I want to begin these remarks with a short demonstration of the difficulty of being a biblical literalist. In Isaiah’s prophecy reported in our first reading is this passage. “The voice of one crying out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord . . . .’”(Isaiah 40:6)
(Then in the gospel we find Mark quoting Isaiah. He doesn’t just quote him. He makes it absolutely clear that’s what he’s doing: “As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,” says Mark. He then goes on to misquote Isaiah. “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord.’”(Mark 1:2-3)
Isaiah says, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.”Mark says, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
Is the way for God in the wilderness, or is the voice in the wilderness?
Actually, it’s not Mark’s fault that he misquoted Isaiah. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, which had no vowels and no punctuation. While the New Testament was written in Greek that did have vowels, the earlier versions still had no punctuation. It was left to later editors to add the missing elements. They obviously punctuated Isaiah and Mark differently.
It simply illustrates that literalism is a very real problem when we’re not sure what the original text was meant to say. Add to that the mistakes (intentional or unintentional) in copying these texts by hand for 1500 or more years until the invention of the printing press; and the interpretations that are necessitated by translations into English and other languages. Then perhaps you might begin to understand the magnitude of difficulty.
Even our English isn’t static. Language changes. Rabbi David Sofian of Temple Israel uses the example, “a pair of Levi’s.” Are we talking about two people from the Hebrew tribe of Levi, or are we referring to a pair pants?
Another illustration comes from one of the songs of the season: “Now we don our gay apparel.” What once meant “merry and bright” is now commonly used for a sexual orientation.
Problems in biblical interpretation aren’t the subject of this sermon. I simply offer these thoughts raised by today’s readings from Isaiah and Mark as a resource to you if you ever find yourself in a conversation about literalism.
The subject I do want to raise up is the matter of the cry. From Isaiah: A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
This isn’t the first time, nor the last, that we hear of people crying out. In Exodus 2, we read: The people of Israel groaned under their bondage, and cried out for help, and their cry came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. And God saw the people of Israel, and God knew their condition.
Whenever we’re in pain, we cry out. We may not be sure what’s causing the pain. We may very well not know what to do about our pain. But we do cry out.
This was vividly brought home to me recently as our daughter Jessye, Deaf and mute, suffering a debilitating disease, was sobbing in pain in my wife’s arms. She cried out in the clearest words she has ever spoken, “Help me!” It was wrenching. I didn’t know what to do. Her mother held her, and slowly her tears subsided. And for a time, she was comforted.
Sometimes worse than physical pain are social and psychological agonies that we endure.
Recently, our national attention has been focused on the shootings of unarmed Black men and children by police officers. So far, the grand jury process has produced almost no indictments and has raised serious questions about the process and lack of transparency. Aside from the facts of any particular incident or case, the bandage has been ripped off the only partially healed wounds of our racist past to reveal the very deep pain and prejudice that still exists.
I resonate with Isaiah when he wrote: “A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
As a white man, I’m asked by my brothers and sisters in the Black community to cry out. The situation calls for crying out. It pains me to know that my children and other people’s children are fearful—afraid of law enforcement—fearful that they may be endangered by the very ones who are sworn to serve and protect them.
Blacks are incarcerated far more than whites. Their health is worse. They die younger that whites.
But what shall I cry?
This month, on the fourteenth, will mark the 2nd anniversary of the Sandy Hook killing of 20 elementary school children and 6 adults by a deranged man. It seems that almost weekly there’s another shooting, another act of gun violence. Many voices cry out, but not enough so far to make any change.
What shall I cry?
This is a critical moment in our history. Only the cries of many voices can create the momentum to change the status quo on gun violence in white and Black communities. Only by standing up and crying out can we hope to create enough noise to get the attention of those who are in positions to make real change. Only by crying out in the wilderness, crying out in the urban landscape, raising our voices anywhere and everywhere can we hope to succeed.
But the question remains, “What shall I cry?”
I don’t know what particular policy solutions, what changes in law and in law enforcement or in gun control or gun licensing, what will make for real, lasting and righteous change. But I do know that nothing will happen until and unless we cry out for justice.
The Hebrews didn’t ask God to send Moses to Pharaoh. They didn’t lay out a plan for plagues, Passover, or Exodus through the Red Sea waters. They started by simply raising their voices. They cried out. And God heard their cries.
This is a time to express our pain and the agonies of our brothers and sisters. In email and letters, community gatherings and marches and protests, raise your voice.
In six weeks, Monday, January 19, I invite everyone who is physically able to join me and thousands of others in the Martin Luther King Day march here in Dayton. Let’s turn out in so many numbers that no one will fail to hear our cries and no one will doubt that we are all in this together: white and Black, brown and yellow, male and female, gay and straight, young and old, Republicans and Democrats and Independents. We’re all in this together.
Make no mistake. It’s not that God needs to be awakened from slumber by the shouts of his people. We’re the ones that need to wake up. We need to move out from isolation and places of comfort to see, hear, and understand the pain of the world and join in the world’s cries.
God works in and through us. We’re baptized to be Christ in the world. We receive the bread and the wine to be reminded that we are the body of Christ. It all starts by our waking up, feeling the pain that is our own and the pain of others, and then crying out. Don’t wait until you have the perfect policy solution; don’t hold off until you’ve got all the politics right; don’t refrain until your plan is complete. Lead with your heart. Join in the cries of others.
For this is where we start to prepare the way of the Lord. Amen.