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Advent 2, December 6, 2020
St. Martin North Vancouver
Comfort, comfort ye my people; speak ye peace: thus says your God.
Comfort those who sit in darkness bowed beneath oppression’s road; …
For the glory of the Lord now o’er earth is shed abroad,
And all flesh shall see the token that God’s Word is never broken.
- Johannes Olearius
In the culture that I grew up in, crisis is answered by a cup of tea. No matter how great or small the problem being shared, often the first response after the initial outpouring of frustration, hurt, and grief, is “I’ll put the kettle on”. There is something comforting about the ritual. When you don’t know what to say or do, hands can be busy warming the teapot, getting out the mugs, steeping the leaves. Then around the kitchen table, there is the adding of milk or sugar, the stirring, then wrapping one’s hands around the cup. Even if no word is spoken, the intimacy of silence and gesture of care bridges pain. Consolation is expressed in tangible ways: through taste and touch and scent and sound and sight.
Comfort is not comfort in the abstract. We need a presence to help us through to a future. Sometimes, that takes the form of memories being brought forward into our times of discomfort. Think of the foods you turn to when you are anxious or lonely or upset. Comfort foods often have a basis in the people and places we are familiar with. Whether it is your mom’s macaroni and cheese, or the soup you grew up with, or the sweet that reminds you of happier, more innocent times, foods have a way of reassuring us. For a moment, all is well, as we feed our spirit as well as our body. One of the crueller aspects of disease is that it often takes away our appetite. We don’t feel like eating at all, and the foods that once gave us pleasure no longer appeal. One of the lingering effects of Covid-19 can be a loss of taste and smell. If a piece of chocolate cake or a bowl of fragrant chicken soup don’t answer us in the moment, we have to look elsewhere.
There is also the comfort of touch. Even through a glove, the connection of a human hand is powerful. Even through a protective barrier, the embrace of another person is priceless. We know from medical studies that infants thrive so much more when they experience caresses and snuggles and skin-on-skin contact. If that is not possible, there is the sound of a parent’s voice singing lullabies and murmuring encouragement, and the scent of a mother’s shirt tucked next to the baby. Something soft that carries the love of others is a real gift, even if you don’t actually like the pyjamas or the scarf that you get at Christmas. Before I was about to undergo major surgery, the parishioners of the church I was serving presented me with a little fleece blanket. I took it into the hospital with me, and while I was recovering I wrapped it around me and remembered all the prayers that accompanied it. I call it “my comforter”, an old name for a blanket which is one of the traditional names for the Holy Spirit too! When I am feeling a little blue, I still pull it out.
Every little thing that we can do to signal connection helps overcome the barrier of isolation. I believe this holds true at every stage of life, right to the end of our days on earth. There is comfort in knowing that I am not the only person experiencing loneliness or going through a difficult time. Yes, that connection is one step removed when we are separated across time and distance. You can’t hug a computer screen or a telephone, but you can send expressions of love and consolation. Kisses blown and cards written and emojis texted really count for something these days.
Where is God in all this? Comfort from God may feel even more remote. It certainly did to the Jewish people when they were in exile. They had experienced desolation with the loss of their monarchy and their capital and their way of life. Far from home, they wondered if God would ever forgive them and restore them to community. Then the prophet Isaiah, who had been telling the people to repent and return to their Lord, offers a word of consolation.
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.” (Isaiah 40:1-2). Rather than a stern and vengeful deity that abandons a wayward people, God is yearning to gather them back together and restore wellbeing.
The prophet’s mission is to “speak tenderly” of God’s promises. The renewal of earth will happen, and it will happen for all peoples. There is an assurance of God’s presence- See, here is your God. And the image is of a good shepherd who gathers the lambs into his arms and leads the flock into righteousness. Repentance is not followed by punishment but by consolation and welcome.
Fast forward to the time of John the Baptist, whose mission is to announce the coming of the Messiah. He doesn’t seem like the kind of person to bring comfort; in fact, John looks to be a pretty uncomfortable person to be around. He wears rough clothes and follows a strict kosher diet that involves living off the land like one of the desert prophets. His message is to repent for the kingdom of God is near. In Mark’s gospel, it’s a hard and harsh introduction to good news. But notice that the quote about John is taken straight from our reading in Isaiah:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” John’s introduction onto the scene is situated in the words of comfort from the prophecy in Isaiah chapter 40:3. It’s not about punishment from a remote God. Instead, John points toward its fulfilment in the person of Jesus- God come among us to bring us comfort.
In his life on earth, Jesus was seen by many people. They were able to hear his words, to feel his touch, to eat and drink with him. They experienced God’s love in person. Then, with the marvellous act of resurrection, the risen Christ establishes the connection with every human being that goes across space and time. Love and comfort are as close as prayer, as near as breath. As we reach out and ask for His presence, He is here among us.
Consolation begins with asking for what we truly need. Ironically, comfort is often found in the wilderness, in the midst of those times of life when we are discomfited and uncomfortable with what is. Where we can’t solve our own problems. When we are out of our comfort zone. Then we are more open to experience the presence of the One who consoles us because it is not something we have been able to do by ourselves. In our vulnerability and brokenness, we find the healing of the Prince of Peace. He is our comfort in times of trouble, no matter how big or small the problem is. As the hymn says, Jesus is our token that God's promise shall never be broken. Amen.