“Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.”
So the prophet Isaiah begins our Liturgy of the Word today. Those words made me think back to a time many years ago when I sang in a “Do It Yourself Messiah.” Such “Do It Yourself Messiahs” are Christmas traditions in many places. This particular program was being put on at my voice teacher’s church, and I had been practicing the first song of it, which is called “Comfort Ye My People,” for months. I was to sing it as a solo. Now understand, the prospect of a voice student singing in a church he’d never been to for people he’d never met, and being the fist voice they’d hear that afternoon – well that experience was just a little daunting. I was feeling anything but comfort!
But the text of that particular song is taken directly from the first three verses we get from Isaiah today. This text is easily one of the most beautiful in all of Scripture, and I have to admit it’s always been one of my favorite parts of the Bible. But as I reflected on it this week, the words almost seem to ring a bit hollow. The headlines in the newspaper spoke of 533,000 jobs lost in just the month of November – the worst unemployment statistic in 34 years; a $14 billion bailout of General Motors, Ford and Chrysler; the deepening of foreclosures in the housing market, fueled this time by job losses – and we can’t forget the recent bombings in India, and the wars raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, to say nothing of unrest in other areas.
And I know that as I say all that, there are some of you here who probably didn’t need to read it in a newspaper. Either you have had to suffer from some of this, or someone you know did. And so I can’t help but think that Isaiah’s promise of comfort seems to ring a bit hollow today. So this comfort of which Isaiah speaks, when’s that going to start?
Advent certainly has snuck up on us this year, I think. We’re all in different places now than we were just a year ago. Even if the recession and the danger in foreign lands hasn’t affected us, we might have experienced the loss of a loved one, a serious illness or injury of someone we know or even ourselves, maybe even a broken relationship. Maybe these times find us needing the peace that Isaiah proclaims now more than ever.
So I think the comfort that Advent finds us hoping for this year is not some kind of placid, easy comfort. It’s not going to be found in hot chocolate or mashed potatoes, or even being wrapped in a warm blanket next to the fire. It’s not the kind of comfort that prohibits us from trying something new, or taking a risk – God has no great love for that kind of comfort, to be quite honest. And it’s not going to be the kind of comfort that waves a magic wand and makes all our troubles go away.
I think the kind of comfort that Isaiah wants us to know about is the kind of comfort that comes from being in a hard place and having someone walk through it with you. There is a real comfort that comes from that. And that, I think, is the authentic kind of comfort that God brings us in our daily struggles. We all know that our frustrations don’t disappear as quickly as we’d like them to. We all know that we would certainly prefer not to have to walk through those low points at all. But our faith teaches us that when we do walk through those valleys, we are never ever alone. God is there, bringing us his comfort.
And truly, this is the kind of comfort Isaiah is speaking about. This reading is from the second part of the book of Isaiah. In the first part, Isaiah was crying out to the people, warning them that God was not happy with the way they had turned away from him, that God was angry about the way they treated the poor and broke the commandments and didn’t trust in him. But the second part – from which today’s first reading is taken – speaks to a people who were suffering the consequences of those sins. They had been taken into exile; their homes and everything they knew were destroyed and now they lived as slaves, bitterly oppressed in a foreign land. They too had no love for someone proclaiming a false comfort. But Isaiah wasn’t proclaiming that kind of comfort or peace. He was proclaiming a comfort and peace that could only come from God.
And so it’s the great Saint John the Baptist who has the fulfillment of the promise in today’s Gospel reading. These are the opening words of the Gospel of Mark, of which we will be reading a lot in this coming Liturgical year. Mark has preliminaries: no genealogy like Matthew, no story about Elizabeth or the Annunciation like Luke. He seems to rush breathlessly in and get right to the point, beginning with John’s Baptism. He takes up the message of Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.” The old promises are being fulfilled and we are being offered a new way of life, one that finds us filling in the valleys and straightening out all those rough and winding roads.
I find myself in these Advent days reflecting on some of my favorite Advent hymns. The one that really expresses the Scriptures we have today is called “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People.” It was written for the feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist by German composer Johannes Olearius in 1671. It was translated into English in the nineteenth century.
Comfort, comfort ye My people,
Speak ye peace, thus saith our God;
Comfort those who sit in darkness,
Mourning ’neath their sorrow’s load;
Speak ye to Jerusalem
Of the peace that waits for them;
Tell her that her sins I cover,
And her warfare now is over.
For the herald’s voice is crying
In the desert far and near,
Bidding all men to repentance,
Since the kingdom now is here.
O that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way!
Let the valleys rise to meet Him,
And the hills bow down to greet Him.
So Advent this year finds us waiting for two things. First, we hear the call to repentance and await our own wholehearted return to God. We are probably not going to get any part of the $700 billion government bailout. We are going to have to depend instead on God in ways different and much deeper than we ever have before. And that’s certainly not bad news, because nothing is more dependable than God. Which brings us to the second thing for which we wait, and that is God’s comfort, a comfort that walks with us through good times and bad, a comfort that never lets us down, a comfort that makes us completely new. We pray for that comfort along with our Psalmist today: “Lord, let us see your kindness and grant us your salvation.”