In The Wilderness (Of Today) Prepare The Way Of The Lord

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That quotation is heard regularly from this pulpit and is one of my favorites from Dr.  Martin Luther King, Jr. ( It is apparently one of Barack Obama’s as well since he not only used it in many speeches, but quite literally had it woven into a rug in the Oval Office!)

The quote is sometimes criticized for being overly optimistic and even deterministic. In other words “Don’t worry, be happy” everything is going to turn out right in the end anyway…perhaps suggesting that resistance and efforts working for justice and peace are not even necessary. In these days, the words may really seem overly optimistic as we are confronted daily with facts some of which John Harper called our attention to last Sunday:

The U.S. Congress is working on putting the finishing touches on a tax plan which has many poor and middle class people (as well as deficit hawks) extremely worried; the Supreme Court has given carte blanche to President Trump’s travel ban on persons from certain predominantly Muslim countries; this same president seems hell bent on rolling back federal land protection in such sacred Native lands as the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah; and the great state of Alabama seems almost certain to elect an alleged sexual predator to the United States Senate.

And still the stock market surges and employment figures are good.  Even in the face of the concerns I just listed; and the fact that there is genuine worry about an outbreak of nuclear war, beginning (but perhaps not ending) on the Korean peninsula and new tensions arising in the Middle East over the Administration’s decision to move our embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem! Don’t worry, be happy!

Is the arc of the moral universe really bending toward justice? Really?  Well, I believe that it is, but it may be helpful for us to look first at the context of Dr. King’s familiar quotation and then turn to our scriptural lessons for this 2nd Sunday of Advent to see why…and how.  First – as is so often the case – we need to look at the context of Dr. King’s quote. It was not original with him. He was citing a 19th century Transcendentalist, a reforming Unitarian minister and abolitionist named Theodore Parker – and the whole quotation reads like this:

“Evil may so shape events in this world that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross; but that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C. so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In other words, bad people will often prevail in this carnal world where Caesar still rules, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t engage in social activism and strive for justice.

Just as Dr. King always looked to the great stories of his faith for strength and inspiration so it may behoove us to pay attention to our history in order to be strengthened in the present and to await the future with hope. Look at our Lessons today:

Isaiah was “comforting” (which means strengthening) his people with the confidence that – even while they were in exile – God was preparing to do something new.   And, by the way, in Isaiah, it’s not “a voice crying in the wilderness” but “a voice crying, in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” In other words it is while we are in the wilderness that God is to be seen most powerfully at work! The people of Israel had to learn to trust their God while they were in Exile, not only after their joyful return. (Isaiah 40:1-11)

The Psalmist too looks back with gratitude at God’s action in their return from exile, “You have been gracious to your land, O Lord, you have restored the good fortune of Jacob….Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other. Truth shall spring up from the earth, and righteousness shall look down from heaven.” (Psalm 82:1, 10-11)

Centuries later, Mark quotes our same passage from Isaiah as the Jews suffer under yet another occupying power – this time the Roman Empire.  Decked out like Elijah – the first of the prophets – John the Baptist assures his people that (even though he may not have all the answers) this state of affairs will not stand, “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. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize with the Holy Spirit,” (Mark 1:7-8)

And finally this morning, the second Epistle ascribed to Peter was likely written after the fall of Jerusalem yet again in 70 AD. Everything had fallen apart and yet still Jesus had not returned to set things right. So, the early Christians were encouraged to settle in and wait for him, “Do not ignore the fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you…” (2 Peter 3:8-9b)

But does that mean they are to sit around doing nothing? Hardly, the author continues: “Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of persons ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God…” (2 Peter 3:11-12a)

Can we really “hasten the coming of the day of God?” Well, Isaiah thought so. The Psalmist thought so. John the Baptizer thought so. Jesus thought so. “Peter” thought so. Theodore Parker thought so. Martin Luther King, Jr. thought so. Each one of them put their ultimate trust in God’s power to save. But each one of them spent their lives striving for justice and peace in God’s name.

Do not flinch from the events brought to your attention in the daily newspapers, beloved. Read them and weep. But then, dry your tears, find one cause with which your heart aligns and start making a difference. For it will only be then 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. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together…” (Isaiah 40:4-5b)

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