Community United Church of Christ (St. Paul Park, Minnesota)
All this year, driving along Snelling Avenue where we live has been absolutely miserable. This is a major arterial route in Saint Paul, on which thousands of cars, buses and bicycles travel every day. Yet it’s been torn up for what seems like forever. It started this spring, when the Snelling Avenue bridge over Interstate 94 was closed and then removed entirely. That bridge wasn’t replaced and reopened until the State Fair at the end of August. No cars, buses, bikes or people could get over the highway at Snelling for four whole months. At the same time in our immediate neighborhood just north of the bridge, every inch of Snelling got a total makeover, which jackhammered sidewalks, churned up the pavement and choked traffic to a single, crawling, dusty lane. As if this weren’t enough, all the rest of Snelling Avenue for miles north and south of us has been torn up at half-mile increments on both sides of the road, to put in stations for a Bus Rapid Transit line. So all year long, travel on Snelling Avenue has been nearly impossible. City buses were rerouted and delayed, cars were detoured a half-dozen different ways, and people decided to avoid Snelling Avenue like it was the bubonic plague. So when I hear Isaiah the prophet proclaim a highway prepared, with the uneven ground becoming level and the rough places a plain, all I can think of is road construction.
Today’s passage comes at the beginning of what scholars call “Second Isaiah,” because it’s so clearly different in tone and style from all the chapters before. First Isaiah pronounces judgment on sinful wrongdoing, and warns that God’s punishment is on the way. Remember the scripture we heard two weeks ago, where God says that the beautiful vineyard has yielded only wild grapes, so the vineyard will no longer be protected? That’s First Isaiah—prophetic judgment on wrongdoing, and warning of what’s to come.
But today, with the turn from chapter 39 to chapter 40, we see an entirely different Isaiah. Those who study these things deeply (so that people like me can quote them and sound intelligent) figure that Second Isaiah comes from a time called the Babylonian Exile, more than a hundred years after First Isaiah. In the Babylonian Exile, all the bad that First Isaiah threatened has come to pass. The Assyrian empire defeated the northern country of Israel, and reached into the remaining southern kingdom of Judah. The walls of God’s vineyard were broken open, and dozens of cities were captured. Jerusalem itself survived the Assyrian invasion, but when the Babylonians overtook the Assyrians some years later, they kept right on going through Judah and conquered Jerusalem. In the aftermath, all the higher-ups—the princes, governors, leaders and judges—were forcibly deported to Babylon. There they were tortured and kept in exile for seventy years, long enough to have children and grandchildren, but never to see Judah again. (Put yourself in the shoes of Native Americans forcibly removed from their land and denied their culture for generations, and you can sense what this felt like.) Every single person died knowing that their nation had been conquered forever. What’s more, they believed that the God who had protected Judah until the Exile had abandoned them forever, or been defeated by the Babylonian gods. There was no future with Yahweh, God of the Israelites.
But Second Isaiah cries out: “It’s not over, folks!” “Comfort, O comfort my people!” Dear Jerusalem, there is life after Babylon. God has NOT forgotten you, O exiles. In the wilderness of captivity and disaster, a new road is being laid. Valleys will be lifted up, mountains brought low, uneven ground made smooth and rough places made plain. Soon you will see the rectangular orange sign—“End Detour”. And why this change of circumstances, this change of heart on God’s part? Because, Isaiah says, Jerusalem has done her time, served her term, and paid her penalties. Freedom, justice and righteousness are finally at hand, after generations of bitter trauma.
What Isaiah prophesied came to pass. We’ll hear more about the return from Babylon next week, so for now let me just reassure you that the story leads to happier times. But that doesn’t mean that all times of exile are over. I don’t know about you, but I feel in the wilderness an awful lot these days.
We are in exile for our continuing lack of justice and restitution for the descendants of American slaves. Fifty years of basic protections for voting rights—even if they weren’t being systematically rolled back—are barely a down-payment on four hundred years of government-authorized, church-sanctioned chattel slavery and its aftermath. Massive unrest marches in the streets of our cities, and rightly so. Whatever we think of the tactics of Black Lives Matter, the movement effectively reveals the chaos that persists in African American families which continue to face basic inequality in education, housing, employment and incarceration rates. White America is only starting to see to the shackles of discrimination that still keep our black and brown neighbors in hidden chains. We are in exile. Yet “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.”
We are in captivity also to a false god of gun sovereignty. American weapons have been given greater protection than American lives. Mass shootings of four or more people have occurred more than once a day in our country this year. Gun suicides are at historic levels, especially among white men. We are learning now that those with terrorist intent have an open door to an arsenal of destruction though our nation’s legal practices, even against the wishes of responsible gun owners. Weapon manufacturers and their lobbyists have convinced politicians that if new laws can’t deliver an immediate end to all gun deaths, they’re not worth doing. Even the slaughter of twenty schoolchildren three years ago changed nothing in our national laws. Our elected leaders have failed to protect us, and instead of mustering collective action to demand otherwise, Americans have decided that the sovereign right to bear arms is worth ten-thousand deaths a year. We are in exile. Yet “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.”
The planet itself bears the feverish marks of this wilderness time. Since the Industrial Revolution two hundred and fifty years ago, humans have been sending massive amounts of waste into the air, earth, and water. We’ve racked up environmental debts that will last for hundreds more years, and the interest on that debt is starting to weigh heavily. Wastewater drilling wells increase in Oklahoma and Pennsylvania, while earthquakes follow after them. Superstorms assault our coastlines and island nations are swallowed by the sea, as once-in-a-century rainfall drowns Texas, Chennai, and who knows where next. The garden of God’s good creation has caught a terrible fever, and it convulses for relief. Even if all the good work and promises of Paris this week are fulfilled, our debt will still hang around the necks of generations yet to come. We are in exile. Yet “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.”
The overlapping nature of all these grievances makes it seem that there is no hope. Our problems mount up, and while human ingenuity has taken us far, we still come up short. To be honest, I see little to persuade me that human beings can pull ourselves out if we keep on going the way we have been, because we dig ourselves deeper all the time. It will take nothing less than a spiritual transplant in the whole “body politic” for humans to treat each other with justice as images of God’s beauty, to privilege bodies over bullets, and to undo this climate catastrophe. No wonder Isaiah says, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.” “The grass withers, the flower fades,” and even the best individuals cannot save us from this exile. “Surely the people are grass,” Isaiah says, here today and gone tomorrow.
Yet in the very next breath, Isaiah continues: The grass withers, the flower fades; but…the word of our God will stand forever. The word of our God will stand forever. Forever! In other words, there is no evil so powerful that God’s will can be resisted eternally. No far country of exile is too far for our God to rescue us. Babylon WILL be busted, because the word of our God stands forever, and that word is “comfort, O comfort my people, says your God”. There is salvation from exile, though not by human hands. God will prepare a highway through the thorniest wilderness, making a way where there has been no way. What look to us now like dead ends and ditches will be revealed as divine detours, leading to new paths of peace. “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.”
Our calling in the meantime is where this morning’s passage goes for its conclusion. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear. God will prepare the road of possibility through peril, but we are enlisted as messengers and peace-proclaimers along the way. We messengers can attend an event primarily for people who don’t look like us, so that we learn other life experiences and start building bridges of humanity. We messengers can dig deeply into the history of racism and its current effects by reading Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, or anything Ta-Nehisi Coates has ever written. We messengers can use the privilege and power of our voices to call in God’s name for majority-supported legal changes like universal background checks and greater mental health protections. We messengers can leave home with confidence that God is our savior, not the gun we are tempted to carry. We messengers can make our own daily practices less harmful to the earth by recycling and composting instead of sending our leftovers to landfills.
We messengers know that the comfort Isaiah proclaims does not come by sweeping troubles under the rug. That only leads to the hazards we are presently tripping over. Comfort instead comes by proclaiming the peace of God in word and deed. We are not called to be saviors—that spot has been filled by the One who is coming soon. But we are, as people who trust in God’s salvation, called to be heralds, prophets and messengers of another way—God’s reign of peace.
In a pastoral letter to our churches this week, the Minnesota Conference Minister Shari Prestemon quoted Martin Luther King, Jr, when he accepted his Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. That messenger of the same God we follow told the world, “We must still face prodigious hilltops of opposition and gigantic mountains of resistance. But with patient and firm determination we will press on until every valley of despair is exalted to new peaks of hope, until every mountain of pride and irrationality is made low by the leveling process of humility and compassion; until the rough places of injustice are transformed into a smooth plane of equality of opportunity; and until the crooked places of prejudice are transformed by the straightening process of bright-eyed wisdom.”
Snelling Avenue in our neighborhood is beautiful now. All the detour signs are gone, a new bridge is in place, wider sidewalks and streetlamps invite pedestrians to linger, and the new pavement gives a smooth ride for thousands of commuters again. But every road, however smooth now, will need fixing again. And eventually roads themselves will pass away, along with automobiles and even the new bus rapid transit line. They are, like every human creation and like humans ourselves, grass which withers and fades. But we gather as Christians in the presence of the word of the Lord, which remains forever. God’s road to salvation was foretold and mapped out in Jewish history, then constructed forever by Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion and death-denying resurrection. The ribbon was cut on our own faith journeys by baptism, every communion feast is a refilling station along the way, and there’s only one destination: the Manger of Christ, the salvation of the world. No matter what exile exists now or is yet to come, the Word of the Lord remains forever. Thanks be to God!
Let us pray: God of peace, in the midst of exile we lift our eyes to you. Strengthen our spirits with your promise and your presence, that we may be bold messengers of comfort through justice, in your name. Amen.
 “How Often Do Mass Shootings Occur?” by Sharon Lafraniere, Sarah Cohen and Richard A. Oppel Jr. New York Times, December 3, 2015, available at nyti.ms/1LQkpM8.
 Martin Luther King, Jr, as quoted by Shari Prestemon in “COMMAnts from the Conference Minister – December 2015”. Posted December 2, 2015 and available at http://uccmn.org/commants-from-the-conference-minister-december-2015/.