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.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken."
The weeks of Advent mark the beginning of a new church year. It's a time to reflect and recommit to the way and the person of Jesus, in preparation for the coming of the Christ. Christmas tells us the amazing story of God, born human, who lived a life of ultimate justice for us, and suffered the ultimate injustice for us.
It was not until I heard this story, the true story of Christmas, that the season meant anything to me – piercing a heart long untouched by the commercialized event of Santa Claus, Coca-Cola, Christmas presents or even the abstract figures of the nativity.
I learned about a Jesus who gave up the glory and order of heaven to enter into the suffering and chaos of the world, where he lived and taught radically – love your enemies, do not be afraid, only believe. And I chose to accept that story, to align my life with it as a follower of Jesus.
My personal life was transformed as I became exposed to new places and people: a coffee shop, a prison ministry, the developing world. Eventually I found myself in downtown Vancouver. Here, it seemed everywhere I went I would meet people hurt by poverty, addiction and abuse.
I began to wonder how Christmas, its message of love, fulfillment, healing and community, could possibly be reconciled with this raw scene I was encountering, this world of unimaginable pain?
I know now that the story of Christmas was meant exactly for the ears of those living in a world of unimaginable pain.
Isaiah 40 speaks words of light and hope directly to people living in great darkness and despair. Historically, when this poem was written, the people of God were in an excruciating exile as ones conquered by the violent empire of Babylon. At the end of Isaiah 39, Babylon was about to crush Judah. For approximately 160 years after (between the writings of Isaiah 39 and 40), the community of God was oppressed and scattered with no place of worship, no leadership and no nation.
Chapter 40 changes everything – God is on the scene.
Comfort, O Comfort my people. . . This is the voice of God, speaking in his heavenly court of angels and the Trinity, a divine council. Words of comfort ring out as a balm for anguish and hopelessness. . . Hear me. Babylon is not in charge, I am. I reign. And I say your freedom is coming.
When I walk to our building and pass Norma, lying where she has been camped for a year, I hear God's word to her as "Comfort, O Comfort my daughter. Your freedom is coming." When I visit our Mosaic friends in the psych ward at VGH, God's word to them is "Comfort, Comfort my sons. You are being invited out of your exile." When I listen to Aboriginal friends speak of the wounds inflicted by years in residential schools and lives spent in addiction, God's word to them is "Comfort, Comfort my people. . . I am calling you out."
And to endless others – those seemingly "successful", whose lives are really falling apart as they shore themselves up with workaholism and striving – God's word is the same. When I myself lie awake in bed, worrying about my family or about Mosaic or about someone I haven't heard from for awhile, I need God's words of hope and comfort just as desperately as anyone else.
Life: this is where the good news of the gospel intersects with all our pain. Our years of living in the shadow of sin, of being defined by our violence and hurt, are over. No longer are we left languishing and alone. God sends his comfort and he is sending his rescue.
Those dark years and places – they mean different things for each of us. As sinful people, we have hurt and betrayed others, and have carried the weight of this guilt. As victims, we have carried the shame of our wounds.
As communities and churches, we have perpetuated a moralistic, legalistic message that has excluded and hurt people. We have participated in the violence and materialism of our society, bearing the shamefulness of excessive wealth next to our neighbours in need. We have systematically closed out Aboriginal people, marginalized the mentally ill and forgotten the elderly.
But there is no longer judgement, this is a new day, when we can live in freedom and in right relationship with God and each other!
However, like the people of Israel hearing this the first time, we are not yet home. We have not embraced our freedom from exile fully, we have not lived out the forgiveness nor experienced the full newness that God promises. But it has begun. Although in this life and in these bodies we will only ever be half-free, we have the hope of freedom –this fuels and nurtures our spirits and their joyful imaginations of what the future holds.
The prophet declares that huge, impassible mountains will be leveled, clearing the way home. All of us long for a home, all of us. We want and need to know we belong somewhere. Whether we come from "healthy" homes or places of deep pain, we share a core desire to connect with God and others in a way that is so hard to experience here. None of us ever have or ever will feel fully at home here. We are still broken, not yet whole.
May Christmas be a time when – and the church be a place where – people are invited in, unconditionally. Where we might all share, vulnerably, that aching longing for home, and experience some of the freedom, healing and wholeness of belonging.
A great road has been built through the valleys and mountains to take us there. And when we get there, the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and we will see it together – all of us! The story of Christmas set all this in motion. Christ has come. Jesus leads the way home.