Sermon: Comfort is sometimes Uncomfortable

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 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.

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, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 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.

Isaiah 40:1-11

My sermon from the Second Sunday of Advent (December 10, 2023) on Isaiah 40:1-11.

So this weekend, we’re wrapping up the annual Christmas gift drive organized by CLC’s women’s group. Today is the day when gift cards for those supported by Westwood Social Services are due and tomorrow is when all the physical gifts for kids served by the Tri-Boro Food Pantry need to be dropped off here at church. Now my family participates in the gift giving every year and we like to vary the age range of the kids we choose. This year, we went with someone who was very young and their parents said they needed some clothes, a few learning games, and a bike. Kate, within seconds of signing up for that kid, went online and immediately ordered a balance bike to help the 2 year old develop the skills they’ll eventually need to ride. After a few short days, that bike showed up at my home. I picked it up, brought it inside, and placed it right inside my front door. That bike, though, sat there for several days because it needed to be put together. Opening the box, seeing what’s inside, and reading through an instruction booklet written in three different languages wasn’t something I wanted to do right away. Kate and I were both very busy so we started doing a kind of dance where we kept volunteering each other to put the bike together. That went on for quite a while until my final excuse, that I needed to sit down and write today’s sermon, meant Kate put the whole thing together herself. She opened the box, read the instructions, and did exactly what she was supposed to do to bring a little Christmas joy to a kid and their family who needed some comfort this holiday season. 

Now our first reading today from the book of Isaiah is full of what feels like instructions. We’re told to “Comfort, O comfort …” (40:1). “Speak … cry …” (40:2). “… prepare … make straight …” (40:3). “… Cry out!” (40:6). “… Get you up … lift up your voice … lift it up, do not fear;” and “say …” (40:9). These words feel as if they’re part of a conversation where orders and directions were being given and shared. It’s a bit hard to see what exactly is going on here but when we put this passage back into its context, the whole thing sort of comes into view. So the first thing we need to do is remember what happened at the end of chapter 39 in the book of Isaiah. The prophet went to Hezekiah, the king of Judah, and said that a day was surely coming when the city of Jerusalem would be destroyed and most of its people forced to live in exile. That word, though, wasn’t an immediate prediction because it took nearly 100 years after it was said before Jerusalem fell. There is, within the space between the end of chapter 39 and the beginning of chapter 40, a long silence that the book of Isaiah doesn’t really describe. And when the Babylonian empire finally came to take the community away, the only thing they could do was lament. It felt as if their future had been taken away and they no longer had anyone or anything who would comfort them. The community, wrapped up in their sorrow and grief, waited and waited and waited until, almost 170 years later, the silence was broken and a new future grew. They, in essence, were waiting for God to make a move and when God did, the word to describe what God was doing was simply “comfort.” That word, though, was more than simply offering a gentle pat on the shoulder for those who have lived through so much. It was, instead, a promise that those who had no one to comfort them, now did. And to showcase exactly how decisive that declaration actually was, the book of Isaiah imagines God speaking these words to those among the divine assembly – the angels and messengers who would then go out to make that promise real. These commands, then, are really part of a conversation – trying to articulate what this new decree from God might look like. One voice among those many voices proposed building a kind of superhighway across the desert as a way to make the journey back to Jerusalem safe and easy. Yet that highway was about more than simply creating a safe passage for people to travel. Highways in the ancient world, according to Professor Walter Bruggemann, “were built…primarily for processional events, when rulers and gods could parade in victory…[as they returned] home.” The community, dislocated and forced to live far away, was now going to be brought home by the One who promises they will never be alone. These words, filled with all kinds of urgency, excitement, and energy, were not meant to be a list of what we’re supposed to do to earn this kind of declaration from our God. Rather, it was meant to be a promise of what God would do for the people – and the world – God loves. 

Yet what that comfort might look like is a bit hard to describe. Isaiah is, I think, imagining this comfort to be more than sitting by a cozy fire with a hot cup of tea on a cold snowy day. The comfort God gives often transforms us into something more. It’s a comfort that is often uncomfortable since it requires us to change our minds and our perspectives while undoing all our expectations of what God would do. It’s the kind of work that often leaves us uncomfortable by pushing us to form connections with people and places we don’t easily relate to. It’s the type of work we need to practice which is why we do that kind of work every Sunday morning. When we gather around the Lord’s table, what we’re doing is taking a seat at a meal we didn’t prepare ourselves. The food we’re given isn’t something we ordered off a menu nor do we get to pick where exactly we get to sit. Instead, we are surrounded by people that we know and those we don’t. Some of those people at the table with us are folks we’ve seen for years but, somehow, never learned their names. Others are folks who speak a language we don’t know and whose taste in music, movies, and vacation spots leave us asking the question: why? At Jesus’ table, the people we find ourselves next to are folks who don’t look like us, sound like us, think like us, raise their children like us, vote like us, or even have the same age, nationality, background, gender, career, or even the same abilities. Yet it’s there, while gathered together in the sanctuary, online, at home, and via conference call – when we each discover how the church cannot be what it’s supposed to be without all the other people worshiping with you. Now I’ll admit this isn’t always easy to see since there are times when we feel or make others feel as if they don’t really belong. Yet in the midst of our conflicts, struggles, trials, and tribulations – the spot we have at Jesus’ table is still there and we are fed by the One who will never let us go. This, I think, serves as a model for what God’s comfort is all about. It’s not about being comfortable; it’s about knowing, trusting, and believing that we, no matter what, belong to God. And if God’s comfort means we already have a place at Jesus’ table, then that shows the kind of comfort we get to offer others. We might not always be comfortable together but Jesus’ table can, and will, be the comfort that transforms us all.