Exploring the Word | Spreaker

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Comfort ,o comfort my people, 12/18

Psalm 122
1I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”
2Our feet are standing within your gates, O Jerusalem.
3Jerusalem—built as a city that is bound firmly together.
4To it the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
5For there the thrones for judgment were set up, the thrones of the house of David.
6Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you.
7Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.”
8For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.”
9For the sake of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good.

Isaiah 40:1-11
1   Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
2   Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, 
that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

3   A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4   Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
5   Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, 
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

6   A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
     All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7   The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; 
surely the people are grass.
8   The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

9   Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings;
     lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear;
     say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”
10  See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.
11  He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms,
     and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
When I hear this passage the first thing that comes to mind is the same words in Handel’s Messiah. Somehow, Handel’s music always brings the passage to life for me. The beauty of the music echoes the beauty of the words and reminds me that they aren’t just words. This is a passionate dialogue between God and the prophet about God’s beloved people Israel.

            When this passage takes place God feels far away from his people. Israel had turned away from God, like we all do sometimes. They allowed injustice and inequality to thrive in their society and forgot that God cares deeply about the poor, so Israel ended up in exile, dominated by their more powerful neighbors, the Babylonians.

            Israel’s punishment was harsh, but fitting. They turned away from God, so God let them see what it was like to be apart from him. But now God can’t take the separation anymore. God longs to bring his people home; he longs to make peace with the people he loves. God calls the prophet into action to bring Israel a message of forgiveness. “Comfort, o comfort my people,” says your God. God tells the prophet to share not only God’s message but his passion too: “Cry to her that she has served her term and paid her penalty.”

            I can picture the prophet running through the streets, yelling out the good news that God has forgiven them, that God wants them to come home, that the sins of the past are wiped out forever. The prophet imagines the power of God’s forgiveness lifting up the valleys and flattening the hills. He imagines God’s mercy carving a highway through the desert.

God’s incredible love can’t be stopped. The mountains and hills of our past aren’t high enough to keep out God’s forgiveness. The depths of our deepest despair aren’t low enough to keep God from reaching us. The wilderness emptiness we sometimes feel because of how we’ve been hurt and how we have hurt others isn’t lonely enough to keep God away.

God has always wanted to be with us, and deep in our soul we want that too. But we keep losing the path; we keep forgetting that our heart belongs with God. Instead of following God’s way, which leads to real peace and fulfillment, we chase the sparkly junk the world tells us will make us happy. As a species we keep choosing greed over giving and selfishness over peace. We make it hard for God to get close to us because we keep running away.

Isaiah brings us God’s promise that it won’t always be that way. God is patient and persistent in his calling. One day God will get his way and we’ll hear the message of forgiveness and come home. One day that message will get through to us, and the world will know what peace really looks like.

The games we play are about power and success, fear and greed. Sometimes we exaggerate our importance and imagine we are the center of the universe. We think about the world in terms of what we have and what we’re owed. We chase and protect and multiply our things and our influence. Other times we feel weak and helpless, scared of the future and of those around us. Especially in a small church like ours it’s easy to focus on our weakness, on the things we can’t do, on the fact that we are fragile and temporary.

God doesn’t play our games: God doesn’t respect our strength or despise our weakness; he simply loves us. God reminds us in this passage that we are fragile and weak; like grass and flowers we wither and fade; only God’s word stands forever. That shouldn’t worry us too much, though. Instead of running from our weakness, God chooses the weakness of human flesh to show us the eternal word of love.

That’s what Christmas is all about. God reaches out with love not power; with a helpless baby in a manger. God’s eternal word, Jesus Christ, comes to us in the weakest of human flesh, a defenseless infant. That baby, full of love and promise, but vulnerable and helpless shows us God’s amazing love in a way nothing else could. The ruler of the universe became fragile. God reaches out with tenderness, with cooing and crying and care. “’Comfort, o comfort my people,’ says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…”

What God does for us in Jesus Christ is truly amazing, and the crazy thing is that it’s so easy for the Christmas moment to be overshadowed by the Christmas rush. It’s also easy for those of us who grew up in the church to forget the power of the Christmas story because we’ve heard it so many times before. For the story to change us we need to let Christ into our hearts, we need to pause and let the story sink in again.

I was so grateful for the opportunity to sit in silent prayer in the sanctuary during our prayer vigil this week. Sitting in the pew I was struck by the manger scene of Christ’s birth sitting on the communion table above the picture of Jesus’ last supper with his disciples and below the empty cross that symbolizes both his death and his resurrection. It was wonderful to have time to just sit with the story, to ponder Christ’s amazing love for us and think about where that love is leading us now.

I was also grateful for the living nativity last night. The animals are such an important part of making that scene special, partly because they are so surprising to see on our lawn and partly because they just do their thing. The pigmy goats butt their little horns against things and people. The alpaca nudges the angel and bumps its head on the cross bars of the manger. The donkey eats hay on the side of Empire Boulevard, untroubled by cameras or car horns.

Animals like that are not part of my daily life so they remind me how shocking Jesus’ birth really is. He was born in the middle of a barn surrounded by animals running around, eating and pooping and whacking each other. I love the chance to watch that scene on the lawn, to be a part of the image of Jesus birth. I love the opportunity to just stand there and ponder the scene, to think about God’s love made flesh in Jesus Christ.

I also love the opportunity to share that scene with our neighbors. It makes my night to see parents bringing their kids to walk around the manger and check everything out. It’s so cool to see the kids’ fascination with the animals and with the story of Jesus the baby.

God calls us to be a part of that story today. In the passage from Isaiah God calls Israel to announce the good news of salvation. Now God calls all of us to do the same. God calls us to proclaim the good news of God’s love from the mountains, to lift up our voice without fear because God is with us. In our living nativity and Christmas baskets, in our prayers and in our neighborhood café, in our work with UPT and Cameron we are following our calling to share the story of Jesus, to share the love of Jesus with a world that needs him so much.

So take time in this last week of Advent to sit with the story, to just ponder the miracle of our Lord’s incarnation, to let Christ’s amazing love wash over you and fill you with hope. And then go out in the power of God’s love to share that hope with others. Comfort, o comfort my people, says your God. Lift up your voice without fear and know that God will come like a shepherd to feed his flock, to carry the young lambs in his arms and gently lead the mother sheep. Our shepherd, our savior, our infant Lord, our God loves us so much. Share the good news and follow in his footsteps.

Thanks be to God.

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