Rev. Dr. Nancy Parent Bancroft
December 11, 2022
Readings: Isaiah 35: 1-10, Luke 1: 46b-55
In preparing a sermon, I read the scripture passages several times and ask God, “what do you want to teach me through this? I also find it helpful to consider the context in which that segment of scripture was written.
This morning’s readings are no doubt very familiar to you. They are ones often used during the season of Advent. The passage in Isaiah was written during the Babylonian captivity. Babylon conquered Jerusalem in 586 BCE and when their army returned home, it took with them the elite, that is, the upper class of Jerusalem and also all of the craftsmen and artisans who were then used in a massive building program that quickly made Babylon the greatest city in the world. The captives longed to return home – we read for example in Psalm 137 “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.There on the poplars we hung our harps.” In today’s OT reading Isaiah is addressing himself to these Jews in exile, offering them the hope of return.
This same time, was the period of the meteoric rise of Persia under its king Cyrus the Great. By 540 BCE he ruled an empire stretching from the Mediterranean to Central Asia, and in 539 he conquered Babylon. The Persians, now in charge, ended the Jewish exile, and allowed the exiles return to Jerusalem. But given that the Babylonian captivity lasted seventy one years, and the short life span of people at that time, most if not all of the exiles who left Babylon were not returning to Jerusalem. They had never been there before. These Jews had been born and raised in the modern and prosperous city of Babylon and were going to a land their parents and their grandparents had waxed eloquently about, only to find that Jerusalem was much more backwards than where they had been living and that the place was in shambles. And, the “returnees” as they considered themselves, found themselves in conflict with the lower class who had remained in the country and who now owned the land. And there were other problems including disagreements about the form of government that should be set up. You can read all about it in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Judith, Ezra, Chronicles and others.
This background forms the context of today’s Old Testament reading. For the Jews in exile, Isaiah 35 offered a beautiful, an idealic picture of hope and joy. “The desert shall rejoice and blossom; the eyes of the blind shall be opened; the burning sand shall become a pool.” At the heart of it is the simple promise of verse 4, “Your God will come… to save you.” That’s the message of Advent every year, and Isaiah 35 gives that promise a particular color and texture and flavor. When your God comes to save you, he will transform your desert into a garden and create a highway from exile to home.
It is possible that the desert and the parched land refers to the Syrian desert across which the exiles would have to travel. Isaiah 35, verses 8-10 talks about a safe and secure “highway” that the redeemed will walk on as they return home. But the Jewish people, even when back in Jerusalem with all of its problems, kept and treasured and passed on this text that became part of the canon of scripture, so it is more likely that the message was understood more much broadly. The idea of a highway to return home keeps on cropping up in Isaiah (Is 11:16, 19:23 – is about other nations entering into God’s blessing as well, Is 35:8, 40:3 – talks about a highway for God to return.) So, scripture scholars believe that this message of hope and joy refers to the entire world – physical, social and spiritual – which we have managed to mess up in so many ways. But that God is going to act, to work on this world, and it is going to be restored to wonder and glory once again. And all of creation will rejoice when it sees this happening. Looking around at the health of our planet, the state of our world, the dysfunctionality in our country, it is as hard for us to have hope and feel joy as it must have been for the captives in Babylon and for the released exiles who left and went to settle in a destroyed Jerusalem. And yet scripture exhorts, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God.” Right here. Right now. Dare we believe? Dare we Hope? “When your God comes to save you, he will transform your desert into a garden and create a highway from exile to home.”
Our second reading is, I think one of the most beautiful prayers ever offered, “ My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Mary was filled with the Divine – but, no more than we are. But at that moment when she spoke to her cousin Elizabeth, she experienced that Presence very profoundly. She rejoiced in God, and let that be visible. “The Mighty One has done great things for me.” Can’t we all say that? “The Mighty One has done great things for me.” Think about it. And because we can all point to the many, many great things God has done for us, we too are called to magnify the Lord. We are called to project hope and joy to this world so hungry for it.
If, each morning, we take a few moments to reflect on our many blessings, we can extract joy from a head and heart that also experiences, fear, anxiety, anger, fatigue, and maybe discouragement. Today on this third Sunday, set aside to celebrate Emanuel, God-with-us, we are invited to fan the flame of joy and to express it, magnifying the greatness and steadfastness of our God.
My favorite hymn is the Magnificat, and I’d like to end this morning by inviting you to close your eyes and take in this beautiful song of joy that is at the same time an invitation to each of us. I invite you to recall the great things the Mighty has done for you and imagine yourself singing these words.
Holy Is His Name (Quiet Reflections)/Lyrics
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord
And my spirit exalts in God my savior
For He has looked with mercy on my lowliness
And my name will be forever exalted
For the mighty God has done great things for me
And His mercy will reach from age to age
And holy, holy, holy is His name
He has mercy in every generation
He has revealed His power and His glory
He has cast down the mighty in their arrogance
And has lifted up the meek and the lonely
He has come to help His servant Israel
He remembered His promise to our fathers
And holy, holy, holy is His name
Holy, holy, holy is His name
Songwriter: John Michael Talbot
Holy Is His Name (Quiet Reflections) lyrics © Capitol Christian Music Group, Capitol CMG Publishing, Universal Music Publishing Group