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Wed, Dec 20, 2017

Comfort, O Comfort

Our scripture reading for tonight, as all our preaching texts throughout December do, comes from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 40, verses 1-11. You may be familiar with the understanding that various parts of Isaiah were written at different times in Israel’s history. Isaiah 40 begins a new section. A century before, the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians. Many people were taken away to live in a foreign land, never to return. Others became refugees who streamed to the Southern Kingdom, known as Judah. Then Judah fell to the new superpower, the Babylonians. Again some people were forced to live in exile, while others were stuck in the ruins of post-apocalyptic Judah.

Israel was gone. Judah was gone. The king was gone. The temple was gone. Everything they once knew was gone forever. They sat in Babylon, wondering if it would ever come back. After generations of silence, God speaks again. Let us hear this Word of God.

1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 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.
3 A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 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. 5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."
6 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. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
9 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!" 10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 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.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Pastor David Lose recently wrote in a quite provocative piece, “I sometimes think Norman Rockwell is one of the most dangerous artists of the past century.” I immediately wanted to read more because one of the highlights of this past summer was our visit to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts. It turns out that David Lose loves Rockwell but worries about how his work can become an unattainable ideal. He says:

Think of it this way: how many of us look at Rockwell’s famous painting of a family gathered around a holiday table … all smiles and about to dig into a turkey, and somehow wonder why our family experiences don’t quite measure up. No arguing in this picture. No debate over recent politics. No one sulking because a favorite dish has been omitted or because there are no gluten-free options at grandma’s table. Instead, familial bliss. Perfection. Little wonder our experiences don’t measure up.

Now, Rockwell’s picture was intended to be an ideal, depicting “freedom from want,” one of the Four Freedoms worth fighting for in World War II. And yet, when we believe our own lives and families must look like the ideal there is no way any of us can measure up.

Christmas and the holidays seems to heighten the loss and despair we feel, especially when there is an empty place at the table when one we love has died, or is estranged, or even in a distant place. We struggle while the families around us look like a Norman Rockwell portrait, the Christmas letters arrive in the mail filled with tales of children who are all “above average,” and even the church seems to be filled with smiling faces. The loss creeps in and threatens to overwhelm us.

Struggle. Silence. Loss. Longing. That is the world into which the prophet Isaiah spoke our text for today. The people of Israel had been waiting for something, sitting in silence, for almost a century before they heard the Word. And when the word finally came it was a word of freedom, a word of release, a word of hope. The penalty is paid, the time of exile and imprisonment is over, the day of return was near.

Their God had not abandoned them after all. Despite the silence that seemed to drag on for eternity, the Word could be heard once more. Yes, the same God who spoke the universe into existence had spoken again. The same word that brought light to the darkness now brought hope out of despair.

That is the word that God speaks to us tonight as well. And as opposed to the ideal of Norman Rockwell, perhaps there is another longstanding depiction of Christmas which might help us hear that word again. In 1965 A Charlie Brown Christmas aired on national prime time television for the first time. It will be shown on ABC tomorrow night and I encourage you to watch if you get the chance. It is the story of Charlie Brown’s struggles to understand the real meaning of Christmas in the midst of overwhelming commercialization and materialism. His friend Lucy convinces Charlie Brown he should become the director of the Christmas play, but he cannot get anyone’s attention. When an attempt to restore the proper spirit by bringing in a forlorn little Christmas tree fails, Charlie Brown cries out “Isn’t there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?” His friend Linus says that he can. Linus takes center stage and begins:

And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”

Now you may remember that all the characters in the Peanuts world created by Charles Shultz have a distinctive characteristic. For Linus it is an ever present security blanket. Even though the blanket remains a major source of ridicule, he refuses to give it up. That is until, as pastor Jason Soroski has written:

When Linus shares "what Christmas is all about," he drops his security blanket, and I am now convinced that this is intentional. Most telling is the specific moment he drops it: when he utters the words, "fear not." Looking at it now, it is pretty clear what Charles Schultz was saying, and it's so simple it's brilliant. The birth of Jesus separates us from our fears. …The birth of Jesus allows us to simply drop the false security we have been grasping so tightly, and learn to trust and cling to Him instead.”

In the words of Isaiah we might say the birth of Jesus allows us to hear, “Comfort, O Comfort my people says your God.”

After he finishes reciting scripture, Linus picks that blanket up again. Remarkably, he puts it down one more time in A Charlie Brown Christmas. Not standing alone on a stage, but surrounded by his friends as that forlorn little tree is transformed into something miraculous and their voices are lifted with the angels in praise of the Lord.

So my friends, on this night in which we acknowledge the pain and loss and grief and confusion which can so mark Christmas, on this night in which we confess that our lives do not look like the ideal, as you come forward to receive communion I want to invite you to pick up a small square of blanket. May this blanket be a symbol of the comfort and security that only the Lord can provide. As you grasp it in your hands may you “fear not!” even in the darkest night for there are good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people. And, when the time is right, may you drop that blanket, maybe even place it under your tree, secure in the knowledge that Jesus is what Christmas is really all about.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray:

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