Sermon; Advent 2B; Isaiah 40:1-11
On this Second Sunday of Advent we are introduced to John the Baptist. This is the cycle every year: that on the First Sunday of Advent we hear Jesus talking about the end of days and our need to keep awake and alert; and then on the Second Sunday of Advent we are introduced to John the Baptist doing his thing in the wilderness. This year the gospel story is paired with Isaiah prophesying about a voice in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord, lifting up valleys, lowering mountains, and leveling the rough and uneven ground.
I think this reading from Isaiah has something for us to hear today, so I'm going to spend my time there.
Chapter 40 of Isaiah, from which today's reading comes, was written to the Israelites toward the end of the Babylonian exile. The Israelites had been conquered and exiled in Babylon for more than a generation. It was now that a new empire, Persia, had risen up and was exerting its dominance across the region. Old empires were falling. The existing economy was falling into chaos. Financial uncertainty was everywhere. And after the emperor Cyrus released the Israelites from captivity, they had the difficult task of rebuilding their wrecked land and of reestablishing the religious community. People were depressed, fearful, and anxious. It was with this backdrop that the prophet wrote, “Comfort, O comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Get you up to a high mountain. Do not fear. Here is your God. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
As I said, I think these words from Isaiah are exactly what we need to hear today.
No, we haven't been conquered and carried away to exile by a foreign power. But in this season of COVID it can feel like everything is falling apart. It may feel to some like the American empire is crumbling away. The economy is certainly in chaos. Financial uncertainty looms large. We're having to deal with the fallout of basing our economic system on jobs that pay below the poverty line and an educational system where education is seen as a financial transaction rather than as something to serve as the bedrock of society. COVID has caused thousands of layoffs and maybe just as many business closures, to speak nothing of the illness itself and resulting deaths. Through all of this people still need a place to live and food to eat. We are looking at having to rebuild our wrecked land from the ground up. If we don't have the foresight to build a stronger system based on future health rather than immediate returns, then we are no different than the man who built his house on sand because we will be wrecked again.
And what of our faith? What of our religious system? I hear some of my colleagues bewail the fact that their congregations are saddled with a behemoth that sucks us dry and/or leaving us to drown. They advocate for a need to change how we do things because, if we don't, we (clergy) will be the only people left in our buildings. So like the Israelites, we now have the difficult task of rebuilding and reestablishing our religious community.
With all of this going on – society ripping at the seams, an economy designed to benefit the rich, harm the poor, and keep most people on the margins, the prospect of a housing crisis the likes of which we have never seen, anxiety, depression, addiction, and abuse on the rise – these words from Isaiah are exactly what we need to hear today.
Comfort, O comfort my people. Speak tenderly.
These are difficult and painful times. These are uncertain times for almost everyone. But we are not abandoned by our God. We will not be abandoned by our God. For it is in these very difficult and uncertain times where God can be found.
The word “comfort” is rooted in the Latin “confortare,” meaning “to strengthen much.” The word means to give strength, or to offer solace, to be a source of relief. God, therefore, will strengthen us and will be a source of relief.
But for God to do that, God must also be a source of compassion. The word “compassion” comes from the Latin compound “com” – meaning “with” – and “pati” – meaning “to suffer.” Compassion means to suffer with. When we proclaim later this Christmas season, “Emmanuel – God with us,” we are also proclaiming that God willingly walks with us in our suffering. God suffers with us through his compassion. God strengthens us and offers relief through his comfort.
In our difficulties, in our pain, in our anxieties, in our uncertainties, God is speaking tenderly to us, “I am with you.”
This is also the job of the Church – to be with her people in trying times. To offer comfort. To show compassion. To suffer with her people, walk with her people, strengthen her people, to speak tenderly to her people, “I am with you. We are with you.”
“Get you up to a high mountain. Do not fear,” says the prophet. Get you up to a high mountain, because it is there where you can be seen and from there where you can broadcast the presence of God to those around. In one sense we have done this because this church was built on the highest point in Hagerstown. Not so that the people of Saint John's could look down on people, but so that everyone could see this place as a beacon of hope.
And for almost 150 years this parish has been broadcasting the good news of the gospel from this location. We continue to do this through traditional methods as well as through new technologies. As we move forward, we hope to continue to reach out and broadcast the presence of God from this high mountain.
As we gather together, as we broadcast the good news of God, we can say to people, “Here is your God. Do not fear.”
Remember, where two or three are gathered in Christ's name, God will be with them. When we gather together, God is with us. When we are together, we can offer comfort and support to each other. It is because of this gathering, this support, this comfort, that we can say to each other, “Do not fear.”
But this message isn't only for those of us who are members of this parish.
Like the 5000 who were gathered together and fed, we too have the ability to gather and feed those around us. We have the ability to take hungry and hurting people into our arms, to speak tenderly to them, and to feed them.
These are difficult and trying times, no doubt about it. It is true that things are changing and we must find a way to adapt. But unlike some of my colleagues I do not see us saddled with a behemoth that will drown us. Nor do I believe I will be the last one standing in this empty, cavernous space.
Instead I see a holy space filled with holy people and the presence of God filling both. I see a place and a people that can provide comfort. I see a people learning to speak the message of God tenderly, and compassionately to others. And I see a place that gathers people together to be held and supported in the arms of each other.
These words from Isaiah are just as important for us today as they were to the people hearing them for the first time thousands of years ago.
In this season of Advent we are waiting for the coming of the Messiah, but we must not wait passively. In this season of Advent, let us prepare for the coming Messiah by walking with and comforting those who are hurting. Let us prepare by speaking tenderly to those who are worried and anxious. Let us prepare by feeding those who are hungry, both physically and spiritually. And let us broadcast from this high mountain, “Do not fear.”