‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway 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.’ Isaiah 40:1-4
Brothers and sisters, another lockdown is over. This morning, around the country Christians are gathering for their first Sunday together in over four weeks. We missed Remembrance Day. We missed the Feast of Christ the King. And we missed Advent Sunday. This morning, lighting two candles, was a reminder that we were not able to gather together last Sunday. A reminder that though we can gather today our country is far from back to normal. Our hospitals are still full and under-staffed. There are nurses - nurses I know of and who are part of our church family - holding the hands of dying patients, even as they struggle to stay awake from over work. Our schools are still under tight restrictions. Children able to mix only with their own class. Teachers having to wear masks - rather than smiles - as the move about our schools. And there are classes - there are year groups - who are not at school but isolating at home. Our businesses - or at least some of them - are opening up again. But the owners and the managers understandably looked worried. Some of their neighbouring businesses have already gone bust. And for some of those who opened their doors this week, it will not be long before the necessary restrictions cause them to close again, this time for good. Finally, I should mention the bereaved. Those who have lost their nearest and dearest - some whom I visited this week - and yet because of the nature of death have not been able to say a final good bye in person. Lockdown for now is over, but darkness still covers our land. What is God doing? What is He up to? And what is He saying to His people - to His Church - at this time of global pandemic? The answer, is in the first verse of our first reading: ‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God’.
Last week, if you were able to read the website, or pick up a copy of the printed reflection, we reminded ourselves that God’s people in the Old Testament - Israel - had been effectively kidnapped, exiled to Babylon for turning their back on God. From this exile - from this prison cell in Babylon - they had cried out to God. Begged for His forgiveness and pleaded with Him to come and save them. In the words of the great Advent hymn, we imagined them crying out: ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.’ And today, as we look around us, it is not too difficult for us to imagine their feelings as they cried out in this way. For we too - like God’s Old Testament people - have found ourselves crying out to God. Those words: ‘O Come, O Come Emmanuel,’ might have been written for us too. That cry of desperation was last week’s reflection, and as I mentioned, today we hear God’s reply. And God’s reply, is not indifference, it is not apathy, it is not anger, or even retribution. God cries out to His Church ‘Comfort, O comfort my people.’
What is this comfort? Is it just some nice poetic words? Is it just some vague optimism? Is it just pie-in-the-sky-until-you-die? No! This comfort is solid, and concrete. God is coming to ransom, God is coming to rescue, God is coming to save His people - the Church - and put all the wrongs right, and make all things new. This glimmer of light on the horizon is NOT just a new dawn or a new day… but a new world! What does this promised future look like? It looks like a world where God is not separated from His people anymore. It looks like a world where disease has been done away with, and people are healthy all the time. It looks like a world where injustice has been banished, the poor get their full inheritance and the falsely imprisoned gain their freedom. It looks like a world, where no one loses someone they love. Death has been defeated and can never again separate families and friends. This world, that God brings with Him, looks like a world where no one starves, no one cries in anguish, and no one feels pain anymore. This is a world in which war no longer exists, and where sin no longer dwells. This is the world we all want, and it is the world which God promises to bring with Him when He returns in Christ to rescue His people, to save His Church. This is the message which God speaks to those captive in Babylon, and to those captive under Corona-virus. And this is what God speaks of when He says: ‘Comfort, O comfort my people.’
So now what do we do? Are we to sit and wait? Much as we sit and wait for the NHS to call about our vaccine? No! God tells us what to do. And He tells us in v4 of our Old Testament reading:
'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.’
Having comforted His people, God tells them now - God tells us now - to get ready. It is, as if, God is a rescue helicopter. A rescue helicopter who has sped out to find us, to rescue us, and to bring us home. Now He is looking for a place to land. But as He looks at our hearts, He finds no flat place to put down. He sees the valley of our apathy;apathy towards Him and towards the poor and the lost. He sees the mountains of our self-love, our self-preservation, and our selfishness, and He can find no level place to set down.And so He cries out in verse 4 - He cries out through the prophets, culminating in John the Baptist - that His people both now and then, are to be getting themselves ready. Getting themselves ready by filling in the valleys and bringing down the hills of our hearts, so that He might have a place to land. We do this - of course - not to earn His love - for His love for us has already caused Him to fly to us - no, we do this so that we might receive His love. Then, having made a fresh attempt to deal with the sins which get in our way, we are called once again to reach out: to strengthen those who doubt, to feed those who are in hunger, to pray with those who are in despair, and to remind the broken-hearted, that God is on His way, and therefore we can have hope. This is what Advent is all about. Making ourselves ready for the coming of the Lord. Making ourselves ready for the world we all want. Making ourselves ready so we might more fully grasp the love that God longs to pour afresh into our hearts. What is Advent all about? Let me quote to you the words of the American preacher Fleming Rutledge:
‘We are not looking backward sentimentally to a baby; we are looking forward to the only One in whom the promise of peace will some day be fulfilled. Trusting in that promise, we can do things we thought we could not do. Relying on him, we can change our habits, confront our addictions, curb our spending, challenge our society […] lower our defences, stand up for justice, [and] speak the truth - not all of these things at once, to be sure, but even one break from the past patterns of sin will be in its way a sign of Christ’s coming.'
This morning we see the glimmer of light on the horizon of this terrible pandemic, and with that glimmer we are reminded of our Advent hope. Not of a commercial holiday come once a year. But of the full and final return of our great king who will put all things right, will wipe away every tear, who will raise the faithful from their deathly sleep, and who will whisper in the ears of every Christian: ‘Comfort comfort, my people.’ Let us then, go from this place, strengthened by our worship, enriched by our fellowship, and emboldened by the hope we know is coming in Jesus, and go out and spread the good news: that God is on His way. Amen (from Rev. Mike).