Sermon for Second Sunday of Advent, December 6, 2020
Read Pastor Julie's sermon as shared on Facebook Live. Visit https://www.facebook.com/saronstrasburg each Sunday at 8:30 a.m. for a brief live service of scripture, prayer, and a sermon by Pastor Julie.
Isaiah 40:1–11 | 2 Peter 3:8–15a | Mark 1:1–8
What do YOU want for Christmas? This is the yearly question as we do a gift exchange with the larger family. So at least we only need like one or two ideas per person. And being the budget-minded person that I am, I want that gift to be actually useful—so I do pester the kids and relations quite a bit over this… Of course, the best answer to the question is “World Peace.” (Which this year includes an end to COVID) Right? By which we mean that wars and violence cease. This seems like a reasonable ask but why is it so hard? I looked up “peace” on Merriam-Webster because there’s always insight. Here’s a sense of the word as we use it: 1) a state of tranquility or quiet: such a freedom from disturbance; security or order within a community provided for by law or custom 2) freedom from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions 3) harmony in personal relations 4) mutual concord between governments 5)—used interjectionally to ask for silence or calm or as a greeting or farewell. Indeed, in Hebrew, “Hi” and “bye” are “Shalom” or “peace.” But in the Hebrew and Greek (we hear in the second reading today- eirḗnē- from the verb that means "to join, tie together into a whole”)—these words imply wholeness and well-being to you and to yours and in the world.
Peace, then, is not just an absence of violence in and among people, but a presence of wholeness; one that we might feel as individuals, but one that takes the community to create together. I think peace is a good “ask” this year.
Today I also want to talk about another word that appears front and center in our Isaiah reading because it’s so powerful here (and there’s some overlap with “peace”) And that is the word “comfort.” I was pondering what this word Comfort meant to me for much of the week.
When you think of yourself feeling comfortable, what do you picture? I immediately think of being curled up in a chair at home with tea and a book or good show to watch—comfy clothes, fleece blanket for warmth… What I’ve noticed—though—is if this goes on TOO long, maybe even for much of a day, I start feeling less than comfortable: Stiff, sluggish, out of sorts, (unproductive). What feels even MORE comfortable is when I can do this—say, after I’ve worked in my study all day or done some jobs around the house or even just took a walk. (Maybe it’s that it feels nice to sit down and relax after activity; or maybe neurotic guilt about sitting around.) But probably most of all, I distinctly remember more than once after camping, how very comfortable it was to sit on something soft. Sometimes just the lack of something renews our appreciation of it!
So these words in Isaiah “Comfort, Comfort” —twice comfort—were being said to a people who had spent about 70 years being “uncomfortable” physically and otherwise. The people of Israel had had to leave their homes and furniture and dishes and tools and Temple far behind and start all over—as is the way of refugees. Any wealth was taken away by those more powerful in the distant land of Babylon, where they were second-class citizens—allowed to eke out an existence on at the outskirts of the city. It was probably a long walk into town to get supplies and their homes had to be thrown up quickly- tents and then quickly-made brick. They lived across miles of dry wilderness from their homeland, but their whole living situation said “wilderness” as well. No soft couches or food or any guarantees about their future. Also, they were there because they had given up trusting God, made up their own rules, took matters into their own hands and weren’t being that “light” to the nations that God had called them to be. So the word “comfort” is also a consolation; and effort by God to redress the conditions of their suffering.
The one speaking these words is the prophet, who simply says what God says to say: No personal interpretations. Every prophet in the OT has a call story and this is the call of the second “Isaiah” prophet. (There are three.) “A voice says, 'Cry out!’ and I said (logically) ‘What shall I cry out?” The true prophet is always hesitant to take on such as task as speaking on behalf of God because, well—for one—the words are often calling people to the carpet on their selfish behaviors. And people don’t generally like that and would rather go after the messenger than examine themselves. Also, anyone with the sensitivity to hear the voice of God AND the humility to transmit it without ego getting in the way, probably a doesn’t feel worthy. But God has a way of lending perspective, that I think is a message of peace as well- to both Isaiah and the people, “You really aren’t all that.” In fact, people are like grass. That withers. That fades. (There’s a lot of repetition there.) Once you got that out of the way—breathe a sigh of relief—you are ready to hear the rest: The Good Tidings, or, as it could also be translated, “Good News.” (Which is how Mark starts his gospel to summarize the Jesus-story.)
And so back in a refugee camp on the edge of the city, the prophet is to find a hill and evoke the hill at home called “Zion” with much of Jerusalem and the temple where God dwells on it; and announce: “Here is your God!” This was a little risky to do because this wasn’t the REAL Zion where God was. So it might not be the REAL God! But the messenger is in service to the Message: and this feels like relief and comfort. Per the usual, God also more than one way of being: Here it is in the form of an “arm”—which is Hebrew shorthand for really strong”—with recompense- or, restitution. That is, they will get back what was lost with HELP. Also, God is “shepherd” in the ancient metaphor of a good king or leader; with the emphasis of tenderly caring for the most vulnerable: The lambs and the mother sheep. This is the picture of peace in this hostile place. Wholeness and well-being are possible.
So, on this fake Zion mountain, in this faraway land, amongst refugees, at the edge of the city; the prophet is to say "God is here.” Sounds a bit like John the Baptist. I think this also describes what Fr. Keating calls the “Undifferentiated Presence of God.” God lurks at the edges and is made known there. The wilderness where all kinds of comfort have been laid aside of lost, is a place where things are “revealed.” This doesn’t have to be a literal desert. But when the truth is laid out before us, the shock of incongruity between what we’d hoped would save us and how our dreams things like materialism and white ascendency are falling apart, this also opens our eyes to see new opportunities; we confessed and repented because we couldn’t deny any longer that things were’t really so great. We may even land in a new and deeper comfort on some other mountain, across, in the wilderness. It may be that how we experience comfort has changed and expanded: It’s not just in Zion or on the couch. The Comfort of the Good News goes with us and into many places.
Because God is coming, as John says: And God is the quintessence of wholeness and well-being- peace- the vision of home that sparks our imagination, even leads us outward because there is no where we can go that God is not. And if it’s uncomfortable right now, we can still be whole as people and communities, thanks be to God. Shalom. Amen.