December 4, 2011
Preached by Pastor Kim Blocher at Zion UCC Arendtsville PA
Comfort, O comfort, my people. In a world where Christmas has been in the stores since Halloween, this magnificent passage from Isaiah can seem like just more holiday background music. The words are so familiar. It’s so…well…comforting! Can it be that the prophet’s intention is to just give us something Christmassy, something cheerful to keep in mind as we go about our holiday chores? We are reminded that this same prophet said to us last week, in Isaiah 64, that all have become like one who is unclean, our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. I think we need to delve a little deeper into the word, “comfort.”
What comes to your mind when you think about the word, comfort? Paula Dean’s southern home cooking pretty much locks up the category of comfort food. Thanksgiving isn’t too far behind us so I think about that wonderful and comforting meal. A plate of turkey, stuffing, gravy, scalloped oysters, cranberries, and other good stuff is very comforting, indeed! Of course, those 2 pieces of pumpkin chiffon pie that seemed like such a great idea last week…maybe not so much this week now that I’m back at the gym. But it was comforting while it lasted. Maybe for you comfort is what a mother does for a fussy child. Or it’s an encouraging word from a friend in a time of deep sadness. How many of us had, or maybe still have, a special blanket with which we could not be parted? That blanket enveloped us with comfort. Comfort is gathering with old friends and sharing good times together. These are all ways we can think about comfort, and none would be wrong.
The problem with most forms of comfort is that they become a double-edged sword. Yes, that pumpkin chiffon pie was delightful but my glucose and cholesterol levels speak otherwise! The problem with most forms of comfort is that the comfort is not lasting and it might not be what we really need.
Isaiah nudges us to broaden this understanding of the comforting word he brings from God. Let’s look at the word itself. As our choir director always reminds the choir, it’s com-fort, not cumfert. Theologian and preacher Scott Hoezee points out that the word comfort comes from the Latin, “cum-fortis”, or to give strength. Hoezee tells the story of his theology professor who suggested that the great hymn “A Mighty Fortress is our God” could as easily, and maybe better, be sung, “A Mighty Comfort is our God.” The image there is not Paula Dean whipping up a sweet potato casserole. Nor is it God handing us a hanky to dry our tears. It’s a bulwark never failing, God on our side through the storms of life. It’s God working through us to right the wrongs of the world.
The strength of God fortifies us, gives us courage, and helps us take an unflinching look at the situation we have landed in. The rest of the Isaiah passage acknowledges the wilderness in which God’s people find themselves. Through their own sinful disobedience they were in exile. And it was in that hard, rough place that God spoke to them. Cynthia Jarvis observes that where there is no discomfort, one cannot hear a word of comfort…even from God. “With Isaiah we may offer a word of comfort that only exiles who know they are exiles can hear.”
I would suggest that we too are a people in exile. We are not as the Hebrew people were, with their institutions in ruin, their Temple torn down, and their people scattered like seed in the wind. On the other hand, our institutions are intact, most of us live in comfort and ease, and our families are gathered nearby. But maybe we sometimes feel that God is absent and silent. If this is all there is– what we ourselves create in this world– then we are in big trouble. As Paul would say we are of all people, most to be pitied.
How does the Heidelberg Catechism begin? What is my only comfort in life and death? That I am not my own but belong body and soul to my savior Jesus Christ. There is as much challenge as comfort in that statement. Belonging to Jesus implies belonging to God’s kingdom. And we know that the kingdom of God operates by different rules than we would make given our own devices. We don’t get the good news of Christmas without the challenge of the prophet. We don’t get redemption without judgment. We don’t get the baby without the rough places being made smooth. We don’t get the glory of the Lord, before justice for the poor is established on earth. John the Baptist reminds us that we are not ready for the comfort of “round yon virgin mother and child” before we confront lifting up the low places out there in the world, and in our own lives.
Comfort does not mean comfortable. I read in the recent Christian Century that St. Paul’s Cathedral in London has found itself caught up in the Occupy London protest, near the stock exchange in that great city. The cathedral courtyard had become the site of the encampment, with the protestors drawing attention to corporate greed and socially irresponsible behavior by banks and investment firms. The article notes that church leaders were not sure how to respond to those camping in the shadow of that magnificent cathedral. They were heartbroken by the trash and graffiti in the courtyard and even in the church. The presence of the protesters has diminished the flow of visitors to the church, which is an important source of revenue.
The church was closed for a week, then it was reopened. I can imagine there was an internal struggle among the leaders about an appropriate course of action and there were resignations. Early in November the protesters were told by the church that they could stay until the first of the year. The Christian Century editorial notes: “Since the Middle Ages, cathedral squares have been centers for commercial activity and political discussion….what a marvelous opportunity for the cathedral to foster learning and debate on the ethics of capitalism and on the social responsibility of corporations.” The piece goes on to say, “A cathedral is designed to be a place where humans glimpse an alternate way of seeing the world…help them see the world according to God’s purposes-and then carry that vision back to everyday life.”
St. Paul’s would certainly be more comfortable without the presence of sign-carrying young people camping out in its courtyard. But Isaiah reminds us that God is not here to comfort the comfortable. God comes to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable with a discomforting truth. God’s vision for the world is at odds with much of the way that the world conducts its affairs. That is a most discomforting truth.
Advent is the in-breaking of God’s holy Word for those who have the ears to hear and the eyes to see. This is a vision of something brand new. God has made a brand new promise in Jesus Christ, the Holy Comforter. “But in accordance with his new promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.”(II Peter 3:13) We have a place in that home. What more comfort could we need?