A Vulnerable Comfort 12-10-17

Isaiah 40:1-11 “Console my people, give them comfort,” says your God: ‘Speak tenderly to Jerusalem’s heart, and tell it that its time of service is ended, that its iniquity is atoned for, that it has received from YHWH’s hand double punishment for all its sins.” A voice cries out, “Clear a path through the wilderness for YHWH!  Make a straight road through the desert for our God! Let every valley be filled in, every mountain and hill be laid low; let every cliff become a plain, and the ridges become a valley! Then the glory of YHWH will be revealed, and all humankind will see it.” The mouth of YHWH has spoken! A voice commands, “Cry out!” and I answer, “What will I say?”—All flesh is grass and its beauty is like the wildflowers: The grass withers and the flower wilts when the breath of YHWH blows on them.  How the people are like grass! Grass withers and flowers wilt, but the promise of God will stand forever. Go up on a mountain, you who bring good news to Zion!  Shout with a loud voice, you who bring good news to Jerusalem!  Shout without fear, and say to the towns of Judah “Here is your God!” YHWH, O Sovereign One, you come with power, and rule with a strong arm!  You bring your reward with you, and your reparation comes before you. Like a shepherd you feed your flock, gathering the lambs and holding them close, and leading mother ewes with gentleness.

This new season of preparation for the coming of the Christ child always surprises me when it opens with John the Baptist – such an unruly, challenging character. Especially this year, as we begin reading the gospel of Mark – there is no birth story, no wise people, no shepherds tending their flocks. No, the gospel of Mark, in its raw immediacy jumps right into the meat of the gospel with John the B calling for repentance and a new day. I am preaching today more in reference to Isaiah, the passage Cayla read, but this Mark passage helps to define the whole season. So Listen for the word of God for you this day.

Mark 1:1-8  Here begins the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God: as it was written in Isaiah the prophet: “I send my messenger before you to prepare your way, a herald’s voice in the desert, crying, ‘Make ready the way of our God. Clear a straight path.’” And so John the Baptizer appeared in the desert, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to John and were baptized by him in the Jordan River as they confessed their sins. John was clothed in camel’s hair and wore a leather belt around his waist, and he ate nothing but grasshoppers and wild honey.

December 10, 2017

A Vulnerable Comfort

Excitement is building – and it’s not just among the children. Snow and Christmas lights bring memories of holidays past and sweet times together with family and community. My folks worked hard to make the preparation for Christmas a magical time – watching toy trains in the lobby of a business in center city Cincinnati, sledding in McFarland woods with hot chocolate afterwards, marveling at the exhibits of animated mannikins in the storefront at Shillito’s Department store in town. We had a good time.

My church on Sunday added to the sense that everything was right in the world. Jesus had our back, so we didn’t need to worry about anything. Music was the core of the service then as now. I don’t remember the pastor saying particularly memorable things. So I am surprised every Advent to find a deeper message from Isaiah and John the Baptist lurking in our scripture readings – a message I did not hear very much growing up – a message that is more helpful & relevant to a world that is broken and crisis-filled. It excites me today almost as much as the snow and animated toys in shop windows when I was a kid.

 

The Isaiah text begins with a word of comfort. ‘Console my people, give them comfort!’ comes the word from God – and from Handel. Handel is probably how music lovers most hear these words. Comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem’s heart. Why do they need comfort though? What was going on?

The leaders of the people of Israel had been taken into exile out of their beloved homeland to the city Babylon, the capital of the Babylon empire. Other prophets, like Jeremiah and the earlier sections of Isaiah had blamed this exile on the people of Israel for their sinfulness and their idolatry. All of a sudden, here in chapter 40, comes a word of comfort and forgiveness. “Clear a path through the wilderness for God. The valleys will be raised up, the mountains brought low.”

We don’t hear the words of comfort and the leveling of the path unless we get the context, unless we empathize with the crisis of the people of Israel, who have been taken into exile and blamed for it. We can relate, though, because we do have some crises. Take your pick. Last week, Nancy raised our awareness of the opioid crisis – suicides and overdoses among a group of friends of her son. Console my people, says the Spirit. “Give them comfort.” I felt agitated at the beginning of the service last week, as Nancy named people who had died or fallen victim to opioids. But by the end of the service, I felt consoled a bit, just by the fact of sitting in the darkness together, by naming the crisis and committing together to keeping it on our radar.

If our eyes are open at all, we may see another crisis in this season. Every year at this time, in fact, we may be at least a little distressed by the materialism and commercialism that distorts our sacred holiday, the cooptation of one of highest holy days on our Christian calendar. We enjoy the music and the family togetherness. Still, I personally wish it was easier to have more of the family togetherness and less of the compulsory shopping, more of the peace and spiritual connection, and less of the worry and wrapping, more awe and wonder and less obligatory spending. Make a straight road through the desert for our God! Forgive us our December excesses. May the glory of God be revealed so all God’s people will see it together.

Speaking of all people seeing God’s presence together? It seems like our people are more divided and polarized than ever – by religion, by race, by political party and belief and leaning. It begins to be difficult to imagine us seeing anything together. Every day seems to bring a new crisis or revelation – of sexual abuse or offensive political policy. And yet on Wednesday, we gather together at Zion Baptist for a Hanukah candle lighting – spanning several cultural boundaries – May the glory of God be revealed!

Opioid crisis, materialism & commercialism, polarization – these are just a few of the ways that we might relate to Israel’s feelings of exile & crisis that Isaiah is addressing, the feelings of not being in the comfort zone we expected to be in at this stage of our lives. Isaiah’s particular words of comfort may sound a little strange when we look at it carefully. “All flesh is grass” he says. The grass withers and the flowers fade. Everyone dies. How’s that for words of comfort? But this can be a word of comfort for people in crisis, particularly for people in exile, oppressed as the people of Israel were. It is a word of equality. Poor and rich alike will be reclaimed by God. “All flesh is grass.” We use these words sometimes in funerals and I do find them comforting as we connect with and relate to the Living God – whose word outlives us all.

Isaiah closes his reassurance to Israel: “Shout with a loud voice, you who bring good news to Jerusalem!  Shout without fear, and say to the towns of Judah “Here is your God!”” No wonder we read these words at the beginning of Advent, at the beginning of this season of hope, waiting, and anticipation. Like John the Baptist, like Isaiah, we are ready to name the crises, and we are even more ready to live into God’s inspiration to take them on. “Here is your God!”

All flesh is grass, but God’s word is forever. The Spirit’s presence is always. God’s hope, God’s peace, God’s steadfast love will get us through every crisis, every trial, even exile, even death, even opioids, even endless stuff, even division and polarization. We’re in the right place for reassurance for all of these and more. – to know God’s call and to feel the sweet reassurance of God’s grace, to know the Child of God is on the way! This is God’s good news.

Responsive Hymn 2089 Wild and Lone the Prophet’s Voice