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Comfort in a Time of Fear

Rev. Dr. Karin Case
Sun, Dec 10

Texts: Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8

Today we light our Advent candle—the candle of peace, and we hear the beautiful and familiar words of the Prophet Isaiah,

‘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,

I challenge you to hear this passage without also hearing Handel’s tenor recitative in the back of your mind! With or without Handel’s Messiah, these are glorious words! Powerful words of promise—the mouth of the Lord has spoken it!

Are Isaiah’s words merely a stirring sentiment for ancient peoples who were expecting a coming messiah? Can it be that these promises speak to us—even now—in the midst of this hurting and broken world we know so well? This world of rough and crooked places—rife with corruption, exploitation, and injustice—broken by war and conflict.

How can we speak of peace this week, of all weeks, when the unilateral actions of a U.S. president have triggered deadly violence in Jerusalem and Gaza? On Wednesday, Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and began making plans to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv.

Many have welcomed this move, claiming that Jerusalem is the rightful capital of Israel. Some of my Jewish family, friends and colleagues, have welcomed this announcement, but most are critical of both method and the timing. Some have decried the announcement, claiming that Trump is giving something that is not his to give. It is terribly problematic for Palestinians, who also lay claim to the Holy City of Jerusalem. Many worry that Trump’s unilateral declaration may preclude any Palestinian claims, that it will derail the possibility of a peace process, and that it makes a two-state solution nearly impossible.

I raise these issues, not as Middle East expert, or because I would venture to preach about foreign affairs, but as a concerned Christian. For decades, I have prayed the words of Psalm 122:

6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
   ‘May they prosper who love you.
7 Peace be within your walls,
   and security within your towers.’
8 For the sake of my relatives and friends
   I will say, ‘Peace be within you.’
9 For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
   I will seek your good.

I have prayed these words through two trips to Israel, and placed this prayer on tiny scraps of paper, folded into the cracks of the Wailing Wall. And still there is no peace. Here we are, in 2017, reading beautiful, ancient texts of the people of Israel, while our president ignites sparks that lead to violence and death in the region.

What are we to do with our feelings of fear, anxiety and despair? What does it mean to pray for peace and even to work for peace in such a context? Isaiah speaks to this. His words offer comfort in a time of fear. Perhaps we are accustomed to the idea of God as comforter, but for Isaiah’s time, this was something new and remarkable.

Other biblical texts, speaking to the same circumstances, can be full of judgment. In the decades after the Babylonian conquest—in a time of great fear and anxiety, when Israel had been crushed by invading armies, and by all apparent measures, things were going very badly, a time when the Babylonian super-power had laid waste to the land— Jeremiah and Ezekiel come on strong.

Rather than proclaiming words of comfort, they blame Israel for these disasters, claiming that it is Israel’s sinfulness that has brought catastrophe upon it. The God portrayed by these prophets is fair, and just, but nonetheless, an exacting God who demands faithfulness and who punishes and judges.

There’s something different in Isaiah. Instead of harsh words of judgment, Isaiah proclaims God’s comfort. God comes, not as to punish or destroy, but as a comforter. Isaiah writes,

“God will lead his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.” (Isa. 40:11)

God is intimate, tender, and very, very near. These are strikingly fresh images. Yes, the God of Israel comes in power and might. But God also approaches tenderly, with a heart of compassion and words of comfort.

Here’s why this is so new. Jodi Magness, Scholar of Early Judaism at UNC Chapel Hill, describes the emergence of Israelite religion. She notes that in the ancient Near East, gods were generally seen as both powerful and distant, living “up in the heavens.” Gods exerted their influence from far away and if you wanted to talk with God, you had to do one of two things. Either, go up to a high place, or entice the god to come down to earth. This is why there are so many mountaintop conversations. Mountains are seen as “thin places” where the boundary between heaven and earth is permeable. And in high places, the gods are understood to be close at hand. The other approach, if you wanted to get in contact with a god (small “g”) was to build a temple and entice the god to come down to earth for a visit. This was often done by means of attractive offerings.

In the context of the ancient Near East, with its many peoples and many gods, Magness claims that Yahweh, the God of Israel, was initially seen as a local god of the local Hebrew people. And only gradually did a shift occur to radical monotheism—the claim that this is The One True God and that this God is for all people.

Here in Isaiah is a God who chooses proximity. Who comes into the midst of the people, not waiting in a distant place, or sitting on high in judgment, but speaking tender words of comfort in a time of fear.

It may be that these words of assurance are precisely what we need if we are to be peacemakers. So often fear breeds hostility and violence. When we are afraid, we build walls and erect borders—both literal and figurative. Fear robs us of curiosity and it drains us of compassion. Fear allows us to create narratives of hate. And those narratives perpetuate injustice.

This week Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, gave a riveting talk just down the street at First Parish, as part of the Tanner Lectures. Stevenson claims that fear and anger are the essential ingredients of injustice. “Hopelessness is the enemy of justice, and injustice prevails where there is hopelessness,” he says.

In a time of discouragement, when rulers have failed, and governments reach an impasse, when all seems lost and fear comes stalking, Isaiah cries, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says our God.” Have hope and do not fear!

This proximate God is one who calls us into relationship. It is difficult to begin the work of peace with rules and borders and hard, inflexible boundaries. We need to begin with relationship. We must allow ourselves to come into the presence of the other, to see them as they are, to listen, and to understand their fears. This proximity involves risk, but it can lead to understanding. If you want to make peace with your neighbor, you have to get close enough to see her humanity and feel her pain.

This is the way of Advent. We are called to make a way, to open that space within us where rough places can be smoothed out and crooked things made straight.

May it be so.

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