Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’
Sometimes, the world can’t wait.
I know that sounds like a funny thing for a pastor to say during Advent- a season known to be a time of waiting— of prayerful expectation and hopeful anticipation. But sometimes, the world simply cannot wait. When it comes to those without homes or heat in the wintertime, for example, or when it comes to the growing disparity between the rich and poor and the people all around the world who live on less than $2 a day, the world simply cannot wait. When it comes to those who struggle to put food on the table, let alone put presents under the tree, or when it comes to the single mother who will run out of food stamps before Christmas, or the father who has to tell his family he still can’t find work, the world simply cannot wait. When it comes to children who are living in refugee camps, or young school girls kidnapped by terrorists, or children killing children with guns, the world simply cannot wait. And when it comes to racial prejudice— in a country where blacks are six times as likely as whites to go to prison and serve longer sentences for the exact same crimes, in a world where a 12 year old black boy can be shot and killed by police for having a toy gun, brothers and sisters I have to tell you— the world absolutely cannot wait.
Advent is known to be a time of waiting, that is true. But as the prophet Isaiah makes clear in this morning’s reading, it is not a passive waiting that we are called to do. It is not sitting around waiting for God to come down and make everything better with one miraculous act. It is an active anticipation and participation— “prepare the way of the Lord,” the prophet Isaiah declares, make a highway for our God in this wilderness world. Tear down the mountains of inequality. Raise up the valleys of injustice. Make the rough places of oppression smooth. Don’t just sit around and wait. Prepare the way of the Lord.
Certainly, for the prophet Isaiah and his people, theirs was a world that could not wait. They had been living in exile for 70 years in Babylon. Their beloved city of Jerusalem had been sacked and destroyed and their cherished institutions, including the temple built by King Solomon himself, were in shambles. Their ability to practice their faith had been severely handicapped. And so it’s not so hard to imagine that after 70 years of exile, after 70 years of waiting for justice and freedom, many would have given up hope. And it was in that context that Isaiah’s words were first spoken. “Comfort, O comfort my people,” the Lord speaks tenderly to the people of Israel in exile. “Prepare the way of the Lord for all people and you shall see the glory of the Lord together.” Writer Maggi Dawn notes that the word translated here as ‘comfort’ can actually be translated more accurately as ‘encourage.’ And so it wasn’t just passive comfort that Isaiah was offering his people as they sat around and waited for something to change. It was encouragement and motivation to act— it was encouragement to draw themselves up out of despair, even in the midst of wilderness, and keep going. In a world that could not wait, God spoke to the people of Israel and told them to prepare the way.
Well brothers and sisters, ours also is a world that cannot wait. I’m sure by now many of you have heard the news about Eric Garner. He was a black man in Staten Island killed by a white police officer using an prohibited choke hold, even after it was determined he was unarmed, even after his protests that he couldn’t breathe. Just this past week the news came out that there will be no criminal charges brought against the officer. Now Eric Garner may not have been a saint, but he did not deserve to die, and the terrible reality now is that no one will be held accountable for his death. And now, with things barely quieted down after the protests in Ferguson, MO last week, even more protesters are pouring into the streets. Closing down shopping malls. Disrupting activity at Grand Central Station. Shutting down Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. Maybe you are just now tuning into this national debate. Maybe you wonder what all the fuss is about-- why all the protests and anger and gnashing of teeth over one or two isolated cases? But the truth is, this isn’t just about Eric Garner, or even Michael Brown. It’s about the long and growing list of black men and boys whose lives didn’t seem to matter enough for there to be some kind of accountability for their deaths. And so it’s not just about Eric Garner or Michael Brown. It’s also about Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin. Sean Bell. Michael Donald. Oscar Grant. Tim Stansbury. Kimani Gray. Friends, the list could go on and on. “I can’t breathe” were the last words that Garner said. Those same words have been taken up by protesters in NYC and all around the country. “We can’t breathe,” people are crying out. In a world where people are literally suffocating under the weight of systemic racism and violence towards African Americans, the world simply cannot continue to wait for the mountains of prejudice and injustice to be razed to the ground and for the valleys of inequality to be raised up.
In our call to worship this morning, which we read as we lit the candles of hope and peace on our Advent wreath, we proclaimed that during Advent, we watch and wait and pray for the coming of God’s light into the world. And this is true. We are always waiting for God’s light to be born anew. We are always watchful for how God will act in the world and in our lives, for God is still speaking and God is still moving in the world. God is always breaking into the world and breaking into our lives in new and surprising ways, and so we watch and wait and pray for these things, as we rightly should. But we also have a part to play in the coming of God’s kingdom. We are not passive bystanders, we are active agents of Christ’s peace and hope. And so perhaps the most pressing question for all of us this morning, this Advent season, and indeed for the way we live our lives all year long, is how? How do we level the mountains of injustice? How do we raise up the valleys of inequality? How do we make the rough places of oppression smooth again? The problems of the world can seem so insurmountable. The sins of racism, especially, can seem so deeply and systematically entrenched. How and where do we even begin? What does God want us to do?
Well I humbly offer that maybe we begin by opening our eyes and seeing the truth of inequality and prejudice that still exists in our country. Maybe we begin by recognizing those places where we stand on uneven ground—for the highway cannot be built if we cannot first see the obstacles that lay before us. Those of us who are white are called to open our eyes to our own privilege and open our ears to the cries of despair from our black sisters and brothers. We are called to open our hearts to their pain. Because until we open our eyes, ears, and hearts— until we start listening to one another and learning from one another, we will remain in exile from one another, and we will continue to stand on uneven ground. But when we open our eyes and our ears and our hearts to the cries of our brothers and sisters for justice— that’s when we start paving the way for God’s healing to begin. And once we open our eyes to the uneven ground that does exist, once we are aware there is a gap between those with privilege and those without, that’s when we are able to seek out those places and stand in that gap with empathy, compassion, and solidarity. We can seek out conversations and experiences with those who are different from us. We can read the stories of minority voices. We can put ourselves in situations that push us beyond our comfort zone. We can stand in the gap-- which may feel a bit like the wilderness to us. But once there, maybe then we can start to build bridges together. Maybe then we can start paving a highway for our God together.
This is not easy stuff. And perhaps it’s easier to say that racism is a problem for other people to deal with. Not for us—not here in Connecticut, not here in liberal New England. But as Martin Luther King said so eloquently in his letter from Birmingham Jail—“injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever effects one directly, affects all indirectly.” In that same letter he also said that there comes a time when people living under systems of injustice reach a moment “when their cup of endurance runneth over, and men and women are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”
Make no mistake— we are seeing this moment happen in our country right now. Turn on the nightly news in any major city in this country and you will see protests and demonstrations— images of people whose cup of endurance has indeed runneth over. People whose despair has reached the point that they can no longer privately bear it. It’s time to open our eyes and ears and hearts and listen to them. It’s not always easy to do. Sometimes it hurts to hear what they have to say. But it’s the only path to healing that I know of. And I truly believe if we can stand in that wilderness gap— uncomfortable though it may be— with open eyes, ears, and hearts— that we will find God there. That we will hear God speaking to us there in that place. And that there, finally, standing on level ground, we will see the glory of the Lord revealed to all of us together.
Amen, and may it be so.