Comfort, Oh Comfort My People
Do you want to know why I have so much hope for the world? Despite all the chaos, lying, stealing, and deception that goes on around us I still have great hope that God will fulfill God’s promises both for humanity and through humanity. I have hope because every year throughout the world Christmas and other holy festivals are celebrated and observed. It is amazing if you stop and think about it because we live in a cynical age and despite all the cynicism people still take the time to celebrate the holidays. I don’t just mean Christians either, I mean all the major religions take the time to focus on peace, and hope, but most importantly love. I think that the biggest miracle of the season is that the season still exists. Granted, there is a strong commercial element involved that refuses to let the holiday season just disappear, but even with all the commercialism the religious aspect remains intact. Why? Why do we still devote so much time and energy into the Christmas season? At our core are we still children anticipating the fulfillment of God’s promises through Jesus? Somewhere deep down do we still hold onto the hope that God’s love incarnate in the world embodies all the answers to our problems? Do we accept that only through an act of God can God’s good creation truly live up all that has been promised? I believe that the answer to those questions is a resounding “Yes.” Yes, we still believe and yes we still hope and yes we celebrate year after year because deep down we know that the gospel is both good and true.
Today’s lessons speaks to us both as individuals and as a collective because we all understand what it means to be in the wilderness. When we think of the wilderness today we think about hiking in the woods and communing with nature. People are always telling me how they feel at peace with God and the world in nature and that they don’t need a church to facilitate their religious experiences. However, biblically wilderness means to be separated from society, and to be isolated and vulnerable. In extreme cases wilderness refers to punishment and banishment. For example, in Exodus the Hebrews wandered forty years in the wilderness as punishment for not trusting God. Ironically, there are times that wilderness experiences become intimate encounters with God. It is in the wilderness that God appears to Jacob while he is fleeing from his brother Esau and promises to protect him. It is in the wilderness that God appears to Moses in the burning bush. What is apparent in scripture is that the wilderness is a very vulnerable and lonely place, and a place in which God brings comfort to the vulnerable.
Most of us can identify with the concept of wilderness where we feel isolated and vulnerable. I believe at the core of us all is a wilderness of the soul where we maintain the fortress of self-preservation to be protected from the harsh realities of the world we live in and to protect others from seeing our true selves. In the wilderness of our inner most being we have convinced ourselves that we don’t quite measure up. There is a false standard that the world has set for people that says we need to be perfect and the standard for perfection can be found in the false advertising of our culture. The standard is unachievable even for those who set the standard. On top of everything the standard is superficial in comparison to what God deems perfection.
It is in the wilderness of our times, culture, and soul that God speaks the words “Comfort, oh Comfort My People” and they are words that we are all longing to hear. Comfort means to relieve the stress of physical and emotional distress. We all seek comfort from some form of distress and I would go so far as to say that most of the discomfort and stress that we are experiencing is happening in secret and isolation, or better yet in the wilderness. On the surface we put on a good face, say everything is fine, and hope that the truth is never revealed. God not only sees the truth, but God speaks the truth that only He can bring true comfort to our lives.
In the gospel the truth of our stress, anxiety, fear, despair, and hopeless is not only exposed, but given the salve of the gospel. For the comfort that we receive comes in the form of what the beginning of the gospel of Mark declares is “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.” The genesis of the incarnation is the voice crying out in the wilderness saying, “Comfort oh Comfort.” It is in Jesus’ arrival that God reveals what is true, pure, perfect, and beautiful. Contrary to what every society has said throughout history, God’s message of peace, hope, and love comes through what is lowly and despised in the world.
Take a good look at John the Baptist today. He is the voice crying out in the wilderness. Here is a guy that isn’t afraid to have the world look at him and question his sanity. John was willing to stand in the middle of the wilderness and say, “Look! God is here with us in the midst of our loneliness and isolation, in the midst of our sin and selfishness. In the midst of our shame, pride and arrogance which has undermined all God has planned for the world, God is among us. John could care less what others think of him because John knows how God sees him and that’s all that matters. The rest of society and their standards can take a giant leap according to John. John has found comfort in both the truth and in his vocation as a prophet.
I think we all strive for that same comfort that John embodies, a comfort that relieves stress, anxiety, fear, and shame, a comfort that forgives us of arrogance and pride which we use to cover-up our shortcomings and character defects. We are desperate for that comfort to invade our own wilderness and bring us peace. And, this is why I have hope in our future because I believe deep down we all have the capacity to be honest and we honestly want what the holiday season promises – God’s love.
The mere fact that we celebrate the incarnation year after year after year gives me hope, and as St. Paul writes in Romans chapter five, Hope doesn’t disappoint us. May the Spirit bring you comfort this holiday season as we anticipate with great joy the arrival of God’s son.