Sunday 12062020 Sermon Notes Isaiah 40:1-11
Life is good. God wants us to enjoy it. Life can also be very difficult. The Christian Faith acknowledges these fundamental truths, grounded in the teachings of the early Church as well as our Jewish forebears. The voice of the prophet returns each year in this text from Isaiah 40 to remind us of God's care and compassion. God comes to us as a comforter, even and especially when all other comfort is gone. John wrote of this comfort many times, including in 1:5 ""The Light shines in the darkness. The darkness will not overcome it."" Even when it feels as though the darkness is insurmountable, when all hope is lost, even when it feels that God has abandoned us, Light still shines.
Sometimes we need to hold this light for others till they can experience it again. Other times we need them to do this for us. This is one of the purposes of the church - do declare Comfort and Hope when they seem impossible.
COMFORT. What images are conjured when you hear the word?
The other range of meanings has to do with comforting the grieving.
What is the role of a church in offering comfort?
Again, our first thought is probably that of consoling the grieving. Many of us could tell stories of how our church family was a source of comfort to us when we lost a loved one. This congregation has also offered this ministry of comfort to complete strangers from our campus and community. People who in their moment of need reached out to us, hoping beyond hope, and were enfolded by grace.
We might also be able to describe painfully how we felt let down, disappointed, even abandoned by the church, or even the pastor, when they did not offer the kind of care and comfort we felt we needed in those seasons. Both can be true, and are worthy of our consideration and deeper reflection and understanding. We need to celebrate and give thanks for the ways that our church family has supported us. We also need to learn from the apparent gaps. How can churches, and each of us individually, do a better job of caring during loss? Who are the rockstars among us who naturally and gracefully bring meals, send notes, make calls, and just sit with us to bear witness? Some of you are amazing at this and the rest of us need you to step up and lead us. Please don’t hide your light under a basket out of humility. If you have this gift, offer it.
The church cannot meet all of our needs, in this area or any other.
We were watching a drama series called Virgin River. The scene in question features Mel, our protagonist, and her then boyfriend Mark. He gets down on one knee with a jewelry box in his hands, one that she’s just fished out of a bowl of popcorn as they sit down to watch a Julia Roberts movie. (Lovely so far, right?) Then Mark says, “If you’ll marry me, I promise you that I’ll spend every day for the rest of my life working to make you happy.” … UMMM…. NO.
That’s not other people’s job - our spouse or anyone else - to make us happy. Our happiness is our responsibility. Therefore, so is our comfort, ultimately. We have to take responsibility for our own emotional health and spiritual health, just like for our physical health. Plus, happiness is not the goal of life. Joy and Peace are much more important and lasting. So we need to communicate what we then do hope for from others that would support us in our striving for peace and joy.
Jeremiah 31 serves as a close parallel to Isaiah 40, including the use of the word “comfort” in the context of God’s relationship to Israel following their conquest and captivity. Verse 15 tells us: “Rachel refuses to be comforted.”
This is such a timely word for us as a congregation, as a nation, and among the human family in this day. We use the word “inconsolable” to describe someone who cannot be comforted. They are so wracked by grief that they “refuse to be comforted.” Perhaps they are in the denial or anger stages. Or later the blaming or bargaining stages. Only until we reach the acceptance stage in our grief can we truly experience comfort - whether from others, from within, or from God. We must acknowledge the reality of our loss, the impossibility of going back to the way things were, and look toward a hope for the present and future to be made new by God’s power and love.
Again, in the show Virgin River, several of the characters are stuck in this “pre-consolation” stage of their own grief - over lost children, lost love, lost opportunity. The plot line follows them as they “work out their own salvation with fear and trembling,” learning from one another, rubbing against each other the way sand and water smooth the surface of a canyon wall. One of the reasons we need community - like a church community in particular - is because this can be a place where we show up in honesty and vulnerability, with our wounds and pain, and together form the container that holds us while we heal. In this process, we give and receive comfort.
Just this last week it was again reaffirmed to me that, “Yes, Central Christian Church as we have known it will likely not survive much longer.” Accepting this reality, moving through all the earlier stages of grief like denial, anger, blaming and shaming, we arrive at a place where we can give and receive the comfort God has for us.
Many of you have returned the questionnaire sent out by the elders several weeks ago. We will include a link to it again here in the comments on facebook, and you can find it on our website at cccdt.org/future. Among the questions is whether you want to continuing worshipping at Central. It is important to clarify that we are not just being asked, “what is your wish, your desire, your hope.” If that were the question, nearly all of us would say, “YES!!! Of course I want Central to remain and to be my church home.”
Think of the question this way. You and your family are by the bedside of a loved one who has been struggling for a long time, and likely has very little chance of quality of life. The doctor is asking whether you want “heroic measures” - that’s the phrase they use - to keep your (mom, dad, spouse, child, sibling, friend…) alive? They do not ask, “Do you want your beloved to survive so that your relationship can continue as you have known it?” In most cases the answer is “OF COURSE I DO! HOW COULD YOU ASK THAT?” Rather, the question is whether in this situation, with this set of facts, facing this reality with eyes wide open… Is the act of love, of faith, of hope, of courage, is that to do everything possible to keep the patient alive no matter the cost or the consequences? Or is the brave and loving thing to acknowledge the reality, to say the words of love in your heart, and to say, “Until we meet in heaven…” and say goodbye?
Then, if it hasn’t been done already, comes the work of planning the celebration of life, and the legacy that will honor the life past by blessing those yet to come.
Let us no longer refuse to be comforted like Rachel.
Let us no longer cling hopeless and helpless to the past that cannot return.
There can be no healing without honest acceptance of the current reality.
There can be no moving forward without a letting go.
There can be no resurrection without first a death.
There can be no Christmas, no Incarnation, without the journey of Advent, the expectation of God’s New Creation born is us, and through us in the world.
Comfort, comfort, my people, says the LORD.