Many of you have shared the experience of sitting in a hospital waiting room. I know, because I have sat with you. Even with our advanced intellect, there are certain words such as cancer and heart disease that cause fear and trepidation. As we sit in that waiting room, those words silently lurk behind any conversation. We make small talk, we try to read, we take walks, but most of all we worry that the message we will receive from the surgeon will not be good. The clock on the wall makes each moment seem like an eternity. Perceived deadlines are missed and our anxiety rises. Then, when it seems our emotions are beyond restraint, the phone rings and we are told the doctor will visit with us shortly. She arrives and despite the technical jargon, what we hear are the tender words, “Comfort, Comfort my people. Everything is going to be alright.”
My favorite biblical passage is Isaiah 40. You might know it through the brilliance of Handel. You certainly have recognized it’s presence in our Advent hymns. But before Christians adopted the text as synonymous with the birth of Christ, the poem had its own perplexing story to tell.
In the 39th chapter of Isaiah, the Judean king Hezekiah was in dialogue with the prophet. Jerusalem had dodged a bullet. The nation of Assyria had swept across the middle-east destroying everything that stood in its way. Syria and Lebanon had capitulated. The ten tribes of Israel stood briefly against the Assyrian onslaught and were completely destroyed. Every man was slaughtered and every woman raped. The nation of Israel disappeared from the face of the earth. The Assyrians surrounded Jerusalem and the siege began. Then something happened. The book of Isaiah records that the angel of death entered the Assyrian camp. The ancient Assyrian historical records say that there was a revolt in Nineveh. Regardless the reason, the Assyrians retreated, Jerusalem was saved, and the people rejoiced.
Now the prophet and the king are having a conversation about the fate of the city. Hezekiah is certain Assyria will return. Isaiah encourages the king to first look inward, suggesting the sins of the people was the beginning of their downfall. But Hezekiah remarks, “We must contact the Babylonians and form an alliance.” Isaiah responds, “Days are coming when your ancestors shall be carried to Babylon and nothing will be left of Jerusalem.” Hezekiah responded, “At least there will be peace in my day.” This is the last verse of Isaiah 39. This conversation happened in the year 703 B.C. The next verse, “Comfort, Comfort, my people”, was written 150 years later. What happened between those two verses? Absolute chaos!
Assyria did come back and Jerusalem became a vassal state. The alliance with Babylon proved worthless. Eventually the power of the Assyrians diminished and Jerusalem found itself caught in the middle of an Egypt and Babylonian power struggle. Jerusalem chose Egypt, giving Babylon the excuse to destroy the city twice. The second time, in the year 586, the residents of Jerusalem were enslaved and forced to march across the desert to Babylon. There they resided for nearly 50 years until Babylon was overthrown by the Persian Empire. Cyrus the Great released the slaves of Babylon and gave them the option to return to their homes. Among these slaves were the remaining Hebrew people. The poet, wanting to assure these children that there would be a tomorrow, spoke these words, Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Cry to her she has paid her debt.
I am sure you enjoyed that little dash down memory lane but you may be wondering, what does Isaiah 40 have to do with our observance of Advent? After two generations the grandchildren had forgotten Jerusalem. To a certain extent they had been drugged by the gospel of Babylon and had no real desire to return to a home they never knew. The poetry of Isaiah served to refresh their imagination concerning a God who offered mercy and pardon. The poetry was an invitation to an alternative perception of reality. They had been born in captivity and had never experienced freedom. Now they are encouraged to forsake a culture of death and step into a promise of new life.
Over the past 20 years many leading theologians have suggested that the church is now living in a time of exile. We have hitched our wagons to a new world in which we have substituted numbers for names. I used to be Louie Andrews. Now I am simply known by the digits on my credit card. I fear folks with less than noble intent will acquire access to those numbers and my life will be destroyed.
We have hitched our wagons to pills which promise relief from pain. The cruel results are America is ravaged by an opium crisis. The third leading cause of death for folks between the ages of 15 to 25 is suicide. Recently suicide became the 10th leading cause of death overall.
We have hitched our wagons to consumerism. This is the prime month. The success of many a company depends on you overloading the stockings and Christmas tree. And the only ones who will enjoy a consumer Christmas are the executives at Visa and Mastercard.
How many folks do you know who are enslaved by fear, or painkillers, or economic stress or all the other factors that accompany life in Babylon? Every day my phone rings with someone who can’t pay the rent, can’t keep the lights on, or can’t find food for their children. It rings so often I am starting to become a cynic who wonders how much money they are spending on beer, or meth, or both.
Are these folks so unlike us? Aren’t they waiting for a word of good news just like we do following the surgery of a loved one? Are these folks so unlike those slaves in Babylon who longed to hear a word of comfort or hope? We try our best here at Rockfish but how often do we leave a house after delivering wood and think, “How are they possibly going to make it?” Taking on the ills of the world will drive us insane. So where do we find a word of hope?
Isaiah 40 reminds us in order to get from Babylon to Jerusalem a lot of mountains are going to have to be lowered and a lot of valleys lifted up. While I marveled at all the Head Start children who filled our fellowship hall Sunday afternoon I wanted to weep. How many of those children have two parents? How many of those children have parents who can read? How many of those children have parents who are not diabetic? How many of those children have a parent who works full time? There are so many hills and valleys in front of those children. But what are we suppose to do?
The poet in Isaiah promises that God will change the world. Do we really believe that? We substitute Santa Claus for God because Santa can offer joy for a moment. But where is Santa in January? The poet knows how wearisome this world can be. Yet this poet promises, “God does not grow weary. God gives power to the weak and strength to the powerless. They will mount up with wings like eagles. They will run and not be faint.”
Those are powerful words but they fall on deaf ears if people of faith have already concluded that God is irrelevant in our culture. What can we do? The fate of so many children seems to already be set in stone. I fear we have been persuaded by Babylon. We call our situation “reality” and know it cannot be changed.
So when did we stop believing in Christmas? Jesus never preached the world couldn’t be transformed. Jesus never found God to be obsolete. Jesus believed God would find a way to allow children the chance to fly and Jesus believed we would be the agents of that transformation.
Last year on one of our bike rides on the Skyline Drive Mary Dudley introduced me to a friend of hers who believed in Jesus in a very big way. I can’t remember his name so I will call him Fred. When Mary Dudley’s son Daniel was in kindergarten, this Fred decided to give one day a week to Daniel’s class. When Daniel moved up to the first grade, so did Fred. He did this for 12 years. Fred had made such a huge impact on the lives of those kids they insisted Fred walk the stage with them as a graduate. Think how many lives Fred touched with one simple gesture.
This year was our second Head Start Christmas party. Next spring we will host the second children’s spring fling. Last year the children and parents hardly spoke to us. This year the crowd was larger and the conversations more pronounced. What would happen if each one of us unofficially adopted one of those kids? What would happen if once a week we could be involved in their reading and writing? Maybe in five years they would see us as their academic grandparents. Maybe, with our encouragement, when they enter middle school they would excel. Maybe in 12 years they would be the first person in their family to go to college. This can happen if we become involved. This can happen if instead saying, “Santa Claus is coming to town”, we promise, “Comfort, comfort, my child. Let me help you step out of this valley. Let me make those hills a little less scary. Let me help you down a road that leads someplace else.”
In Isaiah, the poet asked the question, “How is the glory of the Lord revealed?”
Jesus responded, “One child at a time.”
So how will we respond? With a convenient, “Ho, Ho, Ho,” or a committed, “Comfort ye, Comfort ye, my children.”
To God be the glory. Amen.