Sermon Advent II 2022 Isaiah 40:1-11 Rev. Betsy Hogan
It isn't what prophets in the Bible usually get up to.
Those words from Isaiah, Chapter 40, which might be familiar to some of us, beloved of traditional choral singers all over the western world – Comfort, O 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.
Usually paraphrased by John the Baptist, seven centuries later. Who follows them up in his proclaiming of the coming of Jesus by howling at his listeners that they're nothing but a "brood of vipers".
Which is, to put it mildly, a long way from Comfort, O comfort, my people. Isaiah's original version. So different. And 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 perpetrating in justice or letting it happen. Forgetting responsibility for 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 they were 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 and demanding.
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 despair, when they're suffering, when all around them is chaos and uncertainty and fear – suddenly it IS what Isaiah’s for.
Isaiah the prophet, at this moment when Israel's been crushed by Assyria and driven into exile, he has a NEW role as the one who speaks with God's voice. Not with anger, not with frustration, not with shame or blame or threats – but just with grief and care and compassion and comfort.
Isaiah comforts them. He's reassures them. For Israel dragged by the Assyrians into the misery of exile, into the metaphorical wilderness and empty desolate desert of "where's God when I'm scared", it's Isaiah who reminds them that they're not alone. And not to be afraid.
Because they THINK, Israel far from their homeland, hauled by the Assyrian army through fathomless valleys and over hills and mountains of rough and uneven terrain, they THINK that God will never find them. That there's too much distance, that the distance is too treacherous, too bleak, too uncrossable – and that they're lost.
But of course they're not. Because wilderness, desert, valleys, mountains? These are NOTHING to God if they're nothing to you, Isaiah says to the people of Israel – a perfect highway, a straight path, God finding us wherever we are. Feeding the flock like a shepherd, and gathering the lambs in his arms, and carrying them in his bosom, and gently leading those who are with young.
So comfort, comfort, my people. Isaiah says. The gift of this passage isn't just its words. It's the fact that they happened.
Because being a prophet was serious business. Speaking God's provocative demands for justice and mercy and peace into the world was serious business. And we know why! The need for justice and mercy and peace in the world is serious business.
But at the same time... there IS a point when what we need most – even in our radical imperfection and in our patent incapacity to approximate what's righteous – there IS a point when what we need most is just comfort and reassurance and knowing we're not alone.
So the gift of this passage isn't just its words. It's that they happened. It's that when the prophets were speaking God's word into the world, it was also a word of compassion and a word of shelter and an invitation to lean in and rest.
Even John the Baptist, who took that serious business of being a prophet very seriously indeed – still, he used these same words from Isaiah. Speaking God's word to those who came to be baptized as a word of compassion and a word of shelter and an invitation to lean in and rest.
And be fed, and gathered, and carried, and led. And that matters.
It may seem odd for me to segue at this point to various outdoor festive happenings on Spring Garden Road and the Grand Parade and the Public Gardens and the Waterfront – but I’m going to make it even more odd by first detouring to the name of a restaurant just OFF Spring Garden Road across from the Library that’s always struck me as a very strange choice.
It's Pane e Circo – Bread and Circuses. Which was a phrase coined in first century Rome essentially as a description of how dictatorial oppressive emperors successfully placate their populations. With bread and circuses. Like, as long as people have bread, and get entertained periodically with circuses, no one’s going to rise up and try to wreck your empire.
Which makes it an odd, if not also slightly sinister choice for a restaurant name, it seems to me -- but what it also happened to remind me of this week is the far more wonderful variation coined by American Women’s Suffrage activist Helen Todd. Who called for not the “bread and circuses” that sustain empire, but instead for “bread and roses”. For the “bread and roses” people deserve and should get to expect.
It was, in the context of early 20th century strike actions by the largely female workforces in the textile industry at that time, a firm and fierce declaration that what those working women were made for and what they deserved – what WE’RE made for and what we deserve as a human family -- isn’t just food for the body but also food for the spirit. Not just bread but also roses. Not just bread but also beauty and brightness and specialness and care and joy.
So all these outdoor festive happenings on Spring Garden Road and the Grand Parade and the Public Gardens and the Waterfront: it can be really easy to cynically conflate them with bread and circuses. Particularly if we’re feeling disillusioned and discouraged. Particularly if we’re feeling wearied by so many issues and so few solutions. Particularly if we’re feeling mighty cynical already because among other things, the putative provision of the BREAD part of the equation is manifestly not what it should be.
It's easy to cynically conflate all of it with bread and circuses.
But I really think, in this particular Advent season, that not only Isaiah but even John the Baptist might get a catch in his throat and just suggest to us gently, just a bit in this Advent season, to maybe just let ourselves lean in and rest… and think of them instead as roses.
Is that naïve and simplistic and ludicrously Pollyanna? It absolutely is.
But we get to feed our spirits too. And the Public Gardens lit up, and all the other festive goings-on – the Grand Parade, the Old Library, the concerts and the carol sings, and the Christmas lights on people’s houses –
Even Woody the seriously weird-looking Talking Christmas Tree –
Are they all about Baby Jesus and the gift of his Nativity? No, they’re really not. And yet at the same time, they absolutely are. Because if we just lean into them close enough that the context that breeds our cynicism falls away, they’re the roses.
They’re just the specialness and the beauty and the holiness and even the joy. They’re the gifts that remind us we’re loved by God who embraces us. I used to practically crawl on my hands and knees to my kids’ Winter Concert every year, including one memorable year when the entire school had been sent home with head lice that noon…. But I’d always wind up teary at how beautiful they all were, up there forgetting the words and standing in the wrong spot and squeaking their recorders.
And it’s possible I was just overtired, overwrought, and pretty much over all of it – but that’s exactly when Isaiah’s promise to Israel breaks in. Comfort, comfort my people. Lean in. These are the roses. The pretty things, the twinkling lights, the canned carols, even the recorders.
Lean in, and let them be the roses. Lean in, and let them be holy. Let them be the gifts, the embrace, the reminders you’re loved and you’re not alone.
And in the words of the Apostle Paul, may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.