"what shall i cry?" may seem like an odd advent question, but it really is an ancient question. we hear it in the 40th chapter of isaiah, after God invited isaiah to cry out a word of comfort and peace.
can you imagine what that must be like? to be given a word from the Lord to cry out? i mean, what would it take to convince you that such a word was really from the Lord? how would you use your voice and your talents and your life to share that word? these are the same kinds of questions isaiah must have wrestled with, when he first felt compelled to cry out for God. we are given a picture of this early in the book of isaiah, in chapter 6, as isaiah shares a vision in which he sees God high and lifted up, in the company of angels who are singing "holy, holy, holy," and God speaks and asks who will represent God - who will speak for God? and isaiah is understandably overwhelmed. he cries out, "i am a man of unclean lips, and i live among a people of unclean lips." in other words, "i'm not worthy for this! i can't cry out with God's word!" however, with encouragement and blessing, and a hot coal on the lips in this vision, isaiah is charged with doing just that.
and then he is given the word he is to speak. the word is destruction. the word is desolation. the word is judgment. really, the word is exile. isaiah's job is speak truth into the terrible reality of the exile of the jewish people from their land, a situation which separated families, a serrated knife of separation from culture and language and tradition and music and God. in the midst of this doom and gloom, isaiah was to speak a word of judgment: calling people to see how they had also cut themselves off from God and one another by their selfishness and faithlessness. it couldn't have been an easy word to deliver, to cry out.
and now, in isaiah 40, he is once again charged with a call, and given a new word to cry out, but this word is different: "comfort, o comfort," says God. the price has been paid. the separation and brokenness will not last forever. there will come a time of peace. the mountains will be brought down and the valleys lifted up and the broken places made smooth, so that there can be return and reunion and a trip home. this is a word of great joy and hope.
and you might think that isaiah would be glad to finally have something good to say. you would think he would say to God, "yes! here am i! send me! i will cry out with this good word!"
but he doesn't.
God says, "cry out," and isaiah responds, "what shall i cry? all people are like grass....they wither and fade....everything breaks down and falls out and fades away. all is broken. in the end, it's a mess."
can't you hear the weariness in the prophet's voice? can't you hear his cynicism? can't you hear the sound of years of bad news? and can't you identify with him? i mean, we hear bad news all the time. in every realm, on every continent, in every culture, on every news channel, we are constantly hearing the cries of bad news and brokenness: shootings and tragedies and disasters and sexual abuse and starvation and addiction and on and on. like isaiah, we sometimes cry out, "it is all broken. everything is a mess."
but i love the response in verse 8. "the grass withers and the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever." in other words, yes, everything is broken. well, almost everything. there is one thing that stands forever. and that is the word - the logos - of God. of course we know that that logos is not simply some words on a page, but the actual word of God, which is Jesus, the one born to us as a helpless baby, in the brokenness of water and womb. as if to make this connection undeniable, another voice took up this same call many generations later. john the baptist cried out these very words from isaiah 40, to connect the dots: to tell people that the One who is the Word of God - who stands forever - is coming, so prepare!
the question for us is, what shall we cry? what will our cry be? will we cry out judgment and doom? will we cry out despair and hopelessness? will we be content to groan that all is broken? or will we dare to cry out that something stands forever? in verse 9 the voice of God says, "get you up to a high mountain...lift up your voice with strength...lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities...'here is your God!'"
so, i wonder. what shall i cry this advent? will i lift up my voice in hope? will i say, "here am i, send me?" will i whimper in despair? will i whine in busyness? or will i cry out in hope and expectation? "here is your God! see? the Lord comes..."