Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Sermon: Comfort

Isaiah 40:1-11

When I was looking over the scriptures for today, I said to myself, You know what, I love this passage from Isaiah. I used to preach on it frequently at funerals, but I haven’t in a while. I don’t know why that is, but I haven’t used it in a while. And it is both somber and hopeful. The opening words shout, comfort! Here is comfort! And I thought to myself, after a year like this, that is what we need. We need comfort after a year of hurricanes, we need comfort after a year of mass shootings, we need comfort after a year where our personal lives have been thrown into a tailspin by health problems, or marital troubles, or stresses from work, or unexpected turns of event that we did not want. We need comfort.

“In one of his books writer and philosopher Loren Eiseley tells about the time when he was only a young lad and his father died. His father died a slow death in great bodily torture. Eiseley's mother was deaf. Young Loren alone heard the sounds of his father's agony. This was before the wide application of painkilling drugs. Eiseley said a curious thing happened to him during that very stress filled time. He became so tense that he could no longer bear the ticking of the alarm clock in his own bedroom. He smothered it with a blanket but still he heard it as if it were ticking in his own head. He tried to sleep, but he could not. His distress and loneliness were too great. It was then that help came.’

“His grandmother saw the light burning in his room in the wee hours and came to sit with him. Later when it came time for her to begin her own long journey from which there is no return he touched her hair and knew in those moments that she had saved his sanity. Into that lonely room at midnight she had come, abandoning her own sleep, in order to sit with troubled young Loren. Eiseley never forgot what that meant to him. To know that someone sees and understands. sometimes that is all we need to know in order to make it through a time of crisis.”[1] Well, today’s passage shows that God, like the grandmother sees us in our times of crisis, when the distress of the situation is too great, and God pulls us onto God’s lap and holds us.

I’m not making that up, listen to Isaiah 40, some selected verses.

Comfort, comfort my people! says your God.
Speak compassionately to Jerusalem,
        and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended,
    that her penalty has been paid,
 that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins!

A voice was saying: “Call out!”
And another said, “What should I call out?”
All flesh is grass; all its loyalty is like the flowers of the field.
The grass dries up and the flower withers
    when the Lord’s breath blows on it.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass dries up; the flower withers,
    but our God’s word will exist forever.

Go up on a high mountain, messenger Zion!
Raise your voice and shout, messenger Jerusalem!
Raise it; don’t be afraid; say to the cities of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
Here is the Lord God, coming with strength,
    with a triumphant arm, bringing his reward with him
    and his payment before him.
Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock;
    he will gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap.
    He will gently guide the nursing ewes.

Yes, we need what God is offering in this passage. We need to see God opening up God’s arms wide and saying, “Take comfort my people, I love you. Even if it feels like you are being punished, I love you. I love you like a shepherd cares for the lambs and lifts them onto his lap, the care of one who is powerful and protective over one who is so fragile. Like a grandmother who takes an anxious boy onto her arms and sits with him. I love you.”

The beauty of that word, love, is that it isn’t the kind of love that we think of normally. This word in Hebrew is hesed and it is often translated as loving-kindness.

It is a kind of love that is promised to another, it is a love formed in the bonds of a covenant. It is love that extends to all generations. (Agape Bible Study).

A similar word from the New Testament Greek is agape which might be described as the highest form of love, sometimes translated as unconditional love. It is love which is there for us no matter the time, the place, the situation. Even when times are tough, even when we have wandered away, the love remains. CS Lewis describes it like this: “There are two kinds of love: we love wise and kind and beautiful people because we need them, but we love (or try to love) stupid and disagreeable people because they need us. This second kind is the more divine because that is how God loves us: not because we are lovable but because He is love, not because He needs to receive but He delights to give.” The fact is, not many of us are good at agape. Most of you when you encounter a stupid or disagreeable person don’t want to love the person. But try to love me anyway!

I admit it is hard to love unlovable people. We want to be Krampus to them. Krampus, you say? Krampus is a tradition in Austria and other parts of Europe on December 5th. Krampus is the evil half-goat, half-demon anti-Santa.

Think Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas only weirder. Santa rewards good kids. Krampus gives them coal.[2]. On Krampus night people dress up as this horned, goat man and roam the streets looking for someone to beat with a stick. Oh, and alcohol is involved – no real surprise there.[3] The beatings are generally not harmful and more playful than violent, but hey, who of us doesn’t have someone we want to beat with a stick, right? I made sure that I didn’t share this story until after Krampus Night, which was December 5th had passed, because I didn’t want you all showing up at my doorstep dressed like demons waving sticks at me! I’d have a heart-attack! People even send Krampus cards to each other, with pictures of this demon. This tradition says a lot about us as human beings. Most of us have a hard time loving others unconditionally – we believe that some people don’t deserve love. They deserve being beaten with sticks or given coal. We even have a hard time believing that God could offer them unconditional love.

But Isaiah says, God’s love is the love of a shepherd for a newborn lamb. The shepherd cares not because the lamb is needed, but because that is the nature and role of the shepherd.

God cares for us like that. Or perhaps we might say God’s love is the love of a grandmother for a grandchild. She loves the grandchild simply because the grandchild is hers. It is the love of a saint who loves even the stupid and disagreeable people, because that is what saints do!

This is the God that says, “Comfort, comfort my people!” to us, the God of hesed and the God of agape. God does not want us to weep, to feel like we are grass that has been dried up in the drought of life, flowers that have withered in the heat of troubles. God does not want to send Krampus after us to beat us with sticks. No, God says, your penalty is paid. God wants us to know that God will gather us up into God’s arms and lift us onto God’s lap. To help us silent the ticking of the alarm clocks, and to settle our souls. To wipe the tears from our eyes, as we weep for the hurts of our lives and our world. To tell us that the sorrows of this life: the hurricanes and the shootings, and our personal trials and tribulations are like grass and will wither and fade away, while God, God is eternal. God’s words last forever. God’s strength does not fade, and with a triumphant arm God brings the reward for God’s lambs.

God does all this even though we are temporary in comparison with God’s eternity, even though we are weak in comparison with God’s strength. God’s love is very real. That love is eternal and strong, and will always comfort us. Ah! Thank you, Lord! For we need this so much!

[1] King Duncan, ChristianGlobe Illustrations
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krampus
[3] http://mentalfloss.com/article/20333/8-truly-strange-christmas-customs

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