“Comfort”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

December 9, 2018

Isaiah 40:1-11

 

He was lost.  He had set out on a trail he had walked any number of times, set out for a short hike up a nearby hill to watch the sunset.  It was summer, so the evenings were long, and he took his time at the top before he headed back down.  He knew the way, and it was so beautiful to watch the colors shift from gold to orange to red to purple on the western horizon and the stars emerge in the deepening blue overhead.  But as he headed back down, he took a wrong turn somewhere without realizing what he had done.  Gradually, he noticed that the landmarks were not the familiar ones he expected.  The dusk was thick by now, and his little flashlight didn’t do much good.  He thought he’d just be up and down, so he hadn’t packed extra water, or food, or warm clothes, or a headlamp, which seemed now like a significant oversight.  And then he came to a spot he didn’t recognize at all, and he realized that he was good and lost.  The night was closing in, and he had no earthly idea where he was, or how he got there, or which way to turn to get back to the place he knew, the place he meant to be.  Do you know what that feels like?

 

She was in the wilderness.  She missed the comfort and familiarity of her old apartment—the one she’d had to move out of after her partner came home drunk and angry one time too many.  The next morning, she took her clothes, her computer, and a couple other things, and she left.  She missed the life they had made together, having someone to cook dinner for in the evenings, having company at the breakfast table in the mornings.  She didn’t miss the shouting, the cursing, the fear, the angry silence, but she missed having a home that felt like home.  She missed the touchstones that kept her grounded, the things that reminded her of who she was—her art on the walls, her dishes in the cupboard, her books on the shelves—the things she was too scared to go back to get.  She missed her partner’s family, who had become her family.  And she also missed God.  She still believed somehow that God is always with us, but she couldn’t feel that comforting presence, couldn’t find that loving guidance, couldn’t figure out how to pray.  She was in the wilderness, and she didn’t know how or when or whether she would ever find her way home again.  Do you know what that feels like?

 

The ancient Israelites knew what it feels like to be lost, to be in the wilderness.  They knew it through their communal memory, through the stories that were passed down from generation to generation.  Stories of slavery in Egypt, bowed down under a heavy yoke, forced to make bricks without straw.  Stories of 40 years in the desert, enduring hunger and thirst and heat and cold, with no assurance that they would ever reach the Promised Land.  Stories of ethnic conflict and invading armies, when peace felt far away and justice out of reach.

And in the moment when the reading we heard this morning was first proclaimed, they knew what it feels like to be lost, to be in the wilderness, from their immediate experience, too.  Several decades earlier, the Babylonian army had conquered what is now Israel/Palestine and ransacked Jerusalem.  They had destroyed the Temple, the heart of the very heart of the faith and worship of the Israelite community.  They had torn down the high places, defiled the altars, desecrated the holy of holies.  It seemed like God’s home on earth was gone, and if God’s home was gone, then where were God’s people to turn?

Many people had been forced into exile in Babylon, in modern-day Iraq, and were living in captivity in a foreign land.  Others had stayed behind but were reduced to a tenuous existence in the uninhabited places outside the city, for what remained of Jerusalem was in the hands of the conquerors.  For the original hearers of the message we heard from the prophet Isaiah today, life was rough and rugged, dry and desolate, harsh and hard and inhospitable.  They knew what it felt like to feel lost, to be in the wilderness.

 

Into that context, into that moment, into that experience, the prophet spoke a word from God.  Into our context, into our moment, into our experience, too, the prophet speaks a word from God.  To places that feel uncharted, unpredictable, unsafe; to people who feel dispersed, dislocated, dispirited; the prophet speaks a word from God.

And here is what God says:  Comfort.  Comfort.  Comfort, my people.

The comfort of God is not comfort you have to deserve.  It is not comfort you have to work for.  It is not comfort you have to travel to find.  The comfort of God comes to you, right where you are.  It meets you, just as you are.  It seeks out broken hearts, it is destined for aching bodies, it makes its home in the wilderness, it finds its way to the last, the least, the lost.

The comfort of God is both powerful and gentle, both strong and tender.  For, the prophet tells us, “the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him,” and at the same time, in the very next verse, “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.”  It is potent enough to overturn injustice, to change entire systems, to tear down the structures that harm people—and it is soft enough to hold all the broken fragments of your life, your heart, your body, your soul, and patiently piece them back together.

The comfort of God will stop at nothing to make its way to you.  It will build a highway in the desert.  It will lift up the deepest valley.  It will bring low the highest mountain.  It will level the uneven ground and smooth out the rough places.  It will shine so brightly that even the shadowiest corners of the world will be illuminated.  It will reach out to the loneliest wilderness, it will extend to the furthest places of exile, it will touch every person who finds themselves lost and wrap them into the embrace of Love.  Even the exiled Israelites.  Even the lost hiker.  Even the lonely survivor.  Even you.  Even me.

And once the comfort of God has found you, once you’ve heard the words of the prophet, once you’ve felt the tender touch of the shepherd’s arms, once you’ve sensed the power that gentleness holds, you will become part of that comfort, and you will help to build the road that will carry it to another lost person who needs to be found.

To the friend whose beloved is dying…  To the coworker coping with a new diagnosis…  To the grandchild struggling with addiction…  To the parent missing an estranged child at the holidays…  To the couple who want more than anything to have a child but cannot do so…  To the person whose spouse just filed for divorce…  To the one shrouded so deep in depression and anxiety that they can hardly breathe or move…

To the worker whose job is being phased out just as the holidays arrive…  To the one working three jobs and still not making ends meet…  To the family that cannot afford Christmas gifts this year…  To the person languishing in prison under an unjust conviction…  To the asylum-seekers who flee violence and persecution, endure arduous and fearful journeys, only to be met by barbed wire and tear gas…  To the migrant children still not reunited with their parents…  To the transgender youth living on the streets because their parents have kicked them out…

To every person who is lost, to every person who feels alone, to every person who is in the wilderness and doesn’t know how or when or whether they will ever find their way home…  The comfort of God comes with tender power, with fierce gentleness—and with the help of those who have known the touch of that comfort and cannot help but join in to prepare the way of the Lord.

May it be so.

 


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