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The Second Sunday in Advent, 12/07/2014

Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11, by Pari R. Bailey



Isaiah 40:1-11

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.

Nine years ago this week, I was busy preparing to sing in a production of Handel's Messiah. I was the alto soloist, and had invited my dearest college friend to sing the bass soloist part. The morning of the concert, he drove out and spent the day with us, and that night he sang very beautifully. I remember thinking that his voice was really coming into its own, maturing into a powerful, highly trained bass. I don’t remember the last words I said to him, but the next day he killed himself. He was only 33 years old.
Nine years ago this week, I was mired in the grief of his parents and mutual friends, funeral planning, talking to his students, trying to make sense of this horrible thing that happened. And through it all, ran the music of Handel’s Messiah. I just couldn’t get it out of my mind, especially the passage from Isaiah 40 that was just read: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.”
 It’s been quite a year here. Nothing really went as planned, did it? A long winter, followed by a cold spring, and then a flood. Add to that the many illnesses and health things people have been dealing with. Add to that the anxieties and stresses of our lives together, in our families, in our relationships. Add to that the grief and loneliness and worries and everything else that goes on at home and in the world. Add it all together—and still I dare to stand up here and say with St. Mark, “the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
That’s right. You heard me right. Against the backdrop of this year and all its heartache, I say that this is the beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Because in times like these, Jesus is our only comfort. This year proved again that people are grass, that all flesh lasts but a moment, that there are real rough places and valleys full of the shadow of death. I don’t need to tell you that life is short, full of pain and sorrow. Good times, too—but a lot of bad. We humans are dust and to dust we shall return, and we know that sometimes our lives are not what we want them to be, and despair gets the better of us. Stuff goes wrong, bitterness and desolation and pain are there. Sin is there. We know.
And yet, Isaiah says—the Word of our God will stand forever. And yet, Mark says—this is where the good news of Jesus begins. In the dark. In the midst of all of our junk. In the tomb. In the wilderness.
The light shines in the darkness and the darkness could not overcome it.
The Word of our God will stand forever.
    And what is the word of our God? Jesus. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory of the Father’s only son, full of grace and truth. And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
The promises that God speaks to you in Christ Jesus are forever. When Isaiah wrote these gorgeous words in his 40th chapter, he was speaking to a people that had been oppressed, beaten down, exiled, lost and broken. The people of Israel were choking on their own grief, bearing in themselves the punishment and penalty for their sin. And in the midst of their anguish and rage and misery, came this tender word from the Lord: comfort. God said, I am here. I will not leave you. Hold on to my promises—my Word shall stand forever.
This is so poignant at Christmas. So near to us.  I think that in the Christmas season many people are unable to reconcile their inner hurt with what the TV and culture say is a happy jolly holiday. If we’re honest with ourselves, very few of our Christmases match up with the magic we remember from our childhood. Most Christmases may even leave us a little disappointed, a little jaded, a little cold, a little sad. Or a lot.
But the Word of our God stands for ever. The Christ in Christ-mass, the One who speaks tender comfort, who lifts up the valleys and smoothes out the jagged rocks in our lives, the one who is strong enough to handle all our garbage and disenchantment—he is coming, with might, with his strong arms to rule and carry us.
The true meaning of Christmas is clearest in the dark, in the silence, in the expectation of preparing the way.  What I mean is this: this tiny, helpless baby is the Lord of heaven and earth. He is God, come to save humanity. He willingly became one of us, so that he would know all our sorrows, temptations, disappointments, fears. So that he would understand our sin and even death. So that he could take it all to Calvary, where he died an agonizing death, and afterward was buried.
But the Word of our God will stand forever. Death cannot defeat him. So on the third day, Jesus rose from the dead. Not so that we can have a nice holiday with lots of presents and warm feelings with little kids and Santa, but to prove that what began in the manger was finished on the cross, and that death is defeated. What began in the manger was finished on the cross--no more does death rule us.
Sure, we may still feel grief and loss, but not forever. The tiny baby grows into the man who gives up everything to take all sin,  hurt, suffering and sorrow—and hang it on the tree in his own body, so that we can be free of it for eternity.
Comfort, O comfort my people, writes Isaiah. Say unto the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” Say unto the cities of Belview and Redwood and Delhi and Cottonwood and Wabasso and Granite: Behold, your God. He is coming to save you. And God will wipe away every tear from your eyes, death shall be no more, mourning and crying and pain shall be no more. He will feed his flock like a shepherd, and carry his lambs and gently lead us. Because the Word of our God will stand forever.
Even so, Lord Jesus, quickly come, and night shall be no more. Amen.

The Reverend Pari R. Bailey
Belview, Minnesota
E-Mail: revsbailey@redred.com