Sermon Seeds: Words of Comfort/A New Social Order

Second Sunday of Advent Year B

Lectionary citations
Isaiah 40:1-11
Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a
Mark 1:1-8

Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
Isaiah 40:1-11

Weekly Theme:
Words of Comfort/A New Social Order

You’re invited to share your thoughts and reflections on these texts on our Facebook page.

by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)

Imagine an ordination service for a prophet, except that church officials in robes are replaced by God on a throne, and the congregation by a host of angels and heavenly messengers. (The music in this service would be particularly good.) The prophet Isaiah is charged to deliver a message from God to the people of God, the people of Israel in captivity in Babylon.

The people of sixth-century B.C. Israel had lost their temple, their great city Jerusalem and all that it symbolized, and their land as well, their leaders carried off into exile in Babylon. However, even before this disaster, their system (like any system) had never really known exactly what to do with a true prophet. So we assume that the ordination service for Second Isaiah was experienced as a call from God to speak a word to the people, and it’s that call, that service, that message, that are described by our text on this Second Sunday in Advent.

For the first thirty-nine chapters of the book of the Prophet Isaiah, the prophet scholars call “First Isaiah” delivered a word of warning, threats of God’s judgment, to the people of 8th century B.C.E. Jerusalem. Two hundred years later, as Second Isaiah answers his call to speak, much has happened: First Isaiah spoke of the threat of the mighty empire of Assyria, but in Second Isaiah’s time, the Babylonian Empire has destroyed Jerusalem and carried the people off to captivity. The disaster has, like all disasters, provoked theological reflection and much lamentation. In fact, Walter Brueggemann says that the Book of Lamentations “sits” between First and Second Isaiah, a book full of grief over the exile, with “only one moment of hope…:’The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, [God’s] mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness…therefore I will hope in [God]'(3:21-24)” (The Word that Redescribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship).

Only one word of hope amid all that long grief, but then, Second Isaiah comes along to cry comfort to the people, release and forgiveness, the promise of restoration and a great homecoming. Second Isaiah is all about hope, a hope rooted not in the people’s strength or wits or goodness, but in the faithfulness of God. It’s a surprising, unexpected word of hope, and a challenging one as well.

Many of the Jewish people must have wondered where God had gone. They felt cut off, far away, from God. We know that people in every age have felt that distance caused by sin and guilt, and struggled to reach across it, but God will not forget God’s people or the covenant God has with them. “The Hebrew word for ‘beauty’ in verse 6 is hesed, which has the connotation of ‘covenant faithfulness and love,'” Elizabeth Achtemeier writes. While God is persistent, faithful, and dependable, our response is inconsistent, fleeting, and undependable, no matter what we promise or intend, “we do have our moments of dedication,” Achtemeier writes, “[B]ut our faithfulness is like the flower of the field, beautiful at the moment but rapidly failing when trouble and distraction come upon us” (The Lectionary Commentary: The Old Testament and Acts). The prophet reassures us of God’s “anyway” love for us: we sin, but we can count on God’s faithfulness anyway, on the Word of God that “will stand forever” (v. 80).

The God we meet in the Old Testament has been described as a God of fear and threat, while the God of the New Testament, it has been said, is all about love and tenderness. Second Isaiah paints a fuller portrait of God. Yes, “the God who comes” (like ancient deities, including the gods of their captors, Babylon) is mighty and glorious and powerful. But the God of Israel is also a gentle shepherd who feeds the flock, gathers up lambs and holds them close. The people are urged to make way for this good news in their lives, a transformation of their situation. The powers that be, Babylon, have been overturned. The mighty have fallen, and the “little” people can dance with joy.

All of this is good news and the stuff of joy, but it’s also unbelievable while you’re still sunk in despair under the heel of the oppressor. At his “ordination,” Second Isaiah is told to “speak tenderly to Jerusalem” (v. 2): “The Hebrew actually reads ‘speak to the heart,'” Dianne Bergant writes. “Since the heart was considered the organ of thought, the phrase means ‘convince Jerusalem’ rather than ‘be tender toward her'” (Preaching the New Lectionary Year B). So in this season of Advent reflection in the church (a season that once was a penitential season of preparation), while the world has already started its celebration in decorations, parties, music, and shopping, our heads have some work to do before our hearts are carried away by holiday joy.

Just as the people of Israel long ago were told to clear a path for God, to make a way where there appeared to be no way, the text tells us to make a way for God to come into our lives, to remove the obstacles and impediments, to clear out old animosities and grievances, to cut back the weeds of doubt and greed, not just to make a nice little bed for the newborn babe but to open up our lives to transforming grace. In Advent, we attune our hearts and minds to the many ways that God enters our lives and the life of the world, the holiness in the everyday reality of our lives and the momentous lives of nations in every age. Indeed, the commentaries on this text speak little of our private holiness and personal sins, and much about the way we’ve collectively organized our lives, and the longing for the people for hope in the midst of the big events in history.

A new Jerusalem, a homecoming to the great city restored, is the dream and the promise of this text. As always, Walter Brueggemann writes evocatively of this hope: “It is as though the canon has gathered together all the candidates for the Martin Luther King award. They have learned to say, in distinct, harmonious tone: I have a dream, I have a dream, I have a dream…the long nightmare of loss is over.” Thousands of years later, we have experienced loss, too, in the face of war, poverty, violence (sometimes caused by religion itself), harm to God’s beautiful creation, economic crisis, and hatred: “The loss is real,” Brueggemann writes; “the city as we know it is defeated and failed.” We have lost hope, he says, that we can fix all these problems and right all these wrongs, and perhaps we’re right “given the categories of imagination now operative” (The Word that Redescribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship). If Brueggemann is right, and I think he is, I wonder if Advent should be re-named: instead of the season of preparation or waiting or penitence, it could be called the season of imagination.

The great preacher Gardner C. Taylor reads this text through the lens of a people captive in slavery in the midst of splendor like the hanging gardens of Babylon, one of the ancient wonders of the world, surrounded by colossal architecture that surely impressed upon them their own insignificance, at least in the eyes of the Babylonians and their gods: “The humble, ill-clad slaves looking at this dazzling sight must have felt a terrible despair and an aching longing for home….What could some slaves mean midst all these achievements when they had only some exotic ways of worship and an invisible God upon whom to call midst the galling yoke and heavy oppression of their captivity?” To Gardner, verses 7-8 declare the impermanence of such glory compared to the glory and steadfast faithfulness of the God of Israel: “Isaiah took one look at all of this heathen splendor and pagan power and saw the fatal void at the heart of it all….’Never mind,’ he must have mused, ‘how green and lush the grass may seem. Never mind how bright and picturesque the blossoming flowers may appear'” (The Words of Gardner Taylor, Volume 1). Nothing lasts like the Word of God, he imagines the prophet saying: “The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the word of our God shall stand for ever” (v. 7).

Brueggemann describes God’s response to the suffering of the people as poetry that will sustain them. The surprise in his reflection is the possibility that there were those who were perhaps beginning to get comfortable there in Babylon, in the safety and security of “a political-military superpower. It was also an advanced, sophisticated, winsome culture with its own theological rationale and its own moral justifications” (Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World). The empire was a system, like all systems, that worked for some and not for others, but you had a better chance if you knew where to place your allegiance and energy. It must have been tempting to throw in your lot with the seductive culture around you, to find ways not only to survive but to thrive, even if it meant forgetting who and whose you were.

Then a prophet comes along, Brueggemann says, changing everything with the message that “redescribes the world” as “under new management, under the governance of the home-making, home-giving God and away from the deathly power of the empire.” Such poetry is so powerful that it “cannot be unsaid, for [t]he word has been uttered and the juices of alternative possibility have begun to flow” (The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word). Perhaps this is a comforting word, but it also disturbs and may even make us a bit anxious, presumably explaining the title of Brueggeman’s book. What do even captives have to lose, if things change too much, too quickly, too imaginatively?

The testimony of Israel, Brueggemann writes, remembers “a past that is saturated with life-giving miracles, not…self-sufficient achievement,” and looks forward to “a future of complete shalom that is free of violence, brutality, competitiveness, and scarcity, a new governance that displaces that of empire.” But today matters, too, because we live in the present, and we are presented with the possibility of “neighbors to whom we are bound in fidelity, in obligation, and in mutual caring,” in justice for all, including “those that the empire finds objectionable and unproductive.” So it does matter how we organize our shared life today, in the face of the obvious empires of materialism and militarism that surround us, but also the more subtle and insidious empires that may appear at first as “good” things: for example, our drivenness toward achievement and winning – “What I’ve amassed is all mine; I’ve earned it myself” or “I don’t have time for Sabbath” – no matter what toll it takes, including the loss of those neighbors we should cherish above achievement or wealth or power. Brueggemann uses a term that caught my attention, “a passion for private shalom” (Deep Memory, Exuberant Hope: Contested Truth in a Post-Christian World). Perhaps a sermon could wrestle with such a term as “private shalom.”

This text is about evangelism, that is, sharing the good news of God’s love and faithfulness. Knowing what we know about the Jesus for whom we wait, we can agree with Brueggemann that “it is no wonder that part of this poem is quoted in all four Gospels, a text that voices the radical newness that is to be initiated in the story of Jesus” (Texts for Preaching Year B).

To what oppressors are the people in your church captive? Indeed, do you think of yourselves as captives, or as oppressors? As you look around at our culture, what forces press in on us and on others, personally and communally? What “categories of imagination” are “operative” in your setting? Do you and the people of your church feel far from home, exiled? How do the people of your church need to be comforted and encouraged? How does the image of a gentle shepherd speak to a world that tells us to succeed and to own and to acquire, to step on others and outlast them in order to reach our goals, to rely on military might for the nation’s security and a gun in our home for our personal safety? How do faithful Christians reconcile the image of the shepherd with such a culture?

Speaking of guns: over the weekend in our city, a twelve-year-old boy with a toy gun was shot in a local park by a police officer who presumably thought the gun was real – a terrible, heart-breaking tragedy for everyone concerned. I wonder how preachers will step into the pulpit this Sunday and address the wrenching sorrow of such loss and violence, not only the shooting, but the violence which drenches the culture in which it happened, and the rent in the fabric of that neighborhood and the larger city of which we are a part. When I hear such news, and read the argumentative Facebook threads in which the city (along with those who observe from afar) struggles to make sense of what happened, and longs to place blame, to hold accountable one individual rather than all of us for the un-neighborly things that are happening every day, in this present day, my mind and heart grow so weary that I am almost numb. And I find myself longing even more deeply for that word of comfort, for that larger shalom that we imagine and lean toward during this Advent season, the promise of peace and healing and reconciliation and no more war, no more violence, no more threats, no more fear, no more heartache. Can we even imagine such a time? Is it just too tempting to hope for, and work for, a “private shalom” that seems more “achievable,” more “reasonable,” even if its blessings never touch the rest of our neighbors?

A most moving video (a commercial, ironically) is making its way around the Internet, telling the story of World War I soldiers who came out of their trenches on Christmas in a truce to share Christmas greetings, to play soccer and exchange small gifts, to engage one another as real persons, as their neighbors, their brothers, not as enemies. It is almost unbearable to watch, as they shake hands and recognize the bitter reality of having to return to their trenches and resume the effort to kill one another for some unknown and unworthy reason. (And again, the long threads of biting commentary exchanged in comments sections below the video are disheartening). It seems like, for one moment, peace broke through the violence and enmity and destruction. I don’t know how any parent – or any preacher – can shake that image from our hearts and minds as we speak so freely of “peace on earth” this December, while our culture continues to send our children off to such violence. We step into the pulpit in the midst of our own “Babylons,” our own overwhelming brokenness, and seek to find the signs of God’s promise that lifts our spirits and our eyes to the hidden reality of shalom, breaking forth in spite of our best, or rather worst, efforts to keep it buried deep, below our fragile and under-exercised faculties of hope and imagination. Can we see those signs, that shalom, even so, in this present hour, despite all evidence to the contrary, despite the massive structures of despair and domination around us that try to tell us that we, or at least some of us, are not precious in the eyes of God?

In this season of Advent, what are you preparing for? What sort of road “broad and smooth” needs to be cleared in your heart in preparation for the coming of the One who shepherds us? Is it easier to believe in God when you’re in captivity than it is to believe the captivity is really over? What are the signs that things are about to change? Are you courageous enough to hope for such a thing to happen?

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

For further reflection:

Joan Baez, 20th century
“Peace might sell, but who’s buying?”

E.F. Schumacher, 20th century
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.”

Richard Rohr, 21st century, in Falling Upward
“We need to unlearn a lot, it seems, to get back to that foundational life which is ‘hidden in God’ (Colossians 3:3). Yes, transformation is often more about unlearning than learning, which is why the religious traditions call it ‘conversion’ or ‘repentance.'”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 20th century
“Wonderfully secured by a mighty power, we await with confidence whatever may come. God is with us – in the evening, in the morning, and entirely certain on each new day.”

Edward Hays, A Pilgrim’s Almanac
“Advent is a winter training camp for those who desire peace.”

Finley Peter Dunne, 20th century
“Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”

Antoine de Saint-Exupery, 20th century
“Sorrow is one of the vibrations that proves the fact of living.”

German proverb
“Joy and sorrow are next-door neighbors.”

Lectionary texts

Isaiah 40: 1-11

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,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
   double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
   make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
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.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
   and all people shall see it together,
   for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

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.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
   when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
   surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
   but the word of our God will stand for ever.
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!”
See, 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.

Psalm 85: 1-2, 8-13

O God, you were favorable to your land;
   you restored the fortunes of Jacob.

You forgave the iniquity of your people;
   you pardoned all their sin.
Let me hear what God the Sovereign will speak,
   for God will speak peace to the people.

God will speak to the faithful,
   to those who turn to God in their hearts.

Surely God’s salvation is at hand
   for those who fear God,
that God’s glory may dwell in our land.

Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet;
   righteousness and peace will kiss each other.

Faithfulness will spring up from the ground,
   and righteousness will look down from the sky.

God will give what is good,
   and our land will yield its increase.

Righteousness will go before God,
   and will make a path for God’s steps.

2 Peter 3:8-15a

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.

Since all these things are to be dissolved in this way, what sort of person ought you to be in leading lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire? But, in accordance with his promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home.

Therefore, beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish; and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation.

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
   who will prepare your way;
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
   ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
   make his paths straight,'”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

Liturgical notes on the readings

In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:

First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel

The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.

The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.

A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.

Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors

Advent and Christmas

The Violet color for Advent is traditionally connected with royalty and penitence. Blue is symbolic of expectation and hope, not only for the birth of Christ, but also for Christ’s return at the end of history. Rose on the third Sunday of Advent, which was Gaudete (Joy), provided a little relief from the somberness of Advent in earlier times. Some Advent wreath sets include a rose candle. White first appears on Christmas Eve and may be continued through the Sunday after Christmas, Epiphany, and the Sunday after Epiphany (celebrated by many as the Baptism of Christ) to show that all of these events are related in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. White is also used for Easter and Sundays following. (Some traditions use Gold or both for Christmas and Easter.)