However, I have really been moved by the Advent readings and especially those from Isaiah. Specifically, I am thinking of God’s invitation to comfort the people. From Isaiah 40, beginning at the first verse: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…”
Advent has several themes but as a pastor among pastors, shepherd among shepherds, this passage speaks to me deeply. If I question it, God continues with these words, “…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.” Here God asks Isaiah to see the people in their pain and suffering. To see how they suffer now and how their long-suffering has cost them dearly.
The prophet continues, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
I was inspired by the short essay on this passage by The Rev. Todd Weir, found on his Bloomingcactus blog entitled: "Straight Highways," He reminds us that the highway Isaiah may be referring to is the one that began in Heliopolis, Egypt, and went East to the land of Moab and then North to the Euphrates. The Highway Isaiah is remembering may be the highway that literally put Israel on the map and speaks to the people who would have heard this prophecy of a time of greatness in the past. Moreover, the prophet would be intimating of a future return home and again a return to the past.
Such an image would have been a comfort. It would have reminded the people of a return home and a return to renewed age of stability. In the Gospel of Mark, we find that the passage is also a passage of hope.
Mark’s message to the people is that they have long been suffering and that Christ comes bearing a new Gospel for a hurting people. Luke reminds us that this good news and comfort is for all people. Isaiah’s prophecy was meant for a nation, but that in the revelation of Christ we see the comfort is meant for all people.
This Advent I am thinking that after months of COVID and a continuing crisis of managing the disease, after months and even years of party politics, and a struggling economy we may need to lift our eyes to see the people before us. God may this Advent be inviting us to comfort each other.
Perhaps we are to comfort those doctors and nurses who continue to fight this disease. Comfort for those who get it and struggle to live. Comfort for the hundreds of thousands of families who have lost loved ones to COVID. Comfort each other who have loved ones but see no longer with resurrection hope.
Maybe we are to see the families and friendships ripped asunder by political fights. Those wounded by hate speech and those who feel the pain of being forgotten by a system that is supposed to care for them.
We are called to comfort our brothers and sisters of color as they continue to fight for recognition in a system that is blind to the integration of structural racism.
Possibly Advent is for us to understand the economy is made of people. That in our state 20% of the people feel hunger on a regular basis. That the joblessness itself is a pandemic of epic proportions. That there is a fair amount of hopelessness and fear. That our suicide rate in Texas has been rising all year. Might we comfort with the wisdom that there is nothing that separates us from God's love.
Perhaps the message of Advent needs to be one of comfort. We are invited to comfort each other not only with words but through actions.
I believe comfort implies more than empathy. Too often, as Rabbi Ed Friedman wrote, “Empathy [can be a] disguise for anxiety, a rationalization for the failure to define a position, and power tool in the hands of the sensitive.” What we learn from Friedman is that sometimes empathy falls short of aiding people to learn from their experience. We need an understanding of comfort that does not stymie maturity and spiritual growth. Comfort, as proposed by Isaiah, or in the mind of the Gospel authors, invites us to actively participate in each other's life.
God invites us to an active pastoral response of comfort. This is a comfort that reminds us that this crisis and trauma is not the axis upon which our world revolves. This is a comfort that continues to develop the church community as a support system for our people. The comfort we are to preach is one the reminds us of the highway that is yet before us – the continuation of mission through evangelism and service. We are to pray with each other and walk with each other at this time. Our comfort is one of joy and love. Comfort also includes holding the answer for the trouble before you lightly. We are to comfort each other as we try new things and comfort each other when they don’t work.
We are to do something about the hungry. We are to do something about division. We are to do something about the pain and suffering people are going through.
We have been experiencing our own Babylonian captivity since March – or longer in some of the cases of suffering we face. We have yet before us a good amount of wilderness journey. Indeed with rising cases, we know that the good news about the vaccine is tempered with the long months until we can receive it.
So, I write to you. I invite you this Advent to engage in Comfort with each other. See where we have come and embody comfort for all the people you come into contact with. Be a comforting presence, offer a comforting word, take on comforting action this Advent.
Comfort, comfort my people. Comfort them in COVIDtide, in the political arena of family and friends, and as people struggle with hunger, joblessness, and hopelessness.
There is a highway that even now is being brought near and stumbling blocks that are being brought low. There is hope in that COVID, politics, and even our struggles economically will not have the last word. The Church is here. The people are here. We are here to receive and share a comforting word.