Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“A Word of Comfort” (Isaiah 40:1-5)
December 10, 2017
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Recently The New York Times ran a moving story about a high school basketball team that ended a losing streak that had lasted twelve years—312 losses in row. For 312 straight games the Lady Jaguars of Carroll Academy in Huntingdon, Tennessee lost, no exceptions. Can you imagine? Moreover, Carroll Academy is not an ordinary high school, as journalist John Branch writes:
It is a day school operated by the Carroll County Juvenile Court, which sends troubled teenagers there as a safety net. Some have run afoul of the law, from petty crimes to drug use. Others have a history of truancy or have been kicked out of their home schools for disciplinary reasons. Many are from impoverished, broken homes. All have landed at Carroll Academy as a last chance at completing a high school education (December 3, 2017).
Year after year the Lady Jaguars were used to being the doormats of their league, “routinely on the losing end of laughably lopsided scores,” often at the hands of wealthy private schools. The team has been coached during these entire twelve years by school administrator Randy Hatch, who “has preached the value of basketball, no matter the score” because the players “needed structure in their lives. They needed coaches and teammates to depend on, and they needed to know that someone was depending on them.”
And in double overtime, against Immaculate Conception Cathedral from Memphis, the Lady Jaguars finally ended their twelve year losing streak with a 29-27 victory, led by senior Kaitlyn Evans who scored 22 points. Coach Hatch described what happened when the final buzzer sounded, and after 312 straight losses, the Lady Jaguars basketball team had actually won: “The girls were bawling and grabbing and holding and hugging,” Hatch said. They were saying, ‘Everything’s going to be good. This is a sign.’ And I said yes. It’s a good sign” (The New York Times December 3, 2017).
Today’s passage from the fortieth chapter of Isaiah is one of the high water marks of all scripture, and reassures us that “everything’s going to be good” because of “a good sign” from God: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak 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” (Isaiah 40:1-2). In other words: Comfort my people; their losing streak is over.
This time of year one of the greatest pieces of classical music ever composed, Handel’s Messiah, is often performed. George Frideric Handel composed Messiah over the course of just twenty-four days in the summer of 1741. The lyrics are a combination of texts from the King James Version of the Bible and The Book of Common Prayer. The first words sung in Messiah are the first words from today’s passage in Isaiah 40: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.”
As I have mentioned before, in homiletics class in seminary a professor told us the role of a preacher is “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I dutifully scribbled that down in my notebook. But in the twenty years since hearing those words I have discovered that no one is comfortable. In fact, in one way or another everyone is uncomfortable—not just physically, but mentally or emotionally too, marked by recurring unease, stress, or anxiety.
Last week The Washington Post published an article entitled “Not only are Americans becoming less happy—we’re experiencing more pain too.” Journalist Christopher Ingraham cites numerous academic studies concluding that “Americans are in greater pain than citizens of other countries and have been growing steadily more miserable for decades” (December 6, 2017).
Along these lines in her hit song “Love’s the Only House” country music singer Martina McBride describes a conversation while standing in line at a grocery store:
She said this world is moving so fast
I just get more behind with every day
And every morning when I make my coffee
I can’t believe my life’s turned out this way
All I could say was
Love’s the only house big enough for all the pain in the world
(From her 1999 album Emotion)
Martina McBride is right—love is indeed “the only house big enough for all the pain in the world.” And from our loving God we hear “Comfort, O comfort my people.” To comfort means “to soothe, console, or reassure.” The Hebrew verb nachamu translated “comfort” here literally means, “to cause to breathe again.” In other words, God is speaking through Isaiah, “You can breathe easy again.”
The gospel is a word of comfort for an uncomfortable world.
Why? Because as Isaiah continued, “Speak 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” (Isaiah 40:2). This took place on the cross, where Jesus Christ, the Son of God, served our term, paid our penalty, and received double from the Lord’s hand for all our sins. In fact, Jesus’ final prayer was a prayer of comfort for you—“Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
That we have been completely forgiven, that our penalty has been completely paid by Christ, gives us comfort. In his powerful book, The Cross of Christ the late Anglican priest and scholar John Stott described it this way:
God’s love must be wonderful beyond comprehension. God could quite justly have abandoned us to our fate. He could have left us alone to reap the fruit of our wrongdoing and to perish in our sins. It is what we deserved. But he did not. Because he loved us, he came after us in Christ. He pursued us even to the desolate anguish of the cross, where he bore our sin, guilt, judgment, and death… It is more than love. Its proper name is “grace,” which is love to the undeserving. (God) himself in his Son has borne the penalty for (our) law-breaking (83 and 190).
How do we respond to this? By repentance, as Isaiah continues in today’s passage:
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every 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. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 40:3-5).
In response to God’s words of comfort that our penalty has been paid and our sins forgiven because of Jesus’ death on the cross, we are called to “prepare the way of the Lord,” to repent. We see this in today’s passage from Mark’s account of the gospel that cites Isaiah in describing the ministry of John the Baptist, who “appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4). John the Baptist, like Isaiah and the other Old Testament prophets, as we prayed in the collect for today, were sent by God “to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation” (The Book of Common Prayer 211).
Often the root or source of the discomfort in our lives is sin, the ramifications or fallout of our own sin or the sin of others—and so repentance, preparing the way of the Lord, helps us experience God’s word of comfort that we have been forgiven.
What does this look like?
In preparation for the upcoming release of Star Wars: Episode VIII—The Last Jedi, my wife Steph and I recently watched Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens. Of course, there is nothing nerdy at all about “preparing” to watch an upcoming Star Wars film, right? Early in the film Stormtroopers from the evil First Order have attacked a village on the planet Jakku in search of a map that will reveal the whereabouts of vanished Jedi Luke Skywalker. During battle on Jakku a Stormtrooper has fallen, mortally wounded, and fellow Stormtrooper, FN-2187, kneels beside him. The dying Stormtrooper reaches up a bleeding hand and brushes the helmet of FN-2187, leaving three streaks of blood.
The leader of the attack, Kylo Ren is then asked what they are to do with the villagers, and he sinisterly replies, “Kill them all.” And as the Stormtroopers begin their awful task, FN-2187 lowers his weapon. He has had a change of heart; he has repented. He later rescues a rebel pilot named Poe Dameron, a member of the Resistance against the First Order (aka, one of the good guys) who asks him, “Why are you helping me?” And repentant Stormtrooper FN-2187, who is later named Finn, replies, “Because it’s the right thing to do.” Finn goes on to play an integral role in helping the Resistance locate Luke Skywalker…and what happens next will be revealed in the next film. The repentance of Finn started with his being marked by three streaks of blood.
And it is the same with you. You have been marked by three streaks of blood from Jesus’ hands and feet. You have been cleansed by the blood of the Lamb. Your penalty has been paid. You have been forgiven. This means you can repent, you can prepare the way of the Lord for a new work of God’s grace in your life.
Your repentance does not lead to God’s love; it is a response to it—as Paul wrote to the Romans, “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Romans 2:4). I do not need to tell you of what you need to repent, because you already know. In those areas repentance is simply “the right thing to do.”
The church is a safety net for those who need another chance, a house full of forgiven sinners, a house of love big enough for all the pain in your world, a house where you can receive God’s word of comfort again and again.
One more illustration…Gregory Joseph Boyle is a Jesuit priest and founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the largest gang rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world. This program, which reaches over 10,000 people a year, is centered on repentance in response to the unconditional love of God. In his 2017 book, Barking to the Choir, he writes this about this current season of Advent:
In Advent time, we are reminded over and over again: “Stay awake.” This is not a warning that death is coming but a reminder that life is happening. Now is the day of salvation. We see as God sees: with amplitude, wideness, and mercy. The only moment left to us to participate in this larger love, this limitless, all-accepting love, is the present moment. Can you hear it? The voice of the Beloved (90).
Perhaps today the voice of the Beloved is crying out to your heart, “Comfort, O comfort my people. Your penalty is paid. Your losing streak is over. You are forgiven. You have been marked with the blood of Jesus Christ. So repent and prepare the way of the Lord.”
The gospel remains a word of comfort for an uncomfortable world; for at Jesus’ Second Coming the final buzzer will sound, the losing streak of the world will be over, “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together”—and “everything’s going to be good.”