Comfort My People- Sermon for December 6, 2020 from Pastor John
Sermon for December 6, 2020
They say a picture is worth 1000 words. I have seen a picture that has been shown on all major news networks. The picture shows a doctor hugging an eighty year old man suffering from Covid-19. This man was in his hospital bed crying and the doctor gently raised up this man’s head and hugged him. Although the doctor was dressed in full protective gear the message was clear, he was offering comfort during a difficult time in his patient’s life.
Comfort is an important message from the readings for the Second Sunday of Advent. The prophet Isaiah spoke to his people, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” It was a difficult time for the Jewish people. Jerusalem had be laid waste, the Temple in ruins, their lands invaded by a powerful army who led in chains many people into an exile that would last decades. The people lamented that their plight, their suffering, was hidden from God, and they feared God no longer regarded them as God’s people. The cruelties of life had sapped faith to the point of despair. In that situation God commanded a word of comfort. Israel’s time of exile in a foreign land was called a penalty, a terribly harsh penalty from the hand of the Lord. But now the heavenly announcement that Israel’s penalty for sins has been paid, more than paid in full.
I recently read that a Christian was asked by an unbelieving neighbor, “Why is your God so angry?” With the news constantly about the ravages of the pandemic we can understand the question. And there may be some believers who think the pandemic that has killed so many is punishment from an angry God for the sins of the nation, and for that matter, the world. But since we believe God so loved the world by sending Jesus, our faith is not in an angry God. With questions about this deadly virus in our communities we are told to trust the science. We trust science not as a god, but as a gift from God developing vaccines that promise protection. Since Jesus ever represents God’s love for the world, even a sinful world, the message we need at this time is the one given by Isaiah to his beleaguered audience, “Comfort, comfort my people says your God.”
The prophet Isaiah said a highway must be built. Just as major thoroughfares have names often honoring famous people, this highway will have a name, God’s highway. It will be a highway with obstacles removed: every mountain shall be made low and every valley shall be lifted up, the uneven ground will become level and the rough places flat and smooth. On this highway the glory of the Lord will be revealed. It is said that the ancient Romans were marvelous builders and engineers. An example is their roads that were built strategically for the Empire. Their roads are still visible today. You may think Roman roads were built first and foremost for commerce. But no, the first priority was for the military, facilitating the deployment of troops to guard the Empire. This highway spoken of by the prophet Isaiah is where the suffering and faith depleted people will meet God. “O Zion, herald of good tidings, say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God.” God was described with a military swagger, “See, the Lord comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.” The term ‘recompense’ means God is coming to restore what was lost. How indeed will God do this to a people whose suffering caused a real questioning of faith? The image of God as coming with might of a warrior changes to “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them close to his heart, and gently lead the mother sheep.” This description of God’s compassionate coming reminded me of that photo of the doctor holding a sobbing man’s head close to his heart. Whatever you may be suffering, whatever you are facing that is hard, the Advent message of comfort is the coming of God. The glory of God is the might of his mercy, imagine God holding you close to his heart.
As you listened to the lesson from Isaiah you were glad to hear the good news of God’s comfort, but you may not have liked it when the prophet said, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field, the grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.” Jesus may have had this verse in mind when he told the people “But if God clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith.” It is true that our faith may not always be constant. We can be led astray by being attracted or distracted by other gods. Jesus told a parable warning that the worries of life and the desire for riches can choke faith. Jesus counseled brothers fighting over an inheritance that one’s life does not consist in the number of possessions. If the church depended on the constancy of our devotion, it would have been closed and boarded up years ago.
But there is still good news: yes, the grass withers, and the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever.” I was driving west of Land O Lakes on highway B and drove by the old Naegles Wood Processing plant. No longer operating, it is a collection of rusting buildings. I recall the Youth Gathering in Detroit a few years ago, and helping to clean up neighborhoods that once had beautiful homes, but now many of them dilapidated. Things human made, from factories to empires, do not stand forever. But what a comfort for us to hear what does stand forever: the word of our God. It is said that Luther was inspired by this passage to understand the church as a “Mouth-House”, where the top priority is the preaching of the Word of God. For Luther this word of God was both Law and Gospel. The Word of the Law is the hard truth that corners us, that we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. It is like the diagnosis of a terminal illness, refusing to be ignored. Thankfully the word of God does not stop there. The word of the gospel declares “Here is your God!” Here is your God in a manger, born to set us free from the deep fear that we are alone, that we do not matter, or that we are abandoned. Jesus is God in the flesh, also named Emmanuel meaning “God is with us.” Here is God on the cross, dealing a death blow to sin and death by giving up his life for us.
The reading from Mark began “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” The word good news is a translation of “gospel”, originally used by the military to announce a victory in battle. So we have taken a word from the annals of military communiqués to communicate the victory of God: God who comes in Jesus to announce that your exile is over. God who comes in Jesus to declare your sins are forgiven and will be remembered no more. God who comes in Jesus with the message, “Comfort, O comfort, my people.” God who comes in Jesus with the precious promise that his steadfast love for you will stand forever.
In the reading from Mark’s gospel we heard about the strange man preaching in the wilderness. He was not wearing fine silks but camel’s hair. He survived from the land, getting his protein from locusts sweetened with wild honey. People swarmed in numbers not to gawk at his appearance as some sort of oddity. They were attracted by his word of repentance. And he invited all for a baptism, symbolizing the cleansing power of repentance. He told the people to prepare their hearts for One stronger than him was coming, who will not baptize with water, but with the Holy Spirit. This is the fulfillment of David’s word in the Psalms, “Create in me a clean heart O God, and renew a right spirit within me, cast me not away from your presence, and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the joy of salvation.”
This preacher in the wilderness is John the Baptizer. He called the people to repentance for the forgiveness of sins. From the reading from 2 Peter we heard of the importance of repentance for God is patient, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” On December 4th the Church remembers a saint who lived long ago, John of Damascus. He lived in the 8th century and is known for some wonderful Easter hymns like “The Day of Resurrection” and “Come you Faithful, Raise the Stain of Triumphant Gladness.” John of Damascus wrote this wonderful definition of repentance: “To repent is not to look downward at my own shortcomings, but upward at God’s love. It is not to look backwards with self-reproach but forward with trustfulness. It is to see not what I failed to be, but what by the grace of Christ I might yet become.” Repentance is to ever look to the love of God and be thankful for God’s highway, Jesus Christ who comes not to penalize, but to give peace. Thankful for Jesus coming with the power and might of mercy, like a Shepherd finding the lost and holding us close to his heart. We are thankful for the constancy of Jesus and his word, granting us the Holy Spirit so we live lives of holiness and godliness.
This day, December 6th, is also St. Nicholas Day. Nicholas was a bishop in the 4th century with legends about his care for poor children. Nicholas is known as the inspiration for today’s Santa Claus. In Germany on this day St. Nicholas is dressed up as a bishop giving candy and treats to good children. He is accompanied by a servant named Ruprecht who spanks the naughty ones. Thankfully our Advent is not to have us worry about the coming of a spanking servant, but a suffering servant, Jesus who bears all our sins away. Truly a coming that proclaims, “Comfort, comfort, O my people says your God.”