Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
There are times in our lives when we recognize that there is an obstacle that is separating us from God.
Sometimes it is an obstacle of our own making, something we have done or said, perhaps a choice that we made that now we deeply regret. We may feel guilty, or ashamed, or afraid. We may be reluctant to show our face before God. This thing that we have done has become a barrier between us and God.
Sometimes it is something that has happened to us, perhaps something that we don’t understand or don’t feel we deserved, and because we can’t make sense of it we fault God, and there is born in us a new fear or anger towards God, and a reluctance to trust that renders intimacy with God impossible.
Sometimes it is something that we know we should do but have avoided doing, perhaps because it seemed too costly or too difficult or too humiliating to do this thing, even though we knew it was right. But now this thing that was left undone stands as a barrier between God and us, and we know that our communion with God cannot be restored until we do what we can to set things right.
Sometimes the obstacle is something that we used to believe but no longer believe – about God, or about life, or about our faith, or about the world, and because we have not been able to reconcile this gap between what we used to believe and what we now believe, our faith has stalled and our relationship with God has lost its passion.
Whatever it is, this obstacle stands as a dividing wall between God and us. We may have tried – or may still be trying – to get over it or around it, but it is still there. We may have tried to pretend it wasn’t a big deal, but in fact it was, and still is. We may be simply ignoring it, like the proverbial elephant in the living room, pretending not to notice it, or wishing it would just go away; but deep in our hearts knowing that it is affecting our ability to love God and to be loved by God.
Today there is a voice echoing from the wilderness that invites us to come, assuring us that this obstacle, this mountain, that has grown up between us and God has been leveled by the coming of God’s Messiah, and assuring us that God is ready and eager to receive us, to forgive us, to heal us, and to reconcile us to himself.
Isaiah the prophet addresses himself to the people of Israel who have been taken captive by a foreign power and carried away from their homeland to live in the land of their oppressors. They understand that their situation was brought about by their own pride, negligence and sin, and they see the events that have unfolded as God’s rightful punishment for their stubborn and rebellious ways. But now God’s word comes to them through the prophet Isaiah, speaking comfort and tenderly assuring them that their suffering is ending and that God is preparing a straight way through the wilderness so that they might return to God and once again behold God’s glory.
“Comfort, O comfort my people,” God instructs the prophet, “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” Tell her to “prepare the way of the Lord (in the wilderness)” and “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Say to her, “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; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” Here is our God, ready to meet us.
Come. Return to God. Valleys are being lifted up and mountains and hills are being made low. Uneven ground is being leveled and rough places are being smoothed. Every obstacle is being removed and the way is being made easy and straight. Come, return to God.
In much the same way, John’s voice echoes in the wilderness, inviting the crowds to repent and to return to God. God is about to do a new thing, John tells them; the way is being readied for the coming of God’s Messiah and for the coming of God’s reign on earth. Now is the time of salvation, healing and reconciliation! Come!
And they came – “from the whole Judean countryside” and from Jerusalem, confessing their sins and receiving the “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” that God was offering them through John. Let me point out to you that what they are doing – confessing their sins – is not a normal thing to do. The normal thing is to hide our sins, to pretend that we are not at fault, to deflect the blame towards others for the messiness of our lives and the craziness of our world. The normal thing is to keep secrets, fear exposure, resist honesty, and deny truth. But here they are, confessing their sins, allowing the obstacles that have kept them from experiencing the love of God to be removed, making their way back home and into the arms of God’s loving embrace.
Come, repent, return to God. Whatever is keeping you apart from God, it’s time to deal with it, confess it, and clear it away! There is no longer any barrier to separate you from God’s love. No fear, no shame, no regret…. no thing done or left undone…. no sin, no disobedience, no rebellion. God is clearing it all away by declaring his love for you and by extending his arms to you and by saying to you in the gentlest voice possible, “Come.” Mountains are being leveled and valleys filled; rough places are being made smooth, the way is being made so very accessible, just so that you may come… freely…. here and now.
God’s call to repentance – the invitation to confess our sins, to open our hearts, to change our minds, and to turn in a new direction – is GOOD NEWS, not bad news. It is good news because God is saying to us that we can come home, that all barriers and obstacles have been removed, and that there is no longer any need or reason to hold back or run away or hide. Whatever stands between you and God can be overcome. No matter what sin or fear or guilt or sense of failure or doubt or shame or physical, mental or emotional pain has kept you apart from God, whatever obstacle has gotten in the way, it need no longer separate you from the love of the One who created you and redeemed you and cherishes you as the ‘apple of his eye.’
Have you understood these things? Then throw off the shackles that have bound you and the chains that have weighed you down. Cast away the fear and doubt and guilt and shame that have kept you from becoming the child of God that you are. And come.
Come to be forgiven. Come to be healed. Come to be encouraged. Come to be loved. Come to be saved. Come to be fed. Come.
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