United Parish of Auburndale
December 7, 2008
Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-6
They had lost everything. The temple, the source of their spiritual identity and
comfort, had been destroyed. They had lost their homes and had been forcibly deported
hundreds of miles away to live as prisoners in exile in a foreign land. They had been
separated from all that gave them an identity and all that made them feel at home in the
world. They probably felt shame, isolation, abandonment, and also guilt because as we
often do when we are suffering, they must have felt they had done something very
wrong to be suffering so much. It was to these people that the prophet we call Second
Isaiah spoke these beautiful and reassuring words. “Comfort, comfort, my people says
your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and tell her this, that she has fulfilled her term of
bondage, that her penalty is paid. And she has received at the Lord’s hand double
measure for all her sins.
Whenever I hear these words read, I also hear the majestic cadences of
Handel’s tenor solo from the Messiah in the background, drawing out this word “comfort”
and letting it settle around me like the knitted comforter that Mae Ferguson gave me so
many years ago. Comfort. It is a word so rich with meaning and images. It means
consolation, ease from pain, a state of being soothed by things that make us feel better,
like tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich on a cold winter day. It is the feeling of
being held by someone who dearly loves us. It is relaxing in front of the TV after a long
week of work, laying down the burdens we carry, if only briefly.
Each of us has pictures in our heads of things that comfort us when are grieving,
or hurting from pains physical or emotional. Each of us, I hope, has people or things we
turn to when we need emotional comfort.
When I was a much younger minister, a woman in the congregation I served,
who was in midlife, was dying of cancer. She was very angry that her life was coming to
a premature end. It was so hard to visit her in the hospital because I wanted to give her
comfort and her anger made anything I did or said seem so futile. After one such difficult
visit, I remember stopping at an ice cream store and ordering a hot fudge sundae. About
half-way through eating the sundae, I realized that I was not even tasting it; that I was
trying to comfort myself with ice cream and chocolate and it wasn’t working.
When you need comfort, where do you turn? Do you turn to a trusted friend who
really listens. Do you get out the ice cream and Toni Miller’s fudge sauce? Or make a
grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup? DO you wrap yourself in a familiar blanket
and watch mindless TV? Where is the source of your comfort when you are hurting and
So often we turn to things or to other people for comfort when we are in
emotional or physical pain and yet the exiles in Babylon had few of those resources with
them. Like many through the centuries who have been forced by various circumstances
to leave behind all the support systems of the past, they were in a foreign land,
surrounded by foreign gods, and by people whose ways were not their ways. They were
all hurting and they probably found it difficult in those circumstances to comfort one
another. It was in this circumstance that Isaiah’s prophetic words of hope and comfort
were uttered. He was reminding them that although they were far from home, although
they felt abandoned, although they felt guilt for their situation that their God had not
abandoned them. God’s grace promised them that they would go home one day and
that God would lead them through the wilderness home like the caring shepherd, led the
lambs and their mothers safely through the desert places.
Is this a promise we can trust today, as hundreds of thousands of people lose
their jobs, and find themselves and their families at risk for losing everything they have
worked so hard for? Is this a promise we can trust when all our carefully tended dreams
have disappeared through the death or illness of a loved one?
This is one of the questions of our hearts during Advent. We want to believe in
God’s promise of comfort and new life, but it is very difficult when you are in exile. It is
very difficult when in our skeptical age the biblical promises, while beautiful, hardly seem
real in a time such as this. It is also difficult because faith is not something you can
grasp and hold on to the way we can our comforters, and our teddy bears. I can’t stand
up here and say “there, there, everything will be okay” when it may not be in the day to
day places we live our lives.
And yet…the exiles did go home. Cyrus captured the Babylonians and released
the people of Israel to go home and rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. And in the
wilderness of life, we often find unexpected pathways that lead somewhere new that we
never dreamed would be there.
Which brings us to John the Baptist, hardly a comforting figure from the description in
Mark’s gospel, standing on the bank of the river Jordan and preaching a “baptism of
repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” What does he have to do with comfort? Isn’t he
more like those people who like to make us feel guilty when we already feeling bad?
I think the reason we always have John the Baptist during Advent is because he
represents a deep spiritual truth. That truth is that in order for us to receive good news,
we have to be open to it, and that often we have to clear out the stuff that blocks our
receptivity. As long as we cling to anger, or grief, or cynicism or skepticism it is going to
be pretty hard for God’s word of comfort or hope to get through. Even if it gets through
we probably won’t recognize it for what it is, but will dismiss it.
John the Baptist shows up during this season to remind us that to receive God’s
gifts of hope, joy, peace, new life, we have to be ready. We have to have cleared a
space in our hearts for something new to take root and flourish. Sometimes we have
stuff in our lives that needs to be repented for that to happen. Other times it takes the
willingness to listen to word that God speaks even if it is a word we don’t want to hear.
This is not easy. Usually I have to be brought to a very low ebb before I surrender my
own preconceived notions of what life should be handing me.
Mark’s gospel begins with John the Baptist out in the desert, not as do Matthew
and Luke with some lovely symbol laden story of Jesus birth and it reminds us that the
way God enters human life is as rich and varied as is our lives. God’s promise and
comfort of a new life can be born in a stable, it can come to us in exile, it can come to us
at the edge of a river running through the wilderness, but we have to be willing to see it
and hear it for what it is and not for what we imagine.
Just like this sacrament that we will soon share together. The circumstances of it
were hardly auspicious. It was the last meal of a condemned man. The friends who
gathered around him were in denial of what was happening and what was going to
happen. And yet later on, it became THE way they remembered him. They gathered
around tables to share a meal and remember his life and his death. It comforted them to
do so, but it also strengthened them to go out and share the good news of Jesus life in a
world that was just as skeptical and even hostile to the promises of God.
As we come together to share this meal as a family of faith, may we find comfort
for our souls, and the grace to open our hearts and minds to the ways God is trying to be
revealed in our lives and in our world.