Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. 2 Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’S hand double for all her sins. 3 The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 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: 5 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. 6 The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: 7 The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass. 8 The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever. 9 O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God! 10 Behold, the Lord GOD will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him. 11 He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young. (Isaiah 40:1-11 KJV)
This is one of my favorite passages in all of Scripture. It’s part of the text that Handel set to music in the Messiah and every time I hear it I start to hum along.
“Comfort my people” says your God. Our world could use words of comfort these days. With all we hear about wars and murders and racial injustice and violence… to hear the words “your warfare is over! Your iniquity is pardoned!”
This is the message of Christmas, the real message of Christmas. Those who are great will be brought low and those who are humble will be lifted up and God will feed His flock like a shepherd: a gentle leader, full of compassion.
How much our world needs to hear this!
This Advent season our Partnership is reading a book together called Advent Conspiracy. One of the main themes of the book is that we have been given this gospel message to share with the world, but people won’t believe it – won’t hear the message – unless our actions match our words.
How then can we celebrate Advent and Christmas in ways that will bear witness to God’s forgiveness and compassion?
Before I dig into that question, a couple of notes:
First, some of us may be put off by the word “conspiracy” in Advent Conspiracy because the word has negative connotations. So this week I asked myself the question: Is it possible for a conspiracy to be a good thing? Someone I knew a long time ago believed it could. He and his wife wanted to teach their children to be generous so they would play a game with their kids where the kids would sneak around doing nice things for other people, and the object of the game was to not get caught. See if they could get away with it – sort of like a ‘pay it forward’ without letting anybody know. The kids loved the game, and the lesson was well learned. That’s a kind of conspiracy for good.
One might say that God conspired with Jesus and the Holy Spirit where it comes to Christmas. The Trinity planned Jesus’ birth into our world. Isaiah wrote the words we heard this morning around 700 years before Jesus was born. And God had been planning this “advent”, this arrival, even longer. God promised Abraham, who lived at least 1000 years before Isaiah, that through his offspring “all the nations of the world would be blessed”. God conspired to bring salvation and blessing to all the people of the earth through Jesus, from the beginning of creation.
That’s what the apostle John talks about when he writes, “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God. All things were made through him… and the word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Or, as one modern translation puts it, “the word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.” This was God’s plan from the very beginning. So conspiracies can sometimes be good.
Second, a little bit of background on the book Advent Conspiracy. Advent Conspiracy is a movement that started a few years ago and has spread across the country mostly via the Internet. The authors of the book were some of the founding people in the movement. The founders had a growing sense of un-ease with the way we Americans celebrate Christmas in contemporary society. The book suggests that over-spending on gift-giving, and going into debt to buy presents, and rampant consumerism – the idea that our economy depends on people doing their part and shopping, as though shopping is a patriotic duty – does not honor the God whose birthday we celebrate on Christmas.
I find myself agreeing in principle with what the authors say but I have one issue with it. The authors of Advent Conspiracy are young professional West Coast couples with young children… people who have good jobs and traditional families. The issue I have is that the family situations of many of our families here in the churches of the Partnership may not be like theirs. I know our family isn’t. My husband and I are middle-aged, not young. My husband’s children are grown, I don’t have any children, and my siblings and I live in three different cities. We all decided years ago that we’re not going to spend a lot on Christmas. If this congregation is a typical Western Pennsylvania congregation, many of you also have grown children, or no children; you may be widowed; you may be single; you may be unemployed or under-employed. You may have a huge family and have already decided to just buy gifts for the kids and not the adults in the family.
Most of the families I know around here, who have lived through the economic hardships of the past few decades, with the mills going down and the massive layoffs that followed, have already worked out ways of not going overboard with Christmas. We already know that what’s important is family, not spending. People from Pittsburgh get that.
Which leaves me with the question: does Advent Conspiracy have anything to say to us? I think it does. I think it ties in with Isaiah’s words: “comfort ye my people”.
There are four things I want to say about Advent today that will tie in to this… indirectly at first, but hang in there with me. Four points to look at:
First: Advent is a season of preparation. Advent is a time when we hear the word of God saying, “prepare the way” – with thanksgiving, with worship, with praise. This is the message given by Isaiah. It’s also the message given by John the Baptist. Get ready. The king is coming. Prepare your hearts. Repent and believe the good news.
Getting ready to meet God face to face involves repentance, and so Advent is also a season of repentance. Keeping in mind that the word ‘repent’ means to change course or change direction. It does not mean (as so many people use it today) that we’re all horrible sinners who need to grovel before God. It just means, as we drive down the road of life, every now and then we need to check the map, check the steering, check the GPS, maybe make a turn somewhere, in order to keep the car on course for our destination. Advent Conspiracy invites us to make that course correction.
For me, the spirit of Advent is captured beautifully in one of the songs of Advent:
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand.
Ponder nothing earthly-minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth
Our full homage to demand.
Advent is a candle glowing in the darkness.
Advent is a spirit of peace in a world of conflict.
Advent is a promise that, even as the days grow shorter and the weather turns grey that the days will lengthen again and spring will come again.
Advent doesn’t dodge the darkness of our world –
Advent conspires to defeat it.
Which leads to the second point. We will find greater joy in Christmas if we include in our celebrations the things Jesus values: to give to the poor, to feed the hungry, to visit the sick and imprisoned. With how busy we are at this time of year this may sound impossible, but there are ways to incorporate these things even into our holiday traditions. In our family for example, I’m shopping locally this year – avoiding the malls and the chain stores – and when I shop, I tell store owners I’m shopping locally and I tell them how much I’m enjoying it. Without exception I have ended up having conversations with the business owners, telling me the things they’re excited about and ways they’ve succeeded this year when they didn’t expect to. It’s been a time of real sharing and real ministry – in both directions. And I know our Christmas money will be putting food on the tables of families who live nearby.
The book Advent Conspiracy suggests another gift-giving possibility: making donations in people’s honor as a Christmas gift. I didn’t want to try this one without asking the people I give gifts to, so I asked the family at Thanksgiving: “would you all be interested in this?” The response from the twenty-something generation blew me away! Many of them were thrilled by the offer and had charities in mind that they wanted to support.
Third point: The authors of Advent Conspiracy are right when they say today’s Christmas traditions are far more commercial than they used to be. Traditionally, in the real sense of the word tradition, Christmas has always been a time of giving to the poor. Think about, for example, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: the old story of Scrooge, the miser, who has a Christmas change of heart, and at the end of the story brings a feast to the home of Bob Cratchet and Tiny Tim. Or think of the Christmas carol Good King Wenceslas. The song tells the story of a real-life king who lived in Bohemia in the year 900-and-something who on the day after Christmas looked out his window and saw a poor man gathering sticks for a fire to warm his family. The king and his servants gathered up food and wine and firewood and brought them to the poor man’s home. The last lines of the carol are:
Therefore, Christian folk, be sure, wealth or rank possessing,
Ye who now will bless the poor, shall yourselves find blessing.
Or think about Saint Nicholas himself – the original Santa Claus – who lived back in the year 300-and-something and was famous for giving to the poor – so much so that we still imitate his generosity 1800 years later. Christmas has always been about giving to the poor. Always. All three of these examples show people giving to the poor personally, face to face.
It’s only been in the past 100 years or so that Christmas has become about the rich giving to the rich.
Fourth point: Isaiah says “all flesh is grass… the grass withers, the flower fades…” and so many of the gifts we give will be forgotten, just like the grass. How can we invest in things that will last? Can we find ways to give the gifts of our time, our knowledge, our experience, ourselves? I love the example in Advent Conspiracy of a young man who gave a gift to a senior relative – the gift of a cup of coffee once a month – which he will take the elderly man out for. Great idea!
When God gave to us, he gave us Himself. People might say ‘He didn’t give us things’ but that wouldn’t be true: God gave us the whole world. But when He wanted to give us the very best, He poured his own life into our human form and entered our world. He came with words of comfort and pardon and freedom. He came to raise the lowly, and humble the proud, and straighten the crooked. He came to die for us, and rise again. When he comes again his glory will be revealed, and all people everywhere will see it.
In the meantime, we are challenged, this Advent, to be part of God’s plan, to be part of God’s giving. To recommit ourselves to living God’s way, to caring about the people God cares about. Let us prepare the way for the coming of King Jesus into our world, and into our lives and homes, with words of comfort and generosity of spirit. AMEN.
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 12/7/14