Saturday, December 9, 2017

A Prophetic Word for Today: Comfort --- Reflections on Isaiah 40.1-11 (RCL Advent 2B, 10 December 2017)

A Prophetic Word for Today:  Comfort
A Reflection on Isaiah 40.1-11

RCL Advent 2B
10 December 2017

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church

Isaiah 40.1-11

            40.1 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.

A historical introduction
         Throughout the Christian year we are guided through the Hebrew scriptures and the apostolic writings by means of a lectionary.  During this annual journey we encounter the writings of the Hebrew prophets, some of their words familiar to us, some of their words strange and even confrontational.  Our encounter with these voices from the past is somewhat skewed by the views of more conservative Christians who understand the prophets to be foretelling future events fulfilled in the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.  But this understanding of the prophets is not quite biblical.

         We live in a society where religious faith and civil government are supposed to remain separate, what some people call ‘a barrier between church and state’.  Sometimes this barrier is quite solid such as the constitutional prohibition of the establishment of any religion as the religion of the state.  At other times the barrier is a bit more porous such as setting Christmas Day, Boxing Day, Good Friday and Easter Monday as ‘bank holidays’ and even statutory days off for workers.

         No such barrier existed in the history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah.  The king, the priests and the prophets each played a distinct and integral role in the life of the kingdom.  The king as God’s anointed exercised God’s sovereignty in time and space and was understood as the guarantor of the kingdom’s faithfulness to the covenant in every sphere of public life.  The priests as descendants of Aaron and Levi were responsible for the faithful exercise of the ritual law and practices ordained by God in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew scriptures.  Between the king and the priests the institutions of pubic life were to embody the covenant.

         The fly in the ointment of public life were the prophets.  To be sure the prophetic role was understood as a necessary one, but prophets, whether a charismatic individual, a member of the royal court or a fraternity of individuals, were called upon to speak Gods truth to power.  Much like the role of the monarch in a constitutional monarchy such as ours, the prophets were to advise, to encourage and to warn the king and the priests.  They cast their eyes on the events of the world around them and searched the scriptures to understand what God was saying to the people among whom the prophets lived. 

         As you can well imagine, being a prophet could be an uncomfortable vocation.  Some of the prophets whose names are recorded in the Hebrew scriptures were co-opted by the system and only spoke words that fit with the prevailing political and religious agenda of their time.  Others such as Nathan dared to call David to judgement on account of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah in combat.  Then there were prophets such as Jeremiah whose contemporaries tried to silence him as well as imprison him and, according to tradition, eventually arranged his execution.

         In the apostolic writings we call the New Testament John the Baptist figures as a prophet who proclaims the coming of the promised Messiah.  He called his contemporaries to repent, to look at the world through God’s eyes, and then act accordingly.  His criticism of the life of Herod led to imprisonment and execution.  John’s story is a healthy reminder of the risks of speaking the truth to power, whether the power of the state or the power of public opinion.

A prophetic word for the people of Judah:  Comfort
         A little more than five hundred years before the coming of Jesus an exile from the land of Judah held captive in the Babylonian empire was called to pick up the mantle of the prophet Isaiah.  Isaiah had lived two hundred years before this unknown prophet and who had spoken God’s truth to the people of Judah living in political, religious and social turmoil.  This ‘first’ Isaiah did not live to see the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the incorporation of Judah into the Babylonian empire.  But his words still spoke to the people in exile who longed for their return to the land God had promised their ancestors Abraham and Sarah.

         The words we heard this morning from this ‘second’ Isaiah are spoken to a people who can no longer claim to have an independent kingdom with an anointed king.  They no longer have a Temple in which the descendants of Aaron and Levi can fulfil the ritual law embodied in God’s covenant with Moses.  All they have is their identity as a people chosen by God to bear witness to the truth that Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel, is the source of all life and being, the One who is at work in time and history to bring about the divine purposes for the whole creation, human and non-human, animate and inanimate.  To this dispirited community this ‘second’ Isaiah speaks a word of encouragement.

         Despite the reality of their current exile the prophet sees the signs that there is a change afoot which will lead to the return of the people to the land of Judah.  All the suffering of the previous decades has not gone unnoticed by the Holy One nor has the Holy One forgotten the promises made to Abraham and Sarah, the promises made to Moses and the people during the exodus from Egypt.  ‘See,’ the prophet says, ‘the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.  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.’ (Isaiah 40.10-11)  A highway will open up before the people and they will return to the land to continue their vocation to be a sign to all peoples of the God who seeks the salvation, the wholeness, the full humanity, of every one, Jew and non-Jew, male and female, young and old.

A prophetic word for today:  Comfort
         When we baptize a person into the Christian community, we anoint them with fragrant oil, sealing them with the Holy Spirit and marking them as Christ’s own forever.  This ancient sign, only restored among Anglicans in the mid-twentieth century, has many meanings.  One of them is a reminder that, in baptism, we become members of a prophetic community in whom and through whom the Spirit of the Holy One works, giving us inquiring and discerning hearts, courage to will and to persevere, the spirit to know and to love God, and the gift of joy and wonder in all God’s works.

         Just as the prophets of Israel were called to advise, to encourage and to warn the people of their times, so we call upon our families, friends and neighbours to heed the signs of the times and to choose to love one’s neighbour as oneself, whether that neighbour is rich or poor, Christian or non-Christian, powerful or powerless.  Just as John the Baptist called upon his contemporaries to look at the world through new eyes, the eyes of God, and then fell foul of those in power, so we speak God’s truth to power, whether the power of the civil authorities or the power of public opinion, and bear the risk.

         And then we wait, giving our families, friends and neighbours the space to choose, to decide how they will live.  This is the most difficult part of being a prophet, understanding that God’s word is a word of persuasion not coercion.

         Our word is ‘comfort’ --- an embodied and potentially costly comfort.  The comfort of which we speak is not some warm and fuzzy feeling expressed within a greeting card.  It is a comfort that calls for housing when people are homeless and need shelter --- in our neighbourhood not somewhere else.  The comfort of which we speak is not a prayer expressed only in words spoken within this place.  It is a comfort that calls for costly stewardship the fiscal and physical resources entrusted to us as individuals and as members of this Christian community.  The comfort of which we speak is not the shaking of our heads when a young woman is abused on the Skytrain.  It is a comfort that dares to intervene when hateful speech and repugnant actions threaten any sister or brother made in the image of God --- even if that hateful speech and repugnant action arises from someone whom we know.

         Perhaps sometime in the future someone will write, ‘In the year of the sesquicentennial of Canadian confederation, when Justin Trudeau was Prime Minister of Canada, the word of the Lord came to the people of Saint Faith’s Anglican Church, saying, “Comfort, O comfort my people.”  And they rose up and said, “Here we are, Lord.  Send us.”’

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