"Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim that her hard service has been completed ... " Those words from the prophet Isaiah, written to people suffering in exile in Babylon, seem no less urgent now than they did when written over 2700 years ago. If ever there were a world in need of comfort, we are that world.
Political disunity in our country has reached toxic levels almost unparalleled in modern American history. We baby-boomers thought racial unrest and divides would disappear following the Civil Rights Movement of the 60's. But now we look around from the heinous event in Charlottesville to corporate boardrooms and college campuses and churches and on the streets from Ferguson to Staten Island, from Charleston to Cleveland, from my town to yours. And we realize how naïve we were. And then there is global climate change ... and the morass surrounding health care ... and the tragic fact that one out of every five children in our country goes to school hungry, and a hungry child rarely becomes a successful student, thus continuing the tragic cycle of poverty and despair. If the problem of human trafficking doesn't keep us awake at night, then we're not paying attention. Twenty-four million people are literally enslaved today in the sex-for-sale industry. The average child being forced against their will into that wicked work is an 11-year-old little girl. Add to all that ISIS, Boco Haram, missile testing in North Korea, genocide in Syria, and the reality of Russia seeking to interfere with the political and economic affairs of democratic nations around the world. And all of that is before we even get around to topics like cancer and HIV, Alzheimer's and depression and the epidemic of loneliness which, according to Giovanni Frazetto in her new book Together Closer, actually affects more than just our emotions but is now proven to negatively impact our physical health and cognitive abilities.
"Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem..." If ever there were a time when we need God's comfort, that time is now.
According to Isaiah, frequently the comfort we need arrives not so much through philosophy or politics or even theology but through Incarnation. Comfort comes when someone brings it to us. How many times have we all experienced that? You are out of work with an injury or extended illness. You lose a loved one. Some tragedy arrives at your doorstep ... but, that tragedy is not the only thing that arrives. Likewise, in those moments, people arrive. Kind, concerned, caring people with handshakes and hugs and prayers and tears and cakes and casseroles and phone calls and e-mails and all sorts of reminders that whatever you face, you do not face it alone. Their presence may not immediately solve whatever problem you are experiencing, but they do give you just enough light in the darkness to keep moving forward until you find life again. Comfort comes when someone brings it to us.
Isaiah referred to himself as "the voice of one, crying, 'In the wilderness, prepare a way for the coming of our Lord'." John the Baptist described himself in exactly that same way when he promised that Jesus was coming to people who felt hopeless and helpless on their journey. Isaiah spoke to Israel suffering under Babylon. John spoke centuries later to Israel suffering under Rome. But each shared the same message, that in both cases the people of Israel would find their hope and their comfort not through politics or militarism or economics, not through their political party or their brute strength or their possessions and their stuff, but through the One who would arrive at their doorstep, the One who would come to them in their "desert places," the One who would be with them and for them in the midst of their weakness and pain.
"Make straight in the desert a highway for our God" who is coming to you, promised Isaiah. "The glory of the Lord will be revealed," he wrote, "and all you struggling, suffering people will see it together ... He will tend his flock like a shepherd, and gather the lambs in his arms. He will carry them close to his heart, and gently lead those that are with young." It was the promise of hope in what appeared to be a hopeless situation, and it was Incarnational. "Someone is coming to you." Centuries later a group of and worried third-shift shepherds in occupied Bethlehem heard a similar promise: "Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior," a Deliverer, One who comes to your doorstep in the midst of your pain to give you the strength to survive.
That's what the Bible promises, you know: the strength to survive. It never promises that God will wave a magic wand and make all the bad things in life go away. The Bible promises, instead, that there will be "highways in the desert" - places of our lives where God will come to be with us, to comfort us, and eventually even to deliver us. And God almost always does that incarnationally - through a human being. For the Israelites in Babylonian exile, God sent King Cyrus of Persia to liberate them and grant them a way back home. Centuries later for the Israelites suffering under Rome, and twenty centuries later for all of us suffering in countless ways under the dominions of darkness, God sent a person named Jesus who said, "right here in the middle of all the things you're going through, I have come that you might have life, and have it in its fullness." That's what this season is about. That's what our faith is about. When we feel like we are at the end of life's road, God sends Someone to walk the road with us and to reveal new pathways toward life that we didn't even know were there.
Winston Churchill used to say it. Jim Valvano said it. My predecessor at Marble, Arthur Caliandro, said it. Hundreds of speakers and preachers say it all the time, and there is biblical wisdom in listening to their words: "Never give up. Never, ever give up!" Why? Because God has a history of coming to us on our desert highways, and of doing there what was considered almost impossible to be done. Babylon could not be defeated, but it was. Rome could not be converted, but it became the world's capital of Christianity. My wife and I were in Rome just a few months ago. We walked through the Coliseum and were reminded of the brutality that occurred there once upon a time. We heard again the stories of incarnate evil in political leaders like Nero and Caligula who denied Truth and propagated lies and patted their own false prophets on the head while the truly faithful were persecuted and sometimes burned at the stake. But when we left the Coliseum, we had not walked five minutes until we stood before a church dating back to the Middle Ages, which was built on the site where another church had stood dating back to the rule of Constantine. We saw the bones of the faithful in the chapels beneath St. Priscilla's Church - the bones of brave martyrs who had helped convert a pagan city into a city of faith. Later we joined long lines of people waiting to enter the Vatican and then inched our way through it. The Vatican, a monument to the fact that in a place of evil God came and, in fact, God overcame. The city of Rome is a living testimony to the global movement of Christianity. And in front of almost every church or chapel, and certainly within the Vatican itself, are the images of individuals - brave women and men who walked into that "desert place" of ancient Rome and proclaimed, "One is coming to your doorstep. So, comfort, comfort my people ... (for) the Sovereign Lord comes with power ... and tends his flock like a shepherd, and gathers the lambs in his arms." History clearly teaches that when we stumble in deep darkness, God comes to us - almost always through some specific person or persons who help us find light where there had been none.
As the years pass, we aging preachers are often asked to share whatever insights we may have with those who are just starting out. I'm not sure that's because anyone assumes we possess inherent wisdom. Maybe they invite us simply because we're affordable. Or, maybe it's because we remind people of the insurance commercial on TV. After all these years, "We know a thing or two, because we've seen a thing or two." So, I find myself increasingly asked to share insights about preaching with those who are just becoming preachers. One of the things I always tell them is that in any sermon, there will come a "So what?" moment ... a moment when the congregation will ask, "So, what does any of the message you are preaching this morning have to do with me and my life in my world?" Let me close our time together today by offering two answers to the "So what?" question I suspect you've been asking: "So, what does your message have to do with me?"
First is this: As people of faith, there is a faith answer to your "So what" question. Our faith says that whatever we face in a given moment is, in fact, momentary - but God is permanent. Furthermore, God is more powerful than whatever we face or fear. God comes to us on our "desert highways," so that wherever we travel, and whatever we experience on that road, we are never alone.
Second: As disciples, there is a discipleship answer to your "So what" question. If God's love is incarnational, then you and I are divinely called not merely to receive it when we need it but also to extend it when others need it, too. That's what discipleship is about. As the popular phrase puts it, "We are blessed to be a blessing." A friend of mine in the ministry frequently says, "God's love always comes to us on its way to somebody else."
"Comfort, comfort my people, says your God." In the midst of our pain, God comes to us with comfort usually through the people God sends to our doorsteps. In the midst of our neighbor's pains, God longs to arrive at their doorsteps through us.
Please pray with me.
O God, who lovingly comes to our doorsteps through the birth of your Son Jesus, we pray that you will then send us to others as conduits of your healing, hopeful love. Amen.