2nd Sunday of Advent
Elizabeth M. Deibert
Where do you go when you need comfort? Do you turn to a comfortable friend or family member? Do you have comfort foods? Comfortable place in the house. I remember as a little kid when I was scared or sad, I would go to the smallest room in the house, a half bathroom, just off the kitchen. That small place felt more secure than the 18 x18 rooms of the Civil War era house I grew up in. One night recently I was coming home from making two pastoral visits, one of them to Gretchen and John, and a profound sadness came over me. I realized Richard had gone to visit his aunt and Rob Tuite in Vero Beach for the night. Andrew and Rebecca had their plans, and I was going to have the rare experience of being completely alone on a Friday night. Usually I relish such time alone, but for some reason, this time, it was not very comforting. I was thinking about how hard it is to die and to watch someone die slowly. I was thinking about how hard it is to have someone die suddenly too. I was thinking about how many people are so stressed or depressed or just plain unhappy much of the time.
Sometimes I get that same feeling of dis-comfort, dis-ease when I view the world, when I think about the struggles of people, who are poor or grieving, when I watch our government wrangle over issues without solving anything, when I think about global issues of imbalance between the haves and the have nots. And sometimes when I consider the fact that so many people in today’s world see the church as irrelevant or useless, I feel sad.
Where can we turn when life is heavy, when we are feeling like we’ve received more than our share of bad news, when we feel trapped in a difficult situation and see no way out? We can turn to our God and shepherd, to our friends and family, especially at church, who can provide the support of faith and love for us, when we feel far away.
Today’s scripture is one of comfort. The Israelites had been in exile in Babylon, taken from their homes, forced to live in a new place and to mix with people they did not understand. Exile usually means being away against your will from your own homeland, but to stretch the term a bit, we could refer to any experience in which we feel profoundly estranged. Maybe it is your new single life, after divorce or death, that makes you feel exiled. Maybe it is your workplace or school, where you do not fit in. Maybe it is in your own nuclear family or family of origin, that you feel misplaced, trapped, or misunderstood. I had an exilic-type experience when we moved to England with four children and I was no longer the pastor of a church. No one forced me to go there, and there was much to be excited about, but I felt like a stranger in a strange land.
To comfort myself on Sunday afternoons, I’d play familiar hymns on the piano and cook warm and comforting egg custard. I’d drink tea, like a good Brit, and find the long, dark, damp cold afternoons a little more bearable. Richard and I still find tea-drinking to be one of those comforting experiences. But more significantly, we find prayer, worship, and scripture reading to be a comfort in hard times. Gretchen Frueh, as she nears death, has been eager to hear words of comfort, so we read Isaiah 40 together this week. Many Christians and Jews who are grieving are eager to hear the 23rd Psalm, which reminds us of the comfort of the Lord our shepherd.
Hear these words of comfort from the second part of the Book of Isaiah, words which comforted exiles long ago and now for two thousand years have pointed to the Messiah, Jesus Christ, who came to bring comfort, hope, and joy to all the world. Scholars say that this is the conversation of God’s heavenly council. Seems to me that when we read these words as Christians who believe in a Triune God, these could be the voices of a Triune God, speaking within God’s self and to the prophet, 2nd Isaiah about the things that are coming to comfort God’s people.
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.
3A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every 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. 5Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."
6A voice says, "Cry out!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
9Get 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, "Here is your God!"
10See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11He 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.
First there’s is the comforting reassurance of “enough.” Yes, they have had enough suffering to bear. They sinned, as we all do, but their painful consequences have over-shadowed their failings at this point. Sometimes people get worse than they deserve, and God sends a message of “Comfort.”
The next word after “comfort” is “prepare” Now since it was our word for last week’s message, I will not dwell on the preparation part but will simply note that these words are quoted by John Baptist in the Gospels in his charge to prepare for Christ’s ministry. They have also been made familiar in song, through the music of George F. Handel in “Messiah” and in the anthem the choir will sing today.
The charge is to make straight the path in the desert for God because when God comes everything’s is going to be leveled. Valleys raised. Mountains lowered. Rough places smoothed out. Hard times made easier. Mountains were dangerous places to travel in those times. The leveling was a safety issue. Some economic leveling could be a safety issue for us too. We waste a lot of government money on people who are under-educated, who don’t receive enough primary and preventive medical care, people who are caught in a cycle of poverty and violence and addiction. The promise of leveling everybody and everything brings more good news: when it happens, the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people shall see it together. All people. All people together will see. That’s a great message of comfort.
The next part of the text is perhaps the most significant for us, in these days of ours. The voice tells the prophet to cry out and he says what should I cry? And the answer is: People are like grass, like flowers. They fade away. You know that to be true. Stop and think about how quickly life goes by. Your grandparents gone. Your parents gone. Your siblings. Your friends. Your spouse. Soon it will be you. Our lives are so short, so powerless compared with the power of God’s word and God’s breath. So life is not about us; it is about God.
And in particular, it is about the coming of God. So our message is not “Look at me. See what I can do.” That’s a juvenile message. Unfortunately, some adults are juvenile enough to keep saying that, only in more sophisticated and convoluted ways than a five year-old child. They live as if it is all about them. No, our message is not about us. It is about someone much greater than ourselves. The message we are shouting out is this: “Here is your God and our God!” See the One who loves us best and loves us all. See the One who is coming, who has all the power and all the honor and glory. See the One who is coming, who is but a child himself, weak so he knows our weakness, yet powerful as only God can be. See the One who is coming, who is the Good Shepherd of the flock, who always leaves the flock to find the lost, who comes especially to take care of the young and those with young. Our God cares most about the most vulnerable people in society.
Jesus showed us and the prophets teach us that God is most concerned for the weakest of society and so should we be concerned – concerned for their food, their education, their healthcare and their over-all welfare. We should equally be concerned if the weaker ones develop an unhealthy dependence on welfare and lose their will to make a meaningful and responsible contribution to society.
Christ is coming again, as we discussed last week. And will feed his flock like a shepherd concerned that each one has enough. He will come to protect the little ones from danger. Painful as it is to ponder the abuse of young children by coaches, priests, and even family members, I thank God that people are getting caught more often. It has always happened, but now people are talking and children are getting rescued from miserable situations.
So do not fear to lift up your voice, to speak of the One who comes. How will people know if we do not share the news? This One, the Lord, our Shepherd, is a comforter to all who feel alone, estranged, silenced, forgotten, weak, tired, and unfairly punished. Life is hard. We get tired. We get old. We fail. We wither and perish, but God’s word of love and comfort is stronger than death, wider than the oceans, and more reliable than your best and most loyal friend. God’s word can be trusted. Don’t look for ultimate comfort anywhere else. It cannot be found in the refrigerator or in the bottle or in the pill or in the bed. All those means of comfort will wither and you will not need more. Ultimate comfort cannot be found in wealth, in power, in success. There is never enough to satisfy. Let us find ultimate comfort in the God who comes to be one of us, one with us, the shepherd who feeds and provides for us. Let us sing and shout with the angels of heaven to all the world, “Here is your God. Here is comfort. Make straight the path to prepare for his coming.”