This was my sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent 2020…
“Comfort O Comfort my people! The voice crying out in the Wilderness, Make straight the Way of the Lord!” (Isaiah 40.1-11)
If any year has felt like a wilderness, surely it must be this year! Since January when the news of the strange epidemic in Wuhan first began to appear, through February when the spread became relentless. To March, when that tiny whisper in dark corners of a pandemic began to come into the open. And then on through the spring and summer and autumn. Our lives turned upside down. Alienated from our friends and families, cut adrift from all that was familiar and made up the fabric of our daily lives…
When I began to explore this, this sense of alienation and strangeness and being adrift in a new world without a functioning compass, these words of the prophet Isaiah took on a new resonance for me.
For these words were first spoken by a prophet to people in exile. In the 8th century BC, two thousand seven hundred years ago (give or take a few decades), the Hebrew people had been conquered and taken into captivity in Babylon. These words are a promise of restoration, of a future, of a functioning compass once more.
If nothing else, the very antiquity of these words tell me that the human experience of exile and alienation crosses all boundaries of time and culture. From the Hebrew exiles all those millennia ago to the refugees in our own time, to the alienation we are all experiencing globally as pretty much all the little things we took for granted in our daily lives have been taken away or shattered.
And into this experience of pain and disorientation, God speaks comfort. There is a future. This strangeness and sense of displacement and unfamiliarity and being adrift will not last forever.
One thing that can be said will almost complete certainty is that the future will not be quite as we expect! The ultimate example of that is Jesus himself. God – the Almighty, the all powerful, the Creator of All that is – chooses to appear among us. But not in power and majesty. No, He comes as a tiny baby: vulnerable, helpless, and mucky. I say the latter advisedly, and any parent will know exactly what I mean!
And in this very helplessness, there is a draw. There is an unconditional love offered which we reciprocate almost unthinkingly to a tiny child. Children are also highly unpredictable in their exuberant creativity – dare I say it, much like God himself!
But the Jews thought they knew exactly what the Messiah would look like – a mighty King, a conquering Warrior. Not – I say again NOT – a wandering peasant teacher who spent time with all kinds of people, and who was clearly not interested in preserving formal authority and the status quo.
God speaks comfort to his people through the Prophet Isaiah, and through Jesus – but it may not be the kind of comfort we expect.
For those who have a faith, times of great uncertainty and change may be easier to navigate because when all that is external is ripped away, we can cling to the inner strength which that faith brings.
And that brings me again to Comfort.
As I mentioned in my Seven Voices piece on Thursday, Bishop Steven Croft’s current podcast series talks about God’s promise of comfort and joy. In it he points out that comfort is not about cosy firesides, hugs and soft fluffy things.
Rather it is about having courage and strength in our inmost being. And the word courage comes from the Latin cor (3rdn.), which means heart.
Comfort is about giving and receiving the encouragement (back to courage and hearts!) that enables us to continue in adversity. It says, take heart! Do not despair! There is hope! There is a future. This is not the end. All is not lost.
This year, the Church of England has chosen to focus on Comfort and Joy as the keywords for Christmas. The more I think about this, the more it resonates. God knows, we all need comfort and joy right now. This year has been tough for us all in varying degrees.
We have all had our struggles of one kind or another. Though I have made a point of counting my blessings each and every day these past nine months especially, and I have lived in gratitude each day, it has not been easy. We will all have our own stories of these strange times.
But I come again to this message of comfort and joy. And to the heart.
For it is in our hearts that the answer will be found, and the strength to go on living into whatever new future awaits us.
The call to make straight the way of the Lord each Advent is not in any way literal. It is completely and only a metaphor. It calls us to look inside and make space for God in our hearts.
To ensure that we are ready to receive Him when He comes – whether that be Christmas, or at any other time; though Christmas is again a wonderful reminder and annual call to be present to the Eternal Presence of God.
And it is a call to be ready to receive that new future and build the hope into a reality. To have the courage to stand through the time of alienation and adversity and being adrift, so that we can stand firm and walk courageously into whatever comes.
So let us take comfort – in one another, and in God. In the hope that He gives. In the Joy that He brings through his presence in our lives, both directly and through others.
As Isaiah spoke those words to his people, a light of hope had begun to shine in the darkness of exile and lostness – the political situation had changed, and return to their homeland was possible.
As we enter Advent this year, a light has begun to shine as vaccines start to become available.
Let us hold on to the good that we have found during these times, the lessons we have learnt about what really matters in life. And let us take comfort, take courage, and walk forward into a new future with joy and hope. May God give you comfort and joy this Advent and Christmas season.
With peace & blessings,