Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8
I can’t walk anywhere around Cove without tripping over a herald. And I don’t stumble over heralds just at Cove. I can’t think of almost any place I have ever lived or traveled where I haven’t been met by a herald.
Before I go on, some of you might be asking the obvious question: “So, just what is a ‘herald’?” That’s a fair enough question because “herald” is not a term that gets tossed around too often in common English today. The easy, by the book, answer to that question is that a herald is a harbinger of good news, someone who announces that glad tidings are on the way. Or, as you and I will soon sound out, “Hark, the herald angels sing.”
Listen to national and global news right now and you might ask another fair question: “Where have all the heralds gone?” There doesn’t seem to be much to hark about in these turbulent and divisive days. Glad tidings are suffering drought conditions from the Ukraine to Gaza, to constant rancor in Congress, to a Supreme Court in search of ethics, to a nation suffering from amnesia about the plight of the poor, to a national blind eye turned to those who are unhoused, to building walls of unwelcome to immigrants, to an alarming rise in racism and antisemitism. Dear God, where have all the heralds gone? Where is the good news? What happened to glad tidings?
I remember looking for heralds of good news when as a boy as I watched fire hoses mow down non-violent protesters in Birmingham and saw terrifying images of a bomb that tore apart the Temple on Peachtree Street in Atlanta. I cringed when my older brother drew his draft number for Vietnam and as I tried to figure out how to live in not a red or blue state America, but in a black and white one. As a boy, I looked hard for heralds of glad tidings, but they were hard to come by. They are hard to come by still.
For people of faith, heralds do not announce mundane good news – we got the grant, we got the job, we passed the test, we won the lottery. No, heralds deal in the good news that only God is capable of sending. Our morning text from Isaiah opens some 2600 years ago in response to the exiles’ relentless cry: “Where have all the heralds gone?”
Between chapter 39 and 40 of the Book of Isaiah, Jerusalem is destroyed, the Temple is burned, the brightest and best are forced marched into exile in Babylon and the heralds who speak do so not with God’s words but with well-calculated words that are actually one perpetual lie after another. The writer of Isaiah 40 has grown up hearing this mournful cry from God’s people:
She weeps bitterly in the night,
with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
she has no one to comfort her.
(Lam. 1:2, 9)
In our Gospel text, Mark introduces us to someone who shows up on the banks of the Jordan looking everything like a madman, but harking like a herald angel to every longing soul waiting for a word of comfort. Standing knee deep in water and human sin and brokenness, John baptizes but he also points ahead to the one true herald about whom the angels sing.
Long before Jesus took a dip in the Jordan, long into the exile years of yearning for God to break the silence, Isaiah arrived with a new script and with these directions for God’s people: “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings.” God tells the people, “Enough already.” Enough anxiety. Enough fear. Enough living as if God has gone deaf, as if God does not have a greater purpose for your life than for you to linger in the land of fear and hatred, anxiety and distress. Enough!
To a people noticeably short on comfort, Isaiah heralds God’s Hallelujah Chorus of “comfort.” Not the cheap comfort that wanna-be heralds peddle today, the cheap comfort of saying “no problem, we all make mistakes” and “let’s just put the past behind us.” No, Isaiah heralds the profound comfort of a God who announces: “Enough already, I choose to see beyond your wretched past and I have paved a superhighway of comfort to lead you home.”
Advent is a season that dares us not pretend that we are just fine when we are not and not to live as if God has nothing left to say to us and nothing left for us to say to the world. Advent arrives on the backs of Isaiah and Mark with a delivery of good news, glad tidings to those who bend “beneath life’s crushing load.” Advent arrives as the season for heralds, for those who climb up high mountains and those who venture into dark places, for those who announce good news to anyone and everyone who has decided that there “is no one to comfort me.”
As I said at the beginning of this sermon, you can’t walk around Cove without tripping over a herald. Some of them are easy to spot. They greet you on Sunday morning or at the Readings tonight so that no one ever enters this sanctuary thinking “no one notices that I am here” or “no one really cares.” Some heralds show up at the homes of those well-acquainted with sorrow carrying fragrant flowers picked from the yard or scrumptious casseroles or mouth-watering cakes, daring anyone to think that this community of heralds is going to let you grieve alone.
Some heralds spend their lives in public service because they are unwilling to accept that hunger and lack of medical care and compassion for the aged are realities we just need to accept. Some heralds practice law and file suits to make sure than companies that pollute the earth are held accountable. Some heralds make furniture that stop you in your tracks with its sheer beauty and craftsmanship like the table you will find in the Upper Room of Cove Hall.
And then there are the heralds who always have the capacity to show up even though they have a thousand other demands on them. Over the past few months, I have watched heralds at Cove spend countless hours making a family of refugees feel welcome, a family that might well never step foot in this sanctuary. Some heralds wake up singing or playing the piano or violin or guitar, often writing new music because they can’t wait to share the joy that music brings. Some heralds use their considerable skills to repair broken bodies and others bandage broken hearts and broken minds.
A few years ago, Jennell and I had the glad occasion to sit with two aging heralds from the peanut metropolis of Plains, Georgia. On that morning, President and Mrs. Carter were joined by scientists from the CDC, global diplomats, representatives from the Gates Foundation, and leaders from the Carter Center. They had gathered to announce the final push on the eradication of the Guinea Worm, an indiscriminate killer of the poor in much of Africa.
Told that eradication of this disease was not achievable, President Carter heard a different voice, the voice of one crying, “comfort, comfort ye, my people.” Those whose bodies hosted this awful worm had not sinned; they had simply drunk guinea worm infested water. They had not sinned, but they had known profound despair.
On that morning, more than a decade ago, there were still over 100,000 new cases of Guinea Worm identified each year in Africa. Thanks to the untiring efforts of a former U.S. President, his wife, and global business and philanthropic leaders, there has been a total of seven cases of Guinea Worm identified worldwide so far in 2023. Hark, the herald angels sing!
I left the Carter Center that Friday morning giving thanks to God for heralds like former President Carter whose vision of God’s reign includes a world where the most vulnerable can drink water without fear that it may be a cup of poison, and like the late Rosalyn Carter who had a vision of God’s reign where mental illness was not a life sentence of shame to be endured. I gave thanks not only for the Carters but for all those heralds that you and I have never met and will probably never meet, but whose life and faith bears witness that our God is on the loose, giving us not just the audacity to hope but the courage to be heralds of God’s good news and glad tidings.
In this season for heralds, I invite you, then, to join me in an Advent challenge. I invite you to turn off the voices of despair and cynicism that populate too much of our public media today and ramble about in our minds and issue callously from our mouths. Instead, I invite you to tune your ear to the life transforming melodies of Isaiah 40 and Mark 1. And after you have heard their glad tidings of God’s good news, if you can’t find a high mountain to climb or if you are no longer able to climb mountains even if you found them, then get out and get your hark on!
Whatever you do over the next couple of weeks, do not let the Advent idea of waiting cause you to sit around hoping for a new memo from God, as if Isaiah and Mark have not already issued a call to service for all “heralds.” If you nothing else in this Advent season, enlist gladly in God’s company of heralds.
I can promise you this. You will never find a better paying job.