12 04 11 Lifting High the Valleys and Making Low the Hills

My sermon from December 4th, 2011 based on Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8.

This morning we continue our Advent journey. As we discussed last week, Advent is the season of preparation leading up to our celebration and remembrance of Christ’s birth. As we use this season to prepare I want to invite you to be intentional about what it is for which we are preparing. If you were with us last week I hope you’ll remember the two different, paths of preparation that we can travel during this season of Advent.

One path is the path that begins back in mid-September sometime now preparing to celebrate and remember the birth of Christ on December 25th. The preparations along this journey include the planning, budgeting, making of lists, shopping, wrapping, decorating, baking, delivering, and celebrating with friends and family that we do during the month of December each year. As Christians there can be great value in remembering and celebrating the birth of Christ. Christmas is a magical time of year!

However, my fear is that the world today drives us to focus nearly all of our energy on preparing for these material celebrations. Oftentimes it is hard to find the time and energy to focus on the other type of preparation that this season of Advent can be about. The other path that Advent offers us the opportunity to travel is one to reflect, to be in prayer, to ponder, to contemplate, to study, to think about what it means that the son of God came into this world as a little baby and that the son of God will come again.

It’s a tough thing to balance these often competing paths. We want to focus more on the path of preparing our hearts and souls and lives for the coming of Christ into the world and the coming of Christ into our lives, but there is so much to do, isn’t there? And then like we talked about last week, this is a really tough time of year for so many people, and the days are short and the weather is cold, and the skies are often cloudy and gray.

I invite you during this season of Advent to name and claim the stressful realities that you’re experiencing. There is great pressure to keep up with the Jones, There is the sense of obligation to families (whether it’s buying enough of the right kinds of gifts for kids or spending enough time with the right sets of parents and grandparents at the right times). There is pain of broken and hurting relationships amplified by the societal pressure to be joyful and cheery during this most wonderful time of the year. Again, it’s a tough season and it’s ok to admit that to yourself. Would it be helpful for you to just speak that out loud… “This is a tough time of year!”

As we make our preparations during this season of Advent, I invite you to ask yourself a question that I have found myself asking over the last couple of weeks, “Does it have to be this way?” Or maybe to put it another way, “Is this (the stress, pressure, expectation, anxiety) what Christmas is really all about?

What our Bibles contain as the book of Isaiah today was written some 500 – 700 years before Jesus was born. These 66 books record a significant part of the story of the people of God. Scholars have divided these 66 books in Isaiah into three different sections each section believed to be authored by someone different under slightly different sets of circumstances. All of them written in the tradition of the prophet Isaiah.

Chapters 1-39 were written as a prophecy of doom for a sinful nation that had strayed away from and was rebelling against God. Traditionally it is believed that these words were written prior to a period of several decades known as the Babylonian captivity a time when the region was conquered by Babylonian forces and many of the Hebrew people were taken into captivity. It was an incredibly dark and seemingly hopeless time for the people of Israel as they were held captive in a foreign land and cut off from their home.

The words that we read a few minutes ago from the beginning of the 40th chapter of Isaiah mark the beginning of the second section of this book. This section was likely written near the end of the Babylonian captivity and contains words of prophecy and hope for a time when God’s people would be restored and a new and glorious future would be revealed.

The movement of hope begins with these powerful words, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 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 couple of generations previous to this time the people of God had forgotten who they were and had begun to live in ways that were rebelling against God’s hopes for them as a people. And as a result of this living the people had come to be separated from God. Hold on to that thought for me…

In 2010 the average individual in the United States planned to spend $816.70 on food, presents, and decorations for Christmas. For a household with 2 adults this number is $1,633.40. Reports from the last years indicate that roughly 25% of this spending is put on a credit card and that the average family finishes paying off their Christmas debt sometime in mid-April. A report I read this week indicated that 1/3 of all bankruptcies filed in the month of March indicate holiday overspending as one of the causes.

According to the EPA, each year between Thanksgiving and New Years Day household waste in the United States increases by 25%. This added food waste, shopping bags, packaging, wrapping paper, bows and ribbons – it all adds up to an additional 1 million tons a week going into our landfills.

As a culture we are spending more than we really have to ultimately generate an incredible amount of waste in the name of celebrating the birth of our Lord and Savior… You still holding on to that thought from the experience of the Israelites? …the people of God had forgotten who they were and had begun to live in ways that were rebelling against God’s hopes for them as a people. And as a result of this living the people had come to be separated from God. Again, I think this all begs the question, does it have to be this way?

The author of these words in Isaiah continues their message of hope with words about what would happen as God’s people prepared to return to God, to come home from their season of exile. I invite you to hear the imagery used in this beautiful passage “3 A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 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. 5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’”

God’s people are returning to God and every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain shall be made low. As people prepare to return to God the uneven ground will become level and the rough places a plain. And as this happens the prophet tells us that the glory of God shall be revealed and that all people shall see it together… Barriers to experiences the abundance of God’s love will be removed and all people shall see the glory of God together.

In 2006 a group of religious leaders began to connect many of the dots that we’ve talked about here this morning. They acknowledged that people struggle this time of year to find time to focus on the real meaning of Advent and Christmas because they’re so busy with preparations of another sort. They acknowledged that this is a tough time of year. They acknowledged that in our celebrations of Christmas we often consume in ways that are detrimental to our pocketbooks, to our planet, and to our very relationships with God and others in the world.

As they were connecting these dots they also began to talk about the realities that others face in the world, people who have incredible need. And they began to ask themselves tough questions about what the point of Christmas really is and about how all of this might be related. Born from these reflections and wrestlings was the Advent Conspiracy. Take a look…

Worship Fully. Spend Less. Give More. Love All. These are four key themes of The Advent Conspiracy, themes I invite you to ponder as we move through the coming weeks. Worship Fully. Spend Less. Give More. Love All.

Friends, the good news that we celebrate today is that we are preparing for the coming of one who offers us unconditional love and an opportunity to be reconciled to God no matter how much we have rebelled or how far we have strayed. As we prepare the way for this one who is to come we are invited to play a part in raising up the valleys and making low the hills. We are invited to play a part in making the uneven ground level so that the glory of the Lord might be revealed and all might see it. So that you and I and our families may see the glory of the lord. So that families on the other side of the planet without clean water to drink or food to eat might see it. This Advent I invite you to Worship Fully. Spend Less. Give More. Love All.


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