“Comfort, O comfort my people,” says the Lord God in the mouth of Isaiah.
The word “comfort” for us nowadays usually calls up images of comfort food; those things we reach for whenever we need to feel at home, taken care of, that all is well in our world. What’s your favorite – mac & cheese? mashed potatoes? ice cream? buttered toast and jam with a cup of tea? We also might think about comfortable clothing –things we wear that make us feel good, that don’t challenge us in any way, like our pajamas and fuzzy slippers, or our favorite sweatshirt.
Well, that’s not exactly what Isaiah had in mind. Comfort, in the Biblical meaning, is not about feeling better, although God very much binds up broken hearts, but comfort (being strong with) is about receiving God’s Spirit to be made stronger so that we can get up and go out to proclaim God’s truth and presence in the world. Sometimes we proclaim with words, sometimes with actions, sometimes we proclaim with our way of being in the world.
God’s life as we are experiencing it and living it here and now is about heaven breaking into the day-to-day, about aligning the way things are now (as best we can) with what is to come.When we take a close and unvarnished look at the world around us, as John the Baptist did so clearly, we can see that in many, many ways we are far from the fullness of God’s vision for life on earth.Of course, there is also lots of good news and we surely need to celebrate that,but we can’t gloss over persistent and intractable problems, either.
Speaking personally: by every measurable statistic, our country has a problem with race that can’t be explained away or wished away, even when we don’t feel like we as individuals have animosity towards others of a different race.I do believe that that vast majority of Americans mean well, and want to do good,and want everyone to get a fair shake, have equal standing and treatment before the law and in government, finance and business.
But think about this: do you ever find yourself saying or doing something that one of your parents or relatives used to say or do that bothered you, and you vowed for yourself that you would never say or do? And yet, those words slip out at times of stress or upset, to your regret. I think we’ve all had that experience, to some degree or another. This is a result of what psychologists call family systems – where you absorb unconsciously at a very early age the values, habits, patterns and even mannerisms of your larger family, whether you like it or not.
Well, the same thing is true, I believe, in society.We all absorb attitudes, assumptions, habits of mind, patterns of behavior (some of them driven by fear and uncertainty) from prior generations – all barely conscious to most of us. And they slip out at times of stress, fear and uncertainty;they are not what we intend or choose, but they come out anyway. Racism, what social scientists would call structural or systemic racism, is one of those things.
And in my opinion, the recent grand jury decisions in Ferguson, MO and in Staten Island, and the police incidents that led to them, were examples of structural racism.No one intended to do harm, certainly not to cause death. Most likely everyone in the grand jury process wanted to give the police officers the benefit of the doubt for doing what is an incredibly difficult and important job. But the racism that is so entwined in the roots of our history, and lurks in the shadows of our national psyche reared its ugly head,darted out and then said (in effect) “Who, me?” - that’s the way racism works.
OK, what does this have to do with God and faith? What does it have to do with Advent and preparing for Christmas? Isn’t this all too political?
In Advent we are preparing to welcome the Savior who comes to us in the midst of human life exactly as it is – not as we would wish it to be. And, our Lord Jesus came as a fully human person, as well as being fully divine. The theological term for that concept is Incarnation, and it is central to Christian faith: God came among us, taking on human flesh and blood to save us and redeem us, not to destroy us.
In Advent, of course, we also look with hope to Christ’s return one day to bring to fulfillment that which he started two thousand years ago – the fullness of God’s good purposes for us and for all creation. That includes not just our own personal faith and spiritual state, but it is about human flourishing in all its fullness; as St. Irenaus, the Bishop of Lyons back in the second century said: “The glory of God is man fully alive.” So that means that in Advent we are also waiting with hope for the redemption and renewal of human social structures.
The prophets of the Old Testament gave witness to this continually in their own day, and their words are just as true for us now.
Christ’s Incarnation and the hope of his Second Coming, then, mean that we must do what we can, wherever we can, to embody God’s vision for the world and to make it a reality. Of course, that’s a huge, daunting task; one that we can never complete on our own. But God does not expect us to. God only asks us to do what we can, even if it’s in fits and spurts, even if it seems like moving the whole beach by teaspoonfuls of sand.
But neither can we shrink back from what we are able to do. God has given us the Holy Spirit to strengthen us, to comfort us, to give us the wherewithal to work and pray and proclaim God’s good and holy truth. We are to be in the tradition of John the Baptist, to get in line behind him as we prepare the way for the coming of the Lord. If we feel squeamish about speaking publicly or making a fuss, remember John the Baptist has already broken the ice. We just need to keep in mind that our lives, like his, are to point to Christ, and that our actions and our words need to align with God’s vision.
The power of the Holy Spirit is greater than any social evil or structural problem, but we need to allow ourselves to be vehicles for the Spirit to be at work in the world, bringing repentance and healing. God’s kingdom is all about peace, joy, hope, goodness, justice, and truth for all people, nations, races and classes. That is what we long for; that is what we work for. Christ’s Incarnation blesses, redeems, and dignifies life, and we are called to follow our Lord’s example and do the same, as we wait with hope for Christ’s coming at Christmas and at his Second Coming.
Let us pray.
O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up to the heights and sing!
Proclaim to a desolate people the coming of their King.
Like the flowers of the field they perish, like the grass our works decay,
the power and the pomp of nations shall pass like a dream away;
but the word of our God endureth, the arm of the Lord is strong;
he stands in the midst of nations, and he will right the wrong.
He shall feed his flock like a shepherd, the lambs he’ll gently hold;
to pastures of peace he’ll lead them, and bring them safe to his fold. Amen.
~ Hymn 75
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Second Sunday of Advent
December 7, 2014