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A Voice in the Wilderness

Some of us enjoy travel more than others. Do you like to journey to far distant lands soaking up a climate and culture very different from what we normally experience here in Wales or are you quite happy to remain in Britain for holidays and time away enjoying all that these islands have to offer? Wherever we travel for business or for pleasure, the time comes for us to return home. When I was a child, I never liked the journey home, back to familiar things and routine. I just wanted the excitement of something new and unfamiliar. Now I still want to travel, to discover new things, but coming home has its own pleasures too, returning the familiar and the things which feel comfortable. As most people remark when they travel abroad, there’s nothing like getting home and putting the kettle on for a good cup of tea.
The words from the first reading today talk of homecoming, a homecoming yearned for with far greater longing than after even the worst holiday. The great cataclysmic event for Judah and Jerusalem was the invasion of their land and city by the all-powerful Babylonian Empire. Jerusalem was besieged and destroyed. The people suffered terrible deprivation. Many fled as refugees or were forcibly taken into captivity in Babylon itself. The recent war in Syria causing horrendous suffering and displacement of many innocent civilians is not unlike that which afflicted Judah and Jerusalem in the sixth century BC. The prophets had warned of these events. The people and leaders had many chances to seek God and his protection rather than trusting the political alliances they had made with surrounding nations. But they would not listen. Jerusalem was deserted when the people left. As Boney M sang after Psalm 137: ‘How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?’
The second part of Isaiah’s prophecies opens with the words we heard this morning. ‘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.’ (Isaiah 40.1-2) Through his prophet, the Lord gives notice that the people will be going home; Jerusalem will be recovered, and all shall be well.
We can only begin to imagine the emotions that these words would have stirred in the hearts of Judean people after years of hardship and exile. There was to be a home coming. They could begin to discover their houses once again, to rebuild the city of Jerusalem and re-establish the temple with its rituals and worship of God. A way will be open to them, a road built for their homecoming; ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ (Isaiah 40.3) The words are more figurative than literal. Such a highway was probably never built. But it was a powerful metaphor, a mental picture of how God would enable his people to return under Ezra and Nehemiah. Such highways that were built were intended more for the triumphal processions of kings than a means of rapid transportation. Now God was making clear that he was sovereign, and his people could return home and rebuild their city and communities.
Today, there are stories beginning to emerge from Iraq and Syria of families returning from exile, from refugee camps, and regaining their former communities. Our Christian brothers and sisters are particularly keen to get their churches functioning again, open for worship. In this they are being supported by organisations such as Open Doors and Barnabas. Please pray for them and support financially if you can.
But our situation, our context is neither the biblical Babylonian oppression nor twenty first century middle east. Does the call of Isaiah to prepare the way of the Lord, to get ready for a homecoming of God’s people still speak to us?
Today, the church remembers the birth of John the Baptist. Our gospel reading tells us the story of his birth and the special interventions of God which ensure that he is given the name John. At his birth, there is a palpable sense of God’s presence. There is a holy fear, the circumstances of his birth are talked about throughout the country of Judea. People said of John: ‘‘What then will this child become?’ For indeed, the hand of the Lord was with him.’ (Luke 1.65-66) When John is grown up and begins his ministry, he uses these same words from Isaiah: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth.’ (Luke 3.4-5 after Isaiah) John does not use this text to speak about a return of the people from a time of exile or the rebuilding of a city after siege. His message is a spiritual and moral one. He is concerned with the sin which he encountered, the greed and selfishness of the people which rendered them no longer worthy to be called ‘God’s People’. He calls those who respond to use resources fairly so that none go without. The revenue people, the tax collectors should not be fraudulent, collecting more than was due and soldiers should not abuse their power. (Luke 3.10-14) Those who headed his message; who repented of such behaviour were baptised by John in the river Jordan as a sign of and intention to live a new life. This message and those who responded in penitence to it could be likened to building a highway, filling in mountains and raising valleys to prepare for the king; the
Messiah and Lord; Jesus who would walk in a way paved by those with broken and contrite hearts ready to receive him.
It is this reworking of Isaiah’s prophecy through the teaching of John the Baptist which speaks to our situation. Following Isaiah, John talks of a ‘voice crying in the wilderness.’ (Luke 3.4) The culture and society in which we live has shifted significantly in recent years so that it may be likened to a wilderness. We all enjoy the benefits of instant communication, rapid transport and improved health care. Many aspects of our lives are much easier than previous generations as any TV show like ‘A House Through Time’ broadcast on BBC 2 earlier this year, will tell us. The problem with our cushier lifestyles is that we learn rely on one another less. Material goods and their acquisition become more important. Selfishness creeps in and the need for spiritual and moral support declines. When we cast our eyes around our town and this estate and many like it, we see fragmented relationships, people living in fear of former partners, lives wrecked by drug and alcohol abuse, children not having the support, security and attention they need. For many, the situation is not helped by undue dependence on the market economy by governments and politicians of all shades which continues to fuel and ever widening gap between rich and poor. It could be likened to Babylon.
Yet, the voice still cries in the wilderness. From verse 6, there is a conversation in heaven: ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are like grass…like flowers of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows upon it. But the word of our God will stand forever.’ (Isaiah 40.6-8) The answers that many offer to the wilderness situation are fleeting and fading as are the spring flowers in the hot sun of the Mediterranean. It is God’s word which stands for ever, the gospel which offers a highway of returning and homecoming for those who are disposed and disaffected. There are times when we can wring our hands as church and Christians feeling we have nothing to say. John was the voice in the wilderness. Jesus, our triumphal Lord has walked the highway, by his cross and resurrection driving a cart and horses through death itself declaring himself to be the way to our true home in heaven. Let us never be ashamed of this gospel which calls all from wilderness, from asylum to homecoming. May we honour John’s birth today by being the voice which still cries in the wilderness.

Nativity of John the Baptist 24.06.2018

Rev Jonathan Smith

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