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Take Comfort

A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on December 4, 2011.

The Second Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 40:1-11

Advent reminds us gently of the interplay between darkness and light. We live in both because life is made up of such realities. But light and dark are symbols of other ways we experience them. In the season of Advent the light comes in the form of hope and despair is our darkness. The tension between the two can look more like an inner war inside us and so Advent points us toward how God has answered the hopelessness that’s ours whenever we keep our heads buried in our problems. Anne Lamott once wrote:  “Hope begins in the dark, the stubborn hope that if you just show up and try to do the right thing, the dawn will come. You wait and watch and work:  You don’t give up.”
The New York Times is not my usual source for stories of everyday persons who are exercising their faith in God. But on the day after Thanksgiving a few years ago, The Times told the story of the humanitarian efforts of a 30-something New York cabbie. He was not a minister nor even particularly spiritual. He was not someone you would confuse with an angel of mercy in a city of sin and brokenness. In truth, he was a very common man whose signature style was his shoulder length hair tied tightly in a ponytail … but he was determined to make a dent in the city’s darkness.

About five years before, this cabby prayed to God for guidance on how to help the forgotten people of the streets who exist in life’s shadows. As he recalls it, God replied concretely with these simple and crazy instructions:  “Make 8 pounds of spaghetti, throw it in a pot, go down to 103rd & Broadway. Give it out with no conditions, and people will come.”

He did … and they did. And now he goes door-to-door giving food to hungry people in need. It’s become a way of life he feels led by God to live. In being followers of Christ, we’re not asked to stuff the Big Apple with pasta. But if a New York cabby can bring light into our Advent preparations, maybe the voice of God can speak to all of us.

Let me give offer simply what I think our Advent calling is to be: Make the Christ who has come a reality a living light in your life and in some other life. Give of yourself to one hurting soul with no conditions. Why? Because the world is filled with pain and cries out for a healing word of comfort and hope. St. Hilary once wrote that “everything that seems empty is full of the angels of God.” We act because God is at work in the world where darkness is strong.

I

The prophet of Isaiah 40 speaks a word of hope to exiles and the prophet gets right to the point:  Jerusalem has “served her term” as the political payment for the spiritual sins of their time. Between the end of Isaiah 39 and the opening lines of chapter 40 is a period of time of some two hundred years. The time of captivity in Babylon was coming to an end and the prophet was preparing to speak to the cries of the heart. He was given the message from God to proclaim comfort. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” he’s told. “The penalty has been paid and they are free to go home.”

But the one proclaiming this goodness faltered. All of us have a sense of knowing something experientially about this, don’t we? At that time when we have just the right words to say in just the right moment, we falter and faint. We miss our moment can’t find the voice to say what’s in our hearts to say.

“Comfort my people,” God said and the prophet answered back, “And what shall I cry?” Then the prophet reminded God of the frailty of the people who’d suffered so. “All people are like grass … they’re as feeble as the flower of the field.” In short he was saying: “God look at all the death and suffering that’s occurred in this foreign land! Take notice of all the crushed dreams here. Where will comfort come from?”

He discovered something that others have also found true:  That saying the words of faith leads him to live in faith more surely than ever. “The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows upon them … but the word of our God will stand forever.”

So God gave him encouragement to say the right thing in the right moment:  “Get you up to a high mountain and herald the good news. Lift up your voice with strength. Lift it up! Do not fear!”

All of us recognize there are times when our voice of faith is more feeble and frail than bold and positive. We don’t act when spontaneity prompts us to do something on behalf of God’s working in the world. We don’t speak out of fear that we’ll be considered odd or out of touch. The prophet reminds us we have a good message and acting on God’s behalf in the right moment is how God goes about transforming the world.

II

Paul Duke tells the story of 19th century British preacher Alexander McClaren. One day McClaren learned that a university lecturer in science, a professed agnostic was attending his church services. So encouraged was McClaren that he preached a series of sermons dealing with the intellectual difficulties to faith. He preached on the intersection of science and faith, expounding on the connections of doubt to believing faith. After a few weeks, the man told McClaren he was ready to commit his life to Christ. McClaren brought up the series of sermons he had preached and expected the professor to affirm that it was because of those sermons that he had found faith.

The professor looked blank and said it wasn’t anything he had heard in a sermon. Rather it was the result of a quiet encounter with one of the members of the church. He told the preacher, “There’s an old woman who comes to church every Sunday. She’s always here,” he said. “The other Sunday when she was going out of church, she stumbled on her way down the steps and I caught her and helped her. Then she turned tenderly to me and said, ‘Thank you very much. Do you know the Lord Jesus Christ? He means everything to me.’”

The professor explained he went home from that simple encounter and the good word of her own faith. That spoken word grew until it became the very Word of God alive in him.[1]

Paul Duke explains: The world isn’t waiting for eloquence. The world isn’t waiting for a professional. The world isn’t waiting for all (the) answers. The world waits for ordinary, faltering voices to say the word of hope they have. From there the Word (the Living Word of God) will do its work. Lift it up. Be not afraid.

[1] Paul Duke, “The Faithful Word and the Faltering Voice,” Interpreting Isaiah for Preaching and Teaching, Cecil Staton, Jr. editor, Macon: Smyth and Helwys, 1991, 110-111