Sunday, December 4, 2011

Comfort and Camel Hair

Isaiah 40:1-11
Mark 1:1-8

I was extremely grateful when Shelley popped in my office a couple of weeks ago to recommend that our congregation use some Advent material that she had found. I hope you have found it in the weekly e-mails, and you’ll see it in the newsletter that is available in the mailboxes this morning. There is a series of devotions for each week of Advent centered on Scripture each week. The Scripture is the same we are reading in worship and using at our candle lighting. The artwork for the materials is what appears at the start of our worship. The materials tie everything together in worship and at home, making our Advent season of waiting and preparation more than beautiful decorations in the sanctuary.

This morning the theme from the Advent materials and the words to our first hymn (one of my FAVORITE Advent hymns) was taken straight from the prophecy of Isaiah that we just heard. “Comfort, O comfort my people.”

“Comfort” was the promise of God to the people of Jerusalem and Judah, a promise that was actually surprising in its original context. Jerusalem and Judah are not exactly sympathetic characters throughout the prophecy of Isaiah. Personified here and earlier, the city and the nation are again and again recipients of the judgment of God, victims of the captivity of Babylon because again and again their disobedience to God left them vulnerable to outside forces. They didn’t heed God’s call, so God allowed what one parenting strategy calls “natural consequences” to occur. The enemy comes in, destroys the nation, and sends her people into exile.

Retributive justice. It was not only the going theory of criminal justice of the day; it was the going theology of the day. You get what you ask for and then maybe you get some more to make sure you never do it again. Punishment. Anger. Payback. What goes around comes around, but in a divine manner.

But here comes Isaiah speaking for God, “Comfort, O comfort my people.” In the face of cultures and theologies that operate on methods of retributive justice, a word of comfort spoken by God is completely unexpected, completely unheard of, completely gracious. A word of comfort spoken in a season that seems hopeless, seems empty, seems overwhelmed by things going from bad to worse. A word of comfort spoken to people who so desperately need it, but who can’t promise to always deserve it. “The grass withers, the flower fades…surely the people are grass.”

Comfort, comfort is a promise of the season of Advent. Comfort, God promises to people who sit in darkness. Comfort, God promises to those who are overwhelmed by bills. Comfort, God promises to those who grieve. Comfort, God promises to those who are lonely. Comfort, God promises to those who are imprisoned by their actions, their attitudes, their anger. Comfort, God promises to those who are so far over their heads they can’t even imagine a way out. Comfort, O comfort, God promises to bring on a highway cut straight through the wilderness of despair. Comfort and tenderness and gentleness. Grace…

And there’s this voice that also comes crying. Just like Isaiah said a voice would cry, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” There’s the other voice that comes crying out in the wilderness the voice of John the Baptist. When Mark begins his gospel he doesn’t have time for a narrative of Jesus’ birth. Mark is writing quickly, the earliest gospel after Jesus’ resurrection. He is getting the story down on paper as soon as he can after he heard it, and for WHATEVER reason, he doesn’t have time for a story of angels appearing to Mary and Joseph, shepherds in a field, or wise men from the east. He has to get to the meat of what’s going on, and the only preparation he offers to this story of good news that he has to tell, is the preparation of John the Baptist, a man who exudes feelings of anything BUT comfort.

His place of work is the Judean countryside. He doesn’t walk from city to city, town to town, or village to village. He wanders around in the wilderness where resources are scarce and comforts even scarcer. He wears clothes made of camel hair. My experience with camels is limited, but what I can tell you is this. If you find yourself riding a camel in the Israeli desert, make sure there is a saddle or blanket. That hair is dry, and prickly, and itchy. It is NOT good shirt material. He eats the bugs he finds in grass – locust, the bugs of the Egyptian plagues. Comfort is not his lifestyle, and really, as much as we want to hear it, comfort is not his message.

“Repent!” he cries out in the wilderness. “Repent!” he calls to those who are waiting for a savior, waiting for the Lord. “Repent, turn around, change your ways,” he calls to us so that we will be ready for Jesus.

This is about that time in my family’s preparations for the OTHER part of our Christmas celebration that we start to make our lists and check them once, twice, three or four times. Have we put up whatever decorations will make it up this year? Have we baked whatever we can in advance? Have we taken a family photo, bought cards, even thought about writing a letter (knowing that for the most part this section of the list will never actually get completed)? Have we bought presents for the kids, parents, nieces and nephews? What has been done to prepare us for the day that that is coming and what is left still to be done?

Hearing the ministry of John the Baptist in Mark’s gospel, really HEARING it and taking it to heart, forces us to check in on our other preparations for the coming of Christmas, the coming and re-coming of Jesus our Christ in our lives. What is missing in our relationship with God? What commitments and disciplines haven’t we made or have we let slide? Is prayer a part of our daily lives or is it something we just do when we gather on Sunday? Is serving others something we make time for not just at Christmas when the needs of the world are ringing in front of our faces at the entrance to every store in town? Are Scriptures more than just a tag line on the beautiful cards we selected or are they are part of our family’s conversations?

Are there too many other things in our lives, crowding out the necessary time and attention a REAL relationship with God requires? Is too much time spend clicking on the phone or computer, too little spent in study and prayer? Is too much energy given to attending to our own comforts, too little lifting up others who can’t even worry about comfort when they’re just worrying about survival? Is too much money being spent on extravagant gifts, too little spent making a faith statement about the causes of Jesus’ kingdom - - the poor, the outcast, those treated without grace and mercy?

“Repent!” John’s baptism proclaimed. Turn around, turn away, come back in the other direction. “Repent!” his preparation declared. Come out of the bustle of the city and town that you know into the blessed wilderness of life with Christ. Life that is unknown. Life that is dangerous. Life that is lacking the creature comforts and luxuries, but life that is dripping with the Spirit and presence of God. “Repent!”

Comfort! and Repent!

They seem like contradictory messages leaving us wondering how exactly we are to approach this season of Advent. The answer is one we probably each need to discover for ourselves. The answer is that our God has the grace and the mercy to come to us with both messages knowing that depending on where we are in our lives we may need either one or both. This may be a year where you are feeling the exile. This may be a year when you feel isolated, cast out, cast aside. This may be a year when the Lord’s presence has felt so far it feels more like the Lord’s absence and you are craving it to return and return soon. And to you, the prophet Isaiah says “’Comfort, O comfort my people,’ says your God…. The glory of the LORD shall be revealed…. Here is your God!”

Or this year may be another year for you. It maybe be the other side of the same coin, the reason John the Baptist quotes from this same passage in Isaiah, but in a different way. This may be a year when you are feeling a bit too comfortable. This maybe a year when things have been going too smoothly. This may be a year when the focus has been inside all the time, not outward to God and God’s kingdom and purposes in the world. This may be a year when the direction has been moving away from the divine, away from the Word, away from Christ who comes to guide our lives, save us from ourselves, send us out in his name. For us, the prophet John proclaims repentance, another direction, a time to turn to God, and for the very same reason, “The one who is more powerful…is coming….” Jesus is coming. Jesus is near.

Prepare the way this Advent. The God of comfort and the God of new beginnings is coming in Jesus. Prepare your way for the Lord.

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