The following was a homily given at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Missouri on December 4, 2016. The readings were Isaiah 40:1-5, Psalm 72:1-7; Romans 15:4-13, and Matthew 3:1-12 and was proceeded by the performance of the opening scene from Handel’s Messiah
The sixth century was a tumultuous period for ancient Israel. It had been many years since the “glory days” of King David when Israel was a leading power in the Middle East. Israel’s political and economic authority had progressively shrunk, to the point where they were reduced to a vassal state under the rule of the Babylonians. Out of a longing for the former greatness of the kingdom of Israel, leaders began exploring an alliance with Egypt in order free themselves from the power of Babylon. The prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah decried such efforts, warning it would result in disaster: “Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help…but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the LORD!” (Isa. 31:1)
Despite these warnings, Israel’s king, blinded by the fantasy of his nation’s former greatness and glory, forged an ungodly alliance with Egypt to rebel against Babylon. And precisely as the prophets warned, disaster ensued. Babylon’s king Nebuchadnezzar, marched out with his army, defeated the Egyptian forces, sieged the city of Jerusalem, burned the city, tore down its wall, and destroyed the temple. They took the leading people of the nation captive, where they were exiles in Babylon. The center of Israel’s political, economic, cultural, and religious life was utterly decimated.
And as is common with war, the effects on the common folk was horrific and devastating. The book of Lamentations describes in poignant detail the profound suffering and loss experienced by the Jewish people when Jerusalem was destroyed, bringing famine, disease, death, and excruciating sorrow.
Such a catastrophe can provoke many painful questions for a religious community like Israel: “what happened? Where was God?” And perhaps most significantly, “where do we go from here? what now?” God’s people found themselves in profound suffering, confusion concerning what their faith professed, and deep anxiety and even despair concerning their future. This open wound of uncertainty—social and economic uncertainty, political uncertainty, and yes, perhaps most acutely, religious uncertainty, is the backdrop upon which our biblical texts for today emerge.
How might God address this disastrous situation? Depending on how you understand god, your god might speak differently to this situation. For many people, the god they worship, when looking upon their anxiety, uncertainty, and pain might say something like “well…you deserved it. You got what was coming to you. You sinned and now you bear the consequences.” Of course we would never say God was saying that to us, but we might certainly say it about other people, perhaps in more subtle forms: they’re financially struggling because they’re irresponsible; they’re depressed because they’re lazy; their children are a result of their poor parenting. And despite our denials, I suspect in our deep hearts we might at times have the nagging sense that god is saying “sorry, you deserved it” to us as well.
For others, their god might say, “quit whining, get up, and move on.” This god is created from the belief that anything akin to sorrow, pity, or grief is either a waste of time, too uncomfortable to face, or weak. This aversion to anything that seems weak is rooted in a dread and terror of violating our culture’s toxic hyper-masculinity where everything needs to have an overdone appearance of strength and success. For any number of reasons, we can’t face our own weakness, fragility, loss, and sorrow. And this is demonstrated by the amount of time, money, and energy Americans spend on the plethora of substances and activities used to distract and numb the awareness of our deep and profound anxiety, emptiness, and sadness.
These responses to sin and suffering, whether it be “you deserved it,” or “quit whining and move on,” are often justified because one claims they are “taking sin seriously.” The anger, scorn, impatience, and contempt in these responses is not evidence of one who takes sin seriously. Rather it shows one doesn’t take sin seriously enough. Because someone who understands sin, sees how the power of evil weaves its destructive web in ways that far surpass the actions of individuals. The Scripture does not refer to sin merely as actions of individuals, but as a burden, a bondage, a disease, a wound, a well-worn path that is easy to travel on. St. Paul even refers to sin as an invading enemy seeking to occupy territory. To none of these would saying “you had it coming,” or “quit whining and move on,” be an appropriate response, and certainly not a serious response.
So the response of anger and scorn we so frequently have towards the sins of others and even our own sin, is rooted in a compulsive need to blame. We are looking for simple answers to complex problems. We feel this need for a simple one-to-one correlation: you did it—it’s your fault—you’re a sinner—you didn’t get your act together…and that explains your difficulty. This evidences not a serious attitude toward sin, but a less than serious attitude toward sin—even a careless one. Because a serious attitude toward sin would search for a serious understanding of sin, not necessarily the simplest answer of blame. A serious attitude toward sin would seek to understand people in their individual and collective complexity, not in a pre-conceived box of easy answers. A serious attitude toward sin would search for the understanding that leads to the best way forward, not the easiest way to disengage and ignore the problems real people face.
So how does God respond to Israel in their situation of suffering, pain, and anxiety, which one could argue has been brought on by Israel’s own sinful decisions? We heard the words repeated in our excerpt from Handel’s Messiah: Comfort. And in case there is any confusion or surprise the words are repeated, “comfort, yes comfort my people” says your God. This comfort—this gift of strength for those struggling, alleviation of grief for the sorrowful, sense of ease for the anxious, and hope for the hopeless—is God’s first and primary word to the Israel who had been decimated by their nation’s sin. It is the word of comfort, not the word of blame, that God leads with to bring a change and a transformation to Israel’s sorrowful situation.
The text continues: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” There is no room here for harshness, a rehashing of previous failures, or the pointing finger of blame. These words from God come with the gentleness and tenderness the human heart needs to breathe, let down its guard, and face an anxiety-filled future with courage.
“Her iniquity has been paid for.” Literally the Hebrew text reads “her sin has been looked on favorably.” In other words, God looked upon Israel in their sinful condition and God’s favor, God’s propensity to relate to people from a positive and happy state had the final say. Dare we say God’s own smile, has shined upon sinful Israel.
“A voice cries in the wilderness, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” The most famous and well-known “way” or “road” in Israel’s history was the Exodus (which literally means “the way out” in Greek), when God set free the people held captive in Egypt. Now God is about do another reversal of fortunes. But not for those captive in Egypt, but rather the exiles in Babylon.
God will make a road home, bringing to an end their wanderings in exile—and this homeward road is both for the people literally in exile in Babylon, as well as those living with a different kind of exile—those left behind in Israel amidst the rubble and ash heaps of war.
In order to build this road, “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:”
The valley speaks of those who have been beaten down, depressed, and brought low through the difficulties of life. These people God will raise up.
The mountains speak of those who are in lofty positions of power, and use that power to oppress and take advantage of the lowly. These people, God will bring down and make low.
As our Psalm for today says, God will bring justice and the will “defend the needy among the people, he shall rescue the poor, and crush the oppressor.” God has promised a great reversal, where the poor and afflicted of the earth receive justice, equity, and peace.
So what does our passage tell us about God speaking into a situation of sin? Or stated differently, how does God take sin seriously?
- God moves to bring comfort
- God insists on speech with tenderness
- God’s smile radiates into the situation despite the sin
- God promises a great reversal where the poor and afflicted receive justice and the oppressors are brought low.
I’ll close with briefly addressing our reading from the Letter to the Romans. St. Paul says, “May the God of patience and comfort [there’s that word comfort again] grant you to live in harmony with one another according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Well how do we do that? How do we live in harmony with one another in a way that mirrors the God of patience and comfort? I’m glad you asked. St. Paul tells us in the next verse: “THEREFORE, welcome one another, as Christ welcomed us to the glory of God.”
Welcoming one another is not just a slogan: “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You.” St. Paul says if we want to glorify God, we must welcome one another. He writes 16 chapters to the Romans summarizing in glorious form the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and his logical conclusion is: “Welcome one another.” And this does not just mean saying hello. It is a radical and unwavering commitment to a posture of openness, receptivity, and love towards others despite diversity, despite difference, despite conflict, despite our anxieties and fears about others who don’t look, live, believe, worship, or love like us. And this openness is not just words, it is a welcome that incorporates others who may be different than us into our communities as full members, not second-class citizens.
Logically one might ask, “how do we go about doing this welcoming business which St. Paul seems to think is central to the Gospel?” I have some thoughts and they might sound familiar:
- we move to bring comfort to others
- we insist on speaking with tenderness
- we cultivate a positivity with a smile that radiates and outshines the sin we perceive in others
- we commit ourselves to effecting a great reversal where the poor and afflicted, the sad, anxious and sorrowful [meaning the people right next to you], receive justice and peace.
And if this sounds similar to what we saw in our passage from Isaiah 40, don’t be surprised. If we look at that initial “Comfort, yes Comfort ye,” “Comfort” is a command. And who is being commanded to bring comfort? In Hebrew the command is plural. So we’re left with the strong impression that this command is being given to anyone who hears this text or anyone who hears the glorious music of Handel’s Messiah. We are all called to embody and express the comforting and welcoming presence of Christ to all we encounter. As the Body of Christ we are the hands and feet that extend into the world the inexpressible welcome and comfort we are about to receive through the Body and Blood of Christ in the Holy Eucharist.
Therefore I urge you, “welcome one another, as Christ welcomed us to the glory of God.”
May the God of hope fill us with all joy and peace in believing, so that we may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.