~ Isaiah 40:1-11/Mark 1:1-8 ~
I must admit, I struggled with this sermon title all week. Can comfort and peace be had? I just wasn’t feeling it. Yes, I know, your pastor is supposed to be encouraging and uplifting, you know, the bringer of comfort and peace. But with the news that COVID infections are surging, that hospitals are filling up, that more people are dying now than ever before, and that because of that we will have to shut down even more, even tighter restrictions, don’t even go outside your house! And who knows for how long? Where is an encouraging word in all that? Comfort and peace? Can they be had in such times?
The iconic Advent texts we’ve heard this morning speak of comfort and peace. The prophet declares, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” “Herald good tidings, lift up your voice with strength, do not fear.” Mark declares the advent of good news. The opening line of the hymn we will sing later says, “’Comfort, comfort O my people, tell of peace,’ thus says our God.” Yes, this second Sunday of Advent is the ‘peace’ Sunday. So, the message seems to be that we all should know comfort and peace because of the good news of God’s redemptive work, the coming of the Christ.
John the Baptist, the one sent to prepare “the way of the Lord,” came preaching repentance. This time of Advent, a time of preparation for the coming of the Lord, is expected to be a time of reflection and repentance. This can seem somber and heavy.
At the core of both of these texts is the word ‘comfort’. ‘Comfort’ really is an encouraging word, isn’t it? I mean, we certainly don’t like discouraging words. We’d much rather be in a place “where seldom is heard a discouraging word,” to quote an old classic. But the fact is we’d much rather hear words of encouragement. And ‘comfort’ is an encouraging word.
Walter Brueggemann, the eminent Old Testament scholar, suggests that hearing this word of comfort actually redefines reality. The very speaking of this word of comfort transforms reality. It doesn’t deny reality. The grass still withers and the flower still fades. But the voice of the prophet asserts that reality consists of more than what plain sight and common sense can perceive. Reality is informed and shaped above all by the eternal, everlasting, transforming Word of God. For those who have ears to hear, this Word defines reality. Such a claim stands at the very heart of this word of comfort. The very speaking of this word of comfort transforms reality. In hearing it we are invited to re-imagine the world on the basis of this proclamation. The word of comfort defies logic and marks Advent as a time which redefines reality. The coming of the Christ really makes a difference.
But, if you are like me, you may not be feeling it – comfort and peace. Can comfort and peace be had in these difficult times? Yes, I’ve struggled all week with what I could say that would be encouraging to us all. There was just nothing there. That is, until yesterday morning when I when I was inspired by the message of a minister in New York City in the midst of a most difficult situation.
Rev. Jacqui (spelled J-A-C-Q-U-I) Lewis is the pastor of Middle Collegiate Church in the East Village in Manhattan. It is one of the oldest continuously operating Protestant churches in North America, dating from 1628. Proudly progressive, Middle Church seeks to follow the way of Jesus’ radical love, as their vision statement proclaims, “to heal the soul and the world by dismantling racist, classist, sexist, and homophobic systems of oppression.” They practice what they call “Revolutionary Love.” Our kind of church, I must say.
Well, in the pre-dawn hours this past Friday a fire broke out in an abandoned building next to the church. The fire spread to the church and completely gutted the entire structure. [Share Picture] Only the outer stone walls remain standing; they are hoping the steeple can be saved. But, in reality, the building was destroyed. Later that day, Pastor Lewis posted this message to the congregation:
We are devastated and crushed that our beloved physical sanctuary at Middle Collegiate Church has burned. And yet no fire can stop Revolutionary Love. We thank God that there has been no loss of life. We know that God does not cause these kinds of tragedies but is present with us and to us as we grieve, present in the hugs and prayers of loved ones. We’ve been worshiping and doing our ministry in digital spaces since March and that’s what we’ll be doing tomorrow. We pray for the first responders. We pray for our neighbors who are also affected by this fire. And we covet your prayers as we grieve.
In Just Love, Jacqui
Well, there’s my sermon! There is my encouraging word! “We know that God does not cause these kinds of tragedies but is present with us and to us as we grieve, present in the hugs and prayers of loved ones.” And I say to myself, “David, believe it and be comforted.” I say to you, “Embrace it and have peace.”
As Jacqui reminds her parishioners that they will continue to worship digitally on Sunday as they have been since March, so do we. I can only imagine what their Zoom service this morning was like. But even as a fire can’t stop revolutionary love, so this blasted pandemic can’t stop us. Yes, doing worship remotely is wearing on us. We really do want to hug each other, yet we must continue to do that only virtually. We so want to get back to normal, but we must continue on as we are. So, it is good to pray for each other as we grieve our loss. True, we aren’t living in the aftermath of a devastating fire, but we do, all in our own way, grieve loss.
So, if I dare, I encourage you to find and experience comfort and peace in these most difficult times. Again, echoing Walter Brueggemann, the very speaking of this word of comfort transforms reality and the reality is that God is present with us and for us in the midst of our reality. May we embrace that comforting word and know peace. Amen.