I looked at my calendar about 14 days ago with a start. I should have known – there was plenty of evidence–frost on the pumpkin, darkness at 5 pm, another notch on my senior citizen belt with an October birthday, the wonderful sound of silence when the political ads stopped, and the smart alek neighbors who got their Christmas decorations up during Indian summer. The evidence was way beyond a reasonable doubt that we are well into fall – stewardship campaigns, non-stop Christmas advertising – and yet, still in denial about the waning days of 2011, I was surprised to realize that Advent was approaching like a runaway freight train! Yikes, I’d better get ready. As an old boy scout, I’m supposed to always be prepared, but somehow Advent and Christmas always get here before I’m ready.
That’s rather appropriate actually. God has a way of sneaking up on us and surprising us when we least expect it, and yet we are also ironically very impatient. Stores open earlier and earlier every year for black Friday shoppers, creeping further and further into black Thursday, as in Thanksgiving Day. Is nothing sacred?
I was on a retreat many years ago about this time of year at a beautiful camp in the Pocono Mountains in eastern Pennsylvania. I woke up early on the Sunday morning I was there and decided to drive to a spot where I was told I could witness a beautiful sunrise. Not being a morning person, sunrises are rare occurrences for me, and they are always better in the mountains or on the sea shore; so I hopped into my car and drove a short distance to the designated scenic overlook. It was very chilly in the pre-dawn darkness, and I had not had my morning caffeine fix; so I began to shiver and grow impatient. I didn’t know what time sunrise was supposed to happen, but it wasn’t happening fast enough to suit me. I soon grew weary of waiting and decided to forego the sunrise and head back to a warm lodge and a hot breakfast. As I drove down the mountain road, of course, I caught the first glimpse of the fiery red ball of the sun peaking through the leafless trees in my rear view mirror. I turned around at the first opportunity and drove quickly back up to the lookout point. Of course, the sun had already crested the horizon by the time I got back there. I missed the most beautiful part of the sunrise. I was too impatient – couldn’t wait a few minutes for something I knew was going to happen because it had happened every day since the beginning of time. I was disappointed – and then I laughed as I remembered what day it was. It was the first Sunday of Advent – the season of waiting and preparation.
How hard it is to wait – even for things we know are guaranteed to come. How hard it is to hope for things to be better when there is so little sign of change or improvement in a bad situation. We take years and decades to dig ourselves into difficult situations and expect instant gratification or solutions.
“Comfort, comfort my people” say these familiar words from Isaiah 40. I don’t know about you, but when I hear these words read or sung in Handel’s great oratorio, “Messiah,” my attention is drawn immediately to the word “comfort.” Don’t we all like comfort? We like to be in our comfort zones. We indulge in comfort food when we are stressed – when the teen-age driver is out later than curfew, or our team falls behind in a big game – bring on those nachos and chocolate chip cookies. When we are sad or lonely or grieving, we long for a comforting word, an understanding smile or a warm hug. Comfort is good – and God knows there is much in these difficult economic times of uncertainty that we need and want to be comforted about.
But there’s another little word in that opening verse of Isaiah 40 that caught my eye as I studied this familiar text this time—the tiny little two letter word, ‘my.’ ‘My’ or ‘mine’ can be a negative word when used to express selfish or greedy feelings. We all know that right after ‘no’ one of the first words young toddlers learn is ‘mine.’ But ‘my’ can also be a word of extreme comfort and love. To talk about my spouse or my children or my family or my church or my country implies a bond of affection – and that’s the way Isaiah uses the word in this text. “Comfort, O comfort MY people, says your God.” God is claiming and reclaiming the children of Israel after a long and difficult period of estrangement, alienation and rebellion.
Anyone else have any estrangement and alienation in your family? Any siblings or in-laws or children who aren’t speaking to any or all members of the family? We talk alot about dysfunctional families, but my experience is that term is redundant. Families are made up of fallible human beings who are by definition somewhat dysfunctional. And that includes God’s family too. But that doesn’t mean we still don’t belong to our families. My uncle may have been an unreasonable, arrogant, immature jerk who got mad over how my grandmother’s estate got parceled out and pouted till the day he died – but he was still part of the family.
“Comfort, MY people, says your God.” God’s children have been rebellious. They have ignored God’s will and God’s laws. They put their faith in earthly kings and worldly power in the days of King David and Solomon, and the once great kingdom of Israel went downhill faster than an out-of-control bobsled. The kingdom was split into two weaker states by political infighting and jealousy and in that weakened state had been overrun by the more powerful nations of Assyria and Babylon. The northern kingdom of Israel fell to Assyria first, in 720 BCE, and 130 years later in 588 BCE, the southern kingdom of Judah, which had Jerusalem as its proud capital, was destroyed and overrun by the Babylonians. The leaders and any people of influence were carted off to Babylon as prisoners and lived there for decades while entire generations forgot their homeland, their roots, and their God.
Imagine conquering armies invading the Buckeye state from that state up north and forcing us to live in exile in Detroit or even Ann Arbor!!!! The people of Israel were suffering; they were in need of comfort. They felt forgotten and abandoned by their God. How could God allow this horrible thing to happen to God’s chosen people!!! Surely the gods of Babylon must be better and stronger than Yahweh or this tragedy would never have happened. Many of the exiles bowed down and worshipped the gods of Babylon and became quite comfortable in their new surroundings, having lost hope of ever returning to Jerusalem. They turned their backs on Yahweh.
And yet, God calls them “MY people.” We may forget who we are and whose we are, but God does not forget. And that’s the message of Hope as we live into the Advent season again. We may be poorer than we were a year ago or grieving the loss of health or a loved one. We may be carrying a heavy load of guilt for mistakes and poor choices we’ve made that led to bad consequences, but we are not disowned by our God. God still recognizes us and calls us to him – “comfort MY people.”
That reminds us of another great story in the Hebrew Scriptures when God’s children were in a different foreign land as slaves in Egypt. They had been there for 400 long hard years and many had forgotten their ancestors and their God. After 4 centuries I’m sure many of them were convinced that God had long since forgotten them. But God has a memory and a heart for his people that is greater than anything we can imageine. And God called Moses to go down to Egypt with a message for Pharaoh, king of Egypt. That message was not “let those poor slaves go,” or “let those Hebrew people go free,” No, God’s message through Moses was very specific and clear. God told Moses, “I have observed the misery of MY people who are in Egypt… I will send you to Pharaoh to bring MY people out of Egypt.” (Exodus 3:7 & 10) God claims and comforts his own. God never forgets who we are and whose we are, even when we do. And that’s reason for Hope.
But notice in this text that we don’t just get to sit back and wait passively for God’s comfort and deliverance to come. Isaiah says, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (40:3) We are called to partner with God in our own liberation. And that’s not easy work. God doesn’t send us to some cushy spa or tropical paradise or comfortable suburb to do God’s work. The preparation of God’s way needs to be done in the places where God’s presence and comfort are most needed – in the wilderness – in the desert. Where the lost and the least are, that’s where the way of the Lord needs to be prepared. Because the comfort of God is like the children’s song about “The Magic Penny.” Remember what it says – ‘hold it tight and you won’t have any, but if you lend it, spend it, you’ll have so many they’ll roll all over the floor.”
Isaiah 40:5 gives us the clue about where God’s highway goes with another very small easily over-looked word. This one is slightly bigger than ‘my,’ it has three letters instead of two, but it’s a very powerful important word. It’s the word ‘ALL.’ The text says that if we prepare the way of the Lord, “then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and ALL people shall see it together.” That’s a pivotal and important move in this text. This section of Isaiah expands our understanding of who God’s people are in a most dramatic fashion.
Scholars believe that the last half of the book of Isaiah was written at a later date and by a different anonymous author than the first 39 chapters. The historical context and the tone of the message shift dramatically at the beginning of chapter 40 from one of judgment and dire prediction of impending doom leading up to the fall of Jerusalem, to words of hope and restoration in chapters 40-55 as the period of exile and banishment are coming to an end. And part of that shift of viewpoint includes the realization that when God says MY people, the circle of God’s concern and love is universal and inclusive, not parochial and exclusive. The realization has dawned that if God is the creator of the entire universe, then God is also the Lord and lover of all creation and cannot be limited to one tribe or segment of the human family.
In chapter 49 Isaiah says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob…I will give you as a light to the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (49:6). God’s kingdom and God’s people know no geographic or political or ideological boundaries. ALL means all, as in “All people shall see the glory of God together” (40:5).
Human understanding about the nature of God is an evolving process. While some early Hebrews understood God as vengeful and to be feared, Jesus came to show us the tender, loving, merciful nature of God; and both images of God are evident in this text from Isaiah. “The Lord comes with might,” it says in verse 10, and then in the next verse goes on to say, “he will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”
Those are words of comfort. They give us hope because we see clearly the loving, merciful nature of our God who never forgets that we are God’s people – loved, forgiven, and redeemed, if we choose to return to him like the prodigal children we all are from time to time. God calls us to partnership, to prepare the way of the Lord, and we begin “Where meek souls will receive him, still the Christ child enters in.”
But our partnership with God means we don’t have to and cannot prepare the way for God alone. We are all mortal – we are like grass that withers and fades – but “the word of our God will stand forever.” (40:8) Our broken world more than ever needs God’s challenging, expansive and inclusive word of hope. As Einstein said, “We can’t solve our problems with the same kind of thinking that created them in the first place.” We need God’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth, of a peaceable kingdom. That word is in God’s word, and it’s a word of Hope. Advent and Christmas come in the darkest, coldest time of the year – and that’s no accident. At the times when we most need words of comfort and hope, God knows our needs. God hears our cries, and sends messengers in most unusual and unexpected forms to say, “Comfort, my people,” “let my people go” — set them free from doubt and fear and hopelessness.
Moses was an exile – on the lam because he had killed an Egyptian. He was not articulate or powerful or influential –and yet God chose him and empowered him to be God’s messenger of hope.
In the return of the Exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem – God again chose a most unexpected servant to set God’s people free. King Cyrus of Persia had no idea he was acting as God’s messenger. He was just out to expand his own power and kingdom by knocking Babylon off as king of the hill. But God chose this pagan ruler as the agent of liberation for God’s people. Persia, if you are a fan of God’s irony and surprise, was where modern day Iran now sits. God continuously sends words and acts of hope in most unexpected shapes and forms and places
And by the way, that’s exactly what God has in store for anyone who’s ready in about 21 days in a little one-horse town called Bethlehem.
Hope doesn’t always come in the way we expect. So be ready – and prepare your hearts for the coming of the Lord.