December 7, 2014: Isaiah 40

December 7, 2014

It is time to cry out!

Year B, Advent 2                                                  

The texts for today are beautiful texts.  They speak to the greater message of Advent, to preparation for the coming of God and to hope in general.  I wanted to talk about what it is to have hope when things seem lost, but I had a really hard time writing that.  It is been an exceptionally difficult few months in our nation. This week was no exception.  I don’t understand why violence is such a big part of our culture.  The average child will see 40,000 murders on TV before they finish elementary school and that is not including video games.   It almost seems as though we have become immune to it to some extent.  Yet there are times when something shakes us from this numbness to violence. 

Just a few months ago the nation gaped in horror when a video was released that showed the beheading of a journalist.   This week the video of Eric Garner’s death was released.  It was gut wrenching to watch that video.   It’s not just in the movies or video games, it’s real and it’s on youtube.  What frightens me is that our reaction to violence is often more violence.  I looked at the comments under the video of the journalist’s beheading and people wrote things like, “Let’s bomb them!”  What frightens me even more is there was a part of me that really understood that and empathized with that emotion…that need for vengeance.  After 9-11, I remember feeling so happy to watch the news coverage of bombs dropping in retaliation.  We see again and again that violence begets more violence.

            It’s hard to know what to feel right now.  I have immense respect for our military and our police.   They have very difficult jobs. I just don’t understand how our society got to a point where all of this was the norm, when people felt like they needed guns to protect themselves.  Fear is rampant in our society and in many ways it is merited.  Yet this fear is not protecting us.  It is just causing more pain, more violence.  I don’t know what the answer is.  What I do know is that we are never going to get the answer if we don’t start talking about these difficult issues, even in the church. 

            The church is supposed to be a light in the darkness, not a shelter from the darkness.   Both the reading from Isaiah and the Gospel are about proclamation of the message of God.  Isaiah is a little confusing in the way it is written.   It would be easier if it was in script form so we knew who was talking in any given moment.  It starts with that famously repeated line, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.”   It would seem as though God is telling someone to comfort his people.   Scholars have hypothesized that God was talking to a divine council, kind of like God’s entourage.  He was asking them to comfort his people.  You might think, hey, isn’t that God’s job?  Shouldn’t God have been comforting the people? In a way he was.  He was imploring his people, the people who were not beaten down by weariness and pain, to share his love and comfort with those who were.

            What I like about this specific council that we hear from in Isaiah is that they seem to interact with God and one another.  One member of the council said, “Cry out!” And then another said, “What shall I cry?  All people are like grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field…” This voice sounded frustrated.  I mean, what’s the point of crying out when you are crying to grass, grass that withers so easily? The people of Judah screwed up again and again. They committed their love and loyalty to God again and again just to abandon him.  Because of that, this speaker’s frustration is understandable. The divine council has no reason to trust the people of Judah.  Then the voice that began responded, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.”  It would seem that this member of the council had little confidence in people, but a great deal of confidence in God.  This voice was saying, it’s ok that people are weak.  It is God who sustains us, even in our weakness.

            Then this text shifts again because someone else is talking.  “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings, lift up your voice with strength…lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” It would appear that this member of the council is done talking amongst themselves. It is time to talk to all of the cities, all of the people.  It is time to proclaim the good news.  And the good news is not that God will save them or even comfort them, but that God is here, ready to lead.  He will not only lead them, but he will feed them and even carry them if he has to.  Because that is what the good shepherd does.  The shepherd carries us in our weakness, in our indecision and fear. 

            I have a little more confidence in people than this divine council in Isaiah did.  I believe that we can conquer fear.  But only if we address it.  Only if we stand up to it and cry out– even when it seems like those cries are not heard or just ignored.    Much like the divine council, we must speak to one another so that we can encourage one another.  Because in the midst of all that is going on in our world and our nation, it is tempting to give up the quest for justice, mercy and love.  It is tempting to grow a little numb to violence and hatred.  But we cannot. 

Jesus was born as a baby so that he could experience what we experience, so he would be vulnerable to pain both physical and emotional.  He did that to remind us that God’s love is stronger than the fiercest hatred.  Jesus knew what it was to live in a violent world as a member of a persecuted people. He knew what it was to die a violent death.  We know that he conquered all of this when he rose from the dead.

            It’s true that sometimes I can feel a little hopeless about what is going on in our world.  Yet, I feel more hopeful now than when I started this sermon.  I also believe that God is stronger than my hope or lack of hope and that together as the body of Christ, we become stronger.  We become louder.  Isaiah called people to go to the mountain top and cry out. I wonder if that is why so many of our churches are so tall, so that we can be that mountain top in the world.  Here at St. John’s we have a mountain top (ours is even newly renovated).  More importantly, we have the voices.  Now all we have to do is to cry out.