The first words of the passage from Isaiah riveted my attention: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” That word “comfort” – it’s hard to describe my reaction. It was a deep, gut, internal response of “YES, that is exactly what I needed to hear.” Comfort – like comfort food – meat loaf and macaroni and cheese – like that spot in the couch covered by my Indian’s “snuggle,” a fire in the fireplace as the snow falls outside, Handel’s Messiah playing, a cup of tea.
It was so soothing to receive this word and to have “comfort” press upon my soul. I guess I really didn’t realize the depth of my discomfort. I read this passage and found myself breathing more deeply.
The people to whom Isaiah was speaking and writing are a people in exile in Babylon. In 586 B.C.E. the Temple of Solomon had been destroyed and the children of the promise (well, all but the poorest) were led away from Jerusalem. But now, “Comfort, O comfort my people… speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” After so much harsh language, judgmental language, critical language – tender words, comforting words.
The whole passage is a kind of embrace, beginning with the word of comfort and ending with the image of a “mighty God.” But the image is not one of a warrior, not one of a returning hero, but rather, that of a shepherd, feeding and leading his flock, gathering lambs and carrying them on his bosom, gently leading the mother sheep.
When you are down, feeling pressed upon, feeling judged – what better image is there then a God who embraces you, takes you up and holds you close, whispers in your ear that you are loved, “it’s going to be ok”? “Come to me all who are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” The very arms of God pulling her children close, pulling you close too.
Oh my, there is so much dis-comfort in our hearts these days – individual and collectively.
The shooting death of that young boy just a mile up the road at the Sunoco station on Lee and Superio. Why does a teen have a gun?!
The death of that young football player from Aurora – who died in a traffic accident the day before Thanksgiving – the scene in the locker room before the playoff game – the coach trying to comfort his players.
The news that my house may not be worth what I paid for it 18 years ago – that is discomforting, it fills me with dis-ease.
Jerry Sandusky and the sexual abuse at Penn State and at Syracuse University.
The beginning of the political season and the run-up to a Presidential election less than a year away. I used to get so excited about the issues and the candidates – and now it is just a mess – few care about the facts, so harsh and nasty, all seem to dance to the tune of the fringe.
Talking about money makes people feel uncomfortable.
So many voices, so many needs, so much pain – so much death, sickness – and sometimes you just need to be hugged. You don’t need too many words -just a presence, a touch.
I remember that scene described by Parker Palmer who, when going through the depths of depression, recalls a friend who came and sat beside him, saying nothing, massaging his feet.
Sometimes we just need to be told, “Comfort ye my people, it will be all right.”
So for those of you who need an embrace – because things are just too much, right now – a comforting word from God, tender words, a loving embrace – if you would allow yourself a moment when nobody is looking, a quiet moment and picture yourself being taken up to God’s bosom and resting there. I think for many THAT is a discomforting thought – and that is too bad. Because we know the facts. Children who have never been hugged grow up twisted. Children who have never been comforted get hard. Children who have never been spoken to with tenderness don’t develop well. Children who are always criticized don’t have good relationships.
So I am going to receive that word of heavenly comfort, and allow myself to be embraced by my shepherd God, who comforts the afflicted.
But in the middle of the embrace between comfort and tenderness and being carried on the bosom of God…are things to do and to be about.
Right in the middle of this most beautiful of passages come the words that frankly are thrilling to me: “A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 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. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.”
I am comforted, you are comforted, and we are spoken tenderly to so we can be about the business of comforting others – of leveling the playing field and creating access for every beloved child of God who yearns to be safe, who yearns to make a living, who yearns to be educated, who yearns for a job, who is struggling with the dis-ease of economic blight, who has to wake up every day with the discomfort of poverty, and dead ends and mountains too high to climb.
Inspirational speakers are always telling kids: anything you want to become you can become, if you work hard enough. Now I am all for individual responsibility and hard work, and there are stories of remarkable triumphs out of the depth of despair and depravity – but generally speaking, this inspirational encouragement is patently false – because the decks are stacked against so many, the valleys are far too deep, the mountains far too high, the ghettos far too rough, the playing field so unevenly tipped towards those who have money, influence, connections, the right gender and race. You know that is true … the magnificent exceptions only prove the rule.
And Isaiah’s voice comes resounding through the ages – YOU – the so-called beloved community – “Prepare the way of the Lord!” And it is of profound importance that you understand the syntax of these verses. For only after the highway is made straight, and the valleys are lifted up, and the mountains are made low, and the uneven ground is leveled and the rough places are made a plain… only after the way is prepared will the glory of the Lord be revealed, and the people will see. I am reminded of the words of a wise rabbi who once said: “The Messiah will only come when he is no longer needed.” When we have joined God in building the beloved community – the presence of the Lord will be self-evident to everybody!
Isaiah’s words are not proclaimed to make us wait passively for God to do something – although that is my typical default mode. I think this was what Isaiah was thinking when he pondered: “We are grass, we wither and fade…is it even worth sharing this news to this fickle people?” Perhaps our dis-comfort and dis-ease is caused in part because of passive waiting instead of active participation in God’s word, God’s call to change lives and culture, to make all things new – it is in our power.
Isaiah proclaims: “Lift it up, don’t fear – say to the cities of Judah – Here is your God!”
You and I need to proclaim to the cities of Ohio – and to the nation – the cities, where people languish and both rich folks and poor folks feel the blight, the discomfort and disease. We have to get active, level that playing field, yes share the abundance, go in and occupy the rough places with words and acts of hope, of equity, and fairness, and justice.
We have two calls here: Comfort, and Preparing the Way. I would declare that this is our mission for the future. How are we comforting one another? Surely doing what we do so well – visiting, sending a meal, a card, a phone call, embracing (we are really good huggers!) of reaching out to the homeless and the hungry, greeting everyone with hospitality and welcome… and preparing the way – through education and spiritual formation, through hands-on social engagement, in creating a beloved and inclusive and diverse community -by taking care of our building and supporting our staff. It’s all connected, by the giving of our time, talent and treasures.
And in the midst of my dis-comfort, I think of you and the work God has called us to do and I find it strangely comforting. I want to climb up a high mountain (Go Tell it On the Mountain!) that the time has come for comfort and transformation, of preparation and of tenderness – “tidings of comfort and joy!”
It is going to be all right!
It really is!
Because “the mouth of the Lord has spoken it!”