Sermon for December 13, 2015

Verlee A. Copeland

Texts Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-4


Finding Joy in Sorrow


The year I turned three we didn’t go to church for Christmas. We had moved to tiny house number two of three tiny houses, following my father who was following a job to dig us out of a hole I was too young to know we were in. All I know is that my baby brother and I got a set of plastic Mickey Mouse ears and some cardboard building blocks for Christmas and that my mother was sad and my father was nervous.

         I later learned that my father had gone bankrupt, partnering with a scoundrel, and that we had to move away from the first house my parents ever owned on acreage in the country, with dreams of horses and children playing in the fields. Now here we were in a rented house in the city on a busy street, alone in a house with mom while Dad started over in the job that he could not have known would become his thirty-year career.

         What made that Christmas sad was not that we moved, or that Dad had a new job, or that we didn’t have any money for Christmas presents. What made Christmas sad was that we didn’t yet have a church. It’s the only time in six decades that I haven’t been to church for Christmas.

         Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be that way. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God…He will feed 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.”

         If ever the world needed God’s comfort it is in such a time as this. Warnings of climatic catastrophe and random acts of violence raise anxiety for people everywhere. We entered the season of Advent this year with an inordinate measure of sorrow, in some of our lives and in many parts of the world from Paris to San Bernadino. Things we once thought we could count on seem uncertain. Civility in public discourse seems to have all but disappeared.

         It’s tempting to put on ashes and sackcloth, the costume of mourning in ancient times. Who could blame us for sitting around wringing our hands in the face of it all. The gap between the suffering of our lives and the joy of the Lord seems inordinately vast, after all.

         Hear God’s Good news. Help is on the way. From the time of the prophet Isaiah, God has promised God’s people that in the midst of every sadness, there will be comfort, at the heart of all suffering, there will be a certain joy.

         God is producing a great cosmic play that ends with the utter transformation of the world into a peaceable kingdom where lion lays down with the lamb. The comfort we need is coming. The prophet says prepare the Way for the Lord…Get ready.

         We don’t make comfort happen. We can, though, if we choose, create a context in our lives and the world into which God’s comfort will be born.

         When a baby is coming into the family, everyone prepares. First time parents clean out the spare bedroom and haul boxes to the attic. Friends host a baby shower to gather needed supplies and cute toys for a child they can only imagine and do not yet know by name. Extended family members plan journeys to be present for the big event.

         But make no mistake, the baby will come whether the parents are prepared or not. The life that grows inside a mother will in due season enter the world, ready or not, one way or the other, whether or not the nursery is painted pink or blue or green, or Baby Gap has delivered the latest environment friendly diapers. The preparations we make as parents are for our sake, not the baby’s sake. The child cares little whether or not she is laid down in a shoebox lined with warm dishtowels, or a $2,000 crib. All she cares about is that she is received in love by someone with single-minded devotion who anticipates her arrival with joy. Prepare the way of the Lord.

         We prepare the way of the Lord like parents of a firstborn infant, creating an inviting place to receive the anticipated child.

Or consider another scenario. We prepare the way of the Lord like stage-hands at the Ogunquit Theater, gathering props. John the Baptist appears as the pre-season house manager, shouting orders for everybody to repent of their sins. He’s not dressed up for the play. It’s not yet opening night. He’s wearing his prophetic work clothes, a hair shirt, and eating locusts and wild honey, not filet mignon and lobster. “Repent”, he says, “clean out your spiritual house”. Get rid of the detritus from last year’s production, the trash that litters the stage of your life. The past is over. All that matters now is God’s coming season.

         He gives us a sneak preview of the big event. The most famous director of all time is coming to our little hometown. We catch a glimpse of the theme of the event.

"Let every valley be lifted up, And every mountain and hill be made low; And let the rough ground become a plain, And the rugged terrain a broad valley." Isaiah 40:5

The first act is called “Comfort, O Comfort my people.” At the opening scene the world appears dark and brooding. Scenes from the suffering world appear not unlike the opening scenes of the academy award winning production of “Les Miserable”. Before the French Revolution, we enter this famous production with close angle cameras taking us right into the despairing faces of men forced into labor, chained to their stations as they row a massive ship into harbor. These men suffer for crimes as small as stealing a loaf of bread for a starving child. We can hardly bear watching it. We’re drawn to the brink of despair with them. It is into such a world as this that God is born, a world not unlike our own.

What happens next makes all the difference in the world. If you Google a question like, “Where do atheists find hope in suffering, or comfort in sadness” you will discover a litany of things that we can do for ourselves. If you study signs of Christian hope, you see a very different story.

We participate in God’s comfort for the world, but the star of the show is God, not us.

The world gives us plenty of reason for discouragement, but God provides comfort.

The world rejected Mary and Joseph, pregnant and weary from travel, far from home. God turned the no vacancy sign of rejection into the comfort of a manger.

         The world threatened the life of baby Jesus, as Herod set out to kill all children under the age of two. God turned the danger sign of violence into the safety of a foreign land, as Joseph followed a vision to Eqypt where God kept these refugee’s from harm’s way.

         The world resented Jesus’ powerful preaching and teaching God’s word as if the Kingdom of God were at hand. God softened the hearts of many who heard that God was doing a new thing. Jesus said, “Let those who have ears to hear, listen and understand.”

Prepare the way of the Lord, the Kingdom of God is at hand, God’s production is about to begin. The tricky part is that the Director will come at an unexpected hour. Mark 13:24-37 says “Then they will see the Promised One coming in the clouds with great power and glory…But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only God. And what I say to you I say to all: Keep Awake.”

We don’t get to know the day nor the hour of opening night. We don’t know if it will be a matinee or a Friday evening show, in the height of summer or off-season when the house is quiet and the tourists have all gone home to Massachusetts.

What we do get is advance notice of God’s cosmic event through Jesus that changes everything. We get a sneak preview of the playbill so that we can better discern how best to prepare. God gives us every opportunity to consider what props will set the stage for God’s promised comfort, hope, mercy, and peace. All of our Christmas preparations serve that end.

This is good news. If what we’re doing isn’t preparing the nursery or setting the stage for God with us through Christ, then abandon the plan now. Time is short. The day and the hour are coming. If your Advent Preparations lighten your heart or bring joy to another, knock your socks off. But if your preparations drain the lifeblood out of you, one more series of tasks on an endless to do list, then abandon the tasks. The joyless grind of 14 - hour days preparing for some abandoned script will not serve you, God or the world. If your Advent preparations do not participate in God’s plan to lift every valley and make a straight way in the wilderness, then abandon the plan.

The odd thing about God’s comfort according to the prophet Isaiah is that it begins with repentance. When we’re doing something that is making us sad, mad, discouraged, or angry, we get to stop it. Change directions. When you’re going down the wrong road, we can turn around.

Though I could not have known it as a child, my parents repented sixty years ago of a life that was not producing joy. God fed my parents like a shepherd in their sorrow. God gathered those lambs in his arms, and God carried them in his bosom, gently leading the mother sheep to a new church, in a new town, where my brother and I were baptized four months later. My parent’s preparation for new life started on their knees, at a manger, as strangers in a new land, and God led them as God leads all of us, through Christ, to life.

        Christ is coming soon to a world near you. Prepare the way. For soon, very soon, at an unexpected hour, unto us a child will be born. “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Amen