Sunday, December 06, 2009
Making the Crooked Straight!
“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, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.
A voice of one crying in the desert: Prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight his path! Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads will be made straight and the rough places plain, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Isaiah 40:1-3)
This is the text from the prophet Isaiah, proclaimed by John the Baptist from our readings in Church this Sunday. Preparing for the Lord is the very heart of what we’re called to do during advent. The word “advent” originates from the Latin word “adventus”, which means “coming” and is a translation of the Greek word, “parousia” commonly used in reference to the second coming of Christ. So the season of advent for us is both a reminder of the original waiting of the Hebrews for their Messiah as well as the waiting by all of us for the second coming of Christ.
To fully appreciate the power of Isaiah’s words, we need to remember the situation the Hebrew people were in at the time Isaiah’s proclamation. The date was roughly 550 years before Jesus’ birth. Israel was now an occupied territory. All that was sacred and important to the Hebrews—their country Israel, their holy city Jerusalem (Zion), their temple, the ark of the covenant—all signs of God’s presence among them, all reminders of their historical liberation from the Egyptians by Moses some 700 years earlier—the Babylonians had destroyed. In an attempt to annihilate them as a race, Babylon took the Hebrew families and split them apart, exiling (or sending away) mothers, fathers, sons and daughters to different countries, most of whom never saw each other again. The once proud nation led by King David and Solomon some 400 years earlier, the one whom Yahweh had covenanted his love and protection, was no more.
One can forgive the Hebrew people, under these circumstances, for losing faith in God. For years, prophets had warned them that if they did not turn back to him, the worst could happen—and now it appeared that it had. God seemed to have abandoned them, given up on them and walked away.
At this time of deep despair, at their lowest low, God sent the prophet Isaiah to them with words of hope:
Take comfort! Your warfare is over, your suffering done, your sins have been paid for, there is one coming who will make things right. Prepare the way for this person. This world you know, filled with so much suffering and sorrow, will be turned upside down: Every valley will be exalted and every mountain made low. For you shall soon see, because of this person, the salvation of God.
It’s hard for words alone to capture the power of Isaiah’s message and the excitement of how it would have been received from a people in despair. We need music for that.
George Frederic Handel, A German-English composer in the 18th century, wrote the famous Messiah oratorio in 1741—most of you know its most famous part—the Hallelujah Chorus. The Messiah is perhaps one of the best known and most often performed choral pieces in the word. In the part I am about to show you, the singer quotes from Isaiah the exact passages from Isaiah I’ve read to you—but as you listen to it, I want you to imagine what it was like for the Hebrews to be told their suffering was finally over.
Before I play this piece, two notes:
First, Mrs. Eberhar would likely scold me if I didn’t point out that this piece is one of the best examples of word painting, sometimes called text painting, in classical music. Word painting is when the music reflects the literal meaning of the words being sung. So, for example, ascending scales would accompany lyrics about going up. Notice the how the tenor sings "exalted". See how many other examples of word painting you notice.
Second, I am aware this isn’t the type of music you’re likely to load up on your i-pods and play in your cars. But the sign of an educated person is to be open to new ideas and new things, whereas the ignorant person closes himself down to anything new. I have confidence in this student body that you fall in the former and not the latter category.
Listen to this three minute clip:
That’s a very famous rendition from the London Philharmonic.
As we prepare for Christ’s coming, both in remembrance of his birth in Bethlehem over 2010 years ago and in anticipation of his coming again, may we take comfort in his assurance that we shall one day see the salvation of God.