As usual our most recent Sunday 10 AM service was filled good spirit and amazing members of the Calvary community — as well as guests.
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 forever. 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.
HOW COMFORTABLE ARE WE SUPPOSED TO FEEL?
We are a part of a society that tends to take the concept of comfort to extremes.
Though our ancestors in faith had to wander in the desert for generations, enduring unimaginable amounts of sand between their toes and eat some manna bread substance every single day, many of our contemporaries have made “glamping” a rapidly growing industry.
Entrepreneur magazine reports that glamping—glamorous + camping—helps ensure that one can spend time in the wilderness without having to rough it all. For as much as $1,600 per night (per tent!), glampers at Paws Up resort in Montana can enjoy luxury linens, wifi, and prime rib with wine pairings, rather than franks and beans and an old sleeping bag.
Where do we draw the line between comfort and excess?
I admit that I really like to be comfortable. Even after serving in developing countries, I quickly revert to a skewed view of what I am entitled to. A long hot shower, filet mignon, a nice glass of cabernet sauvignon, and dark chocolate are necessities, right?
Our ancestors in faith had their own struggles with balancing wants and needs.
Prior to 586 BCE, a major divide had come between the wealthy and the poor.
A handful of people controlled most of the land and industry. Merchants would use fraudulent scales to cheat farmers out of hard earned income. Those who had owned family land for generations by law, fell into debt and were forced to work for wages too low to live on.
Harvard Divinity School Professor Paul D. Hanson explains that the fall of Judah (the Southern Kingdom of Israel, including Jerusalem) to Babylon was interpreted as punishment from God for sin, for the collective breaking of covenant law concerning matters like land ownership. They had lost their Center. When Babylonian armies took control in 586 BCE, the entire world of the Jewish people was turned upside down. They lost their homes, their livelihood, and many lived as captives and exiles.
Today’s passage from Isaiah 40:1-11 was written approximately 75 years after the Babylonian onslaught. Though Isaiah is often called a single “book,” it likely had at least three different authors and sections. Today’s passage falls in “Second” Isaiah, including chapters 40-55.
King Cyrus of Persia claimed victory over Babylon in 539 BCE. He sent the exiles back, and provided resources for them to rebuild their economic, social, and religious infrastructure. This presented a test of faith. People who worshipped other gods dominated the culture surrounding the Jewish people and credited those other gods for their prosperity. After enduring generations of loss and upheaval, would the Jewish people now honor their God, or side with the culture as their ancestors had?
The prophetic voice of Second Isaiah in 40:1-11 breaks in with what Dr. Hanson describes as three commands: comfort, prepare, and proclaim.
Comfort. “’Comfort, O comfort my people,’ says your God,” in Isaiah 40:1. This verse is frequently quoted in times of grief, and with good reason . . . but, it’s not that simple. The Hebrew is in the double imperative. The way we sang it earlier in the service lacks the intensity the author spoke with. Isaiah was blasting God’s command to come alongside, to advocate. It is much deeper than saying “there, there,” as we gently pat someone on the shoulder. Comfort!
Prepare is the second command, a call for people who had lost their Center to refocus. When Isaiah 40:5 says “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” it is harkening back to the days in the desert when the people of Israel had to follow God because it was the only thing they could do.
Proclaim, the third command, comes in 40:6, with “Cry out!’” The voice says, “’What shall I cry?’ All people are grass.” All people are grass? What? Hanson explains that the prophet’s intent is to remove “all distinctions in status and power.” It is a reminder that all humans—including the powerful empire leaders Isaiah is speaking to—are finite before an infinite God. The power of this world is fleeting. “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” (40:8)
Comfort! Prepare! Proclaim!
That was the command issued to God’s people, and is the command issued to us.
God’s people didn’t seem to live into the words of the prophet for very long.
People were waiting for something better. They wanted a savior, a messiah.
By the time Jesus arrived on earth nearly 500 years later, a culture of elite power was as prevalent as ever. Even the religious leaders were part of the problem, as they tried to maintain the status quo, which allowed them to hold power in the Roman system.
His life and teachings were consistent with the commands to comfort, prepare, and proclaim. He threatened the system and the leaders turned him over to be crucified alongside common criminals.
More than 2,000 years later, the commands of God still stand.
How will we respond?
Preacher John Henry Jowett, a renowned preacher who served at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, among other places, said, “God does not comfort us to make us comfortable, but to make us comforters.”
The Bible is full of stories of uncomfortable people struggling to be faithful to God’s call. We find prophets like Isaiah calling people out. Those prophets probably weren’t invited to the really fun parties. We encounter Jesus time and time again calling out injustices. He wasn’t trying to tickle the ears of his audience, even disciples who had given up everything to follow him. He was calling them back to their true Center.
Comfort! Prepare! Proclaim!
Sometimes to be comforters, we have to examine ourselves in uncomfortable ways.
One late night after a movie, two people I know were driving home. They were in an older Chevy Camaro/Z28 with dark tinted windows. Shortly after leaving a parking garage, they were pulled over by police officers. The officers carefully approached the car and shined a bright flashlight in the eyes of the driver and his passenger. Not being sure why they were pulled over, the Camaro people were nervous. One of the officers said, “We have heard reports of a vehicle matching this description associated with several car stereo thefts.” The driver of the Camaro gulped.
“But you don’t look like car stereo thieves,” the officer continued with a laugh. “Have a nice night.” The officers didn’t open the trunk or search any part of the vehicle. I know this for a fact because I was the driver of the 1981 Camaro with dark tinted windows and my passenger was Colleen just a couple of years after the Los Angeles riots or civil unrest. We had benefited from “not looking like car stereo thieves,” even though my Camaro trunk could have been filled with stolen goods (for the record, it was not).
I could live with a high level of comfort based on a privilege I did nothing to earn.
Is it ok to just be comfortable and mind our own business?
Is that what Isaiah was proclaiming?
Here at Calvary, we have a broad array of backgrounds on every front. I have had many conversations over the past several months on matters related to the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in Staten Island. Discussions have included the very real dangers law enforcement officers face, the role of a grand jury, and theories about the actions of the victims. I have heard frustration about looting and vandalism following those decisions. I have also heard of opposing views with some of your own family and friends, including in this congregation.
This is not an issue that is solely about Michael Brown or Eric Garner.
Nothing will change if we all retreat to surround ourselves with our people who we share comfortable views with. This goes beyond News Hour or MSNBC or Fox News or The Daily Show or whatever your favorite source may be. God transcends all of them.
We have a division of biblical proportions.
Whether you are sitting in a pew here today or in an airport lounge watching this online, we are all called to be uncomfortable.
Moving beyond our comfort zones is in the Calvary DNA.
When Chinese immigrant workers were mistreated, Calvary stepped up to advocate, even though it really upset a lot of people in favor of the status quo.
Our Breaking Cycles of Poverty Team is actively working to connect you with agencies working to address the divide in our society. We do not ride in on a white horse as expert fixers. We listen to and learn from those we serve. As we step beyond our comfort zones and meet students and moms and dads and other volunteers, we are living into God’s call to be comforters.
Is our modern day Isaiah offering prophecies?
Is Jesus pointing us in a direction?
Are we willing to follow?
Comfort! Prepare! Proclaim!
 Paul D. Hanson, Interpretation: Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995), 1-24.