Saturday, December 1, 2012

Bringing Tidings of Comfort and Joy

(This is an old sermon from my Vanderbilt and Epworth days, but it seemed appropriate to share it again.)

40Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2Speak 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.

3A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4Every 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. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 6A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

9Get 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!” 10See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11He 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. Isaiah 40:1-11

Christmas time is here. Christmas decorations have been hanging throughout the mall every since Halloween. The trees are up in our homes. And everywhere we go—the mall, the car, the elevator, the grocery story—Christmas music envelopes us. And everyone it seems, even those of us in the South who know little of snow, dream along with Bing Crosby of a white Christmas just like the ones we used to know.

On National Public Radio, a few weeks ago, they had a special report on the enduring popularity of the song White Christmas. The song first became a hit during World War II because it reminded soldiers of the comfort of home. Even soldiers who had never experienced a white Christmas could relate to the longing expressed in the song to be back home in the arms of family and friends celebrating a merry, bright, white Christmas.

And while many, many artists—including Elvis—have recorded White Christmas, we really associate the song with only one voice—Bing Crosby—who sang it with such a melancholy longing. He sang it like a man who might be near despair but has yet to give up hope so that soldiers living in the midst of the hell of war cold relate to the longing for something that seemed somehow out of their reach while holding tight to the hope that they might yet experience comfort and joy again.

So perhaps it is fitting to realize that the song that seems to encapsulate the meaning of Christmas for Americans was written by Irving Berlin, a poor Jewish Russian immigrant. The words are all the more poignant when we think of Irving Berlin writing about Christmas as an outsider looking into one those glass balls that you shake and the snow falls on the perfect American home. And despite the fact, that we revere Irving Berlin for being the composer of White Christmas and God Bless America and despite his great popularity and wealth, Irving Berlin became known as the “Howard Hughes of the music Industry” and died at age 101 still feeling very much like an outsider.

In the movie, Citizen Kane, Orson Wells also dreamed of a White Christmas. Throughout the movie, the main character, Charles Foster Kane, played by Hughes, would continually look at a glass ball with a beautiful snow scene and remember his childhood and dream of a simpler and happier time in his life.

Irving Berlin stood outside the dream of Christmas as an outsider, an immigrant, and a religious minority. Charles Foster Kane stood outside the dream of Christmas because the more he had filled his life with money, things, and women, the less room he had for the things that truly mattered. And some people stand outside the dream because no one has ever told them that Christmas can be more than snow, shopping malls, dinner parties, and a mad rush to get things done.

In the book, Life After God, Douglas Copeland shares how his baby boomer parents had avoided anything to do with religion and had raised him with no religious beliefs. So when he found himself in the midst of the desert of life, he had nothing to give him hope or to help him cope. He said, “For me there was nothing—not even the seed of a religious experience to grow from—and I found that I had to build (and continue to) try to build some sort of faith for myself using the components taken from disposable West Coast suburban culture. Malls and nature and fast food places.”

In his essay, 1,000 Years, he tells of the time he embarked on his own search for a “white Christmas.” And how one he found himself day riding in his four-wheel drive vehicle and had to admit, “My secret is that I need God—that I’m sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give because I no longer seem capable of giving; too help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love.”

All too many folks stand outside staring into a cold glass globe and despairing that the dream is beyond their grasp. There are homeless families living in run down hotel rooms in dangerous neighborhoods, who don’t have a tree, let alone presents to put under it. And they no longer even allow themselves to dream.

There are people who are grieving the loss of someone they love. They dread the holiday meal when they will sit at a table with that empty chair. And the dream merely reminds them of what they have lost.

There are people in the midst of divorce or estranged from those they love, who feel like the dream is beyond them because they no longer have the perfect Christian family. The dream taunts them rather than comforts them.

And then there are people who have experienced so much betrayal and disappointment in their lives that their only dreams are nightmares full of pain and so they can’t even dream of hope anymore.

And it is for the sake of these lonely, despairing people, that the word of the Lord comes to us saying, “Comfort, comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for. . . .Go up on a high mountain, You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, . . . say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’ See the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and his arm rules for him. He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”

In this passage from the book of Isaiah, the word of the Lord comes through the prophet to the people of Israel at a time when they were beginning to lose hope. They were in exile in Babylon. Jerusalem and the temple had been destroyed and they were finding it hard to sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land. They dreamed of returning, but the dream was growing dim. Yet just as their hope begin to die, the word of the Lord came to them and it was a word of comfort and of joy. Despite their sinfulness and despite their inconsistency, God forgave them and God provided a way for them to return home.

But before they could return home, the road had to be prepared for the coming of the Lord. And the purpose of this season that we call Advent is to remind us as God’s called out people that it is our job to prepare the way for the Lord.
How do we prepare the way for the Lord?

We only need to look outside the doors of this church to see that preparing a road is not an easy job. We’ve felt the booms and saw the falling rock as the construction workers blasted away leveling the hills. We’ve watched as rock has been placed in the valleys to build them up and as dirt has been spread to make a level road bed. They’ve been working for how long now? Two years and they still seem to have a long way to go.

So it is for us the church. We are called to help prepare the way for the Lord and the prophet makes it clear it won’t be an easy job. There are mountains of troubles to be brought low and there are valleys of despair that need to be filled. The rough spots of people’s lives have to be smoothed out and in order to do that we have to be willing to go where there the hurting people are to be found—in the wilderness!

In book, Hope For the World, theologians and pastors from all over the world sound the continual refrain that the church must rethink what we mean by the word mission. And they suggest that the rule for Christian churches for the 21st century must be “In the church tell the story, in the world live the story.”

To bring comfort to a lost and hurting world, we have to do a whole lot more than erect nativity scenes on court house squares or say prayers in school. Telling the story is important and we should never cease to tell the world what we believe, but the best way to tell our story is to live as if we believe the story is true. And if it is true that the God whose way we are preparing is the sovereign Lord whose mighty power is revealed in tender care for the flock and who gathers lambs into his arms and gently leads us, then as God’s people we need to tenderly care for the lost and the hurting and gently lead them back to God.

Now, we aren’t talking cold comfort here. We aren’t talking about feeling sorry for folks from a distance. We aren’t talking about writing a check and sending it to needy folks far far away. We aren’t talking about the kind of comfort that comes with strings attached. We are talking about gentle, warm, comfort that is given simply because the giver loves.

You’ve experienced that kind of comfort. Remember what it felt like to held safely in the arms of someone who loves you. Or what it felt like on that cold, gloomy day when you were handed a warm cup of your favorite homemade soup loving made especially for you.

And remember the transformation of the pitiful Christmas tree in the Charlie Brown Christmas Special when Linus took his blanket and wrapped it around that poor Christmas tree and suddenly the tree takes on a kind of dignity simply because someone loved it and treated it with respect. Remember the first time you truly heard the words, “In the name of Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven” and believed them.

No, we aren’t talking about the kind of cold comfort that we send from a distance. We are talking about the warm, living comfort that comes from a presence in the midst of the pain and despair. We are talking about the comfort that comes from a hand reaching out to pick you up when you have fallen, to lead you when you are lost, to hug you when you feel unlovable.

But in order for the church to provide that kind of comfort, we have to empty our mind of our own plans and dreams so that God can plant God’s plans and dreams in our hearts and minds. We have to be willing to empty our hands of the fruits of our own success so that we can reach out and touch those who need comforting. Then we have to be willing to go out in the wilderness of our lost and hurting world and be God’s heralds by declaring tidings of comfort and joy.

Simply put, comfort is the work of God’s church. And while we may call this a worship service, the real service begins the moment we walk out those doors and back into the world. Here in this place and this time, we tell the story. We tell it in music, in liturgy, and in words, but out there we truly worship and serve God by shouting God’s story through our actions on behalf of the world God so loves.

You can shout the good news by taking time to listen to those who are grieving. Let them tell you their stories. Invite them to celebrate the holidays with you and your family. Give them a Christmas hug.

You can shout the good news by visiting the sick and the lonely. Spend 30 minutes in a nursing home hearing the stories of Christmases past. Hold the hand of someone who is sick or dying. Quit worrying about having the right words to say. Just be present for someone who needs to know someone cares.

You can shout the good news by treating everyone with dignity due a beloved child of God. Be patient with that overworked and overwhelmed department store cashier that can’t seem to do anything right. Let that that harried young mom whose grocery cart is full of food and kids get in the grocery line ahead of you. Give food, clothing and toys to the poor but due it out of a sense of love rather than of obligation. Vote, write letters, and work for the institutions of public policies that bring both comfort and dignity to those on the margins of our society.

You can shout the good news by working with other communities of faith to end hunger, to educate the poor, to rehabilitate criminals, and to protect the environment.

You can shout the good news by praying for and with those who do not have a community of faith and then live as if you believe those prayers will come true.

Irving Berlin made his last public appearance in 1968 and then retreated to his home. But in the late 1970’s a group of his fans began a ritual of going to his home on Christmas and serenading him with their rendition of White Christmas. The maid invited them in and served them hot cocoa. Irving Berlin entered the kitchen in his pajamas hugged all the men and kissed all the women and told them that their singing was the loveliest Christmas present he had ever received. That night, those fans brought not cold comfort but a warm presence and that proclaims comfort much louder than any words ever could.

Let us also go now into God’s world, not to bring cold comfort but to be a warm presence, as we proclaim tidings of Comfort and Joy to a world that may not have truly heard the good news.

1 Quoted by Leonard Sweet in his sermon Don’t Keep the Faith—Share It!, Preaching Plus,
2 Brueggemann, Walter, ed., Hope For the World: Mission in a Global Context (Westminister John Knox Press, 2001), pg. 19

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