Our first reading comes from Isaiah 40:1-5:
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 calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord[a];
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.[b]
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
These past few weeks, I’ve led a small group where we’ve studied the history of the Hebrew people. We’ve talked about the patriarchs and matriarchs—Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, Jacob, Leah and Rachel. We’ve talked about the time that the Hebrew people were in Egypt and the Exodus from captivity and journey back to the promised land. We’ve talked about the time of the judges and the settlement of the monarchy. We studied Saul, David, and Solomon. And we studied the breakdown of the monarchy into two kingdoms and the further breakdown of society and morality. This past week our topic was the Babylonian exile, which is where I want to start tonight.
The people of Judah continued to sin against God. They were idolatrous and rebellious. They practiced exploitation and held false alliances. They neglected the poor and the foreigner. God sent prophet after prophet to call the people to repentance, but the people paid no attention. They kept living in rebellion against God’s commands. And God wasn’t going to stand for it.
God decreed that Judah would be punished for her sins. And the Hebrew people were taken into captivity. They were forced out of the promised land into a foreign land. The Babylonian army conquered Judah, laid waste to the city of Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple.
They spent the next 70 years in captivity in Babylon, longing to return to the promised land. It was during the exile that much of what we have in the Old Testament was written down—prior to that they had been an oral tradition. The Hebrew people began to write down their history because they feared that later generations wouldn’t know their story. They wanted their descendants to know the laws and the ritual practices.
During the Exile, the Hebrew people kept hope of returning to the promised land through prophets like Ezekiel. They lamented over their past sins and kept their gaze fixed on Zion. They were afraid that their Exile would be permanent, that the covenant was broken.
Our earlier scripture reading tonight comes at the brink of the end of the Exile. With God speaking comfort literally to the heart of Jerusalem. The people have paid for their sins and they will be blessed.
The Babylonians were defeated by the Persian Empire and the Persian emperor, Cyrus, decreed that the Hebrew people could return to Canaan. Not only did he allowed the Hebrew people to return, but he also paid to rebuild the Temple.
So the people of Israel were able to return to Canaan, but had they learned from their time in Exile? God had restored them to the promised land, but would the Israelites listen to the teachings and wisdom of God’s prophets?
From Psalm 85:
You, Lord, showed favor to your land;
you restored the fortunes of Jacob.
You forgave the iniquity of your people
and covered all their sins. …
I will listen to what God the Lord says;
he promises peace to his people, his faithful servants—
but let them not turn to folly.
Surely his salvation is near those who fear him,
that his glory may dwell in our land.
Love and faithfulness meet together;
righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs forth from the earth,
and righteousness looks down from heaven.
The Lord will indeed give what is good,
and our land will yield its harvest.
Righteousness goes before him
and prepares the way for his steps.
The Israelites confessed their sins and were able to return to Canaan. They were able to rebuild the Temple. Life went on. But did they learn from their time in exile?
The Israelites came back to Canaan and rebuilt their society modeled after the time before the Exile, which allowed the systemic injustice to continue. They continued to neglect the poor and the foreigner. They didn’t learn from their past mistakes.
They had confessed their past sins and claimed that they were repenting, but they didn’t let what they had learned transform their lives. They paid lip service to repentance without actually repenting.
Repentance requires action. It’s more than just saying “sorry.” It requires learning from the past and taking steps to insure that injustice doesn’t happen again.
This past week, Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, spoke out about the history of discrimination against LGBT people in Canada. He recognized the history of the systemic oppression, criminalization, and violence toward LGBT people in Canada. And he apologized. He apologized for the harm that people in the LGBT community had experienced. His apology was both personal and corporate. He expressed his hope that by talking about these injustices, taking steps not to repeat them, and writing the wrongs committed—that healing can begin.
And his apology went beyond mere words: he is taking steps to right the wrongs of the past. He’s proposed a bill to expunge the records of people who had been arrested under explicit LGBT discrimination laws. He’s proposing spending government money on paying reparations to those who were discriminated against in hiring and promotion. He isn’t erasing the past—he insists that we must remember the past if we are to learn from it. But these actions are a start toward creating a more just society. Trudeau’s apology is what true repentance looks like. For repentance to be real, there must be action to correct injustice.
Israel had let their greed for money and power hinder their relationship with God and they spent seventy years in Exile. But still, they didn’t learn. They said that they were sorry, but didn’t truly repent. And they were conquered again. The Temple was destroyed again. They didn’t learn from the past.
We live in a world that values wealth and power above everything else.
Instead of learning from the atrocities of the past, systemic injustice continues throughout our country. Oppression and discrimination are in our judicial system, our education system, all the way to the highest levels of our national government.
The news this past week has been filled with disturbing events:
· A travel ban that targets predominately Muslim countries—there by discriminating against refugees, students, and vacationers because of their religion.
· Reports of sexual misconduct continue to increase—senators, actors, news anchors, presidents, etc. And it seems that the US holds news anchors and actors to a higher standard than those who run for public office.
· The reduction of National Park land in Utah for land developers.
And the news stories continue every week.
Laws continue to discriminate. Police officers continue to use excessive force. Women still face discrimination in the workforce. LGBTQ people face discrimination at home, at work, in school, and in other areas of life.
While there is no justice, there is no peace.
Only when we truly repent will we truly experience peace. Only then will we have what the Hebrew people call Shalom.
The Hebrew word Shalom is often translated simply as “peace.” But it means so much more than that.
“Peace” simply refers to the absence of conflict. And translations that render Shalom as “peace” do a disservice to what the word actually means.
Shalom is better translated as “wholeness,” “soundness,” “welfare,” or “to be complete.” A modern word that captures these ideas is “justice.”
There is no Shalom while injustice reigns.
As long as oppression and discrimination exist, there is no Shalom.
As long as racism exist, there is no Shalom.
As long as sexism exist, there is no Shalom.
As long as LGBT people are disenfranchised, there is no Shalom.
As long as systemic injustice remains, there is no Shalom.
We are called to repent of these injustices and to work toward justice.
True repentance requires action—that’s when justice happens. Only with justice is there true Shalom.
Repentance is Action
Repentance requires action.
It requires that we work toward making things right.
It means repenting when tragedy strikes and working to make sure it never happens again.
It means going beyond saying “thoughts and prayers.” When we express our “thoughts and prayers” without meaningful action, all we have said is nothing but empty words.
Expressing our “thoughts and prayers,” is passive. But repentance is active—it means working toward a better world. A world where everyone is truly equal, where discrimination is no more, where injustice was a thing of the past.
Imagine what the Gospels would have looked like if Jesus hadn’t worked toward justice. Imagine if he had offered “thoughts and prayers,” instead of healing those who were sick and neglected by the rest of society.
Imagine how different the world would be if we were called to just offer our “thoughts and prayers” instead of following the radical way of Jesus.
We are a people of waiting. The Israelites waited in Egypt for over 400 years. Moses waited on Mount Sinai for 40 days. The Hebrews waited for 40 years before entering the promised land. They waited in captivity in Babylon. They waited for generations for the Messiah, but when he arrived they didn’t recognize him. And we continue to wait for Jesus to return. And while we wait, we must work toward Shalom.
New Testament Lesson
So what does this have to do with Christmas?
Let me tell you what Mary said after she found out she was going to give birth to the son of God. What did Advent mean for the mother of Jesus? Here now these words from Mary, the mother of Jesus, from Luke 1:50-55:
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors.”
Mary knew that the coming of the messiah wasn’t going to be easy. The coming of messiah was going to change the world. The coming of messiah wasn’t going to bring about peace the way that we tend to think about peace and quite. The coming of the messiah meant the coming of Shalom, the coming of wholeness.
Shalom is still coming, but we have to continue to work toward it.
We have been chosen by God to be instruments of Shalom—to bring peace to this world. And getting there is going to be hard. It is going to require work.
We must overcome hate with love.
We must overcome oppression and discrimination with inclusion.
We must end injustices in this world. We must work toward justice.
We must work toward Shalom.
To get to Shalom, we must repent. We must take action to end injustice. Only then will we make progress toward Shalom.
As we continue through this season of Advent, let us remember our past and learn from it. And let us work toward peace in this world. Achieving true Shalom is a difficult journey, but its possible together.