What Shall I Cry?
A Sermon on Mark 1:1-8; Isiah 40:1-11
I. Jerusalem: Now and Then
We are going to do a little traveling this morning, to the city of Jerusalem at different points in time. Why? Because it is no mere coincidence that both of our scripture passages this morning and the events of the past week call us to focus our attention on that Holy city of Jerusalem, a city central throughout the History of the Judean people, and to the writers and prophets of the Old Testament. Jerusalem was also a city central to the beginning and end of Jesus' ministry. And Jerusalem today remains a city central to our nation's relationship with the world and an area of global focus and concern yet today.
Jerusalem this Week
Earlier this week, President Trump announced that the U.S. would officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel. President Trump said he was fulfilling his promise to “look at the world's challenges with fresh thinking.” He criticized previous U.S. Administrations for not recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's status as the capital during the past decades of intermittent peace talks, and noted that “it would be folly to think that repeating the exact same formula of the past 20 years would bring about a lasting peace agreement between Israel and Palestine.” President Trump called on the leaders of both nations “to maintain the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites” and said, “Above all, our greatest hope is for peace. The universal yearning in every human soul.”
And as a read the these words, I thought that all sounds pretty good. So why all the discourse? Why is Pope Frances calling for maintaining a different kind of status quo? And why has the Stated Clerk of the PC (USA), and the bishops and leaders of the United Methodist Church, the United Church of Christ and other denominations denounced President's Trumps decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital and move the U.S. Embassy there?
As I pursued these questions, I discovered we needed to go back into recent history a bit to understand. I found a very informative video published by “Jewish Voices for Peace,” a diverse group that seeks to uphold the Jewish principles of “peace, social justice, equality and human rights.” The group's video explained how a UN decision in 1947 to re-settle Jewish refugees after the Holocaust essentially created another group of refugees, the Palestinian and Arab people who have been displaced since the Jews came back to Israel after WWII. Essentially, the rights, protections and subsidies given to the Jewish people to help them recover following the devastating Holocaust have led them to becoming a dominant group that now oppresses the rights and liberties of the non-citizen Palestinians occupying the West Bank and areas around and in Jerusalem.
I began to wonder how the Jews who suffered and perished in the Holocaust might feel about that.
Jerusalem At the Time of John and Jesus
Let's go back even further, to Jerusalem at the time of Jesus and John the Baptist – a voice crying out from the wilderness. The Jewish people – Jesus and John's people – were again the oppressed, in Jerusalem and throughout Israel. The Romans occupied their homeland and controlled their religious and government rulers who, in those days, were one and the same.
John the Baptist was an unusual pick to be the messenger who would cry out as Isaiah foretold. John, in with his wild clothes and unconventional diet, was the spokesperson for a new movement that would reach out to the most vulnerable, the Jews: the outcasts of their own people who suffered the worst under Roman oppression. John cried out with the words of the Prophet Isaiah, calling to all who had ears to hear to prepare the way for the coming of the Lord.
John cried out to all of the people – and they responded to his cry. They confessed their sins, named the world's brokenness, and washed themselves in a baptism of repentance; a baptism of turning towards God and away from the powers of this world.
John cried out about the coming savior's power; John cried out about the savior's worth. John cried out about a baptism unlike any other; and the people received salvation. And I wonder what those same people, those first followers of Christ might cry out to the Christ-followers living in Jerusalem today; those trying to find their place alongside their Jewish and Muslim neighbors, struggling for their own identity, and for peace.
So let's go back even further – another 600 or 700 years before John's time, before Jesus' time, back to the time of the Prophet Isaiah. This section of Isaiah's book contains prophecies from the time after the long period of Israel's occupation by the Babylonians, when generations of Judeans (which is what the Jewish people were called then) first began to return to Jerusalem and to reclaim their identity as the people of God.
Isaiah 40 marks a noted change of tone for this author – it's a different voice. Unlike the first 40 chapters of the book, the prophet is no longer warning the people of the wrath they are about to experience as a result of their own sinful nature and turning away from God. Instead, Isaiah called upon God for comfort. Isaiah called upon God to speak tenderly to the people, and to forgive them their sins. Isaiah spoke of one who will come, of a voice that will cry out the coming of the Lord, and a salvation that levels the playing field.
A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."
– Isaiah 40:3-5
But – then I come to verse 6, which says, “A voice cries out, and I ask, what shall I cry?” Is Isaiah talking to himself here? Is he expressing the dismay of a prophet called to re-shape the message, to prophecy not wrath but salvation? Is he thinking to himself, What shall I cry to these people, who are like grass, these people who will never change, who will trod down the same paths, make the same mistakes, inflict the same hurts, trample the vulnerable in the same way? When Isaiah asks, “what shall I cry?” Could he be speaking of the same sort of political confusion we feel today, when we can't figure out who is right or wrong or whose side we are on?
It's important to note that Isaiah is speaking about essentially the same people and the same city that remains torn apart by conflict today when we consider his words:
All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. (40:6).
Could Isaiah have possibly known that his people and their descendants would become the Jewish people and the Christian people and the Muslim people that would populate and re-populate this same city with the same problems, generation after generation after generation?
The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. (40:7)
I can't believe that this voice of the prophet Isaiah, now turning from condemnation to comfort, would speak of the people themselves so inconsequentially; or that our God would not look with compassion upon those who suffer and those who seek righteousness, that God would forsake God's people, regardless of their faith label, then or now.
The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever. (40:8).
Perhaps what Isaiah is foretelling is of the coming of something that is greater and more long-lasting than even the seemingly endless conflicts and suffering of Jerusalem, and of our world. It is nothing less than the revelation of the Glory of the Lord – a revelation that comes when all people see it together.
And so Isaiah cried out to his people of grass and wildflowers, “Here is Your God!” And in the coming of time, God's presence became known to the people of Jerusalem in one who came with power and might and righteousness like none had ever seen: the power to lay down his life, and trust in a salvation greater than this world.
Back to Now
Today in Jerusalem voices cry out in the wilderness, seeking peace and justice for people who are like grass and flowers, withering and fading in the dessert. One such voice is the cry of Janna Jihad, an 11 year old Palestinian girl living in the occupied West Bank who, since she was 8 years old, has been broadcasting on social media the sights and sounds and sounds of her life and those of children growing up in occupied Palestine. Janna has been touted as the world's youngest journalist, but she has her critics. Some say that she is a pawn, and blame her family and her tribe for exploiting her and other children to stir up animosity against the Israeli army. For those of you who are fans of the Hunger Games, you might think of Janna as a real-life Mockingbird, shooting propoganda pieces at the front lines and using the power she can muster with her voice – a child's voice – to call attention to the plight of her people.
For the past several days, Janna has been broadcasting from her home images of smoke from bombs dropped near by, the sounds of gunshot and voices crying out in fear, and in warning, and her own voice calling, “FREE PALESTINE NOW.”
A voice cries out, and it hurts my ears, and breaks my heart, and I wonder, what shall I cry?
Is it enough to stand on the mountain of Zion, as Isaiah would have done, and called to the people, “Here is your God!”?
Are we to cry out, like John the Baptist, calling to those in the wilderness hope in a new savior greater than the powers of this world?
Or is God calling is to herald the return of our savior and coming of God's kingdom in some other way, with something more than words of comfort, with not just words, but actions that will bring justice to the oppressed, so that all people in that Holy city can live in a way that reveals the Glory of the Lord; so that Jerusalem is finally the beacon of peace on earth and God's kingdom come, for all people together.
A voice cries out, and we wonder, what shall I cry? What should we do? Whose side are we on? I don't know – I don't know what to cry. But, until we find our voice, let us begin with the words of Psalm 122:
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May those who love you be secure.
May there be peace within your walls
and security within your citadels.”
For the sake of my family and friends,
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek your prosperity.
In God's holy name, may it be so.