Monday, January 2, 2012

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent 2011

“God’s comforted people and heralds of a new Jerusalem”
Isaiah 40:1-11
The Reverend Patricia M. Grace
December 4, 2011                   St. Mark’s Episcopal Church

John Jefferson Davis is the youngest son of my friend,
            Catherine Grace McGee.
From the beginning of his life,
            Johnny was a child with exceptional sensitivity to others
and a deep capacity for giving and receiving love.
He also had an instinctive and awareness of God
and a solid trust that rivaled that of even
the most mature persons of faith I’ve known.

One day,
Cat sat alone on the front steps of the old farmhouse
in which they lived, staring quietly out into space.
She was worrying…
worrying about her family and their finances,
about problems she and her husband
had not yet shared with the kids.

Johnny, who was only about four years old at the time,
 sensed her sadness and anxiety.
He came up behind her,
placed his hands gently on her shoulders,
rested his chin just for a minute on her head,
and whispered,
“Don’t you never be afraid, Mama. God is always with you” –
then just as quietly went on his way.

“Don’t you never be afraid”
said this remarkable child…
“God is always with you.”

John Jefferson Davis is a prophet –
just one of many sent by God to tell us the truth. 
Often the messages of the prophets are convicting,
they bring us up short
and try to show us the error of our ways.
But prophets are also sent to remind us of fundamental facts –
 to share the good news that defines us:
that God’s love and constant faithfulness, the glory of the Lord,
is always shining all around us
even when it’s hard to see,
even when times seem unbearably bad.
The people of Israel
to whom Isaiah spoke in our reading today
surely needed to hear that kind of message.

After 150 years of slavery in exile – they were in despair.
They were an oppressed people,
powerless foreigners in a strange and alienating land.

Pretty clear that their own behavior
had at least contributed to their miserable state,
they languished without hope.

They needed to hear those comforting words:
“don’t you never be afraid, my people…
your God is here…your God is always with you.”

In the midst of that downhearted misery.
Isaiah’s voice rings out,
speaking as tenderly to the people of God
as Johnny spoke to his mama:
“You have served your term, O Jerusalem.
Your penalty is paid!
Here is your God,
coming with a strong arm
to protect and revive you.
Like a shepherd,
gathering all the lost lambs
into the safety of their mothers’ arms.”

This was indeed good news for them,
an enlivening reminder of the truth that defined them:
They never did need to be afraid…
God was always with them.

Over the past several months,
you have all shared lots of stories with me,
stories about your recent time,
which must have seemed a lot like being in exile.

Saying goodbye to a faithful pastor and friend,
after two decades of service together,
then going through a long interim
which had a few false starts and some difficult times…
that time must have felt like a sojourn in a strange land.

You were separated from what was familiar and comforting
and encountered frustration with rules and procedures
 set by outside forces
like the Diocese, interim and supply priests…
all of which surely seemed foreign and alienating at times.

And against all this,
was the backdrop of a huge sea change going on in Dalton—
brought on by economic crisis and hardship,
 at a level quite alien to this prosperous industrious town,
its like not seen, since at least back to the Civil War.

Meeting with the search committee and vestry,
            one could sense a level of underlying anxiety,
a palpable weariness,
even as you all looked forward with hope
and soldiered on to keep the home fires burning
and the flock well-tended and connected.

These words of Isaiah must surely resound a bit for you –
hopeful words offered after a difficult time,
comforting words spoken tenderly,
reminding us of our good news,
 and the truth that defines us:
that we need never be afraid, God is always with us.

And it would be easy to settle on that as our lesson for today.

But this passage from Isaiah is most curious –
and suggests there’s something more to be encountered
in those comfortable words.

This passage is full of voices,
voices, crying out—
calling us beyond our comfort to action.

Isaiah begins by quoting the voice of God,
a voice which is issuing a command,
rather than making a statement –
and it’s a command that’s given in the plural.

The words do not mean,
“I’m here to comfort you” says the Lord –
but instead, “you all must comfort” – 
all ya’ll as we would say.

“All of you are to comfort my people” says our God.

Next, another voice is heard –
a voice of testimony and again, command:
“Prepare a way for the Lord, you people in the wilderness:
make straight His paths.”

Because then, says the voice,
when God’s pathways are straight,
when all the valleys are lifted
and all the mountains are lowered;
when bumpy, difficult terrain is made smooth for everyone,
that’s when we’ll all see the glory of the lord revealed –
all around us –
we’ll all see it,
every one of us,
every one of us, together!

Then, another voice commands, again, “cry out”
And what is it that we are to cry out, asks the prophet?

We’re to offer another piece
of the good news that defines us:
that even though the earth inevitably
follows its age-old process of decay,
and all things pass away –
even the people wither like grass-
the word of the Lord will always stand.

And that Word says,
I am always with you!
Let that be what the people shout, says Isaiah…
shout it out, even in the midst of lament!
Finally, a last voice cries out:
Get up, go to the highest place you can find
and become a herald of the good news
that you God is here and has always been,
and will, like the best of shepherds,
always bring the flock safely home.

Johnny’s comforting words to his mama
were meant to reassure her, yes –
but also to move her
from her front porch reverie into action, with hope.
Isaiah’s words brought a promise of life renewed
to a people who were at the end of their collective rope –
but also reminded them to keep on serving God,
even as long as their slavery in exile might last.

All this crying out is done for comfort, yes,
but also to exhort,
 to convict – to remind God’s faithful
that we are to be people who prepare the way of the Lord, always –
even in exile,
even in the most difficult of wilderness times.

Those words of comfort and promise are meant for us too!
            For us, people who have been through a difficult time –
People who need to remember that God is and
always was with us,
even as we struggled.

But these words are also given to us to encourage us to do
            What we’re called to do as the sheep of God’s flock:
to be people who work hard to prepare the way of the Lord always!

These words are meant to move us        
from our comfortable reverie
            as we begin our ministry together…
meant to move us to action in hope –
to renew and extend
the long commitment to serving others
that has characterized this place –
in good times and in bad.

St. Mark’s has resolved the challenge of new ordained leadership
            and begun a time filled with energy and joy.

Our community, however,
is still beset with significant challenges…
challenges that are being felt by our own members, of course
as well as beloved neighbors, friends,
and people we do not yet know.

We’re called to be voice of comfort and testimony
            in the continuing exiling wilderness
that surrounds us;
 which even, now, is enslaving so many
with the oppressive shackles of desperation and despair.

We’re called to be prophets –
to cry out truthfully and comfortingly
to all of God’s people about God’s glory, God’s faithfulness.

We’re called to put our hands on the shoulders
of all who sit in worry and fear.

We’re to rest our chins for just a minute
on their heads and whisper with love,
“Don’t you never be afraid, dear ones, God is always with you…”

And we’re called to back up those words
with generous action –
giving of our talents, our time and resources
and ourselves, to make a difference.

We’re both God’s comforted people and heralds of a new Jerusalem –
proclaimers in action of the good news
which we believe and
which our recent experience has confirmed.
We're called to be people, who even in the wilderness,
work hard with hope…
work hard, with hope
to make as straight a pathway as possible
for the purposes of God.

We’re to be people who cry out,
with both our lips and our lives,
“Don’t you never be afraid, our God is here –
our God is always, always, with all of us!’

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