What Should I Call Out?

Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center
December 7, 2014—Advent II
Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8

Image courtesy wordle.net

Isaiah 40:1–11 • Comfort, comfort my people! says your God. Speak compassionately to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended, that her penalty has been paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins!
A voice is crying out: “Clear the LORD’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God! Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened. Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain. The LORD’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together; the LORD’s mouth has commanded it.”
A voice was saying: “Call out!” And another said, “What should I call out?” All flesh is grass; all its loyalty is like the flowers of the field. The grass dries up and the flower withers when the LORD’s breath blows on it. Surely the people are grass. The grass dries up; the flower withers, but our God’s word will exist forever.
Go up on a high mountain, messenger Zion! Raise your voice and shout, messenger Jerusalem! Raise it; don’t be afraid; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” Here is the LORD God, coming with strength, with a triumphant arm, bringing his reward with him and his payment before him. Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock; he will gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap. He will gently guide the nursing ewes.

Mark 1:1–8 • The beginning of the good news about Jesus Christ, God’s Son, happened just as it was written about in the prophecy of Isaiah:
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.”
John was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins. John wore clothes made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist. He ate locusts and wild honey. He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

I. BEGINNING

I think there’s a reason that so many prophets think that they’re losing their mind when they first hear the voice of God. It’s because they’re hoping that that’s the case.

It occurred to me the other day that I bet there probably hasn’t been a prophet born who wouldn’t have preferred to think of the voice he or she was hearing as part of some kind of mental or psychological break. Honestly, who among us after having heard a voice from God wouldn’t be relieved to be told that it could be fixed by prescription medicine? Or perhaps the other way: caused by something we might have ingested? Who wouldn’t prefer to be able to dismiss such an experience to the hallucinogenic effects of some kind of substance than to an actual encounter with God?

Because, to be honest, saying to our friends and family that we’re dealing with the side-effects of some kind of substance or that we’re under treatment for some kind of aberration in our brain chemistry is a whole lot more preferable than saying, ‘Look, God spoke to me and asked me to tell you something…”

There’s a reason that every single prophet begs off from the responsibility of the call. Moses says, you’ve got the wrong guy; I don’t speak very well. Jeremiah says, I’m just a kid; I can’t do this. Isaiah says, Woe is me! I’m a man of unclean lips. They’re all looking for an out. This is not going to be pleasant.

Because being a prophet is not an easy thing. Not if you want an easy life. Not if you are comfortable with everything remaining exactly as it is. Status quo ante.

II. THE TEXT

Even when the prophet has come to accept their calling, the problems don’t end there. We see something of that in the scripture lessons for tonight.

As is often the case in the special seasons of the year, the Old Testament and Gospel lections are linked. And here on the second Sunday in Advent, we have a link between the ministry of John the Baptist and the prophetic message found in Isaiah 40.

Chapters 40 through 55 of the Book of Isaiah were written by an unknown prophet, writing in midst of the Babylonian Exile in the tradition of the prophet from Jerusalem who lived a century and a half earlier. The oracles of judgment from the preceding chapters in the days when Judah was failing to put its trust fully in God and instead in its own military and political strength, yield to oracles of comfort in the midst of exile.

Comfort, comfort my people! says your God. Speak compassionately to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended, that her penalty has been paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins!

This anonymous prophet whom scholars call “Second Isaiah” speaks words of healing and restoration to a people in captivity and exile, bereft of their land, their home, their traditions. The prophet proclaims a message that is designed to do two things: remind the people of their past and give them hope for the future.

And so the prophet continues:

A voice is crying out: “Clear the LORD’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God! Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened. Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain. The LORD’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together; the LORD’s mouth has commanded it.”

“Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!” Images of the Lord’s highway are meant to be royal images, suggesting the king’s highway that townspeople would make so that the king could visit their town. The image of the sovereign king, a frequent image in first Isaiah’s writings, is a reminder of the God of deliverance and power who saved the people in the past and will do so again in the future.

The images of the desert and the wilderness are likewise meant to evoke the wilderness experience of the Exodus. The deliverance of the people and the founding of the Sinai covenant are deliberately alluded to by the prophet to give the people a sense of their past as a way of reminding them what God has done.

It is, of course, because John the Baptist is located in the wilderness that we most often associate these passages from Isaiah with John’s own ministry. And since John is seen as a preparatory figure for Christ, the fact that the Isaiah prophecy is all about “preparing the way” of the Lord seems utterly fitting.

But we are often too quick to read the Isaiah passage solely in the context of John the Baptist or of Jesus’ ministry. In fact, the Book of Isaiah has been called “the Fifth Gospel” precisely because of the frequency with which Christians have interpreted its passages in a Christian context.

But there is something else going on in the passage that speaks to a broader context than that—the context of the prophet throughout the ages.

A voice was saying: “Call out!” And another said, “What should I call out?”

Here is where the calling of the prophet reaches its greatest challenge: what is the message to be proclaimed? It’s one thing to have had a sense of interaction with the divine, it’s another to know how to put that into words. Especially if those words are about to land you in trouble.

So, it should come as no surprise that the prophets should wonder what it is they should proclaim. What words are appropriate to describe an experience of God? It is said even in the Islamic tradition that when Muhammad first received his revelation, “Read!” his response was, “What shall I read?”

Call out! — What should I call out?

III.  WHAT SHOULD I CALL OUT?

I have been doing a lot of thinking about the ineffability of the religious experience and the reason that so much of our religious talk is in metaphor, because ordinary prosaic language cannot sum up an encounter with the divine. And I do think that the prophets’ frustrations with having to communicate an experience that lies outside the boundaries of ordinary language might be a reason that they wondered what they should say.

But it occurs to me that there might be another reason to ask that same question.

Isaiah of Jerusalem was warned by God that he would proclaim to a people who would not understand or listen to what he had to say. It’s important to understand that this was how God defines Isaiah’s mission.

That is, God is basically telling him: go, proclaim; it won’t do any good and no one will listen. In the passage we read, the quotation marks appear after the question “What should I call out?” But the original text has no punctuation (or vowels or spaces, for that matter) and so it is very possible that the quotation is meant to continue:

“Call out!”
“What should I call out? All flesh is grass; all its loyalty is like the flowers of the field. The grass dries up and the flower withers when the LORD’s breath blows on it.”

In effect, it’s the prophet’s reflection on the futility of proclaiming. Not so much a question about what language to use as much as it is a question of ‘What’s the point?’

IV. CASES IN POINT

That sentiment has probably been on a lot of people’s minds lately. There are things going on in the world that, quite literally, leave us speechless. We don’t know what to say.

The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the death of Eric Garner in Staten Island have brought something to the surface that our country would rather not think about. There is a huge section of our country that does not feel that the system works for them. Black Americans do not feel that the system designed to protect all of us does so for their communities. And the particulars of a given incident become debated and speculated upon and become pundit-fodder, all the while ignoring this greater, systemic problem. Not everyone is benefiting from the protections a society is supposed to afford its citizens. In fact, one author persuasively argued, our outrage at the brokenness of the system in these particular cases like this belies this fact that for many people, there is nothing particularly particular about them. This isn’t the system failing; it’s the system. And therein lies the injustice. The one we’re not supposed to look at.

And so in the face of that, what should we call out? What words can be said? Nothing will demoralize you faster than reading the comments section on an article where race is involved. That there is still so much hatred and naked prejudice abroad in the world today can leave us speechless. Call out! – What should I call out? What’s the point?

Or the continuing marginalization and vilification of the poor. Where the poor are not only denied access to basic needs but told it’s their fault for not having worked hard enough. As if everyone else who was successful was entirely self-sufficient and had never gotten help from anyone. Against the growing gap between haves and have-nots, we can wonder what to say. What can be said? We come across these words from Amos—

Hear this, you who trample on the needy and destroy the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain, and the Sabbath so that we may offer wheat for sale, make the ephah smaller, enlarge the shekel, and deceive with false balances, in order to buy the needy for silver and the helpless for sandals, and sell garbage as grain?” (Amos 8:4–6 CEB)

—and we think, The prophets have been calling for justice for the poor for 3,000 years! And nothing has gotten better. And on top of that, so many of our fellow Christians have taken to defending the status quo as some kind of sign of God’s blessing. Call out! – What should I call out? What’s the point?

Or the constant drumbeat of consumerism and spending, particularly acute this time of year. The increasing militarization of our society and of our foreign policy. The continuing degradation of the Creation with catastrophic consequences for human well-being and safety. And on and on it goes. There is a never-ending supply of issues that summon the prophetic witness, that challenge us to stand up for righteousness, that shout to us: “Call out!” And in our spiritual exhaustion, we can hear ourselves respond, “What should I call out? What good will it do? What’s the point?”

V. END

In the midst of so much brokenness in the world, it can be hard to summon the prophetic imagination and certainly prophetic courage. The prophet says as much. All the people are grass. But the Word of God is unrelenting and continues:

Go up on a high mountain, messenger Zion! Raise your voice and shout, messenger Jerusalem! Raise it; don’t be afraid; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” Here is the LORD God, coming with strength, with a triumphant arm, bringing his reward with him and his payment before him.

It is worth noting that the messenger for this proclamation is Jerusalem/Zion. An interesting choice, since Jerusalem and Mt. Zion were in ruins at the time Second Isaiah would have penned these words. The city had been a ruin for a generation or more ever since the Babylonians had destroyed it at the beginning of the Exile. And yet, here Jerusalem is the “messenger of good news.” [1]

God does not call us to proclaim in the midst of wholeness and stability. God does not even call us to proclaim when we are on the upswing. But in the midst of a world of ruin, we are called to be the messengers of good news. We are the ones who call out to the cities, “Here is your God!”

We can be exhausted, but the Word of God is unrelenting. Call out! – What should I call out? – ‘Here is your God!’

It is a reminder that it is precisely in those places of brokenness, desolation, and alienation that God can be experienced most profoundly. We will grow weary of the struggle, but it is in the struggle that we can truly know God. That’s what the prophets all knew—that they would be messengers of God, but that it would involve struggle. We are reminded that while we would like to find a God of comfort, stability, and security, God is fond of troubling the waters.

And it reminds us to take on a little humility. We’re supposed to take up the call, take up the work, but as we do so, we are reminded that we are not the savior, we are the forerunner. We are the ones calling out in the wilderness. We are the ones preparing the way. But that One stronger than we are is coming after us. We’re not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. We may baptize with water, but he will transform the world with the Holy Spirit.

 


Notes

[1] The Hebrew word for “messenger” is m’bhaseret and is related to the word b’sorah which is the Hebrew word for “gospel”/“good news.”