Comfort O Comfort
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“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” These words ring out across the centuries – across the millennia – to a world crying out for comfort. To a world that often seems like it’s in the grip of madness. Pope Francis recently said in a sermon that Christmas this year is a charade. 'We are close to Christmas. There will be lights, there will be parties, bright trees, even Nativity scenes, all decked out, while the world continues to wage war,' the Pope said during Mass at the Casa Santa Maria. 'The world has not understood the way of peace. The whole world is at war.' The Pope went on to say, 'What shall remain in the wake of this war, in the midst of which we are living now? What shall remain? Ruins, thousands of children without education, so many innocent victims, and lots of money in the pockets of arms dealers,' Pope Francis added. 'We should ask for the grace to weep for this world, which does not recognize the path to peace.”
Yet we lit three candles this morning didn’t we? Candles representing Hope, Peace, Joy. Two weeks ago I said that we need to be able to hold in tension the message of Isaiah 64 and its plea to God to rend the heavens and come down with this promise of comfort we find in Isaiah 40. How is it that we are able to light candles and proclaim and live out a message of comfort and joy in a world which seems to show that life is about quite the opposite of comfort and joy – more like affliction and sorrow? How do we do this and see it as something other than a charade? Let’s look this morning at the message that the prophet proclaims and see what God has to say to our hearts.
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid…” These are the words of God that come to the Israelite exiles in Babylon. For fifty years they have been living in exile. Jerusalem has been destroyed, the temple destroyed. Israel’s best and brightest carried off into Babylonian captivity while those left behind eked out an existence in the ruins. They had been warned not to continue the way they were living. “Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen, your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves make yourselves clean, remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan plead for the widow.” Israel had been called to be a people who reflected God’s ways. They had failed. We get that. Do justly love mercy walk humbly with your God. How do we do with those? What’s the result? Chaos. Much of Isaiah is written for a time in Israel’s life when things are chaotic. The result of turning away from God is chaos. Disorder. What message does the Bible have for us in the face of this? There are those who say this bronze age book has no wisdom to speak to our age, as if (as one writer puts it), “we’d be better turning to the sages of our current age for wisdom” or that genuine wisdom wouldn’t have some staying power. So what’s the message that we hold on to as we approach Christmas 2015?
“Comfort, O comfort my people,” says your God. My people. Your God. The relationship hasn’t been broken. It hasn’t been cut off. In the midst of all the chaos comes a word of comfort. Not a word of false comfort either. Israel had heard those words. Unjust gain had been their primary motivation – from the least to the greatest of them. Everyone was dealing falsely, truth seemed far from them. Prophets and priests were declaring “Peace, peace” when there was no peace. Unjust gain the primary motivation. False promises of peace. False promises of comfort. Looking for comfort in all the wrong places. Looking to anesthetize ourselves against the chaos, in all the different ways that we anesthetize ourselves. Longing to hear something different. Longing to hear something true. Waiting as the thought is “If God is good then God is not great, and if God is great then God is certainly not good” because how could an all-powerful God let this stuff happen? In the middle of this, waiting on hearing from God as we send up that classic pre-dinner grace and affirm that God is great and God is good. In the middle of this waiting a voice is heard. Comfort, O comfort my people says your God. I haven’t forgotten you. You’re still my people. I’m still your God. God is in control. There is a plan in place, and God is enacting this plan from the Heavenly Council. Because that is where this scene is taking place. This command to comfort is actually in the second person plural. You all say this – Comfort O comfort my people. God is speaking to his Heavenly Council. The same one that Isaiah sees back in chapter 6 when the prophet has a vision of God on a throne and seraphs are waiting on him and they’re flying around and they’re covering their faces and feet with wings and with the other wings they’re flying around crying out “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” Here God is issuing orders to this council to proclaim comfort – and not as one writer describes it, comfort as in to console someone in their trouble but comfort that lifts one out of their trouble into joy! There are a lot of false promises of comfort aren’t there? There are a lot of things that they say will console you in your trouble. The problem is that they leave you in your trouble. They might even make your trouble worse. You know what I’m talking about?
Tidings of comfort and joy. How are we supposed to be able to proclaim this? Isaiah lays it out here. He starts with God. God is on his throne. A message of comfort is being proclaimed. A message of love and care – Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. The way you would speak to a loving spouse. Cry to her. Cry out to Jerusalem. What? A message of forgiveness. A message of restored relationship. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid. That it’s time to come home. The penalty is paid. The good news. Is this reminding us of anything? That she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins – not meaning that God is looking for extra revenge after being scorned. It’s a Hebrew expression meaning that Israel has suffered terribly. This broken relationship has led to terrible hardship and suffering. It is now time to come home.
This is what I’m going to do, says God. A voice cries out, “In the wilderness prepare a way for the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” Back in those days when there were no roads, sappers would go ahead of monarchs when they travelled and prepare highways. We don’t have anything similar today do we? God will make this homecoming happen. He issues these orders to his heavenly council and they carry the orders out. God is preparing a way for his people to come home that they could not prepare for themselves. He is facilitating a homecoming. We may not have first-hand experience of preparing highways in the desert, but we know about preparing roads for travel, especially in the winter. I spent my pre-teen and teen years growing up in Bruce County. We knew about the necessity of making roads fit for travel in the winter. When we were expecting family to come up for Christmas we would need to make sure we had our lane ploughed. It wasn’t something we could ourselves, the lane was ¼ of a mile long! It’s like God is saying “Put the blade on the front of the truck!” Prepare a way for the Lord, because I am going to make something happen. Because when God speaks, things happen. Making straight highways in the wilderness is something that God had done in Israel’s past wasn’t it? Leading and sustaining them through 40 years of wilderness living that had come about because of their own desire to have their own way. This wasn’t anything new that God was doing. The result was new, however. “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together. The glory of God was a concept that had referred to God’s presence, often portrayed in things like flame or shining light. Moses had been enabled to catch a glimpse of God’s glory. By Isaiah’s time God’s glory had come to mean a reflection of God’s nature – of love and grace and mercy and justice. The glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all people shall see it together. You know where this is going right?
There is still a problem though. “What shall I cry?” comes the question from the prophet. What shall we cry? All people are like grass. Life was more nasty, brutish and short back then sure, but we get this. All people are like grass and the grass withers. Their constancy is like the flowers of the field. The word for constancy here is our old favourite hesed – their lovingkindness, their mercy, their steadfast love, it fades like flowers, this is what people are like. What shall I cry?
But the word of the Lord will stand forever. Why should we celebrate Christmas? What will make Christmas more than a charade? “Get 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 (because this news is for everyone), ‘Here is your God!” Here is your God. One translation has it “The Kingdom of your God is revealed.”
This translation was very well known in the 1st century, when another voice is heard in the wilderness. Mark doesn’t have a nativity story. He does have an Advent story. He has a story about Christ’s arrival couched in a story about a messenger. The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’” This messenger known as John the baptizer was proclaiming a message of deliverance. The Israelites were very familiar with God making a way through the wilderness. John was reminding them about an essential aspect of who God is. God is a deliverer. God makes a way through the wilderness and if you’ve spent many years on this earth you know what it is like to be in a wilderness. The invitation is to see. Two weeks ago we talked about waiting for God, listening for God’s voice in the silence. Here the invitation is to see what God is doing and what God is doing is sending deliverance. God is sending salvation and John is saying prepare yourselves because the Israelite nation knew the need for deliverance – they had been under Roman rule for years. They knew about their own personal need for deliverance, the fact that their hesed, their lovingkindness, their compassion was like the flower of the field, and John’s message of repentance, of turning from their ways and forgiveness was striking a chord. People from everywhere were going out into the wilderness to be baptized by him in the Jordan and to confess their sins and to hear about this new thing that God was doing.
How can we celebrate Christmas and have it not be simply a charade? God is doing a new thing. God has done a new thing. God will do a new thing. Isn’t that at the heart of it? God doing a new thing. The thing of it is, it’s not just for you personally. Make no mistake it is for you personally as well, but we must never limit the scope of God’s delivering. Isaiah got this. He tells Jerusalem to lift up her voice, not to fear, to say to the cities of Judah “Here is your God!” He proclaims “See (again) the Lord comes with might, and his arm rules for him;” God has come and is coming and will come to make all things right, to reconcile all things, all of creation. There is this universal aspect to creation that Isaiah doesn’t miss. There is also a highly personal aspect. “He 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.”
Here Is Your God!
There’s someone coming after me, says John. I’m here simply to point to him. Though there’s nothing simple about it really. The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. The one who comes with might. He’s also coming like a shepherd though. One who will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them. If you’re being carried by this shepherd may this Advent season be a time when we join that heavenly council and John who went ahead of us in proclaiming “Here is your God!” in all we say and do.
The good shepherd who gives his life for the sheep. The one who is at the same time shepherd and lamb. The one who will live and die and rise “If you think that being baptized with water was something,” says John, “wait until he baptizes you with his Holy Spirit.” This is the one that we are waiting for friends, in the middle of the chaos. How can we make sure that Christmas is more than a charade? May this Advent season be a time for us to hold onto this good news – Comfort O Comfort my people, says your God. Here is your God, this little baby. Here is the living Word, the wisdom of God. Here is your Christ. Here is the Holy Spirit. May this be a time when we wait on the arrival of this Word with joy, inspired and filled by the Holy Spirit. God grant that these things might be true for us all.