Year B Advent 2: Comfort ye my people

This sermon quotes liberally and loosely the lectionary readings for the day throughout:
Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85, 2 Peter 3:8-15, Mark 1:1-8

Comfort, comfort ye my people.

The history of this oracle is the return of the Exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem. Imagine, they have travelled long and footsore, in hope and fear and anticipation of restoring the glory of the city of Zion, the splendour of the Temple of the Lord, coming home to the Promised Land.

They arrive to find a city in ruins, a temple razed, stones in their feet and stumbling blocks before them. They are weary from the journey and weary of captivity and they are faced with the enormity of the task of rebuilding a new city of God, a shining city on a hill, to reflect the glory of the Lord and the faith and hope of God’s people.

In the face of disappointment, world-weariness, and faith, the prophet offers this oracle:

Comfort, comfort ye my people.

It has been yet another bad news week. The funeral for Tamir Rice was held on Wednesday, just before new grief erupted over the decision of a grand jury in New York not to indict anyone for the death of Eric Garner, just before a long-anticipated federal report detailed over 58 pages of excessive and abusive use of force by Cleveland police.

I take this personally. I chose to move here, to move my family here. I threw in my lot with my neighbours three years ago, taking the oath as a US citizen in the Justice Centre in downtown Cleveland where peaceful protestors gathered once more on Friday evening; I would have liked to have been with them. Because this is personal. I travelled a long way to come here; I have worked hard to make a home here; took my vows as a priest here; and I come home night after night to bad news of another unnecessary death, another act of brutality, injustice turning a blind eye on injustice.

Comfort, comfort ye my people.

The word of the prophet to people stumbling in weariness and disappointment over rough stones and loose rocks, the word of the prophet promises level ground, smooth plains, straight pathways. For the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, when the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Comfort, comfort ye my people.

A couple of thousand years later we look about, bemused, and we wonder what happened to those promises. The temple, rebuilt, was ruined again by the Romans; now, the mountain itself is a source of strife between the nations. The shining city on a hill has been tarnished over and over; we struggle to polish its veneer, but the stains seep back to the surface over time.

The letter of Peter replies, the Lord is not slow about his promise, but patient, so that all have time to come to repentance. We wait for a new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home, because it doesn’t seem to be fitting in too well here right now. Yet we regard the patience of the Lord as salvation.

We see salvation in the opportunities God gives us over and over again to get it right, for love and faithfulness to meet, for righteousness and peace to kiss each other. We regard as mercy the chance to amend our lives, our common lives, to rebuild and restore our faith in one another, our love for our neighbour, our city, our community, to reflect the glory of Lord and the faith of God’s people.

God is patient, awaiting our true repentance, our turning toward the light, the love of the gospel.

It seems almost paltry to mention, in the context of such a task of rebuilding, restoring; to mention our own efforts to raise up our own little church, to make straight the paths into our building, to level the floors, to give equal access to worship and to healing and to prayer. But this is where we start, right where we are, giving of ourselves to prepare a way for all people to come to God, offering the warmth of hospitality, so that when the glory of the Lord is revealed in the sacraments, the gifts that God has given us, the body and blood of Jesus, the baptism of the Holy Spirit; so that when these glories are revealed, all people shall see them together.

We start where we are.

That’s why I took the oath as a citizen, almost three years ago, just four days before I was ordained as a priest in the church. Because we start where we are to do what we can to level the uneven ground, to make the rough places more habitable and hospitable, to raise up a shining city on a hill, to the glory of God and the comfort of the people. Because we see salvation in the patience of God, the withholding of the day of the Lord while we encounter new opportunities to strive for peace, to introduce love and faithfulness, that they might meet, and righteousness and peace kiss one another.

We have time to do better. We have this time, our lifetime, to repent. We have the comfort of knowing that God is a patient God, and bears with us, even in the darkness.

The gospel of Mark tells us that this is only the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. It has been another bad news week, but we, like God, are to be patient, even as we wait for and work for a world where righteousness will be at home. It has been another bad news week, because the good news has only just begun, and God is not slow, but only patient.

Comfort, comfort ye my people.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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