Isaiah 40, Mark 1, Luke 1
The season of Advent is full of holy messengers, and holy messages. This morning we have heard from three: the Prophet Isaiah, the angel Gabriel, and John the Baptist. These are familiar figures to many of us – we hear them every year at this time. They are so familiar, in fact, that we may forget just how strange they are, or what surprising things they have to say. So let’s review:
Isaiah was probably not one prophet, but many, speaking to the people Israel at different points in history. Prophets have the job of telling God’s truth to a group of people who are having trouble hearing it. Sometimes God’s truth is a comfort to hear; and other times it can be very uncomfortable. We usually like the beautiful things Isaiah has to say in Advent, but don’t be fooled – Isaiah knew how to dish it out, as any good prophet does. Even in the lovely passage this morning, the words he speaks have an unsettling message. “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.” The whole landscape will change, Isaiah says, as a result of the coming of God. Our preschool class explored that idea last week, when they used playdough to reform hills and valleys.
The next messenger we hear this morning is Gabriel, the angel. Usually Gabriel is pictured with sweet curls and beautiful feathered wings, like on the cover of the bulletin today. But all we really know about angels is that they are messengers of God. We don’t know whether they’re nice to look at, or whether they can fly. When Gabriel appears to Zechariah, and to Mary, they are both troubled and filled with fear. He has to tell them: do not be afraid. He tells Mary that her child “will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” This may sound good, but it means that a kind of revolution is about to happen. Not exactly comforting news.
Our third messenger is the strangest yet. John the Baptist, also a prophet, is famous for his fondness for wearing camel’s hair (a strange fashion choice) and eating insects (not my favorite food); and for his harsh preaching style. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke report that John called the congregation who gathered at the Jordan River to listen to him a brood of vipers. He told them they would be tested by God, and any part of them that wasn’t good would be cut down or burned up.
There are a lot of messengers, and a lot of messages, in the season of Advent. But they’re not very much like the greeting cards that we send out and receive this season. You know the cards I mean, with words like “Happy” and “Merry”; “Joy” and “Peace.” The cards that have pictures of dressed up families or decorated trees or flying doves or chubby winged cherubs.
The messages we hear at church are different. They come from messengers we might be scared to meet today. They contain things we might be scared to hear today. As I said last week, these early weeks of Advent are harsh on our ears, but good for our hearts. We hear about a promise much more serious and surprising than we may expect in this merry season. Here it is again, this week, from these messengers of God: the promise that God will arrive and change the landscape; start a revolution; and purify us with fire.
It’s one thing to get a message, and another to really hear it. So I wonder: what do you hear in these holy messages? How do you think our landscape needs to change? What kind of revolution do you think we need today? How do you need to be transformed this season?
Take some time to read the messages from the scriptures listed above, and choose a phrase or sentence to keep with you this season. Try to listen to what it might have to say in your life. But also remember that God didn’t stop sending Holy Messengers two thousand years ago. They’re still arriving, often with faces and forms and words we don’t expect. What other messages is God sending for you to hear this season? And what message does God have for you to share – how could you become a holy messenger yourself?
God, thank you for all your Holy Messengers, and your Holy Messages, ancient and new. Help us to really hear them, to ponder them in our hearts, so that we might be part of the remaking of your world this season.