Get ready

By R. William Carroll

At my parish’s Alternative campus and young adult ministry on Friday nights, we often sing both sacred and secular music. On the sacred side, we sing a variety of hymns from the hymnal, some Taize chants, and an occasional piece of praise music. On the secular side, James Taylor and Cat Stevens come to mind.

I mention the mix of musics, because I’ve had some very different melodies running through my head all week as I’ve pondered our reading from Isaiah. The fortieth chapter is one of the most beautiful in the whole book. Martin Luther was surely correct when he commented that from this point on, the prophet begins to do nothing but preach the Gospel.

The sacred music this chapter calls to mind is obvious enough. I can hear the string section now. It’s a couple of portions of Handel’s Messiah. Namely, “Comfort ye, my people, saith your God.” And “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” There are some other verses from our reading that Handel also set to music, but these are the two I’ve got stuck in my head. Meditating with Handel on these texts puts me in an Advent frame of mind. It brings me to that state of expectancy that I mentioned last Sunday, the one where we wait for the Lord in an active, vigilant manner. When we listen to music like this, we can come right up to the threshold of Christmas, without actually stepping in. By the way, if anyone has cheated and put his or her foot in the door, the “Advent police” would like to speak to you after the service.

Now, in the second week of Advent, our waiting becomes still more active, as the Baptist appears on the banks of Jordan with his piercing cry: “Repent,” he says, “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make his paths straight.” As he does in all the Gospels, John is quoting from Isaiah to explain his ministry as a forerunner. He does not negotiate with us. He does not ask us. He comes in God’s name and speaks the word of the Lord to us. It came to Isaiah before him and has now come to John himself. “Repent,” he orders us. “Turn your lives around.” “Prepare the way,” he shouts. “Christ is coming soon.”

In their original context, these words had to do with the return of God’s People from their exile in Babylon. So many of them had been dragged away from their homes, when the Babylonians came and conquered Jerusalem in 586 BC. In the aftermath of defeat and exile, the prophet’s words announce what God is going to do. The People may be fickle and inconstant. They are like the grass which withers away. But the Lord God is coming with might. The living GOD is about to act.

Whether the People do their part or not, every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be brought low. Whether they prepare the way or not, they shall soon be going home. Whether they are found worthy or not, the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. Why? Because the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

As Isaiah describes the Lord’s Advent, he uses images that combine strength and gentleness. The stark imperatives of the prophet’s preaching and the certainty that God’s words will come to pass are juxtaposed with the injunction to “speak tenderly to Jerusalem” about the forgiveness of sins and the vision of God the shepherd feeding the flock. On the royal highway, God will gather the scattered lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom. God will gently lead the mother sheep and bring the whole flock safely home.

Nearly six hundred years later, John the Baptist applies Isaiah’s preaching to a new situation. Though they are back in the Promised Land, the People of Israel are again mourning in exile. They share the condition of lost and fallen humanity. They are in need, once more, of redemption and liberation. Pagan armies are once more in the land, as the Romans occupy Judea. The promise about a shepherd is the promise of a king. It concerns the Son of David. God is about to answer the People’s yearning by sending them the Messiah. John is aware of his unworthiness. He is not worthy to untie the shoes of the One who is coming. And yet he has come before Jesus, to prepare the way. Although he has been sent to baptize with water, the Lord himself is coming soon. And he will baptize with the Holy Spirit—the mighty, life-giving Spirit of God.

Last week, I mentioned that the waiting to which God calls us is like that of an expectant mother, longing for the birth of her child. It is also like that of an expectant couple, waiting to consummate their marriage. Both images fuse passion and tender love. Pregnancy, and especially labor, can evoke fierceness in women. But, when the child is born, the fierceness often gives way to an indescribable tenderness. The desire for physical union can involve the strongest and most unruly of passions, and yet at its best it unites us in enduring bonds of love.

That brings me to the secular music that I’ve not been able to get out of my head all week. It’s from Motown actually. Maybe that’s because, like so many Americans, I’ve got Detroit on my mind. I’d like us to imagine this song in the way medieval mystics interpreted the Song of Songs, as if God were one of the lovers and humanity the other. If anyone is offended, let me just say that I’ve toned the sermon down. The first version I wrote appealed to Marvin Gaye. The song I have in mind doesn’t have too much in common with Isaiah except perhaps the sense that Someone is coming, ready or not. Though they didn’t write it, the most famous version of the song is perhaps the one by the Temptations:

I never met a girl who makes me feel the way that you do. (You’re alright)

Whenever I’m asked who makes my dreams real, I say that you do. (You’re outta sight)

So, fee-fi-fo-fum

Look out baby, ’cause here I come.

And I’m bringing you a love that’s true.

So get ready, so get ready.

I’m gonna try to make you love me too.

So get ready, so get ready ’cause here I come.

At Christmas, the longing of a thousand generations is finally satisfied, as God comes among us in mercy. In the Incarnation, the union of God and humanity is consummated, as God (who has longed for us and sought us out for countless ages) at long last becomes bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. And we, who have given our hearts to many others, are united with the one and only Lover who’s faithful and true. God is the persistent Lover of us all. And God is indescribably beautiful—confident, attractive, tender, and strong. Advent is a pivotal point in the love story between God and humanity. It’s all about the courtship of the human race with our one true Love—the one Love in whom all our other loves become lovely. Like any courtship, this one aims at transformative union—one far more intimate than marriage.

There is much joy in our union with God. So much joy that, if we really think about it, we can hardly wait. Even now, the Church’s heart is racing. And the faces of the saints are flushed with anticipation.

So look out baby, here God comes. Get ready.

The Rev. R. William Carroll serves as rector of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd in Athens, Ohio (Diocese of Southern Ohio). He received his Ph.D. in Christian theology from the University of Chicago Divinity School. He co-edits The Covenant Journal with Lane Denson, and his sermons appear on his parish blog.

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