A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
December 2, 2018
University Baptist Church
I saw a picture on Facebook the other day with the members of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. Over 150 voices. All dressed in black except for a handful who were dressed in white. The handful represents the members of the original Gay Men’s Chorus, the rest having died, mostly of AIDS. It’s a stark and poignant reminder. I was living in San Francisco during the height of the AIDS crisis. In the years between AZT and the three-drug cocktail, an entire generation of young men died. The grief was palpable and exhausting. Those who got the right drugs had to deal with survivors’ guilt. And we all wondered about the art that never got made, the lives cut short, the music sitting in a discarded folder or in front of an empty chair.
Yesterday was World AIDS Day. When I was starting my ministry almost 30 years ago, people were dying of AIDS and a few remnant churches welcomed people living with AIDS. Here we are generations later. We have learned more about infection, universal precautions and have celebrated the advances in medicine that have staved off the death sentence that AIDS one was. More churches are welcoming and yet the larger Christianity community certainly has room for improvement. The pain of the shun lives large in the consciousness of those traumatized not only by their infection but the disease of too much of religious life focusing on exclusion instead of inclusion. The word that resonates with me is exile. People were exiled from family, from jobs, even from the faith community.
Exile is how the Christian story begins. When Jesus came into the world, the Hebrew people were in exile. They were living in their homeland, but it was governed by a brutal foreign power. People were dying and shunned because of their heritage and because of their faith. If they could not afford the exorbitant taxes levied by the government, they lost their land, their livestock, and their health. Some even lost their lives.
So on the first Sunday of Advent we hear again the prophecy of Isaiah. He was writing to the people when they were in exile and did not know where to turn. Their temple had been destroyed, they were made to march out of their homeland to live in a strange land that was not theirs, displacing people who were living there too. Many were ready to give up, turning their faces to the wall, lost in their despair, waiting to die.
That’s when Isaiah’s words ring out:
The tenor soloist sings the first words heard in Handel's Messiah, quoting Isaiah 40: "Comfort ye my people saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain." Then all the people sing, "And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it." Then the Soprano and Alto sing “And He shall feed his flock like a shepherd.”
Such wonderful words to hear—filled with anticipation, hope and expectation.
If you have ever felt alone; If you have ever felt like the whole world has left you high and dry with no one left to care about you; If you have ever felt beaten up by your family and friends; If you have ever felt like even God has left you; then this scripture from second Isaiah is for you. This entire season of Advent is for you. Christmas is for you.
The book of Isaiah was written by at least three authors separated by about 100 years.
The first 39 chapters chastises Israel for all the things they have done wrong. Their idolatry is the reason for their eventual exile. It’s often called first Isaiah.
Second Isaiah begins in chapter 40 and goes to chapter 55. Many of the traditional prophetic scriptures used during this season are taken from the so-called "book of comfort." Second Isaiah was writing to the people in exile saying that very soon the days will be accomplished when the exile will be ended and the people can go back home to their holy land of Israel, rebuild the temple and enjoy a rebirth. And David, or a new ruler descended from King David anyhow, will take the throne and will lead a nation-state in comfort and peace. Second Isaiah is the only prophet in the entire Bible whose sole calling is to offer comfort and declare salvation.
The last ten chapters of Isaiah were written after the return from exile and deal with how we should live in the world. Jesus quotes heavily from 3rd Isaiah, especially in his first sermon when he quotes Isaiah 61 saying the Spirit of God is upon me because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, to set the prisoners free and to proclaim the year of jubilee (the acceptable year of God’s favor).
Second Isaiah’s mission is to comfort the afflicted. In this time when so many of us feel afflicted, afflicted by warfare; afflicted by terrorism; afflicted by homelessness; afflicted by disease of body or community; afflicted by consumerism; afflicted by dysfunction; afflicted by depression; afflicted by the tentacles of empire which invade out very lives; afflicted by economic factors that threaten our employment or our schools, or our homes, or even the violence of our streets, we need words of comfort.
“Comfort ye my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.” Comfort ye, my people.
In this world of violence, loss of rights, victims being created instead of sheltered, we need some comfort. We need some hope. We need the assurance that we are not alone. We need each other and we need God.
“A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of YHWH, make a highway straight for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” That means all the barriers are removed and in their place is an eight-lane highway for God.
As Isaiah comforts the people, he does not let us off the hook. He still says that the people need to follow God, but in the place of exile, when it seems that all is lost, in that strange land where it’s hard to sing the sacred songs, Second Isaiah offers comfort. The 43rd chapter says: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through the fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am YHWH your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior…you are precious in my sight and I love you.”(43:1-4)
This is a comfort that says, no matter what circumstances, true power comes from God on high who always wants health and healing for all of the people.
That’s the hopeful comfort that Isaiah gives to this remnant people. Even though enemies encamp around us, God isn’t done with us. Even though organized religion has shunned some of us, God has never abandoned the remnant people. There is hope. There is life. There is one who is coming to set things right again. We need to keep our faith. We need to sacrifice to the God of justice instead of the god of easy answers and blind patriotism, disguising itself as Christianity. When we do that, then the Glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.
As we await the arrival of Christmas in just twenty-three days, we wait with anticipation of having God-with-us again: us no longer alone, us comforted and challenged to be more than we are, for Christ has overcome the world.
That's what Isaiah wanted. That's what the people were still waiting for when Jesus was finally born. That’s what we are waiting for, too. We need a messiah who will bring us tidings of comfort and joy, not simply a joy that comes from getting things, but a joy that comes because the world is going right once again. But we don’t need a supernatural leader to do that. Each of us has the capacity to bring hope and healing to an afflicted world. We can be the advocates for healthcare. We can be the ones who call for an end to prejudice and bigotry. We can make a place for all to be welcome at the table. That’s how people feel comfort. When Isaiah declared his words of comfort, the exile was still on. The key for the hearers was to embrace a different worldview. To not listen to the words of the captive leaders. There is a new future ahead. Take comfort and renew your strength for the journey ahead. That’s the prophetic reminder.
Poet Brandon Wrencher said:
“What does it
look like for
us to wait for
to practice Advent?
Be attentive to
pain and suffering
to the wilderness.
Repentance is not
About teary faces
And altar calls.
world’s tendency to
Now that HIV is not at the front of our consciousness, thanks to drug interventions and therapies, we can think that suffering is no longer happening. It is, it’s just hidden underground. It’s up to us in Advent to remember the people who are suffering and to offer a word of comfort. But comfort is just words if it’s not accompanied by some kind of action.
God’s plan is for there to be health and justice and peace.
And God’s plan is to send one who will accompany us on this human journey with all it’s joy and pain.
This one will be our companion on the journey to peace and health.
This one will suffer and celebrate alongside us.
This one will move the mountains of injustice and fill in the valleys of despair.
This one will even create a suspension bridge over the walls of mistrust and prejudice.
During Advent, we are to be the comforters. Not just with words, but with our actions, our attitudes, our posture. We offer ourselves as representatives of God who welcome people back from the exile and grant them comfort.
The people in exile do not need pity. They need solidarity. That’s what gives them hope.
Hear again these words of Isaiah:
"Comfort ye my people says your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem that she ahs served her term and that she has received from YHWH’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of YHWH, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain. Then the glory of YHWH shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it." (40:1-5)
This Advent, use your holy superpowers to provide comfort to those afflicted. Then we are preparing the way for something new to be born in us.