Sermon 12-6-20 The Rev Jen Van Zandt
“Peace in the Midst”
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 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. 3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 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. 5 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. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
So… besides a comfy blanket and comfortable clothes, shoes and warmth, what are the things that give you comfort? Is it knowing your kids and grandchildren and friends and family are safe and COVID-free? Is it getting the good news about your tests that you were very concerned about; or getting the news from your financial adviser that you have a healthy projection for your retirement; that all will be well; or is it getting the deep, rich, palpable support from friends and family during a heartbreak? Hopefully, the word of the Lord–prayed, sung, spoken, read–gives you comfort.
As a refresher, Isaiah 40 is a text that is being written to the Israelites while they are in exile. And while it is true that they are free to live and work, farm and eat and live by the wadi (which are streams in valleys during the rainy season), and have children and worship, they are still in a foreign land. They don’t speak the language. They don’t respond to King Hezekiah. They are away from their temple, from their homeland, from Jerusalem. And certainly we have a lot in common with the Israelites, because we, too, are still in exile. But as God, through Isaiah, begins to proclaim comfort for Israel and for us, the comfort is way beyond the things we think of, both large and small. It is not just comfort as in peace; this is comfort as in solace. It’s a major shift and intervention that has the power to create a new life with new possibilities; a message that we all need to hear again right now.
So how do we get from this place of feeling in exile to a place of true comfort? Well, the answer lies in the text. The first “comfort” mentioned won’t be created by our own actions, but by God and by God’s heavenly host. Surely, the angels, who are God’s staff, are just waiting for instructions from God. When God says, “O comfort ‘my people’”, God is telling the angels to get out there and pronounceand announcethe good news. God is talking to His messengers—they are waiting to be dispatched to send this hopeful message to the Israelites and all of creation.
The “O comfort” that God speaks of is that of God seeing Israel (and us) in a place of desperation. A place of perhaps even bitterness and certainly fear. It is such a desolate place, that God wants nothing more than to be with us, in solidarity, to bring a better future, a better life filled, not with fear and anxiety, but with true well-being in and through. This is a God who is saying to us, “I am with you–completely. I am in full solidarity. I see your suffering and it will not last.”
We go to verse 3 and it says, “Cry out.” The cry out doesn’t mean, “cry” as in weep or scream or yell as an endless lament. It is actually a proclamation that through God’s messengers the wilderness is going to be, not a scary place, but a place that God is going to convert.
I thought I knew what wilderness meant. But I decided to look it up in an on-line dictionary. ‘Wilderness’ can be “nature in unfettered land”. The old English definition defines wilderness as “land only inhabited by wild animals. It is uncultivated; uninhabited; an inhospitable region”. It can also be “a neglected or abandoned area of land or garden or even a town”. The definition goes on to say: “when one is in the wilderness, it is certainly a position of disfavor”.
Here’s the good news. God is going to take the wilderness and create something new–something that will truly make all the valleys lifted up, all the unnavigable places manageable and take the mountains down. God will literally create a highway from Babylon (which is in the north all the way back to Jerusalem in the south) through the desert, which normally is a treacherous trek. God is going to make a highway of ease so the Israelites may be delivered and again find comfort and peace.
You might think this is a very strange passage because we are in Advent and want to hear the great stories; in Luke the story of Mary and Elizabeth; in Matthew the story from Joseph’s point of view–but this story is one that we need to hear as well. Portions of verses 3, 4 and 5 are actually re-quoted in all four Gospels, about John the Baptist, who starts to create a way, a path, to get ready for Christ to come.
This is not a story about the Israelites that is so far removed from us that it doesn’t matter. It is about us getting the way paved for us that doesn’t quite seem possible right now. As I often say, God is creating a way right now, where there seems to be none. John the Baptist is also inviting us to start preparing It is more than putting up the Christmas decorations and figuring out how much we can do or won’t be able to do this Christmas. This is John saying “there is something coming that you’re just not going to believe!” It’s going to be something that is unexpected, that doesn’t come from our labor or effort. It comes from God, because God sees our heartache. God sees our worries. God sees our struggles and wants to make those rough places easier to manage. John is proclaiming good news, friends, for those who are dislocated and alienated and lost. Unfortunately, that is us, too. The future arrival of the Christ child in this season of hope and peace and joy is rooted in God and God alone. So, whether you get out the Christmas decorations or you pull them out with joy, there is still an anticipation of the peace coming, when all the franticness is over, when we can ponder what Christ really does for us.
This party, this parade, this super-event that God is promising Israel through the wilderness is something that God is also promising for us. So what do we do to get ready? Well, we begin by decorating and planning and making our lists, and as I said, probably lamenting that some things may not be possible this year. There may also be some things we don’t have to do and that might even be a relief! We can also prepare for the comfort that is promised by God to bring us out of this place into a new world filled with possibilities and promise and peace.
I used to work with a client many, many years ago. He and his wife were not able to have children and so they were able to adopt children, two little girls, from China. I don’t want to mention their names, because these girls are now grown. But when they went to pick up one of the girls in the orphanage, they had tied her to her crib with ropes. She had rope burns on her thighs, because she was tied down in the orphanage. Who knows what her life would have been like; how the scars would have been (physically and emotionally) had she never got picked up and taken from that orphanage. But she was. She is probably in her mid-20’s now. The last I knew she was playing violin, almost as good as Henry, and had gone to good schools. She didn’t know what her future was going to be like; but God intervened and rescued her from a place that was loveless, full of trauma and anxiety withno human contact or touch.
So while we can’t hug one another right now, while we can’t be together as much as we like right now, while we can’t celebrate as much as we like right now, it doesn’t mean that Christ is not on the way. So take that good news, find some peace, the peace that passes all human understanding, in the child of Christ. Amen.