Saturday, December 3, 2011

Comfort, O Comfort...

Trinity Lutheran Church, Detroit Lakes, MN
Second Sunday in Advent—December 4, 2011
Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8

On this Second Sunday in Advent I am drawn—as a moth is attracted to bright light—I am drawn to our reading from Isaiah 40:  Comfort, O comfort my people…”

I am drawn to these words not because I need the soft, downy comfort of a warm winter-time comforter on my bed….and certainly not because I need the comfort of mashed potatoes and home-made meatloaf, those quintessential comfort foods.

No, my friends, my heart is longing for the industrial strength version of what old Isaiah sings about this Second Sunday in Advent.

Comfort.  Comfort.   What my heart longs for more than anything else…is the deep comfort, the wide consolation that can heal the dull ache in my heart since July 6th when I became an orphan.

And this year, 2011, it wasn’t just I who lost a mother, but my dear wife, too…less than a month ago.   Grief may not be stabbing the two of us with sharp pain these days.  But it is there, like a constant, lowgrade gnawing…grief chews at us from the inside out.  

We are fresh out of parents—my wife, Joy, and I—it’s down to the two of us, now.  We are next in line.  We have our own reasons for hankering for Isaiah’s “comfort, comfort” in these dreary blue days of Advent.

And maybe you are, there, too.  Maybe you are nervous this morning because everything we thought we could count on seems up for grabs:  our economy sputtering, our government flummoxed,  the sorry state of our world—all so uncertain.  

Perhaps this old dying age has taken its best shot at you…leaving you feeling out of sorts, off-kilter, at odds with yourself.  Maybe you or someone you love is struggling with a bad marriage or a chronic illness or unemployment or under-employment.  Or maybe some great or not-so-great loss has overtaken you….a dull, nagging ache now tugging incessantly at your heartstrings.  

It makes you want time to stand still and simply allow this ancient prophecy to wash over you:  “Comfort, O comfort my people.  Speak tenderly….speak ‘to the heart,’ …bear this dull ache away.”

But this is more than a fond wish on our part.   Isaiah tells us in no uncertain terms that it is God’s will that we be comforted.    The grammatical form here is an imperative:  “Comfort!   That is:  you shall be comforted!  

“Comfort is what I the Lord your God intend to be yours.  I will make it happen.”   There is a blessed insistence here, and the repetition of the word underscores that fact:  comfort, comfort”…..comfort must wash over you, ready or not, whether you deserve it or not.   It is God’s will for you, to be comforted.

When these verses were first spoken, God’s people were in a world of hurt, hauled off to Babylon, forced into exile in a foreign land.  And, as if to add insult to injury, they had brought it upon themselves.   God’s people had blown it, time and again—their cheating ways, their wandering eyes, their willingness to settle for less than the promises of God, their waywardness had caught up with them.  God loved them enough to chastise them—Isaiah tells us again and again—in order, though, to bring them back…back from exile.

What made it “exile” for God’s chosen ones to be stuck in Babylon was their profound sense of being away from home, cut off from the place and time and circumstance that marked their true soul, their deepest identity, their safest and most secure homing place.   Exile isn’t defined by your enemies or the strange place they may have taken you.  Exile is marked, rather, by your longing for that one place on earth that you call home.

But exile was not to have the last word for the chosen people of God.  Comfort, O comfort my people.”   Even if you had it coming—and Israel most certainly did have exile coming!—exile was not to be the final word.   God may have allowed his precious people to be wrenched from their homeland—but God was also going to set it all aright again…even if God himself had to bulldoze a super-highway, right through the desert wasteland, as Isaiah envisions it.

And all of this—this return to home--would come about not because the children of Israel finally got their acts together.   God released them not because Israel had “learned its lesson and would never sin again.”    No—comfort, O comfort would come despite the here-today-gone-tomorrow inconstancy, the utter undependability of God’s people.  

Comfort would come purely because of who God is, how God goes to work, how God pursues God’s purposes—in us, with us, usually despite us.

The then-and-thereness of exile in Bablyon, would be replaced by a new Now…a new thing God would be doing that would spell “comfort, O comfort”….a return to home.

And for the ultimate shape of that new Now in all its fullness, we have to crack open our gospel, from the first chapter of Mark.  

One thing you and I will learn again in this “year of Mark” is just how urgent, how breath-takingly immediate everything is for Mark.   There is no beating around the bush here.  Mark doesn’t go into a big long rigamarole to get his gospel launched…

No, it’s as if Mark simply spills his words out on the page, and here it is:  “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God…”

Mark can’t hold back.  He just has to spill the beans—just like that.   Whatever Jesus means, it always starts with “good news.”   In Jesus, comfort takes on flesh and bone and DNA and personality—all of it for the sake of those he came to rescue.

Jesus is God’s embodied “comfort, comfort” par excellence.   Jesus is God’s consolation of a people who feel out of kilter, “homeless” even at home.   Jesus epitomizes the new Now Isaiah spoke of…the advent, the coming of God into our lives, to set all things right:  Jesus, Jesus…comfort, O comfort!

And make no mistake about it:  Jesus knows just what we need.   Jesus knows we need more than a “little dab will do you” kind of comfort.

Jesus knows that the ache in our hearts, wherever it comes from, will be healed only by the very coming of God into our lives.   We must settle for nothing less.

So, even as old Isaiah envisions the coming of God, along a royal highway hewn through the desert wilderness….a highway that has had all the twists and turns, all the ups and downs wrestled out of it--so that God might come to those ancient exiles….

Even as old Isaiah envisions God coming to restore his wayward people via a road through the waste places…

Mark envisions Jesus, following in the footsteps of his Way-Preparer, John the Baptist, and giving us something even better than John was able to give:  “I have baptized you with water;” cries John, “but he—Jesus!-- will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Here, we would have settled for pardon, and a fresh start, and a shimmery hope….and Jesus comes to us and gives us even more, gives us God, the Holy Spirit, God present-tense, in our aching lives, right here, right now.

And even then, there is more.  

For with the Holy Spirit unleashed among us, God keeps bringing it on, “comfort, O comfort” for those with whom we Spirit-endowed ones now come into contact.

Jesus puts a word on our lips, a word for others:  “Comfort, O comfort my people…speak tenderly, speak to their hearts.   Tell them that this is God’s good and gracious will for them:  that they be comforted in the deep and wide way that only God doles out comfort.   Tell them that their sentence is completed, their time of aching and longing is over.”

And don’t just tell them of such comfort, my dear friends.   Be the comfort, even as God became our comfort in Jesus.

Once again, comfort takes on flesh and blood and DNA and your personality, for the sake of your neighbors.

You make God’s comfort real in generosity shared, in acts of mercy accomplished, in deeds of advocacy enacted for those whose voices are drowned out by din of this old dying world.

Comfort, O comfort….that is God’s will for you and by Christ’s mercy, it is God’s will in and through you, as well.   No matter how much others might even deserve the anxiety or the aches they have, it is God’s will that they be comforted—deeply, widely, finally, in Jesus and through you--a living, breathing embodiment of “the good news of Jesus Christ the Son of God.”

Comfort, O comfort…

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Presbyterian pastor working on this passage tonight. Musing: what might it mean if the imperative of Comfort o Comfort my people - could be instructions to us? Since we have received isn't this what we are now commissioned to do?