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Ancient Babylon (which is the setting for our lesson) had four seasons too. The Jews had been carried off into exile there fifty years before following the overthrow of Jerusalem. The prophets had been right. All along, they had thundered that the Jewish nation would end up this way if it would not clean up its collective act, would not repent and live justly. The hammer of judgment had been King Nebuchadnezzar and the conquering Babylonians. Signs of that holy warfare were left everywhere. The Temple of the Lord, where the swallows once nested, was now a ruin. Its pillars now looked like the tree trunks of an over-cut forest. In the streets of Jerusalem, scrub brush grew tall, spindly branches rustling in the dry wind. The walls of the city had been a metaphor of the glory of Zion, but now they spoke an ironic parable of a people who would count on their own strength and ignore God. Jerusalem looked like the morning after.
Not that many Jews would have seen it. In the custom of the day, victors would disperse the vanquished. No danger of an insurgency in Jerusalem; there were no insurgents left. They were uprooted as unceremoniously as weeds from a summer garden and dumped far from home. Now, most of the original exiles were dead; their children were left though - not with memories, just stories...stories of the four seasons: distress, dejection, depression, and despair. Their songs were plaintive dirges: "By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, 'Sing us one of the songs of Zion!' How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?"(1)
But suddenly comes a word of hope. Faint, perhaps, but distinct enough: "Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for..." The long, dark night of exile was about to come to an end.
What now? Get ready. "In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed..." In plain English, "Get this place ready! You and everybody else is going to know that God has been here."
The picture is drawn from the massive engineering efforts of ancient Babylon. Straight new roads, not those old roads that are content to follow the terrain. The picture is the annual New Year's Day parade for the Babylonian god, Marduk, who is wheeled in procession along the boulevard to his shrine. It is a big thing...like the Mardi Gras, Macy's parade, and May Day in Red Square, all rolled into one. Here they come, the temple consorts carrying their pom-poms, following the bagpipes and the fire department float.(2) Exiled Israel is familiar with this sort of thing, and the instruction for construction was a theological statement - nothing must be allowed to impede or delay the coming of, not Marduk, but the God of all creation.
What a message for us at Advent! "Let every heart/Prepare him room" we sing. Perhaps we would do well to say let every heart get out the bulldozers and backhoes, the rock crushers and road graders:
People NEED this. Whatever else this Advent is about, it is this: this promise of a WAY whenever God's people find themselves in some sort of exile, some sort of far country or another - people who feel as frail as withered grass or a fallen flower - a WAY for people alienated from God and one another.
"You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, 'Here is your God!' See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young."
Picture it. This mass of suffering humanity is stretched out along the hillsides overlooking this wonderful wide highway. As far as the eye can see they are spread out. Men and women, boys and girls. Rich and poor, young and old, slave and free. Every nation, tongue, and tribe. Red, and yellow, black and white. All are anxiously gathered to watch for the arrival of the king of all kings.
Can you see it? Yes, I know vision is hampered. The mountains are so high and the valleys so low, the crooked places are still horribly bent and the rough places resist every attempt to smooth them. Look beyond all that. The king is coming... Jeshua...Iesus... Jesus. See Jesus in the pages of scripture... see Jesus in the lives of your fellow worshipers... see Jesus in the faces of those whose needs we seek to meet... see Jesus present as we gather at his table. Clearer and clearer the picture comes. Can you see it yet? Look. Look. And keep on looking. It WILL come into focus. That is a promise from on high. "All [hu]mankind (even you and me) will see [him]." Jesus.
1. Psalm 137:1-5
2. Richard L. Eslinger, "Marduk? Or Yahweh?", http:/www.esermons.com