Monday, December 11, 2017

Sunday's Message: Comfort For God's People

Below is Pastor Rwth's sermon from this past Sunday (12-10-2017) including the slides she used during the 9:00 am Contemporary Service. 

You can view the video from the 11:00 am service on our website:


There’s a story that my Mom tells a lot.  She and my Dad had brought me home from the hospital after my birth.  That first night, I cried and cried and cried—unable to be comforted—despite their around the clock efforts to soothe me.

Finally, as morning arrived, I fell peacefully asleep.  My parents were bleary-eyed and hunched over cups of coffee.  My Mom looked at my Dad and said, “Bob, we’ve been had.”

The next night, I cried and cried and cried.  And Mom and Dad didn’t stay up with me during the night.  Though we would likely disagree with that parenting approach today, apparently I slept more and more on my own during the night, until a night would pass without my crying at all.

I confess that while my Mom thinks it’s a charming story, it makes me a little uneasy. I think the image of a helpless infant crying all alone in the dark without parental comfort is a good description of all of us at various times in our lives.

It certainly describes the Israelites of Isaiah’s time.

It’s around 540 B.C.E.  God’s people, Israel, have been in exile for a long time when this passage from Isaiah comes about.  The Babylonians had destroyed much of Jerusalem, deported many Israelites, and had provoked an economic, cultural, and spiritual collapse.  God’s people were caught in a catastrophe that didn’t seem to have any end.

After 50 years or so of refugee life, the Israelites’ hurt is so bad, they’ve stopped crying in the dark for God to appear and help them. They’ve given up hope and have gone quiet.  God isn’t present to them.  There’s no sense that anything is going to change for the better.  They’re heavy with resignation.

So you can imagine their skepticism when suddenly God breaks in with a promise. Suddenly God is present and speaking compassionately about comfort and renewal!

This good news erupts in the midst of the heavenly council, the angelic host surrounding God.  The angels—being messengers—are jazzed up about spreading the word about God’s comfort.  In the darkness of aloneness, alienation, and exile, God promises peace and restoration!

The angels call upon the prophet to join them in crying out the good news.  But the prophet, stunned by the turn of events, asks: What should I cry out? 

After all, the prophet has found out the hard way that nothing under the sun amounts to anything of lasting value.  Everything in this fragile life can be swept away. 

What can the prophet say to the people who’ve experienced firsthand that everything withers and fades away to nothingness.  All flesh is grass; all its loyalty is like the flowers of the field. . . .Surely the people are grass. There’s nothing anyone can ultimately do to make this bad situation better.

A member of God’s heavenly council agrees.  Yes, the grass dries up; the flower withers. . . . BUT there is someone who does endure, who comes through in the end. . . .our God’s word will exist forever.  God will always claim us as his people.  He will not leave us comfortless. Weeping may spend the night, says the writer of Psalm 30, but joy comes in the morning.

The joy that comes in the morning is that God is here!  God comes into the comfortless darkness with gentle strength and fierce tender care to be with us. 

 The angel tells God’s people to join the prophets in proclaiming this promise: Here is your God, coming with strength. . . .like a shepherd, God will tend the flock; he will gather the lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap.  He will gently guide the mother sheep. 

God will bring all humanity home together and will live with them forever.  God promises deep, ultimate comfort to all who will hear this good news.  God’s presence will appear, and all humanity will see it together; the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.

As Christians we recognize God’s promise of comfort being fulfilled in Jesus.  He’s the good shepherd who gathers all of us into the peace of God’s eternal belonging.  He’s Emmanuel, God-With-Us—our God is here with us, always.  He’s God’s eternal, always enduring Word, the beginning and the end.

The question is: do we in fact experience God’s promise of comfort in Jesus?

Maybe we haven’t given enough room for God’s promise of comfort in our lives.

In last week’s sermon we explored why we need Christmas.  The hard truth is that we are a people in discomfort.  We’re uncomfortable because God creates us to love him and others with our whole selves, yet we turn away from this divine calling. We love so many other things as substitutes for being in right relationship with God and our neighbor.  

Our souls are not at ease.  We have a God-shaped emptiness at our very heart.  Whether we acknowledge it or not, our souls are like infants crying alone in the dark for our divine Father, our heavenly Mother.  We need to feel that emptiness in the season of Advent, so we can fully embrace Jesus at Christmas.

The problem is that we have so many other ways of temporarily comforting ourselves.  We make ourselves comfortable by an endless array of distractions, by consuming things, experiences, and other people, by avoiding challenging questions about the meaning of our lives, by addictions of every kind, and by the strange comfort we receive from judging others as more of a mess than we are. 

But all of that is grass: it’s initially beautiful and lush—it comforts us temporarily—but it all withers away. And we’re still left comfortless.

On this second week of Advent we’re inviting you to get comfortable—not by the usual means—but by seeking God’s promise of comfort in Jesus. 

Get in touch with the comfort that God is actually here—with you—in Jesus.  He’s the comfort in the darkness of our worst moments and our everyday miseries.

When God is with us, who or what can really be against us?  With God in Jesus Christ, we have every strength we need, every comfort we need, and every guidance we need.  And God’s comfort in Jesus is one that doesn’t wither away: it lasts forever.

What opens you to God’s comfort in Jesus?

At the end of the day, God’s comfort is a surprise to us, as it was for the Israelites.  It’s something that comes upon us when we least expect it, when we’re at the end of our rope, when we’ve pretty much given up hope, when we conclude that peace is beyond us.

One evening, when I was a seminary student, I got off the commuter train and set out to walk the relatively short distance to my home.  It had been a really long, busy day.  I had a bad cold.  And freezing rain was falling.  I had dinner to prepare and assignments still to do.  Underneath all of this discomfort were deeper discomforts about my marriage and my call to ministry. 

As I walked, I felt like each step would be my last.  I wanted to give up then and there.  Suddenly, I felt as if there were strong arms about me and supporting me, helping to take one more step—and then another.  I hadn’t prayed for help, but I knew in the moment that Jesus was there, gathering me to himself and guiding me—comforting me.  I made it home.  I made it through another night.  I made it to the next day. . .and the next. . .and the next. 

Later I came across a verse in a song that perfectly expressed God’s comfort in Jesus:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
“Come unto Me and rest;
lay down, oh weary one, lay down
your head upon My breast!”
I came to Jesus as I was,
so weary, worn, and sad;
I found in Him my resting-place,
and He has made me glad.

As we approach Christmas, we pray to receive the truest and greatest gift of the season: an awareness of God’s deeper comfort in Jesus Christ, God’s promise of comfort and joy.