Sermon Advent II 2020 Isaiah 40:1-11                              Rev. Betsy Hogan

It isn't what prophets in the Bible usually get up to.

These words from Isaiah, Chapter 40, which might be familiar to some of us, beloved of traditional choral singers all over the western world – Comfort, Comfort my people. And He shall feed his flock like a shepherd, and gather the lambs in his arms.

These aren't the sort of words that the prophets in the Bible usually found themselves inspired by God's spirit to proclaim. And we can sometimes forget that, because if we've been around for loads of years we've heard them probably every Christmas.

And so we kind of lose track of the fact that they're actually quite extraordinary.

Because the prophets in the Bible, and Isaiah among them, their usual role and the content of their usual proclamations – to put it mildly, "gentle" wouldn't be the first word that comes to mind.

In fact, the whole point of the prophets was to be relentlessly, incisively, provocatively UNgentle. In calling God's people to account. In shaking God's people out of their complacency. 

In forcing God's people to look with eyes wide open at the ways they were letting injustice happen. Forgetting to take care of the vulnerable, failing to protect the weakest, leaving the poorest behind to fall through the cracks.

The prophets were outrage personified. Righteous holy anger embodied, searing in their condemnation of people's greed and selfishness, and DEMANDING.

DEMANDING repentance: turning away from wrong and back to God's way of love and justice. DEMANDING change, DEMANDING better, RAILING at their listeners to stop, look around..... and get it together.  

They were not, to put it mildly, "gentle". The prophets were what happened to God's people when "gentle" really wasn't getting the job done. And God was fully fed up. 

Think of the prophet Micah, speaking in God's voice and saying "I HATE, I DESPISE your festivals. Don't come to me with your burnt offerings. Because what do I require of you? To do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly in my way."

Or the prophet Amos: "ENOUGH with the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll down like the waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."

The prophets weren't playing. They weren't gentle. They weren't polite.

And Isaiah's no different. A prophet like the others, AS furious, AS provocative, AS uncompromising and outraged.

Until suddenly he's not. Until suddenly his role as God's voice speaking into the people completely changes.

It's unprecedented. It isn't what prophets are for, it isn't the point of prophets, until suddenly – when God's people are in anguish, when they're suffering, when all around them is chaos and uncertainty and fear – it is.

Isaiah the prophet, when suddenly Israel's crushed by Assyria and driven into exile, he has a NEW role as the one who speaks with God's voice. He's the one who comforts them. He's the one who reassures them. He's the one who reminds them that they're not alone, and not to be afraid...

Because God will feed the flock like a shepherd, and gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.

There's a point, in other words, when what we need most – even in our radical imperfection and in our patent incapacity to approximate what's righteous – there's a point when what we need most is just comfort and reassurance and knowing we're not alone. The gift of this passage in fact isn't just its words. It's the fact that they happened. 

Because there's a point – God knows there's a point -- when tut-tut, do better, try again, just NO. Just "Comfort, O comfort my people. And don't be afraid. And you're not alone."

I've struggled a bit – I think all of us have – with the sort of "first world problems" aspect of this period of lockdowns and anxieties and exhaustion and separations. I say I think all of us have because I've noticed that whenever people mention missing the people they love, or how hard this situation is making their job, or the feeling of anxiety or lonesomeness, or worrying about bills getting paid...... 

There's always really quickly a pivot to how really much more bad this situation is for people who are homeless. Or people who are losing work hours when their kid's school shuts down. Or people in hospital and no one can visit them. Or health care providers. Or "essential workers" making minimum wage and having to enforce masking protocols.

And all those things are true. And there IS kind of a "first world problems" aspect to what we might be feeling. 

And we might even need to be aware of that, to get a little perspective. Even while we grant ourselves enough grace to recognize that God's not keeping a score pad, and sadness is sadness, and loneliness is loneliness, and worry is worry, and none of it is what God wants for us and all of it is why God offers us comfort.

But still, a little perspective can be comforting in its own way. What feels overwhelming or unprecedented for us, others have probably lived with and lived through. 

And so I found myself wondering what ministers preached and congregations heard in Advent of 1940. When after months of growing irritation with "so much panic" and "so many restrictions" during what was quickly dismissed by many as the "Phony War", suddenly the Nazis were rolling over Europe and it was very much not clear that they were going to be stopped.

I think we forget sometimes, when we look back at these broad swathes of history like they're stories with a narrative arc, that there were YEARS that people spent, day after day after day, not knowing that the Second World War would be "won". And by no means was that a foregone conclusion.

So what did ministers preach and congregations hear in Advent 1940. I found a recording, of the provost of Coventry Cathedral preaching his Christmas homily from the middle the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, which had been virtually destroyed along with much of the city six weeks earlier in a Nazi bombing raid. 

And I'm just going to play it. Because if there's nothing that I can say better than Isaiah, about comfort and don't be afraid and you're not alone, there's really nothing I can say better than the provost and choir of Coventry Cathedral, eighty years ago, in their bombed out city.