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Some Comfort?

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

Advent 2 Common Lectionary Year B

©Rev Elisabeth R. Jones 

Audio file

What does this word conjure up for you?
Hot cocoa, warm fuzzy slippers,
and a warm fire,?
Perhaps it’s simply the blissful privilege
of a warm coat, and central heating
in a Canadian winter.
Perhaps it’s that moment when,
after standing for an hour in a cold arena
watching your daughter’s hockey team win – or lose,
you slip into Tim’s or Starbucks for that warming mug?
For some of us, it’s longed-for moment when the medication to alleviate pain finally kicks in?
Or the silent, strong yet gentle hug of a friend as you struggle with difficult news?

It is indeed all these things.
But when we pick up the prophet this morning,
we begin to get a hint that is more;
“Comfort! Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.
Tell my people they are forgiven, penance is paid for, twice over!”

Relief from pain.
The end of isolation, of exile, of hardship.
A reconciliation between God, the land and the people.

Now, this comfort we get, we understand.

But what follows next suggests there’s more
to this word “comfort” than we first imagine;
for straight on the heels of these comforting words
of consolation, forgiveness and release,
comes a thunderous voice in the wilderness,
“Prepare ye the way of the Lord!
Level the mountains, fill in the valleys,
smooth out the rough places into a level plain!”

It feels like a non-sequitur, but it’s not.

Let me come at this a different way:
** Some of you may be familiar with this:
(image of Bayeux tapestry)
This 11th century tapestry, depicts the events of the conquest of England by William the Conqueror.

One scene on the tapestry is worthy of our particular attention: ** (Odo)
Here you see William’s half brother,
the military bishop Odo
(an odious man if ever there was one)
brandishing a baculus – a club.
He looks about to whack the terrified soldier
to his right,
but more likely he’s about to thump the rump
of the horse immediately in front of him,
because, as the wording above this scene describes:

“Hic Odo Eps (Episcopus) baculu(m) tenens confortat pueros –
“Here, Odo the Bishop, holding his club, comforts his boys/troops!”

Does that look like “comfort” to you?!
No so much of the fuzzy slipper creature comfort here,
nor the tender consolation to a suffering soul,
nor even relief of hardship or pain.
More like the near opposite!
In Odo’s case, the ‘comfort’ he gives his troops is…..
well, a bit blunt!
But from this we get a new sense to the word:
The Latin, confortare
= to come alongside with strength,
= to give strength.
= to inspire others to acts of bravery and strength.
(This is in fact a lot closer to the biblical Hebrew word Nachamah a strong word)[1]
Now if we re-read the text with this additional understanding of the word:
“Give consolation, comfort to my people,
speak with tenderness”
– yes, that, but also
“Give Strength and encouragement to my people,
inspire this downtrodden, silenced,
of-no-account, rag-tag remnant of my people
with the strength, fortitude and courage
they will need
to conquer the wilderness,
to make the rough places smooth,
to level the mountains, to lift the valleys!”
To return to their place in the world
as a light to the nations, a blessing to the world,
Gospellers of my peace, messengers of my Dream.”
The energy of the text becomes completely different, doesn’t it?
It’s inspiring, filled with the audacity of hope![2]

But did you also notice the other voice,
muttering in the wilderness?
We’ve heard it before, we hear it still,
it may even be our voice:
It’s as blunt as Odo’s baculus;
“You want me to say what?
God! You have to be kidding!
Do you remember the human species?
We’re fickle, fragile, feeble as a wild orchid in a gale!
We are constantly getting back into trouble
no sooner than you lift us out of it.
Are you sure you want to do this …. again?
Are you sure you’re up to rescuing us from the worst of ourselves… again?”

But God is clear, as clear as that (Odo).
God even summons Handel to get God’s point across
in ways we won’t forget…

“O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion…
get thee up onto a high mountain,
Lift up your voice, with strength lift it up!
Be not afraid!
Say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!”

The words are not contrast to comfort,
but rather God’s definition of it:
God comes into the broken, desolate places
of the world to comfort with Strength.
God’s comfort means that God stands
shoulder to shoulder with those whom
God now calls to get out into the wilderness
and make those desert highways, so that the
lost and broken can return.

Much as we’d like to have
the comfort of slippers and egg-nog,
that’s not why we came to worship today.
That’s not what we pray for
when we turn on the news,
it’s not the comfort we crave
in the desolate places
of our private lives.
The comfort we most desperately need
needs to be stronger, much stronger.

What comfort is needed in the days following Ferguson, New York,
in the wake of the October shooting on Parliament hill?
What comfort do we need to face down the horrific atrocities of ISIL?
What comfort is needed 25 years
after the Montreal Massacre?
What comfort is needed in our Aboriginal communities,
where in 2014 there is no safe drinking water,
no food security,
and limited access to culturally appropriate education?
What comfort is needed for the widower dreading his first Christmas without his wife?

The Comfort we need
is like this…. the comfort that
gives strength,
that comes alongside us with strength,
the comfort that rings out from the high mountain,
calling upon God to stand shoulder to shoulder with us,
and calling upon us to stand with God, and with all
Christians and all people of all faiths
who stand to be counted in the outcry for justice;
for our black brothers,
our aboriginal sisters,
our Muslim brothers and sisters
who are as horrified as we are
that their faith of peacefulness
has been hijacked by misogyny, militancy and terror.

We need the comfort that encourages us
to be strong and confident
in teaching our children that
the way of God’s Kingdom Dream,
the Highway in the desert,
is one of equality, peace and justice for all God’s creation.
We need the Comfort of God’s Strength
to keep us faithful
to the call to be Gospellers of the Coming Christ,
the one who breaks the darkness of night with light,
and with his clarion call for peace.

Anthem: Light a Candle for Peace

[1] Hb: נֶחָמַת  (Nachamah) Gk: Paraklete

[2]  A reference to Barack Obama’s  Audacity of Hope.

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