Dec 7, 2008
Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-11
Sermon Title: "Comfort and Joy"
It’s the Christmas season. Advent has begun. Time to give gifts, eat delicious food, and sing songs like "Jingle Bells" and "Silent Night".
How about "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," a good wholesome, innocent song: "You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout I’m telling you why: Santa Claus is coming to town. He sees you when you’re...sleeping. He, uh, knows when you’re...awake...he knows if you’ve been bad. Or good...So be good for ...goodness sake."
Ooh, that song is just a little bit creepy. Could be the tag line for the latest horror film,
That’s OK, we can watch a movie. I know a good one for the whole family: "Wizard of Oz." See, Dorothy gets caught in a tornado and her house lands on top of a witch and kills her...and then she travels with three strange men to the Wizard who tells her to kill the Wicked Witch of the West... which Dorothy does by pouring water on the witch who cries out in pain "it burns, it burns" as she is melting away...
Ok, maybe not the best thing to do. We could watch "Bambi." No, there’s the whole Mom thing. What about "Lion King"? Oh, no, the Dad thing.
Well, how ‘bout I sing a lullaby? Nothing’s more relaxing then a good old fashioned lullaby.
"Rock abye baby on a tree top, when the wind blows the cradle will rock. When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall...and down will come baby...cradle and..all."
Maybe we shouldn’t do anything?
Isn’t it interesting how there are songs, stories and movies that have become such a part of our mass culture we don’t actually hear what’s going on? We’re so used to the story that we have become numb to the finer plot points.
It’s usually not until we have children that we realize, just how offensive or scary some of the things we sing, watch and read really are.
Case in point would be some of the stories in the bible. Like Noah’s ark: how God wipes everyone and every living thing off of the earth except for one family and two of each animal.
Or Passover. The first born child of the Egyptians dies and during the crossing of the Red Sea all the Egyptian soldiers, horses and carriages perish in the water.
Or the parables of Jesus. The first will be last, or those who work in the field for an hour will get the same pay as those who worked all day.
Or the fact that Jesus is crucified on a cross.
Offensive, all of them, if you really stop and think about it. Which doesn’t always happen.
Historically, Christianity was viewed as an offensive religion. After all, the teachings of Jesus were radical enough to have him killed.
The earliest Christians were jailed and persecuted, one reason was that people thought that communion was an actual act of cannibalism.
The Pilgrims left their home to practice their version of Christianity. And in communists nations Christians have to meet in private out of fear of being arrested or publicly humiliated.
But for us who have always lived in America, who have always been Christians, who have been raised on the stories of Noah’s ark, the Red Sea and Easter, we can fall victim to numbness and become forgetful of just what the messages are that we are hearing.
Until we are placed in a situation in which we have no other choice but to come face to face with the radical offensiveness of our religion, as it so happened here two weeks ago.
On November 23, we decorated the sanctuary, putting up the tree, stringing up the lights. It came time to hang up the paraments: the banners that hang on the back wall.
But there was a disagreement. The wall hangings were the right color of the season: purple. But the graphics appeared wrong.
Instead of symbols of Advent, there were images of Lent: a crown of thorns and a set of nails. As one person stated they found the images to be offensive for the Advent season.
I was struck by this person’s passion on the subject and the word they used: offensive. After all, offensive is a strong word, therefor offensive was the word I could not get out of my head.
Here we are celebrating the season of Advent, which is the joyful waiting for the arrival of baby Jesus, and today we have a scripture exclaiming "Comfort, O comfort my people."
And yet we have wall paraments featuring nails and thorns: far from images of comfort, definitely graphics that can be seen as offensive.
But yet, as Christians, the truth is that the baby who is born Christmas day is the same one who will grow up to be nailed to a cross, and as offensive as that fact is, we can not run away from it, or act as if it not part of the story.
But seeing the nails and crown of thorns does not provide the comfort we seek and celebrate this season, or does it?
After all, how can you speak words of comfort to someone until they have first gone through a time of trial and a time of pain?
If you are like me, you may be fascinated by the diversity that exists Christianity, and perhaps you may feel, as I do, that when it comes to the suffering of Christ, there appears to be three branches Christianity.
There’s the first branch that seems to be very up-front and in your face about it. You walk into their church and the first thing you’ll see is a crucifix with a very gaunt, pained looking Jesus on it.
Everywhere you look is suffering. Stained glass windows show Jesus on the cross, or his dead body being cradled in his mother’s arms.
Some churches feature a permanent display of what they call the stations of the cross which plainly show all the indignities Jesus went through.
Other churches will sing songs all about the blood of Christ: being washed in his blood, being made clean in his blood. No sermon would ever be given, no bible study every shared in which the blood or crucifixion wasn’t highlighted.
Then there’s the second branch of Christianity. hey focus more on the life of Jesus: his teachings, his friendships, his acts of social justice.
Look around that church and you won’t see any image of suffering. Instead you may spot Jesus walking on water, or welcoming children or images of modern day scholars and theologians.
Instead of displaying Christ on the cross, they display an empty cross, symbolizing Christ’s’ resurrection. Sit through a whole service and you may not hear the words sin, suffering or the cross.
This branch may do everything to avoid the suffering of Christ, using instead feel good platitudes and thoughts of positive imagery.
But if all you do is focus on suffering then you forget the joy that comes with being alive, but if all you do is focus on the joy, you become blind to the suffering of the world and the suffering of yourself.
Then there is the third branch, which finds that happy medium in between.
Jesus in embraced as a joyful teacher who shared meals, told stories, built relationships, smiled and had a good laugh. But he is also acknowledged as being punished for his beliefs and willing to die for us.
This is where through the ministry of Jesus the congregation becomes thankful for what they have but also see with new eyes the suffering and injustices that they and others endure.
This is a church that is able to confront the harsh reality of human sin, to stare in the face of the suffering Christ, but can recall that on Easter morning, God’s love conquers all, and we are forgiven, beloved children of God, through Christ.
The third branch of Christianity is able to fully and joyfully embrace the words of "Comfort, O comfort my people" because they have dealt openly and honestly with the painful realities of life that not all is fair and comfortable.
That the one who will be born in a manger is the same one who will die for us on the cross.
"Comfort, O comfort", are the words we hear the prophet share with the people.
These are ageless words, tempered with tears and sighs too deep for words.
The people have faced long, long years of hardships. They have lost everything they know, endured suffering, humiliation and great pain.
"Comfort, O comfort my people" are words that come after decades of wondering who they are, where God has been and if God still loves them.
And it is the words that we as Christians listen to as we await the coming of the Messiah.
But, as stated before, words of comfort can only be offered when an ordeal has been faced or after the worst is long over.
And comfort is what I wish to share with you today, and comfort is what God offers to us to take away the offensive sting of reality.
For although our paraments connect the offensive nature of Lent with the joyful message of Advent, there is a part of the story we have just barely touched upon today.
For in the midst of all that is offensive, there is ultimately hope.
As offensive the story of Noah’s’s ark can be, the outcome is the comforting gift of the rainbow and the giving of the covenant between God and his people.
As offensive as the Passover story is, the outcome is the comforting freedom of God’s people in which they are lead to a new land where they are free to become who God has called them to be.
And as offensive as the nails and crown of thorns seem, the comforting outcome is that on Easter morning, the tomb is found empty and the truth is discovered the Jesus Christ as been resurrected.
Through his unselfish action son the cross, our sins are wiped away, death has lost its controlling sting over us, and God proves that it is he, not politics, not principalities, nor the sinful desires of men and women, that have the final say.
On that resurrection day, when the tomb is found empty, it is Christ who provides Mary Magdalen ultimate comfort when he speaks her name.
Later he gives the comforting gift of the Holy Spirit to the disciple as they fearfully hid in the upper room..
The crucifixion proves to be the ultimate offense, but the resurrection proves to be the ultimate source of comfort.
So today and for the rest of this season, I invite you to start thinking about your faith and what Christianity means to you.
The offensive and revolutionary message that when Emmanuel, God with Us, came to earth, it wasn’t in a place of royalty or household of riches, but it was to a scared, unwed pregnant girl.
The offensive part that Jesus did not rise to a position of prestige or political greatness, but instead walked with us, shared in our sufferings and faced all the hardships we had to endure.
I invite you to realize that the baby who is born on Christmas day is the same man who will free us from the bondage of sin by dying for us on the cross, and is the same one who will speak words of comfort and peace on Easter morn.
These realities of Jesus are not separate, they are not divisible, they are forever connected, forever real.
Offensive and comfortable, suffering and joy.
And he did all of this to show us just how radical God’s love is for us, to show us just how far God will go for each and every one of his children.
All thanks be to the Spirit that has been bestowed upon us, to God who gathers us like lambs into his loving arms, and for Jesus Christ, who is the reason for the season.
Amen and amen.