Comfort, O My People (Second Sunday in Advent)

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When I read the Gospel for this week, I basically had a visceral reaction to it. Every year during Advent we enter this long period of wilderness talk, John the Baptist lunacies, and encouragement to stay awake. And, well, everything seems like a wild swirl of sorrow and stress right now. More than one person has told me they would like to crawl under the covers until this all passes. We’ve been forging in the wilderness for a long time, and so John the Baptist’s call to discomfort, repentance, and hardship resonates in a new way. At least it does for me.

And so, I looked hopefully to the Old Testament reading from Isaiah.
And, it made my soul sing, which was a balm to my heart:
Comfort, O comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.

Oh yes! Dear God.

Comfort. Tenderness. Safety.
This is what I am longing for most these days.

The tender mercy of God alighting in the air around us.

I imagine this to be like how the scent of clementines lingers sweetly and alights upon our nostrils. This, for me, feels…

Holy. Safe. Restorative.

Once when I was hiking the Appalachian Trail, I found a single clementine perched on a rock, just alongside the trail. I almost missed it, save my hiking partner who spotted it. We were ecstatic. This is what is commonly called “trail magic” among hikers and the timing could not have been better. We had been hiking, carrying everything on our back that we would need, for about 5 days at this point. It was hot; we were tired; and defeat was setting in.

And here, before us, in the middle of nowhere, was a single clementine.
I do not have words for how sweet and merciful that half of a clementine tasted. Since there we two of us, we split it. But, maybe you can imagine the pure gift it was in that moment.

Clementines evoke comfort for me. I can hardly separate the concept of comfort from the bodily experience of eating the fresh, sticky, fragrant fruit.

Which makes me wonder, where are you finding comfort? Where are you finding solace? Especially in these unpredictable days… What sorts of places, people, or experiences do you associate with healing, restoration, and nurture?

If you were able to think of something that brings you comfort, I’d like you to hold that in your mind as we move forward. Maybe as a bit of a grounding talisman – something to return to as assurance of comfort and mercy.

Because, in our readings today, comfort resides in a place we wouldn’t expect. A hard place. A paradoxical place. If you seek the comfort of God, these Scriptures tell us, head to the wilderness.

And, just to be clear, we aren’t talking about the wilderness in terms of renting a cabin in the woods, cooking s’mores over a campfire, and cozying up in a sleeping bag. The wilderness that John the Baptist speaks of; the wilderness the Israelites experience; the wilderness where God resides is a harsh and austere, bleak and inhospitable. There is no water, no established trails, no sure-footing, no predictable weather.

One of the things that strikes me in today’s readings, and as I contemplate comfort, is: the wilderness described in Scripture isn’t a destination we choose for ourselves. Sometimes we are taken there against our will by illness, loss, trauma, or hardship. It’s a place of exile and captivity. We end up there because our careful plans fail: When someone we trust betrays us.  When our beloved dies.  When the faith we’ve practiced so effortlessly, suddenly dries up.  The wilderness of the Bible is not by any stretch of the imagination a place we’d wish to inhabit.

This is NOT the place that comes to mind when someone asks me where do I find comfort. I’m guessing ‘forging a path through our own blood, sweat, and tears” isn’t anyone’s comfort talisman….

But, the intersection and juxtaposition of comfort and hardship; of wilderness and God is intriguing to me, from both a faith perspective and in how life is truly lived.

And so,
first, the captive part.
I actually don’t want to be captive to a solitary thing. I feel like I’ve had enough of ‘captivity’ these past 9 months through home quarantine and isolation from family and friends. Captivity is not something I really want to associate with God, especially as I understand God to be a god of freedom.

But, I was thinking about our reading from Isaiah, and how the people described here have been exiled from their homeland, their identities, their families, and their temples. I can draw a soft parallel to our current realities insomuch as our homeland feels tenuous; our self-understandings have been challenged depending upon on how COVID has affected our jobs and homelife; how family and friend isolation has inflicted untold amounts of grief on our hearts, not to mention how it feels unnerving now to see anyone outside of your immediate family; an how our ability to worship has been challenged in ways we’ve never seen before.

Collectively we have struggled and pushed back against our ‘captivity.’ The desire to escape our current reality has been enshrouded in arguments of rights, efficacy, and economics, but in the end, these pushbacks boil down to not wanting to be held captive.

And, that’s fair. And reasonable. And even, valid.

People today are robbed, ravaged, demoralized, and crushed in a myriad of ways. Captivity, while it looks different in 2020 CE than it did in 550 BCE, exists. COVID, in my view, has just highlighted the disparities which imprison us. Although, some of us are serving life sentences; while others of us are out on our own recognizance. Regardless, captivity is a real-life reality.

Part of the reason that I asked you to come up with with your comfort talisman is because I find it easier to wrestle with hard or confusing truths while simultaneously having a place of goodness and safety – of comfort – to rest on when needed.

When God speaks to the Israelites, saying, “Comfort, O comfort my people,” God speaks tenderness into the grim. God’s WORD becomes a soft bed upon which to lie, even as the steelness of life encircles them.

And so, while I want the question: “Where are you finding comfort” to be upon your heart, I also want us to actively wonder why our Advent scriptures ask us to dwell in the wilderness in these weeks leading up to Christmas. Why such a focus on the barren and desolate and dark?

And I think it goes back to the soft bed.
Sometimes, I say things fairly intentionally while I’m preaching as a little earworm – some words that may not hold much meaning on their own, but as I unpack it a bit, it holds enormous truth. At least that’s the hope.

For me this notion of God speaking tenderly to those in captivity, granting them a spot of comfort, just so ‘home’ is with them, even in their captivity… is exactly what God does in the incarnation – in the gifting of Jesus.
Jesus, as the WORD, becomes our soft bed.

Even as the steelness of life encircles US.

God’s promised WORD is comfort in our captivity.

I also love the dualism that is invited as we consider that Jesus, as the WORD of God, comes to lie on the harsh cold earth. That a soft bed is denied him, because who are we kidding, there’s nothing cozy or inviting about a bed of hay, if he was even really afforded that luxury. Anyway, I love this juxtaposition of how God provides a soft bed of comfort for us at Gods’ very expense.

But this comfort is not cozy. And I think that’s what makes it hard.

We think easy, restful sleep when we hear soft bed.
But, for God is more that our life is grounded in promise. That’s the bed upon which we lie.

Isaiah describes a day when “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth.” And I was thinking about how when you’re on top of the mountain, out of the thicket of wilderness, you would never wish for the mountain to be leveled. And how, unless we’re in the wilderness, it’s hard to see our own privilege and the graces upon our lives.

The wilderness is a place where we can see the whole landscape.
And maybe that’s part of the strange gift that the wilderness offers.

When we are wandering in the wilderness, and barren landscapes stretch out before us, we’re able to see what privileged locations obscure. While I can only speak for myself, I have found that when I’ve traversed rocky and crooked paths, and I’d put these past 9 months in that category, I’m more able to see the whole landscape. The mountains offer a view, but not the only view. And the mountain heights suddenly seem arrogant and out-of-touch.

And I can begin to comprehend the how comforting a smooth path would be…
And how much work the smoothing of the path will take: leveling and toppling, insistence on justice, healing of hurts and souls and sickness, liberation for the captive emotionally and physically.

The comfort of God isn’t cozy.

In the incarnation God decidedly proclaims: Here is Comfort, O my people. Comfort for you. He is more than a sweet clementine, more than a safe hug at the end of a hard day, more than steady rain on a skylight at night. He is Jesus. And He will make you uncomfortable, but he will set you free; He will push you into hard places, but he will never leave you exiled; He will save your life, even as you are convinced you are loosing it.

This is the strange, wonderful, paradoxical comfort of God, that we find in the promised Christ-child. Amen.