a sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11 for the Second Sunday of Advent
preached on December 4, 2011, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
There have been a lot of times lately when I’ve just wanted something comforting in my life. I’ve wanted one of those good home-cooked meals like only my parents can prepare – though I’ve found that some barbecue and some Thai food I can get here in New York get pretty close sometimes! I’ve wanted a good conversation with one of those close friends who can listen and understand all the things that are swirling around in life and make things seem to swirl a little less. I’ve wanted to listen to some beautiful music of the Advent season that somehow makes these days feel complete for me.
Thankfully I’ve gotten a taste of these and other comforting things lately, so I’ve gotten some of the comfort that I want, but I have to wonder if it is the comfort that I really need. I’m sure that my doctor for one won’t think particularly highly of the comfort food I’ve eaten lately when I visit him tomorrow. I know I’ve driven some of my friends a bit crazy over the years in seeking out their presence in the midst of my life. And even my carefully-chosen Advent music isn’t always endearing to those who find great comfort in Christmas carols! So it is that all this comfort I want may not be the comfort I need.
Our reading from the prophet Isaiah this morning deals in this comfort that we need:
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
There’s no need to worry – God is finally on the scene.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
Any punishment the people might have deserved is now over and done with. It’s time to move on.
These words of comfort come out of strange silence – for some forty years, the people of Judah had been suffering in exile in Babylon, wondering when God was going to intervene in their pain and struggle and bring them back home.
So the prophet promises dramatic construction in the wilderness to get back to Jerusalem:
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.
This comfort, you see, is not just the promise of stability and a return to something seen before. Comfort does not come in fulfilling the people’s wants and desires to turn back the clock. For the prophet, comfort comes in changing things once and for all, in transforming the world now and always. This is the great promise of what God is doing, the prophet says, for
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
This glory is not in the restoration of an old way for one or two people – it comes through a new way of life in the face of a world uprooted and torn apart, through a reconstructed land that pulls together people across all boundaries, through a changed world that shows the glory of God in every place.
In our world filled with much change and uncertainty, we really do need and want comfort and transformation, and probably something more than just a favorite meal, the companionship of a friend, or some beloved music. While our struggles are nowhere near the difficulties faced by the exiles of Judah who were Isaiah’s first audience, it sure feels like it sometimes: the ways of life that we once knew seem to be far off and distant; our nation needs a new and better way of life in our politics, our finances, our economy, and nearly everything else too; and our world faces great danger in the abuse and misuse of its many resources as it needs to show and see more signs of God’s glory every day.
But just like in my own life, the comfort we need in these days isn’t always the comfort we want. Sometimes we think we simply need to turn the clock back to a previous time and place to make things different, but we easily forget that the past had more than its fair share of problems, too. Sometimes we try to fix the struggles of our politics and nation by blaming them on someone else, but the reality is that we ourselves – each and every one of us – are just as responsible as anyone for the mess we face today, and only an honest assessment of our own complicity in our pain and struggle can bring us a different path for the days ahead. And sometimes we mix up God’s glory and our own glory, suggesting that God’s blessing upon America or this church or our privilege and status in life is the great expression of God’s presence in our world, when in reality God’s glory defies all these boundaries and expectations and brightens the darkness of every time and place with justice and life.
So amidst the comfort that we want, maybe we need to seek the comfort we need more like what Isaiah describes – an honest, heartfelt, compassionate, tender expression of love and support combined with real and true steps toward the new way of life that God envisions for us.
I think it’s quite appropriate that we hear this text in these days, for Advent is the time when we remember that God sends us the comfort that we need. God’s comfort for our world comes not with the end of waiting but in the midst of it, not with a powerful and immediate transformation of things but with patience and deliberation and hope for God’s return to our midst, not with blinding bursts of light in the darkness but in the great simplicity of one or two candles shining boldly in the night, not with a giant feast spread across many tables but with a small taste of the kingdom in a little portion of bread and grape juice shared at one table, not with a king sent in royal garb to rule and reign with great power but with a baby born Prince of Peace to show tenderness, mercy, and love.
So may this Advent be filled not so much with the comfort we want but the comfort that we need as God steps in to change things, as we take our own steps along the path toward God’s incredible new thing is transforming our world, as we look for the glory of the Lord being revealed in our midst so that when the Great Comforter comes we might be ready to embrace his presence and live in his love for others and ourselves each and every day.
Lord, come quickly! Amen.