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People of the Way

Introduction:

Though we speak of Isaiah as though he were a single individual—
the Book of Isaiah was the work of a community, responding to events that happened over more than two hundred years.

As we come to the 40th chapter, we approach a profound shift in the narrative, and the emergence of a new prophetic voice. The first 39 chapters, which precede our reading, speak of a long season of rebellion and arrogance and the misuse of power on the part of God’s people. They forget whose they are, they lose their way, and the consequence of their waywardness is that they find themselves far from home, living in exile, losing hope. Then there is a long and painful silence in the text, as many years go by without report. Finally, out of that silence, come the words that we are about to hear.

The scene is complicated and mysterious—what is described here is an experience of God’s presence that involves many voices. Scholars refer to this as a gathering of the heavenly council. The first voice we hear is that of God.

Isaiah 40:1-11:   Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak 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.

3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every 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. 5Then the glory of the Lordshall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 6A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.7The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

9Get 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!” 10See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. 

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way;
3the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight,’”

4John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.6Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. 8I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

 

Sermon: “People of the Way”

Not long after arriving in Chapel Hill at the end of August, I settled into a regular walking routine through my neighborhood. The longest stretch is down Piney Mountain Road.  Walking it yesterday afternoon, as the snow fell, I was struck by how many things I now can see—things that were hidden just a couple of weeks ago when the trees were thick with leaves: circuitous side roads, streams beds, and houses have all appeared as though landscapers and builders have been working through the nights. It’s amazing what can be there all along, but hidden from our view until the way is cleared.

This sudden, cyclical expansion of our landscape is perfectly timed for the church’s season, too; for Advent invites us to a new perspective. And if ever we have been in need of a new perspective, that time is now. Each day’s news brings fresh discouragement:

  • Leaders we hoped would unify and inspire,
    instead divide and belittle.
  • Institutions we once respected
    seem overcome by fear and greed.
  • Officials we trusted to protect our most vulnerable members,
    turn out to be complicit in abuse.
  • And those we have counted on to tell our stories fairly
    have been among the worst offenders.

It is into days such as these, friends, that God speaks a word of comfort and of claim.

But we need to be careful here. We in the church are quick to position ourselves as those to whom the word of comfort is spoken. And we are not wrong to do so. But it is a limited view.

Because more than the ones to whom the word is spoken, you and I are intended to be the ones through whom the word is spoken. That could hardly be clearer in the texts we hear today. When God has a word of mercy and grace to speak to the people, God often chooses to accomplish that word through messengers.

In Isaiah’s day, the divine mission of comfort is entrusted to a group, not an individual. When God says, “Comfort, O comfort my people” it’s a plural imperative. Ya’ll do this. All of you who are within earshot are to be about the business of comforting, God says. The prophet is not alone in this work.

And the plural imperatives just keep coming. Not only are God’s listeners to speak words of comfort and forgiveness, they are to be construction workers, bridge builders; they are to do whatever it takes in the wilderness to help God’s people get home from exile. God says if mountains need to be brought down and valleys filled in, then do those things. Nothing must stand in the way of this mission.

And all of this work of leveling the ground seems to be about more than simply grading a good road. The ground needs to be flat so that the view will be clear. God’s coming is for the benefit of all flesh and everything that might get in the way of seeing God comeall of that needs to be moved.

This is where the text comes to life for me this morning.

If our charge, like Isaiah’s, is to move all of the obstacles out of the way so that the whole world can recognize God’s coming, then we have a lot of work to do—work that requires each of us and all of us. Work that none of us is equipped to do alone. Because leveling the ground between us, clearing away the brush and debris, doesn’t come easily to any of us.

Most of us are fairly comfortable with the way we see the world. We have no idea what our blindspots are—as individuals or in community. So, if we hope to be a church—a world—in which all persons can recognize God’s presence, then we have roadwork to do; and we will need every set of eyes and ears to make out the obstacles. Let me share an uncomfortable example.

I don’t know how many of you saw the movie Get Out. I’ve heard it described as a “horror satire.” The director refers to it as a “social thriller.” It’s not the kind of movie I usually see.  Typically, I avoid any movie that has the label “horror” attached to it—and I did not relish the gore that was part and parcel of this experience—but I thought it was an important film. It exposes the racism that is latent and hidden in white progressive communities, and it does so with a powerful metaphor.

The African American character who stands at the center of the film is hypnotized and interrogated, and rendered paralyzed during that experience. This altered state is referred to as “the sunken place.” Critics note that the sunken place “works as a metaphor for not only the literal history of slavery, but for…[the] social niceties [that continue] to enforce social hierarchies. Comments from the director, Jordan Peele, suggest that he understands the term even more broadly, to describe any experience of enforced silence and paralyzing shame.[1]

It seems to me that we as a culture have been stumbling over one sunken place after another during the last year. I can’t help wondering if these “sunken places” are the valleys we are called to be lifting up, the rough places we are called to smooth, the uneven ground we are to level, so that everyone can see the goodness of the God who has come and is coming, even now. Isaiah declares that this God comes in power and in tenderness, to lead us home.

Today’s text from Isaiah formed the Hebrew people as they came out of exile. They held tightly to it, and told it to their children. It so shaped how they watched for God in the world that when a strangely dressed man appeared in the wilderness more than 500 years later, asking neighbors to come clean about their lives—and washing them in the river as they did—when this man appeared, the people connected him to this story from Isaiah. They heard John’s voice as the sound of a messenger; they recognized his hands as those of a builder, clearing a path through the wilderness. In John, Isaiah’s promise found new life.

That’s how it is with scripture. That’s how it is with God. God keeps coming to us, keeps enlisting us; the Word keeps being born.

I think that’s precisely what the author of Mark is trying to get at in his brief and open-ended account of Jesus’ life. We’ll be exploring his gospel in detail in the coming year. Today we have the very first words—but they are important words. When Mark opens his account by saying “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” I don’t think that Mark means that the words he’s writing are the beginning, or even that the beginning might be located somewhere in the words of the prophet Isaiah, whom he goes on to quote. I think what he means is that everything that follows, all sixteen chapters, that’s just the beginning. This story has a life of its own. We are writing our chapters even now.

But John, in the wilderness, helped to prepare our way. By preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, John entreats us to live differently—more fully awake—more fully available for road work.

 

Long before followers of Jesus were called Christians, they were known as People of the Way. It’s a tag that still suits us, for we are called to be a people on the move, willing to follow wherever God leads.

As Isaiah reminds us, our days are limited; we are like the grass of the field, but we carry the breath of God within us and we have been joined to a purpose larger than our own. So may we have the courage to speak words of comfort in a world that is aching; and may we, like Mary, magnify the Lord. May we lend our lives to making God more visible to all who long to see God’s face and know God’s mercy.

 

 

[1] Ross A Lincoln, The Wrap, https://www.thewrap.com/get-out-director-jordan-peele-explains-the-sunken-place/

Margaret LaMotte Torrence , Interim Pastor

Email: margaret@upcch.org

Phone: 919.929.2102 ext. 111

Bio:

Margaret came to serve as UPC’s interim pastor in September, 2017. She expects to remain in Chapel Hill until a new pastor is called, likely in 2019. She grew up in Sarasota, Florida, living across the street from the church her father served. Margaret met her husband, Lee, when they were first-year students at Davidson College. She did not sense a call to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament until she was in her 30s. By that point their family also included a son, Nate, and a daughter, Hanna. They all moved from California to Princeton—to begin seminary, kindergarten and preschool respectively—while Lee worked to make it all possible. In the intervening years, Margaret has served churches in New Jersey, North Carolina and Florida. She and Lee live near Asheville, in a home they share with Margaret’s parents. Margaret considers it a great privilege to serve in community with others who are seeking to hear God’s voice and to follow that leading. She is grateful for the many sisters and brothers who have shared their lives and stories along the way. When she is at home in the mountains, she finds particular joy in hiking, gardening, stacking stones, and volunteering with a remarkable ministry known as the Haywood Street congregation. Margaret frequently leads conference worship in Montreat.