Performance Riders, Doomsday Preppers, & Advent: Isaiah 40:1-11 (Advent 2B)

2014 Advent ID.001In the entertainment business there’s this thing called a performance rider, a written list of the artist’s demands. The promoter agrees to prepare the venue exactly the way the artist likes it. The instructions for this are all in the rider. Given the prevalence of artistic eccentricity, some of the demands can be absurd.

Beyonce’s Rider asks to be provided with a $900 titanium drinking straws & special alkaline water served at exactly 21°. Also anyone backstage is required wear only 100% cotton clothes so she doesn’t Beyonce’ doesn’t get allergic.

Katy Perry’s Rider requires a car and driver, which is totally normal. However, her rider includes a 21 point driver instruction guide including the demand that the driver must never speak to her, never make eye-contact, and always use the far left lane.

Madonna travels with a 200-person entourage: 30 bodyguards, 2 personal chefs, a yoga instructor, acupuncturist, & on-site dry cleaner. She requires 20 international phone lines in her dressing room, plus white & pink roses with stems cut to exactly 6 inches. If you promote a Madonna show, that’s your prep list.

Britney Spears was surprisingly bland, just a bunch of junk food & a framed picture of Princess Diana (Why Diana, I do not know).

The most laid-back diva is Adele. She merely asked for sandwiches, Marlboro Lights, candy bars, & beer. Her one demanding requirement is actually endearing. If you want free tickets, you must donate $20 to a charity called Sands in the UK, which exists to provide counseling for people who’ve lost an infant.

The old school rider of Frank Sinatra asks for one bottle each: Absolute Vodka, Jack Daniels, Chivas Regal, Courvoisier, Beefeater gin, white wine, red wine, 24 chilled jumbo shrimp, life savers, and cough drops. Frank was having a party.

Mötley Crüe famously asked for a sub-machine gun, a 12-foot boa constrictor, a jar of Grey Poupon, and a schedule of local AA meetings. Ozzy Osburne now requires three oxygen tank to be available at load-in. I’m guessing years of cigarettes cut lung capacity.

Coldplay’s rider is endearing like Adele’s. They ask the promoter to provide postcards highlighting their city so the band can mail them to their kids.

All joking aside, in all the years of touring I did with Satellite Soul, we found that it was possible to predict the turnout for the show several hours early. All we had to do was pay attention to how carefully the promoter followed the rider. I they did careful preparation of everything we asked (which was not very much), it was a good bet that they had done a good job with publicity and marketing.

In our society there’s a new-ish phenomenon called doomsday preppers. These folks are convinced that an apocalyptic disaster is eminent, so they spend a lot of time & money on their preparations, stockpiling tons of food, water, medicine, guns & ammo.

preppersThere’s actually a well-known doomsday prepper site outside my hometown of Salina, KS. A real estate investor named Larry Hall, bought several old Atlas Missile silos, and he converts them into upscale doomsday condos. These are massive underground facilities build to withstand a nuclear blast. They are story high rise buildings that extend underground instead of above. Each site provides about 54,000 square feet of usable space. For context, our entire church building is less than 15,000 square feet. The site includes a spa, dog park, fitness center, operating room, 5 years supply of food, an extensive power generating station, hydroponic gardens, and sophisticated air and water treatment capabilities.

Hall doesn’t even have to work very hard to sell these things. Anytime there’s a serious world disturbance or event, these things nearly sell themselves. Hall sold four floors to a Tobacco Company Executive for $12 million. He says he’s got another buyer who wants to purchase an entire silo. He’s talking with NFL players, NASCAR drivers, movie producers and apparently a few well known politicians. So that’s another kind of preparation… a little extreme.

I think one of the most common experiences of preparation involves preparing to have a child. I still remember the night Kristin & I found out she was pregnant for the first time. She took the test about 9:45 one night. When we saw that it was positive, we hopped in the car, drove to a 24 hour Wal-Mart, and bought What to Expect When You’re Expecting. We went home and read it to each other until we fell asleep. That began our Preparation

When baby number two was on the way, it was actually Nick who had the most preparation to do. He was not even a year and a half old yet, when he had to leave the comfy crib & go to a regular bed. He had leave the room right next to ours, & move clear down the hall & on other side of the house. He had to leave behind the nice comfy rocking chair, plus a bunch of his toys, books, blankets were staying behind. Honestly, I’m not sure Nick was prepared for all this preparing.

Once you start to look for it, you soon become aware that preparation is a big part of our lives. Some of it’s healthy—preparing meals, packing for trips—some of it is unhealthy—obsessing over details and superficialities—some of it is unavoidable like paying taxes. Our text for today is recommending a certain kind of preparation.

It comes from book of Isaiah, so we’ll need some context before we read. Isaiah isn’t really a single book. It’s actually two (possibly three) books that have been combined as one. Chapters 1-39 comprise the first part. Chapters 40-66 comprise the second. Often scholars call them First and Second Isaiah (unless you are from the UK where they pronounce it eye-sigh-uh).

The predominant theme of First Isaiah is about God’s judgment of Israel. The judgment comes, we are told for many reasons: for worshipping the Canaanite gods, for trusting in their own political alliances for safety, for the way they mistreat the poor, widow, orphan, and alien, and for the way they have turned worship into a big show instead of allowing worship to call their lives into question before God.

Israel has run off the rails. So, God steps back; goes dark. That’s God’s judgment; he leaves them to their own devices. Then in Second Isaiah there’s a dramatic shift in tone. The prophet goes from talking about judgment to talking about hope.

We also need to know the first 39 chapters were written about 700 BCE. Chapters 40-66 were written about 540 BCE, so there’s about a 160 year gap between the two. What happens in that gap is incredibly important. At the end of the first section, the prophet Isaiah comes to Israel’s king to warn the ruler that Babylon is going to destroy Jerusalem if nothing is done. Isaiah predicts that Babylon will attack & destroy the city, destroy the temple, & carry people off to exile.

King Hezekiah treats him like a doomsday prepper.

So the first part of Isaiah ends on a markedly ominous note. Babylon is poised to attack. Isaiah has warned everybody, but they completely ignore him.

Then it all happened just as he said. Nebuchadnezzar surrounded Jerusalem and laid siege. It was like a blockage. No food got in or out of Jerusalem for eighteen months. They dealt with mass starvation, water shortages, rampant disease… the city was dying. Finally when Jerusalem was at its weakest, Nebuchadnezzar attacked. His army easily defeated the Israelites.

Then the Babylonians went to work on the city itself. First they tore down the walls, and them in rubble (which meant that the city was perpetually undefended). Then they started in on the temple. First they removed anything of value, gold, silver, bronze, jewels, any writings, any artifacts, anything of value was packed up and shipped home to Babylon. Then they meticulously dismantled the temple stone by stone until there was nothing left of it but a pile of ruins.

After sacking the temple, they went thru the city street by street, house by house, room by room. Anything of value—jewelry, weapons, furnishing, or heirlooms—were packed up and shipped home.

They did the same thing with the people. Anyone who was educated or beautiful or strong or smart was shipped home to Babylon, too. They took the best & brightest captive. This is what’s called the Exile. The rest were killed, sold as slaves, or just left behind. Then they completely burned the city.

Finally Nebuchadnezzar dealt with Israel’s king who, at the time, was named Zedekiah. He was actually a puppet king handpicked and installed by Nebuchadnezzar. But Zedekiah rebelled against Babylon, and enticed the great siege. Zedekiah, his family, and royal guard tried to escape, but they were caught. Nebuchadnezzar made him watch as he killed all of his sons one at a time. Then he had Zedekiah’s eyes gouged out so that the last thing he would ever see was the death of his own children—which is messed up. Then he put him in chains and took him back to Babylon so he could have more fun with him.

So when I say that what happened in that 160 year gap was incredibly important, this is what I mean. What happened during the 160 years between Isaiah 39 & 40 was devastating. By the time Nebuchadnezzar was done, the entire culture of Jerusalem was annihilated. Israel ceased to exist for over 2000 years, until the 1940s.

This defeat had important implications for how the Jewish people related to YHWH. There were really two ways to interpret what had happened: First, YHWH was weak & had been defeated by the gods of Babylon, or second, YHWH had abandoned Israel, and turned his back on them. Either way, Israelites were stripped of their identity. They were no longer the people of God. There was no temple, no observance of Sabbath or the law, no worship of YHWH… it was a return to chaos.

For 160 years God went dark. No prophets spoke. God was silent. If the book of Isaiah were finished here, then Israel and YWHW were finished with each other for good.

But suddenly, out of nowhere, there came a word from God. YHWH spoke to his people, and what YHWH said was actually the last thing anyone could have expected:

Isaiah 40: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 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. 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. A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.”

Out of the darkness comes a word: “Comfort.” As unbelievably welcome this promise of comfort was, it’s entirely possible that the best part was that YHWH followed the word of comfort with the much longed for words, “my people.” God called them his people again.

It was as if YHWH had snuck up behind the and whispered softly into their ear with one calming hand on each shoulder: “I know you think I’m not powerful anymore, that I turned my back on you, that I don’t love you anymore. It isn’t true. I’m still the lord of all creation. I’m still with you, and you are still my people. I’m here to comfort you. I’m here to assure you that, “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.”

To a people who lived like desert nomads this was good news. No more exhausting climbs. No more knee crunching descents. No more valleys where thieves could ambush you. All the sudden, the pathway was wide-open, straight, and revealed for all to see.

However—and this is always the hard part to hear & to remember—the way was only made clear after everything else had passed away. The grass withered, the flowers fell, and only the word of the Lord would stand forever. Only then could the word of the day become “comfort my people.”

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 “…this is always the hard part to hear & to remember—the way was only made clear after everything else had passed away.”

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This was Isaiah’s way of telling the people (and us as well), “Get this, and get it good. You must never forget the singular lesson you have learned in Exile; Everything else you become attached to in this life will surely let you down. Only the Lord lasts forever. Only the Lord will not let you down.”

The instructions to the people were vague and simple: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,” Prepare the way for new life to come into your life. Make way for something new by letting go of something old. Make way for new loves by letting go of old loves. Make way for new hopes by letting go of old disappointments. Make way for new joys by letting go of old fears. If we are going to receive something new… a Savior, a Lord, a healer, a redeemer, a God… then we have to clear out some room.

Barbara Brown Taylor says, “We are called to prepare the way for new life in our lives, to make room for it by letting go of our old ways, even our old loves, as painful as that may sometimes be. It is either that or prepare ourselves for the news that we have been passed over because there was no room in us.”

As Christians we have been drawn into the story of Israel through Jesus. The story of exile and return is our story as well. I believe—and this isn’t me so much as contemporary biblical scholars who have taught me—that the American church today is a church in exile.

Think about why God judged Israel: For worshipping other gods, for trusting in their own political alliances for safety, for mistreating the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien, for turning worship into a big show instead of focusing on important things like mercy & justice. One has to admit the similarities are striking. It makes one wonder if the reason the American church is decreasing in size is that we are in middle of an exile story

The return from exile was being planned and plotted by God. But it was only going to happen if they were ready to prepare the way of the Lord. This preparation was about the removal of anything that would stand in the way of their complete trust in YHWH. It was about letting things die off, things that were slowly killing them.

This is the word to us as well: If you want the new you have to make room for it. You have to prepare the way of the Lord.

Just like the people of God during that 160 years of devastating silence, preparation for us means renouncing our allegiances to rival gods. It means we must stop trusting in political alliances, start caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan, the alien, start resisting the lure to make worship into a big show, and allow our lives to be called into question before God.

To prepare the way of the lord involves the removal of anything that stands in the way of complete trust of YHWH.

You don’t have to agree with me on this next part. This is just what I think about our culture. However, I am convinced that this is what I think stands in the way for us.

Since the 1700s, the prevailing thought of Western culture in terms of political, social, religious thought, began to espouse new ideologies:

  • A new political ideology called democracy.
  • A new epistemological ideology called science. (Epistemology just means how we know what we know; how we prove things as true is epistemology).
  • A new economic ideology called capitalism

These ideologies were promoted as a solution to rid the world of the horrific violence & corruption caused by religion. It took about 200 years for these ideologies to gain control. By the beginning of the 1900s they had achieved supremacy in Western culture. Then, while saving us from the violence and corruption of religion, they gave humankind the bloodiest, most violent century in human history.

Still these are the idols of Western Culture—the powers—and we all bow down to them. Today everyone scrambles to make sure their children study biology, chemistry, physics, political science, and economics. Grounding our children in democracy, science, & capitalism is a much higher priority for most Christians than seeing that they are steeped in the Christian faith.

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“Grounding our children in democracy, science, & capitalism is a much higher priority for most Christians than seeing that they are steeped in the Christian faith. In our society you can believe in God, or not believe in God, but you are required to believe in science. Only science is officially true.”

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In our society you can believe in God, or not believe in God, but you are required to believe in science. Only science is officially true. We trust in science for our future. Some trust in democracy and government, some trust in capitalism & free markets. All the while we’re told that spiritual beliefs aren’t officially true. In fact they are dangerous because they lead to too much violence.

Who are they trying to kid?

Respect for democracy, the laws of science, and the laws of free market capitalism are aggressively enforced in our culture. Yet respect for Christianity, or God, or faith is ridiculed and laughed at.

One must say, of course, that none of those things are bad in and of themselves. I mean, antibiotics are pretty cool, X-ray machines I like, and modern medicine is amazing. Democracy as well, voting and representative government is a huge step forward from monarchies and oppressive dictatorships. Capitalism has worked really well, at least for those people who have capital.

All of those ideologies are in one way or another good and noble things. How else do you think they became idols?

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“Capitalism has worked really well, at least for those people who have capital. All of those ideologies are, in one way or another, good and noble things. How else do you think they became idols?”

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Idols always offer some sort of benefit to our lives. They are almost always a gift. It’s just that as humans we have a tendency to become confused. We tend to think the gift is actually the giver. We start to think the gifts of life are the source of life, thus it becomes difficult to imagine God as the source of life. So, God steps back.

That’s Exile.

That’s the world we live in.

Why do we need God? We already have everything we need. God says “I can go if you want me to,” and the truth is we do. We’ve ignored God for so long, is it any wonder that when the stuff hits the fan in our lives and we finally reach for God, God seems distant?

Barbara Brown Tayler says it this way: “As long as our hearts and souls are full of what we know will sustain us, we have lost the ability to receive the as-yet-unknown things that God has in store for us. We are full up; there is no room at the inn.”

So, we find ourselves stuck in a world where the value of the person—your worth & identity as a human being—is tied to your ability to get and wield power, or to generate more data for science, or to produce & consume ever more goods & services. All of this is deeply inhuman, inhumane, and dehumanizing.

The prophet comes along to remind us of what is really true:

  • You’re not a consumer you’re a person.
  • You’re not a data point you’re a human being.
  • You’re not a voter or constituent you’re a precious child of God.

More and more our culture reflects the image of those idols. We become like that which we worship. We bear the image of those rival gods and they rob humankind of their dignity & identity.

Worst of all, they reduce human beings and relationships to an equation, a commodity, or a struggle for power.

The church has just sort of gone along with this project. So we should not be surprised when we come to Christmas Eve and about the best we can muster is a sentimental moment that’s mostly about how much we love our families.

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“The church has just sort of gone along with this project. So we should not be surprised when we come to Christmas Eve and about the best we can muster is a sentimental moment that’s mostly about how much we love our families.”

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Science, economics, and government can be wonderful blessings. They have the ability to make our lives better, and lift us up in countless ways. What they cannot do, however, is tell us what it means to be human. They cannot tell us who we are. They make lousy gods.

The good news is that into that space, the confusion of exile where it seems like God is distant, or silent, or maybe even gone. Into that place comes a word as unexpected in our day as it was for Isaiah: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” Into that hopeless place comes a voice crying out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. God has provided a way of life that transcends the unbridled consumerism & the exploitation of people & power & resources. God has provided a way of life that surpasses the proliferation of violence and cruelty.

But it only comes to those who do their preparation.

“We are called” Taylor says, “to prepare the way for new life in our lives, to make room for it by letting go of our old ways, even our old loves, as painful as that may sometimes be. It is either that or prepare ourselves for the news that we have been passed over because there was no room in us.”

Advent is an intentional time during which we prepare the way for a different reality to take hold in our lives. We slow down a bit, refocus, and clear out some room in our hearts for the truth to come take up residence so that we don’t fall for the lie.

One of the ways the people of God have always tried to prepare their hearts is by singing songs. Songs that remind us that God has promised to take care of us. Songs that open up some room in our imaginations for God to break in. One of the songs of Advent is “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” I want us to sing this song together as we close.

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