Advent 2 – December 10, 2017

Since I broke my arm two weeks ago the theme of comfort has been pretty relevant to me in a personal way. A broken bone is deeply uncomfortable, and finding comfort becomes very important. I remember a very painful drive to the hospital, and sitting shaking uncontrollably in the emergency department, and then the amazing comfort of being on a gurney with warm blankets draped over me and painkillers kicking in.

As the days have gone by, other sources of comfort have been people’s kindness (for which I’m so grateful: thank you), the literal “comfort food” coming to our door, the permission to rest, and a better cast to protect my broken bones.

Comfort is so precious when you suffer. It may not take all the pain away but it soothes the soul.

So I want to reflect on the passage from Isaiah that begins and ends with words of comfort:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.

… God will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. (Isa. 40:1, 2a, 11b)

These words were spoken to a suffering people, after Israel had been attacked, defeated and sent away to Babylon as captives. Their suffering made them feel they were being punished by God for their wrongdoings. They’re far from home, and they feel far from God, punished and abandoned. “Why is this happening to us? What did we do to deserve it?”

But the prophet Isaiah comes with a message of comfort and hope. Far from being cast aside by God, the people are going to experience God’s tenderness, kindness, care and comfort. A few chapters further on in the book of Isaiah, he says:

As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you. (Isa. 66:13a)

In the midst of their suffering this tender, maternal God comes and she brings comfort. She embraces, hugs, holds her people in their pain. Because that’s who God is. In the midst of our world where humans inflict such inhuman cruelty on one another, and reap the consequences of their folly and blindness, our God comes with comfort.

And O God, how we need it!

On one of our visits to the former residential school in Brantford we heard how the children whose dormitory was on the top floor had made a little gap they could crawl through into the space between the wall and the eaves. It was their secret, safe space. And in it, years later, were found some little objects: a broken toy, a candy wrapper, and part of a handmade quilt. Some of the children must have crept in and wrapped themselves in the quilt – the comforter – to feel a bit warmer, and bit less lonely and afraid.

Comfort is a primal need. We emerge from the womb into a difficult world, and often the first thing a baby does is cry to be comforted. As we grow, we have some hard lessons to learn in our personal or communal wilderness times: lessons about loss, and sin, and both hurting and being hurt. We can lose our way as individuals, and make terrible, destructive choices. We can lose our way as nations, and create societies that are cruel and destructive. Humans are both powerful and fragile: capable of hurting others and getting hurt ourselves.

Into this painful reality God brings comfort, but also asks us to get back into right relationship with each other and with God. That’s what repentance is, as John the Baptist and Jesus preached it: turning around and getting back into right relationships.

Isaiah uses the image of creating a highway in the desert, removing every obstacle in the way, so that God can come to us. It’s not that God needs a highway to get there: it’s that we need to clear out whatever is in the way. Clear out injustice! Clear out greed and selfishness! Clear out prejudice and violence!

This divine reconstruction project requires us to be actively involved. And in fact the root of the word “comfort” means “to strengthen greatly.” The grace and blessings we receive are always to be shared. As lovely as it was for me to be lying on that gurney under warm blankets with strong painkillers in my system, that’s not where I’m meant to stay.

One of the names for the Holy Spirit in Scripture is the Comforter. It’s part of God’s nature that she comforts and strengthens us. And then our calling is to share that comfort, to use that strength, to be healed and to heal.

This Advent may we clear away the obstacles that come between us and God, and may we feel the deep comfort and love of the God who is close to us. Amen.