Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 7, 2014
Isaiah 40:1-11 Commentary
Today “comfort” conjures up a cloud of images ranging from La-Z-Boy recliners to Royal Caribbean cruises. “Comfort food” is all about the personal satisfaction that can come from mashed potatoes and meatloaf. “Creature comforts” are all about having the nicest stuff even as the words “luxury and comfort” get yoked to describe things like the all-leather interior of a Lexus. “Comfort” connects to all that is warm and fuzzy and satisfying. Hence, we don’t usually connect the idea of comfort to strength or power. Comfort is putting your feet up after a hard day of work, sipping some wine, and enjoying the cozy fire crackling on the hearth. Comfort, we think, is a soft concept. It is not “working” word.
However, a professor I once had named Fred Klooster knew that even as the English word “comfort” is a combination of the Latin words “cum-fortis” or “with strength,” so the theological concept of comfort is likewise vigorous. Klooster loved the Heidelberg Catechism and its opening question “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” because he knew that there, as elsewhere in the theological tradition, comfort is a word with muscle. Before it is some tender and cozy sigh of relief, comfort comes first as a bracing, in-your-face message about what is what in life. We need to be discomfited and made profoundly uneasy before we will be able to experience the depth of our only comfort.
If comfort is going to come to us at all, it needs to begin by confronting all that is wrong with life. Isaiah 40 says the same thing. Although this is one of the Bible’s more famous passages about comfort, we sometimes forget how stark these same verses are, too. Obviously the comfort Isaiah is commanded to proclaim is valuable only because the people had been suffering recently. What’s more, verse 2 makes clear that the source of their suffering had been their own sinfulness. Comfort comes not to those who deserve a reward but instead to those who have already felt the pain and the sting of where sin can lead you in life.
But the rest of this passage also conveys the link between getting serious about life’s jagged edges and the emergence of true comfort. Verse 3 says that the way of the Lord begins smack in the middle of the desert. It is in the wilderness, that biblical location of evil, that God begins to construct his highway to shalom. If the salvation of God is going to emerge from anywhere, it will be from the middle of life’s ugliness. What’s more, the following verses say that we need God to be the One who will lead us out of the wilderness because on our own we can do nothing in that we are like fragile grass.
Apparently, if we want to access the comfort Isaiah is declaring, we need to do so first of all by acknowledging all that is difficult, even ugly, about life and about our own lives and hearts, too, while we’re at it. We need to own up to the reality of sin. We need to meet God in the wilderness and then admit that we are too weak, too grass-like ever to save ourselves. In fact, given our sin, considering the mess we are in, and being weak, we need to turn ourselves over to God completely. If we do, then the bottom line of Isaiah 40 can become our reality: we will be the lambs safely nestled into the arms of the shepherd.
That is, of course, a lyric image and as images go, it will receive a mighty boost in the New Testament when Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd. But how often do we realize that to some people, that may not seem like a comforting image at all? We need to be carried by Another precisely because we cannot make our own way, we cannot construct our own highway out of sin’s desert wasteland. So we turn ourselves over to God in Christ and, in so doing, declare that we are not our own anymore. We do not belong to our own selves. Another has a prior (and a total) claim on us. Again, however, some people find that idea to be anything but comforting.
It is difficult for those of us who are so thoroughly familiar with the gospel to conceive of how this may sound in the ears of an outsider to the faith. In fact, it may even strike some of us as bizarre that anyone could look at the image of the Good Shepherd and see something offensive in it. But let’s give the world some credit: maybe those who are offended by that image are more in touch with its radical nature than those of us who look at it without batting an eye.
The Second Sunday in Advent brings us to another location that is at least as un-Christmasy as the First Sunday in Advent’s consideration of the day when all the cosmic lights will wink out as the Son of God prepares to return to judge the living and the dead. If looking ahead to an apocalyptic time seems at variance with “the Christmas spirit,” then week two of Advent may seem that way, too, as we are thrown out into the wilderness where grass withers and flowers fade and there is no human hope to be found. The Gospel lection for this day will take us there and confront us with John the Baptist and his no-nonsense message of repentance.
But this lection from the well-known passage of Isaiah 40 does the same thing. Yes, it’s a wonderful message of comfort but it comes to people who have long suffered for their sins. And Isaiah 40 makes sense, therefore, only if one is willing to own up to one’s sins. Isaiah 40 and Mark 1 tell us together that Christmas has no place in this world—there is quite literally no use for this season of Advent/Christmas whatsoever—if an honest, almost brutal, engagement with sin and human weakness cannot be undertaken first.
Lots of people want Christmas to be a time that can make us feel special, loved, embraced. We want sweetness and light, peace and serenity, charm and beauty. But the Lord comes to Isaiah and tells him what the real message for the season is: “All people are nothing! They are weak! They have no substance! Death is inevitable!”
Bracing stuff, that. But without it, not all the “Comfort, Comfort” in the world can find its proper resting place in the human heart.
Although this sermon commentary won’t go “live” on the web until December 1 and is aimed at a text assigned for December 7, I revised and prepared this article on November 25, the day after the grand jury announced in Ferguson, Missouri, that the police officer who shot the unarmed teenager Michael Brown would not be indicted. As I write this, Ferguson is in turmoil and so is the nation: it was, as Jim Wallis put it in a Sojourners blog, “A Sad Night for America.” Perusing my Facebook feed, I also see many colleagues and friends with one-word reactions like “Stunned” and “Shocked.”
Whatever you think of this grand jury decision, the larger situation highlights the jagged edges of a broken world and of a still-fractured society along racial lines. There is no peace. Images on CNN are not redolent of shalom. As I write this it will be Thanksgiving in the U.S. in two days and Advent begins three days after that. But the news, the riots, the unhappiness, and certainly the despair threaten to choke some people’s Thanksgiving and seem decidedly light years away from all things “Christmasy” or in the “holiday spirit.”
The “comfort, comfort” of which Isaiah speaks and the call to repentance that John the Baptist issues in this Sunday’s Lectionary text from Mark 1 emerge straight out of the harshest realities of life in this world. Christmas and the incarnate advent of God’s Christ does not shoot out from a thoughtful arrangement of poinsettias nor from some tastefully laid our front yard crèche. The incarnation comes into Ferguson and into our sinfulness so that what can emerge from all that is newness of life and the hope of a New Creation one day.
Advent is not celebrated because the world looked like some Currier & Ives print to begin with. Advent is here because our reality is so very often so very far away from all that is pretty and peaceful. There is only One who leads to that restoration of shalom but we do people’s apprehension of that One no favors if we shutter our church windows to Ferguson on Sundays so as to focus on more positive and upbeat themes.
John the Baptist would have had none of that. Neither would Isaiah.
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