, but Israel had descended from there into a nearly century-long civil war before Rome intervened, forcing all Israel into submission and essentially creating an exile-in-place.
This disastrous episode in Israel’s history was still a sore spot when the thirty year old firebrand known as John came marching into the spotlight, declaring the coming of the King and preparing the highway for the Lord. He proclaimed that the Messiah would follow him, and that he himself was not worthy to stoop and untie the sandals of this King. “I have baptized you with water,” he declared, “but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
As we well know, John’s cousin, the one we call Jesus Christ, was not well received by most of the people of Israel. But then again, whereas the attack on Pearl Harbor was avenged at least symbolically (if not exactly practically) by James Doolittle’s marginally insane plan of launching B-25 bombers off of USS Hornet to attack Tokyo, the Roman occupation of Israel was not avenged by this coming Messiah marching into Rome and overthrowing Caesar. No, instead, he carried out his peaceful insurrection by preaching comfort to the people of Israel and declaring to those who would hear him that their penalty was paid, that salvation from their sins was at hand.
The people of Israel, exiled to Babylon, sought comfort from God. So too did the American exiles, pushing ever westward. The victims of the Pearl Harbor attacks and the people of Israel cried out in fear, and comfort was brought to them.
And so here, today, how does this passage speak to us? We are not exiles, we are not afflicted. In spite of what you may hear, Christians in this country are not being persecuted – we need only compare our situation to that of Christians, Jews, and Shi’ite Muslims in Iraq to see that truth. We have little to fear, and much good to embrace.
All of this means that it is put upon US to speak comfort to the people of God. It is put upon US to prepare the way in the wilderness. It is put upon US to say to the outcast, the oppressed, the marginalized, the put-upon, the down-trodden that they have served their term, that their penalty is paid. WE are now the prophets of God to speak comfort to God’s people and make straight the highway for our God – no longer just within ourselves, but in the vast desert of this land and all God’s creation.
Let us bring this good news to all the people so that WITH US, they may say, “Awake my soul, for you were made to meet your maker!” Just as I said it one year ago, I say again to each of you, as you prepare within yourselves a highway for the Lord, it is YOUR responsibility to improve the area, the world, the PEOPLE around it as well!
LISTEN to the good news given to us by the Lord. RECEIVE it with an open and willing heart. In the wilderness, PREPARE the way of the Lord. And speak forth the words of God to COMFORT God’s people in all places.