Second Sunday in Advent: Peace and Communion

If you’ve been to Port Hardy, you know that a must stop photo opportunity can be
found, in front of the big carrot at waterfront park. The plaque in front of the carrot reads,
“this carrot, marking the northern end of the island highway, is a symbol of government
road building promises, dangled in front of the North Island settlers since 1897. The successful 1970s ‘carrot campaign’ was aimed at making the government keep promises of
a completed highway.” It is hard to believe that prior to 1979 the only roads connecting
the north island to Campbell River was a series of unpaved, dirt, narrow, winding,
dangerous logging roads that over the decades saw many a car get stuck in mud, fall into
ditches, or blow a tire- as seen in the Port Hardy Museum. Each election year a politician
would promise to pave the road but when it came time to keep said promise there was
always an excuse. So, in 1976 the local paper encouraged residents to send carrots to the
provincial capital to remind their MLAs that the highway was still not finished. It was a
successful campaign that saw them get their flat, paved and completed highway three years
later. Now, it’s a smooth, accessible road that easily transports traffic to the north of the
island. While I am sure that the author of Isaiah did not mean the highway to Port Hardy
when he wrote, “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level, the rough places a plain,” I do think it could have
resonated with the residents of Port Hardy in 1976.
This passage in Isaiah was likely written while the Israelites were in exile. The
prophet was preaching to an audience that had experienced major trauma- these were
extremely challenging times and their relationship with God was deeply wounded as a
result. This is perhaps why this passage seems a bit timeless and has been called “the heart
of the Old Testament.” It dramatically demonstrates the challenges the relationship
between God and God’s people have throughout history. But unlike most political
promises- these promises are kept.

This text also happens to be a bridge between the before times and now times.
You see, the end of chapter 39 anticipates the fall of Jerusalem while Isaiah 40 assumes
the fall has happened. And yet, the first word of chapter 40 is comfort. The Israelites were
in need of words of comfort- not empty promises, but words that would bring the truth of
God’s presence among them. After the destruction of the temple, the shattering of
illusions, the years of captivity, surely a little comfort was in order. However, only in
understanding the conjunction of the verb in Hebrew do we realize that the cry for comfort
in this passage is a plural imperative. It is a command to offer comfort, not to be
comforted. Despite their tragedy they are being commanded to stop thinking of themselves
and comfort others.
It should also be pointed out that this highway that is being levelled and
smoothed is not for them, it is not for the Israelites in their hope of returning to Jerusalem
but rather for God. Sometimes finding a pathway to God is bumpy and full of uneven
ground. It can be muddy and messy and sometimes we can get stuck. But what this
passage implies is that while it feels as though God has abandoned the people in exile God will be accessible again. The glory of God will be revealed and all people shall see it
together. Old Testament scholar Michael Chan points out, “The language of revelation in
v. 5 is very important. The glory of the Lord needs to be revealed because, from the exiles’
perspective, it has been hidden, and a hidden God is a terrifying God. This passage seeks
to convince its audience that the season of God’s hidden-ness has come to an end.” God is
made accessible.

And what better way to make God accessible than through the accessibility of
Jesus Christ. The passage we heard in Mark accompanies the Isaiah passage in our
lectionary because Mark quotes from Isaiah 40- linking this prophecy with the appearance
and ministry of John the Baptist which then connects John with his cousin Jesus. Despite
it’s abruptness this is a pretty theological 8 verses. The Gospel of Mark is not known for
its subtlety. But Mark also does something that was previously not done in any of the
other books of the Bible. Mark announces the name of a new genre and its theme at the
very start. He writes, “The beginning of good news.” Mark creates an entirely new genre
of literature within the story of God and God’s people. And the good news is that Jesus
makes God accessible-to everyone!

The road to Bethlehem for Mary and Joseph would have been a bumpy one. I can
only imagine what it would be like travelling, likely on a donkey, when one is 9 months
pregnant, on a dusty and dirty road that is pretty much always going up. Yet, in Cecil
Frances Alexander’s poem “Once in royal David’s city” there is a peacefulness that
surrounds this story. In her second stanza, as we sang it, it says, “Christ came down to
earth from heaven who is God and Lord of all…. with the poor, oppressed and lowly, love
on earth our saviour holy, and our eyes at last shall see him.” The promise of a God that is
accessible, and present, and knows our human condition is revealed.
Most roads have highs and lows- especially on this island. The highway to Port
Hardy may pass through the Sayward Valley but it also drives beside Mt. Cain. For the
people of Israel in the Isaiah passage, this is an extremely low point and yet the words
declare that at the people’s lowest point God breaks through. Mark tells us that this is good
news. I have to say 2020, was full of low points. For the Israelites in exile God felt more
hidden then present. For most of this year- our physical presence with each other has been
non-existent. But we have not been hidden from one another. And God’s presence is made
known and accessible through the person of Jesus Christ. Today we come to the table
which Jesus has prepared for us- another accessible way God’s glory can be revealed and
we find peace in this good news. Amen