A sermon for Advent at Presbury United Methodist Church.
A Reading from the Prophets: Isaiah 40:1-11 (NRSV)
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, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every 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. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
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, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 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.
Let us pray:
Patient teacher, the noise of the world so often drowns out the truth of your word.
In this Advent season, we are supposed to be preparing our hearts for you,
yet we find ourselves running ragged to prepare for the less important parts of the holiday season--- getting the house decorated, buying those gifts on the list, sending out Christmas cards, cooking...Still our hearts this morning.
Let your word of life break through the noise of the world in the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts. Amen.
Words of comfort are not ones we expect to hear in either the world today or in Advent. Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God, we read in Isaiah. It may be a message we need to hear, certainly. But it is not always one we believe, particularly when uttered in contexts of court, even a heavenly one.1 Where is this comfort you promised, God? How can those of us who can't breathe in a still-racist country, reeling from two non-indictments in just ten days find comfort? Comfort, O comfort my people, God speaks tenderly from heaven while people chant angrily in the streets. And comfort is not only unbelievable in the nation's racial climate right now, but it is unbelievable on many different levels. Where is the comfort for those of us with family in places like Sierra Leone and Liberia, afraid to pick up the phone because it may be bad news? Where is the comfort for those of us facing holidays for the first time or even the twentieth time without loved ones? Where is the comfort for those of us who see the post-holiday lay-offs looming but have not yet found another job?
The Israelites hearing these words may have heard them as we do, recognizing the hope but unable to believe it. They were living in a time of exile, where many of the elite had been carted off to Babylon, leaving the people in ruin. Now, you should note that the book of the prophet Isaiah is a composite book, written by different people in different times.2 It is not all about Isaiah, who receives the hot coal on his lips and says, Here I am, Lord, send me. And the first 39 chapters of this book, attributed to that prophet Isaiah, are not necessarily comforting. They speak to a world like ours, heavily laden with injustice and oppression not at the hands of foreign powers like Assyria or ISIS but at the Israelite's and our own hands. First Isaiah, as the first through thirty-ninth chapters are often referred to by scholars, speaks a poetic and powerful word of judgment, and indictment from God that it appears will not be echoed by human courts.3
When Israel's crooked kings are overthrown, it seems too late for Israel. The people are torn apart, untold numbers perishing in violence and war-and-occupation-induced poverty; the elite are scattered, exiled. Second Isaiah, written by an anonymous prophet in the late sixth century BCE, emerges from the desolation and fear in a kind of “healing, life-giving song”4 beginning with these verses from Isaiah 40 that we read together this morning. Comfort, God insists, not because the either the Israelites (or we) have finally understood how to learn to do good, as they are instructed in the first chapter of Isaiah (Isaiah 1:17), and ought now be rewarded. Comfort, God insists, because God has heard our cries and felt our suffering. Comfort because ours is a God of grace.
Grace is a word we United Methodist should love, but it is one we don't always understand. Sin is easier to talk about, even when we don't understand that either. This is especially true when we speak of the Second Coming of Christ, for which we are supposed to be preparing our hearts during this Advent season. When we think of the Second Coming, we think of violence and strife, of desolation and doom. We think of a world so seeped in sin that most cannot escape from it and God chooses to destroy it rather that redeem it. We think of despair. There is no comfort in this vision, no transforming of the earth itself5 to bring the wandering and exiled home as gently and gloriously as only God can.
Yet John the Baptist, the one who proclaimed Christ's coming in each of the four Gospels--- his words come from not the words of the rupture between humans and God that we find in First Isaiah, but from this chapter of comfort, from God's insistence on grace in spite of everything.6 Now, John the Baptist is not one we usually think of when we think of comfort. The man wore camel hair and ate locusts, for goodness' sake! Whenever I think of John the Baptist, I think of an internet meme (that I mention every Advent) that goes around seminarians and bible nerds that depicts a hairy caveman-type guy with the caption: Merry Christmas you brood of vipers! Now Repent! Does not sound much like John the Baptist is speaking tenderly to us. His are the words we expect to hear in a world as messed up as ours. He names our sin and the sin of the world and calls us to face it head on. And we need to do so. We need to repent. But we also need to hear words of comfort and grace.
So again I come to that question: where is that comfort? For the ancient Israelites, living under occupation and exile even though times were changing, where was that comfort? For us, living with the weight of the sinful nature of the system of so-called justice in this country as well as just all the personal struggles we have, where is the comfort?
Our comfort comes in believing that unbelievable promise God has made and keeps making to us: that no matter how mired in sin we get ourselves both individually and collectively, God loves us so much that God will save us. God will change the world, and invites us to work alongside God, to make way for God's redemption. Preparing the way of the Lord is about repentance, yes, but it is also about letting God's promise of grace soften our hearts.
For me, I start to believe the promise when I see stories not only about people speaking out against the violence in our nation, calling us all to repentance, but also in stories about grace. Some of the pictures I have seen since Ferguson have been of children holding “free hugs” signs at protests of police brutality. It is a powerful witness, even pointed because it slashes through stereotypes of black criminality by showing child-like innocence. And in one of the most viral pictures, one of those children is hugging a police officer. Devonte Hart held up a “free hugs” sign at a police barricade and was crying, so finally one of the police officers went over to him and had a conversation about what Devonte was crying about. The cameras didn't catch the conversation and the apology for the fear Devonte lived in that the police officer gave, but one caught the hug when the police officer took Devonte up on his sign's offer. That was a moment of grace, a police officer comforting a young boy, and a young boy courageously reaching out in love when in our world it seems so much easier to hate. The police officer still wore riot gear, and in interviews since does not seem to speak too deeply about the systemic racism in this country, but that conversation he and Devonte had was a way of preparing the way of the Lord too.7
The comfort may be brief, but it gives us a grace-full glimpse into the redeemed world God has in mind for us. Jesus' ministry was heralded with words that follow the cry for comfort from Isaiah 40: A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Preparing the way of the Lord involves repentance as John the Baptist preaches, but it also involves nurturing the comforting presence of God, touching all with grace.
Later in these verses we read this morning, we see God admit that the pervasive nature of grace does not mean that sin is no more. Hear these words from Isaiah: A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field...The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. We are grass. We wither and fade. The injustices we have created and that we endure now will one day wither and fade. But God's word of love will stand forever.
God's word of love will stand in spite of the continued violence of racism we live under in this country. And God's word of love will stand in spite of our addictions to that which kills us. God's word of love will stand in spite of grief and bad parenting and hurtful conversations and our general anxieties. As unbelievable as it is, this is the good news we proclaim as Christians this Advent season. Let us get up to a high mountain, as we read in Isaiah, and herald these good tidings of great joy; let us lift up our voices with strength--- lift them up, without fear. Let us say to this broken, hurting, sinful and sinned-against world in word and in action: “Here is our God!” Here in love and grace, here in hope and comfort, here is our God. Amen.
1The chapter opens with God addressing a kind of heavenly council. See Christopher R. Seitz, “The Book of Isaiah 40-66: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” The New Interpreter's Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. 6, eds. Leander E. Keck, et. al (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 2011), 334.
2See, for instance, Benjamin D. Sommer, “Isaiah: Introduction,” The Jewish Study Bible: Tanakh Translation, eds. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 780-784.
3For this comparison between First and Second Isaiah's content, I looked to George W. Stroup, “Theological Perspective: Isaiah 40:1-11,” Second Sunday of Advent, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 1, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 26-30; and Samuel Giere, “Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=191.
5“This unnamed heavenly voice calls for a radical transformation of earthly topography in prelude to a mind-blowing revelation of the glory of the Lord (cf. Exodus 24:16; Ezekiel 43:5) to all people. Not just Judah and Jerusalem, but all people 'as one' are to see it.” Samuel Giere, “Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11,” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=191.