This sermon was a lot of fun. I got the chance to preach at one of the Wednesday evening Advent services at my wife's church, Desert Cross Lutheran in Tempe. It was really great to lead worship together.
The text for this little sermonette was Isaiah 40:3-9 (you can click on that to read those verses online)
Also you should know that I was holding an Apple in my hand as I was preaching this.
I have something here in my hand… and it is something that I’m sure you recognize. You’ve seen one just like this before, you’ve probably tasted one, smelled one, held one in you hand. You probably also have a word for this thing…. Don’t you. Even now as I’m talking to you that word is floating around in your head… it is at the tip of your tongue and it is projected on that screen just behind your eyes. You can see that word because you know it so well and, to you, and to me, this thing in my hand does not exist without that word. The word is the thing. The word is APPLE and this thing IS an Apple.
But I want you to try for a minute to think of this thing without the word. I want you to look at it and just know what it is without using the word. When I ask myself to do this… my reaction is to think of all the other words that describe this thing. So…. If I can’t use its name, I’ll use its characteristics. Words like red, round, smooth, sweet, juicy. Now at least with all of these words I can build a pretty good picture of this thing and I can even tell someone else what it would be like… so much so that they might even be able to identify it as an Apple.
But what if I ask you to think about this Apple without the word Apple and now without the words round and red and sweet and smooth. What if I just ask you to think about this thing without using words at all. It’s not very easy is it? To begin with, this is a hard thing to even wrap our head around: “what does it even mean to think about this apple without using words?” and then even if you can go along with it, it’s really hard to find meaning without using these words. Now think about how hard it would be to think about something less concrete without using words…. Something like hope, or love, or peace?
You see, a word is not just a collection of letters that makes it easier for us to communicate… a word is a symbol. It is a way that we can make meaning from some concept that is outside of ourselves. So we see the roundness of this Apple and we can understand it because of the word round…. We taste the juiciness of it and we understand it because of the word juicy. In this same way we can talk about feelings like hope and love because we have these words to identify them, and relate to them, and remember when we felt them.
Now I want you to go back with me to that feeling when I told you to try not to use any words…. Imagine that frustration and difficulty. It is more than a little upsetting to have these concepts and be able to communicate them. Now imagine if you had never been taught any language, imagine the desolation that your life would be if you had no way of giving any meaning to things like sweet, soft, smooth… love, peace, hope… I will tell you that the desolation would be very deep indeed. You see without your sense of meaning and significance the world is a very plain and simple place…. It is nothing more than images of hot and cold, dark and light, rock and ice, green, red, blue, yellow…. And you would be nothing more than a casual observer just perceiving the world around you and watching it pass by.
The book of Isaiah from which we read tonight is a book about a prophet speaking to God’s people… Last week you may remember that Valerie told you that Isaiah is a ‘prophet’ not because he foretells the future but because he points a people to the ways that God is active in the world. So then we have a prophet speaking to a whole community of people who are in exile and telling them about the ways that God is speaking to them and acting in their lives.. They are living their lives in persecution and oppression because they have been removed from their homes and their homeland and are in the midst of the despair and desolation and their prophet is speaking words of hope to them.
Okay… so do you remember all that stuff about words and meaning? Now when I asked you to imagine what it would be like to live in a world without those words, you may have pictured the world that I described which is a world of desolation and a world removed from meaning. This is in many ways similar to the life of exile, it is a life lived apart from that which gives your life meaning. For the people of Israel their land and their temple was the way that they had understand their life to have meaning and importance. Without that they were lost and directionless.
And into that darkness and into that desolation Isaiah speaks these Words. They are WORDS. Words of comfort and WORDS of hope, and these WORDS have the power to give comfort and to give hope because they are the WORDS of God. They are the words that speak hope and comfort and identify that it is God that is speaking hope and comfort to these people.
In this wilderness of desolation and despair when all hope and meaning is lost. God says the WORD of the Lord will stand forever. And even though the things of this world fade and wither, like the Grass and the Flower, the Word of God endures.
And so here in on our Advent this night… as we reach out to God in the midst of our pain and sadness, when our suffering and sickness leave us feeling as though we are alone in the wilderness… We remember that into that wilderness the way of the Lord is prepared. The WORD of the Lord is spoken into our stark silence and we are again reminded that God is coming a little bit at a time, day by day, to bring meaning, and value, and joy and hope to our lives. And we remember in the Dark night… that in the beginning was the WORD and the WORD was with God and the WORD was God… and as every word we speak brings meaning into our Chaotic world…. Into this dark night a baby is born….