2nd Sunday of Advent- December 7, 2014 at the First Church in Marlborough, Congregational
Text: Isaiah 40: 1-11
Note: I believe strongly that the most prophetic preaching happens with a congregation when you are in a trusting relationship. This sermon was preached at a church I had never visited before, and thus, I did not say as much as I might with a people I knew well. Even still, a parishioner got up in the middle of the sermon, said something about “not having to listen this” and walked out angrily. On the off chance he reads this, I welcome the opportunity to hear what you thought was so offensive you needed to leave.
This hymn was originally written in German in the mid-1600s in celebration of the feast day of John the Baptist. Johann Olearius, a Lutheran pastor from Halle, Germany, took the first five lines of Isaiah 40 and verse 34, and made them into hymn verses. He was the chief court preacher and private chaplain to the Duke of Sachsen-Weissenfels. Olearius wrote 302 hymns of his own for his first hymnal, including Comfort, Comfort O My People. But it took nearly 200 years for this hymn to be translated into English, by an Anglican lay woman no less. In 1863 in London, Catherine Winkworth published in her Chorale Book for England, which included her translation of Olearius’s German hymn. Winkworth was herself a pioneer in the rights of women for higher education, reforms she would not see in her own lifetime. In a newspaper article about her at the time a male theologian said, “She was a person of remarkable intellectual and social gifts, and very unusual attainments; but what specially distinguished her was her combination of rare ability and great knowledge with a certain tender and sympathetic refinement which constitutes the special charm of the true womanly character.” Winkworth would write, and organize, and reform, and strategize, but the people of her time were not yet ready to hear the prophetic call for equal education for women. “Comfort, Comfort O my people.” Let us pray…
Holy God, I am bold to stand before your people and proclaim a holy word. So make your Spirit known among us that we might hear the Word we need for our lives this day. Your Word is “immutable and irresistible;” We wait this Advent to hear. Amidst all the impermanence of this life, we claim you as our sure rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Here, in the second half of the book of Isaiah, an exiled and deeply flawed nation finally is offered redemption. If you’d like to follow along with me in your pew bibles, I am on page ______ in the 40th chapter of Isaiah, starting with the 1st verse. The forty prior chapters are rough- the people are rebelling, God is angry about how the people have broken covenant, treated their neighbors badly, Jerusalem has been taken captive by Babylon, and some of the people have been exiled. And it’s not just that Jerusalem messed up once, but 40 chapters of rebellion, decades and decades of defiance of God. Isaiah 1:15 describes the people of Judah as a nation with blood on its hands. The sin is communal; the whole nation is flawed. Jerusalem is a repeat offender: a “three-strikes” policy applied here would have put Jerusalem beyond redemption. But beginning at chapter 40, verse 1, the entire book shifts. Instead of judgment, in verse 2 God directs the heavenly council to “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term.” God declares mercy for a people who merited punishment. Gone is the deserved condemnation. Instead of punishment and anger, God speaks to the members of the heavenly council saying, “Comfort, O comfort my people.”
And why shall these hard-hearted people be offered return and redemption? Not because the nation has earned its redemption through hard labor. Judah is a repeat offender. If this were a parole hearing, Judah has not demonstrated that it has reformed its sinful ways. The nation is offered redemption not because of anything they’ve done to deserve it, but because of who God is. God is no longer punishing their wickedness but offering profligate, gratuitous, unmerited grace.
The people have not changed from their corrupt habits. But God seems intent to send a prophet to invite them back into relationship anyway. The voices in this text are a bit confusing. These verses, we think, are dialogue between God and some heavenly council with an individual prophet appointed to proclaim this good news to the people. Look at verse 6. A voice (possibly God) says, “Cry out!” Another voice says, “What shall I cry?” The second voice continues, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.” The prophet is pushing back at God- why should I cry out to these people who are like grass? Why should I cry out to these people who wither and fade? Why bother proclaiming good news to these unrepentant people?
It’s a logical question, really: why cry out to a people unwilling to hear? I understand the frustration of the prophet. So often, so much of what we do, even as we try to live according to the Gospel, seems to be futile.
Maybe what you do in your own life sometimes feels futile in these dark days of winter. Maybe it feels like your house will never be clean, you’ll never find a job, you’ll never have an interesting first date let alone a promising second date. Maybe it feels like you’ll never have a good relationship with your father-in-law, or your sister, or your boss, or your your child. Maybe it feels like you’ll never get out of debt, you’ll never get sober, you’ll never get right with God. Maybe it feels like you’ll never be given equal standing in this country because of your nation of origin, your economic status, your education, your gender, how you present, who you love, or how you speak or the color of your skin. Maybe your protests feel futile. Maybe your Facebook posts feel futile. Maybe your conversations feel futile. Maybe your prayers feel futile.
Last week brought the discordant confluence of the national holiday of Thanksgiving and the renewed national division around race and justice following the Ferguson verdict. Knowing how hard the holidays are to begin with, and grieving the divisions around race raw and exposed again in our country, a pastor friend of mine just south of Boston decided to hold a special service of lament. A time to grieve and pray, to gather with the Body of Christ even as we remain divided. The kind of pastoral innovation we are all striving for in these days. He opened up the sanctuary and waited. No one came. Not a single parishioner from his church, no family member, no neighbor, no deacon, no elder. He sat with his own grief in an empty sanctuary, alone.
Maybe you have been campaigning civil rights for all Americans for decades, calling out our nation with the blood of the civil rights martyrs on its hands, but you still see the fatal effects of racism of the past two weeks and feel worn. Maybe your eyes are just now adjusting to the constant fear people of color feel in this country. Maybe you saw 12-year-old Tamir Rice killed by police while playing outside his home and wonder about the safety of your own children playing outside. Maybe you work in law-enforcement and want the bad cops off the streets that sully the reputation of you and your colleagues striving for good community relations and justice. Maybe you heard Eric Garner say “I can’t breathe” eleven times as as a police officer puts him in a choke-hold and you heard our Savior Jesus Christ gasping for air on the cross, his lungs filling up with fluid as he is crucified in an act of state-sponsored violence.
Maybe street protests following the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and John Crawford and Tamir Rice and Rumain Brisbon and a seeming unending litany of black men killed won’t change centuries of systemic racism and white privilege in this country. Maybe Catherine Winkworth showing that women hymn translators were just as competent as men did not prove St. Paul’s words that there is neither male nor female in the Body of Christ. There are days, long days, when our work feels futile. There are days, long days, when it feels like our exile from that hopeful vision of the kingdom of God will never end. There are days when we, the people are like grass, when our cry in the wilderness is met with complete silence, when we sit alone in our grief.
If we stand humbly in the tradition of the prophets, we cry out not because the people are ready to hear it. We cry out because God has given a Word of redemption and reconciliation.
The prophet cries out not because of the consistency of the people but because of the consistency of God. The Methodist reformer John Wesley put it this way, “God’s word is like himself, immutable and irresistible: and therefore as the mouth of the Lord, and not of man, hath spoken these things, so doubt not but they shall be fulfilled.”
[Optional Cut: You know that your donations to Toys for Tots and Our Father’s Table won’t end family homelessness, and yet we do it anyway. Our actions are like shoveling snow at the end of our driveway while the plows are still running. And yet, we act. We proclaim. We aim to show something of God’s love in unjust systems even if it feels futile because that’s who God is. We join the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness and we try to prepare the way of the Lord into this broken world.]
It does not matter if the people are ready to hear it. God is ready to proclaim reconciliation for a broken people. Advent is when we prepare ourselves as a people to receive this proclamation that our God is near. Advent is when we prepare ourselves as a people to receive Almighty God as a homeless infant born to unwed parents in an occupied state. The inconsistency of the people is less important than the consistency of God. As so in Advent, John the Baptist stands in the wilderness proclaiming “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” (Mark 1:3).
And yet, sometimes our holy acts of futility do have an effect in bringing about a glimpse of the realm of God. During his 27 years of confinement in apartheid South Africa, Nelson Mandela treated his jailers with all the dignity he was denied. The warden Christo Brandt was a white Afrikaner tasked with watching over the political prisoner, the black South African Mandela. Christo Brandt was just 18 when he started working as a prison guard on Robbens Island. Even though he was unfairly imprisoned, even though he had every reason to be angry and defiant, the elder Nelson Mandela addressed his younger jailer as “Mr. Brandt.” Brandt began to call his prisoner, not by a dehumanizing prison number but “Mr. Mandela.” Brandt and Mandela ended up talking about their children, talking about their lives. Brandt came to understand why Mandela was organizing against the apartheid system. In an utterly dehumanizing prison system, Mandela defied the logic of oppression by seeing the humanity of his jailer and claiming his own humanity too. “When Mandela became president, he gave Brandt a job at the Capitol. When Brandt’s son was killed in a car accident, Mandela was the first to phone him. “When he phoned me, you could feel he was half part of my family,” said Brandt.” Mandela didn’t end apartheid by addressing his jailer with the respect he was denied. But in that small act of near futile defiance from a jail cell, he carved out a little more space for his own humanity and the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.
And so we proclaim and act even when it feels futile. We proclaim the radical love of God in Christ Jesus available to all. We cry out for a contrite and reconciled nation when all people are judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. We prophesy that #BlackLivesMatter even though it is not yet fully true. We plead with God to tear open the heavens and come down. We sing “Comfort those who sit in darkness, mourning under sorrow’s load.” We do not wait for the people to be ready, but rely on the readiness of God. Because the Advent promise of Isaiah and John the Baptist is this, we prepare the way for the Lord, because our God is coming to us- ready or not.