Second Sunday in Advent – December 4, 2011 – St. John’s
Scholars believe that the second part of the Book of Isaiah presents a message of hope that was addressed to Israelites in exile about six centuries before Christ. Running from chapter 40 through chapter 55, this section contains some of the most familiar, most beautiful, and most moving passages in the Bible. We heard one of these passages today, in the very first verses of this section: “‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says your God,” it begins; the prophets are told to “speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” and to tell her that her sins are forgiven and her exile is about to end. A highway must be built, lowlands filled in, hills leveled, curves straightened, so that God may lead his people in triumphant procession back to Zion. Jerusalem herself is to become the bearer of glad tidings, of good news, that the Lord God is coming with power, like a shepherd to feed his flock and carry the lambs home.
The prophets have good news to proclaim, have a Gospel–a word that has become so familiar to us that we often fail to give it much attention. The words of the prophet, if we listen attentively, convey its striking character. There is the plaintive repetition of the defining verb: “Comfort, comfort my people.” The prophet is to speak “tenderly” to a people who have suffered much in their exile. Unforgettable words set to unforgettable music as the very first part of Handel’s Messiah. “Comfort ye, comfort ye, comfort ye my people!”
The passage is part of the background on which St. Paul drew when he described his own message as “the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” And the association with the prophet’s good news is made explicit in the very first words of St. Mark’s book, the work that created the literary genre we call a Gospel: “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” Both St. Paul and St. Mark see Jesus Christ and his message and work as the fulfilment of the prophet’s vision, which begins to be realized as the Baptist is presented as the voice that cries out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord!” In Christ, the Apostle and the Evangelist are saying, comes the Lord, comes God, leading his people back home to himself.
Two things are worth reflecting on. The first is the symbolism of exile itself. Few themes occur more frequently in St. Augustine’s sermons than that of exile. He sees the Church as wandering as a stranger on earth, which is a foreign land to those who pine for their true homeland, which is with God. He doesn’t mean this, of course, of some entity apart from us; when he says that the Church is a peregrina, a wandering stranger; he means that we, each and all, ought to consider ourselves strangers here, resident aliens in a sense, restless, eager to get home. There may be some in this very congregation who are literally exiles, and others who are here voluntarily but think lovingly of the country they left behind; some perhaps are or have been temporary residents in other countries (I myself spent four years in Rome and remember how much I looked forward to returning); others may be able to think of being tourists and toward the end of the trip looking forward to being home. Those are the kinds of feelings and desires Augustine wanted to invoke by the exile-metaphor.
But the metaphor that Augustine applied to the Church he, master-psychologist that he was, also used to describe the inner exile that a person can experience when he is not living as he should, when he has gone out of himself in search of things unworthy of himself. Such a person, Augustine said, is “an exile from his own breast,” from his own heart, and the Gospel is a call for him to return to his true self, to be at home once again with God. To be exiled from one’s true self–what a striking image of the alienation that sin can cause, not only separating us from God and from others, but also dividing ourselves in two, exiling us from ourselves.
And this points up the importance of the first words the prophets of this season are to speak to us exiles: “Comfort, comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” Tell them their exile is over, that their God is coming with power to lead them home. Good news. Glad tidings. This is the first word that the prophets speak, that the apostles speak, that Christ himself speaks to us. It is a word of comfort, of tender assurance, of joyful announcement. Christianity is a gospel. Good news. Glad tidings.
Unfortunately, that is often not the first or the most frequent word that Christians hear from their leaders and teachers. And, no less unfortunately, this often is not the first word that comes to mind when many Christians are asked to describe what Christianity is all about. We ought to be a people who, while not quite at home in this world, are living lives made joyful by hope, in a community that lives out of this hope and with this joy, exulting at the good news we have heard, joyful together, eager to tell others and to invite them into our joy. They are the more likely to respond to that invitation the more they can see in us a community peaceful and joyful at the words of comfort this season proclaims and at the great gift of God to us that we will soon be celebrating at Christmas.