“The ancient city of Babylon was a hot, dusty, flat, sun-baked city – about fifty or sixty miles south of modern Baghdad. About six centuries before Christ, Nebuchadrezzar, King of Babylon, began a massive building project, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the wonders of the ancient world. Nebuchadrezzar built a lush artificial mountain of astonishing size and beauty and sophisticated technology and engineering to irrigate the rooftop gardens. He built it to comfort his wife, Amyitis, who was from the mountains and longed for her green homeland. His tender concern for his homesick wife is almost touching.
“Within a couple decades of starting work on this fantastic pleasure garden, Nebuchadrezzar invaded Judah and laid siege to Jerusalem. Eventually Jerusalem, King David’s majestic city, hitherto impregnable, fell, and the Babylonians collected its spoils – pillaging, plundering, raping. They leveled the protective walls of Jerusalem and demolished the magnificent Temple of Solomon. Jerusalem was virtually a rubble heap. The Babylonians appreciated talent and learning, that able people are the engine that creates power. So they gathered the cream of Jerusalem and Judah – the leaders, the scholars, the engineers, the merchants, the architects, even the priests, and they marched these people and parts of their families through the desert wilderness to Babylon.
“Nebuchadrezzar’s sensitivity to homesickness didn’t extend to the Jews. The Babylonian Captivity of the Jews, the Exile, lasted for about seventy years. The captives had children, and those children had children, but they retained their Jewish identity, worshiped the Lord, told stories about their homeland, and continued to long for Jerusalem. (King David echoed their) cries, “By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered thee, O Sion.”1
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem; behold, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the LORD; Make straight in the desert A highway for our God.” The Jewish people had waited a long time for words of comfort, for someone to speak tenderly to them, to give them a word from the Lord. The Lord told Isaiah to do just that, to announce that the time of exile was about to end, that the Lord was coming to their aid, that it was OK to hope again. Jerusalem would soon be rebuilt, walls and houses and most importantly, the Temple; hopes would be fulfilled, and the people of God would make their way home. But as is almost always the case, the Lord had even bigger plans than that.
“Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, Who will prepare Your way before You,” wrote St. Mark. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the LORD; Make His paths straight.’” Five-hundred years after Isaiah told the Jews to listen for God, to watch for Him, to renew their hope, five-hundred years later the guy Isaiah was talking about finally showed up. A voice crying in the wilderness, a man sent from God whose name was John. So begins, according to Mark, the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. For Mark, it wasn’t good enough to let us know about what Jesus did here on Earth from the year 1; Mark had to let us know what Jesus was all about, so Mark had to reach back, back to Isaiah and the prophets, he had to let us know that God did wondrous things in bringing the Jews out of captivity in Babylon, but that Isaiah had been talking about a much greater captivity and a much greater work of God. Mark had to let us know that yes, God brought His people home to Jerusalem, which was great, but that the amazing thing was that now that your home and had some time to settle in, God is coming over for dinner.
That’s the story that Mark had to tell us, and that’s the story of Advent. Advent is a good time to remember that home is not necessarily where your heart is, but home is rather where God is. It’s a good time to remember that the Lord speaks comfort to His people even when we feel so far away from home. Advent is a good time to remember that when Joseph and Mary were heading toward Bethlehem, their path did not seem straight; no one that they could see had prepared a way for them, and no home could be found that didn’t reek of dung. And yet the Lord chose that place to first experience the outside world; He chose that stinking backwater as the first place He’d call home. “There, lying in that manger – and soon on that altar – is our hope, our home,”2 the comfort of generations and the very substance of our God. This is our home, because God has in fact come to us; this is our home, because Jesus is here. May the Lord speak comfort this Advent to His people who are in exile for reason of their faith, who have no home but for the hope that they have in the Lord, and may the Lord bring us all, in the end, to His heavenly home.
1The Rev. Lane Davenport