Preacher: Rev. David Exley,
Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-11,
Today marks the 103rd anniversary of the tragedy of Halifax Harbour. That tragic day in 1917 when two ships accidentally collided in the harbour—one, a French Vessel packed with explosives and the other, a Norwegian ship also attempting move through the narrows of the harbour. The collision caused (at the time) the largest human-made explosion. The blast launched parts of the ship miles away. The ship’s anchor—now a local monument—landed more than two miles away. The devastation was overwhelming. The explosion took the lives of 2,000 men and women, while leaving another 9,000 injured and 25,000 homeless. The region was devastated—overwhelmed by the devastation and loss, while also attempting to care for the wounded and rebuild the infrastructure. One of the most meaningful responses came from our neighbours to the South. Just hours after the tragedy, an envoy from Boston set out for the north bringing relief workers, supplies, food… everything that would be needed to care for the wounded and homeless.
Devastation like this creates a kind of wilderness—a desolate place of darkness and despair.
In ancient and medieval times there was a great distinction to be made between wilderness and paradise. One was (of course) celebrated while the other was feared. The wilderness was not something to explore (or retreat to), it was something to fear.
I can remember driving down Highway 90 not far from New Orleans just months after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the Gulf Coast region of the United States. It was a dark and desolate place. The destruction was almost too much to take in. In those moments one cannot help but ask the question—Where is God in all this?
We tend to think that God is present—most especially—in paradise. By contrast, God is absent from those wild, desolate places. This has a trickle down effect on us. It prompts us to think that when things are in ruins, God is not there AND when things are glorious and the blessings of life are present in our everyday living… well, that must mean that God is with us then.
But, the truth is—God is present in the wilderness; in the dark and desolate places. God is there in the midst of the rubble and the pain of our world… and of our lives.
And so, when we turn to Isaiah 40 we encounter a prophet who is speaking words of help and hope to people who found themselves in the wilderness; speaking to those whose very lives were in ruins.
The Israelites had just lost the land that God had promised them. The arrival of the Babylonians came like a devastating explosion as they marched into the Kingdom of Judah and laid waste to everything—the people, the Temple, and all those things associated with their God. It was the furthest thing from paradise for those who survived the invasion.
And so, it is here—in this dark and desolate wilderness—that God speaks to the people through the words of the prophet. —“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” the prophet writes.
We hear words of compassion and care. “Don’t be afraid” says Isaiah. It’s clear that the prophet is channeling God’s words of help and hope. It’s also clear that he understands what the people HAVE been through and what they ARE going through. He’s speaking to a people that have been traumatized.
American author and psychiatrist, Judith Lewis Herman, writes this about the experience of trauma. She says, “After a traumatic experience, the human system of self-preservation seems to go onto permanent alert, as if the danger might return at any moment.”
This time of exile is a time of wilderness wandering for the Israelites. They’re on their guard in every moment. They’re living in this state of permanent alert… and that is what informs their daily living. Isaiah is trying to refocus the people. He’s attempting to shift their focus back to God—to help them hear and see God in the midst of this wilderness that they find themselves in. They don’t believe it’s possible to meet God in this dark and desolate place, but the prophet invites them to move away from this state of permanent alert to a time of dreaming. Dreaming of a future where all will be made well.
There’s a similar theme in the gospel reading for this morning. The reading from the opening section of Mark’s gospel mirrors this passage from Isaiah. In those verses, we hear “the beginning of the Good News of Jesus”. John the Baptizer emerges onto the scene as a new prophet—one who will do what Isaiah did before him. In fact, the gospel writer quotes Isaiah saying, “Look, I am sending my messenger before you.
He will prepare your way, a voice shouting in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight.”
Where do we go to find God? We go to the wilderness. It is in that place where we will find God and, perhaps, where the road to glory will begin.
Advent is a time of recognizing our distance from God—the space between our dreams and the dreams of God. It’s easy to find ourselves lost in a wilderness of our own desires. What we need to do is acknowledge that distance and listen for God’s voice calling us back to where we belong.
Even before the pandemic began we knew what it was like to long for level highways; to long for uneven ground to become level, for rough terrain to be smoothed out. For we live in a world were we can hear those daily cries from people who have been pushed to the margins of society. If we open our eyes and our ears we can hear the cry of God—the One who is longing to lift up those in the valley and knock down those on top of the mountain. This is not a geographic dream that the prophet has, it is an economic one. It is a dream where we can physically see the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice.
Let’s go back to that story I shared at the beginning. One of the reasons we hear about the Halifax Explosion almost every December is because the people of Nova Scotia have an annual tradition that serves as a “thank you” to the people of Boston. Each year one glorious Christmas Tree is selected from the Halifax area and sent to the city of Boston—a tree that is installed in the Boston Commons every holiday season. It’s a wonderful gesture.
To add to the beauty of this story, when the Spanish Flu pandemic emerged (the very next year after the tragedy in Halifax Harbour), a team of doctors was sent to Boston to provide help when they most needed it.
God’s work so often begins in the wilderness—in a place of darkness and despair. Just think about the journey we’re on moving toward Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph found themselves displaced in this season, having to travel down an unexpected road to deliver God’s incarnate one. Jesus’ own life begins in darkness—in the wilderness—among the wild things. It’s there that God’s highway begin to take shape. It is there that God, “Like a shepherd”, will gather us all and gently guide us toward that common place where we will find comfort and joy. The journey won’t end in darkness and despair. The journey will end in us being given the gift that we so desperately need—the only gift that we really need. God’s light is what we need in this season of darkness and despair. And—perhaps this is the most important part of the journey—we need to remember that the light is not simply a destination for us.
In his most recent book, Richard Rohr reminds us that, “Light is not so much what you directly see as that by which you see everything else.”
The light doesn’t represent the end of the journey, it’s what allows us to begin the process of walking with God down that level highway toward that place where grace, mercy, justice, and love are at the heart of our being.
Our journey in Advent is a little like the journey that famous Nova Scotian tree takes every year—moving from wilderness to a place of light and love. The lighting of that tree is not an ending, it’s a beginning. For we seek not simply to find God’s light in the world. We seek the light so that we might see where the uneven ground needs to be made level. We follow the light so that every mountain and hill will be flattened. So that God’s love and grace can pour out into this wilderness world of ours—into the very hearts of all God’s people. Amen.