New members joined today. The sermon on this 2nd Sunday in Advent begins around the 36 minute mark.
There was once a young preacher who was given this advice: If, in the middle of your sermon, you forget your train of thought, just step back, pound the podium, and repeat the title of the sermon – and that will get you back on track!
Well, this young preacher was preaching on the text from Revelation “Behold, I come quickly!” And the sermon starts off well enough but then she forgets her theme and loses her place in the notes. So she steps back and aggressively moves forward and pounds the podium and says “Behold I come quickly!”
Doesn’t help, so she does it again. “Behold, I come quickly!”Again, no luck. So for a third time, and she is getting rather flustered: she steps back, and authoritatively moves towards the podium and as she is proclaiming, “Behold, I come quickly,” she trips and falls into the first pew, right into the lap of an elder gentleman.
She says, “Oh sir, I am so sorry, I wouldn’t have wanted this to happen for all the world.”
The older gentleman replied: “Don’t worry about it, you told me you were coming three times, I should have moved!”
I am thinking about Advent and the coming of Jesus and how we prepare for him in mind and body and spirit; do we just sit there? How does your life reflect the hope, joy, peace and love that are ours in Jesus Christ.
It is an interesting time we live in now – filled with tension. We long for comfort and yet we are agitated by the very discomfort we feel; we are caught in a bind.
We know he’s coming but we get so distracted by everything that is going on in our lives and in this church and in this world – it is hard to focus. Even for me, and I get paid to focus.
We need time just to be and yet this is the time to do.Again in the tension of being and doing.
Just to be – that is a hard spiritual discipline, but I think it can be done even in the midst.
Yesterday at the Advent retreat, a few of us took some time to sit and sing, and read and pray and move and breathe together. It was good!
Caught in the current of being and doing, comfort and agitation, sometimes I glimpse what it would be like if my life were not so hectic, scattered. And sometimes I see what that might mean if we lived in the peaceable kingdom where the lion lies down with the lamb, and we study war no more. But it is elusive.
And so it was particularly powerful to read both the text of Isaiah and the text of Mark this morning, because they speak to this tension that you and I feel – the tension of comfort and agitation, the tension of being and doing.
I hope you noticed that the Mark reading included the poetic and prophetic verses first uttered at least 500 years prior. Mark interprets them for his time.
It is hard to know if John the Baptist really said these words or if the early Christians placed this passage in his mouth because they were so appropriate.
But whatever the historical reality, the verses in Isaiah 40 give us one vision, one interpretation of the leveling of the mountains and the straightening of the roads and Mark gives another interpretation. And one is not right and one is not wrong. Mark doesn’t replace Isaiah – we need them both, you see. In the midst of the tension we need both comfort and agitation. We need to be open to the fullness of all the words as we hear them anew for our age.
We read in the 40th chapter of Isaiah (note: these words were written not by the original prophet Isaiah who lived before and during the invasion of the Assyrians in middle decades of the 8th century BCE… these words were written 200 years after that!)
The Isaiah passage that we read today and that was so inspiring to the first Christians, was a response to King Cyrus’ decree that the Jews could return to their homeland after being in exile in Babylon. In fact King Cyrus is called the Messiah!
So Isaiah begins his words with “Comfort, comfort my people.” You have served your term, you are going home. God is the primary actor –God is preparing a way for the people to return!
I was listening to a podcast about Willie Grimes, a black man sentenced by an all-white jury for a crime he didn’t commit. After 25 years in prison he was finally released. I cannot even imagine the emotion.
Just think when the day comes when Leonor can go home to Akron. Comfort, comfort my people – the day will come and how all our hearts longs for that day.
And even though you and I are not trapped in prison or in a church – I know that you and I feel in exile. Things are not going according to plan, thoughts overwhelm, tears tarry for the night, and there is no joy in the morning: tired and worn out, we struggle with things.
And then these words come: comfort, comfort, there is a way being prepared for you… a herald of Joy shall come, and God will be like a shepherd, feeding his lambs, gathering the lambs in his arms, carrying them on his bosom, gently leading the mother sheep.
I want you to hear this and accept it and meditate on it. Picture yourself being held by a God who loves you. Sometimes just those words alone are enough to soothe and restore.
God loves you just as you are. So if you need a comforting Messiah, longing for a little joy, some release – here it is. A way is being made for you. Accept it and then give it to others.
We offer sanctuary, and comfort the afflicted. We can all be kinder, and pay attention, and say words that calm and heal.
There is a poignant song by John Prine, a old guy now who has been writing and playing songs for over 50 years. He has one song entitled “Hello in There!” about an aging couple. Prine sings:
So if you’re walking down the street sometime and spot some hollow ancient eyes
Please don’t just pass ‘em by and stare, as if you don’t care
Say, ‘hello in there, hello.” Yes, sometimes “hello” is liberation.
The amazing author and teacher Parker Palmer tells of a time when he was struggling with severe depression and folks came over to cheer him up. But one person said nothing and just massaged his feet. And he remembers the foot massage as the herald of good tidings of joy and peace.
The message is comfort, comfort, and so float in those words, identify where you need comfort and listen for the needs of others. And the way will be straightened a little bit and every mountain be made just a little bit lower.
In Mark, there is a different tempo and temperament – it is not the comforting of the afflicted rather it is the affliction of the comfortable; and we need to hear that too.
John the Baptist is lighting a fire under folks – get up and do some leveling and straightening because the Lord is coming. Actually it is the people who are the primary actors – preparing the way for God to arrive.
Repent and be baptized. Don’t complain, don’t blame, do what you need to do. Get a new mind for a new age and then act like you believe it.
Michael Jackson sings this kind of message:
I’m gonna make a change, for once in my life
It’s gonna feel real good, gonna make a difference
Gonna make it right…
As I turn up the collar on my favorite winter coat
This wind is blowin’ my mind
I see the kids in the street, with not enough to eat
Who am I, to be blind? Pretending not to see their needs
A summer’s disregard, a broken bottle top
And a one man’s soul
They follow each other on the wind ya’ know
’Cause they got nowhere to go
That’s why I want you to know
I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you wanna make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change
And the call is not just personal change – it is for that change to be offered in the public arena as our own transformation drives us to level mountains and straighten crooked paths and push against all personal, institutional and political obstacles – and show both the afflicted and the comfortable that we are the people who claim Jesus as Lord. And this is why we give Sanctuary, and are calling a Co-Pastor, and are getting deeper about race and are active in Greater Cleveland Congregations.
It is why we must talk about sexual misconduct even within these walls of worship. Because I know there are women sitting in the pews today who are members of #MeToo. There are plenty of good men still, but we all have to look in the mirror!
We live in the tension of comfort and agitation; we live in the time of waiting for the Lord and also of acting out our deepest values and convictions shaped by the same Lord.
So be comforted. But get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
I am telling you: “Behold, he is coming…quickly” so be prepared: for he may fall, like the young preacher, into your lap, and I don’t want you to be just sitting there unaware.