By: Rev. Dr. Nancy Parent Bancroft
Readings: Isaiah 51:1-3 51, 2 Corinthians 1; 3-4, Christmas Carol – God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
Like so many people here in this church, and really, I’m sure, all over, Covid disrupted my plans for Christmas. On Christmas morning I found myself alone listening to Christmas music. At one point, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen came on, and the chorus spoke to me. I turned off the music and meditated on it for a while. The next day, I spent some time with scripture, looking for readings on comfort and joy. This morning I’d like to share some of what surfaced.
Tidings of comfort and joy
Our first reading this morning speaks to both of these emotions; both of these experiences.
A little context for it:
After 70 years in Babylonian exile, the people of Israel were finally coming back home. The new Persian emperor Cyrus who had defeated the Babylonians had decreed that the Jews could return to Jerusalem, albeit still under Persian domination, but they could return. They had been longing for this. Actually, most, if not all of those who were leaving Babylon, given the lifespan at that time, were not really returning to a homeland that they knew. Most had been born and raised in captivity. But they had heard about the beautiful temple and many stories about the land so loved and longed for by their parents and grandparents. Leaving Babylon, one of the most influential, heavily populated, wealthy and cultured empires in the ancient world -a city with enormous walls and multiple palaces and temples, the people entered the place of their dreams. They were far fewer than the number of people who had originally been forced to leave. The returning tribes that came were able to populate only a very tiny portion of the former homeland of their ancestors. And now they were going in as a nation still in captivity, financially destitute, vulnerable, with serious political divisions, and they were going back into a situation of utter chaos. Imagine being born and raised in New York City or Paris and as a young adult, moving into Gaza or Ukraine.
Naturally, what they found caused them to become demoralized. They were devastated. The place was in ruin. The temple and most of the walls around Jerusalem had been destroyed. Their parents and grandparents had instilled in them the strong desire, the mandate, to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem – the center of their religious and social life. But they were so few and with little means.
The temple that Solomon had built had been monumentally gorgeous. The amount of wealth that was in there, all of the adornments, everything with the purpose of bringing honor and glory to God, was the best of the best of the best. Now the temple that they wanted to, needed to rebuild would be nothing compared to the previous one.
God’s people were in a discouraging place. They felt defeated. We’ve been there. We know how they felt. We hear every day about evil and distruction. War, terrorism, dissention causing our government to barely function, racism, sexism, ageism, nationalism, all the isms that divide us, greed that continues to widen the gap between the haves and have-nots, crudeness, rudeness and a lack of civility that has become a socially acceptable part of our culture, disease, including the continuing Covid plague that causes suffering, disappointment and anxiety, our deteriorating planet that expresses its suffering with wild fires, droughts, record heat and mega storms. Yes, we can feel the pain of God’s people as they make their long-awaited entry.
And so, in the Isaiah passage that we heard this morning, the prophet is trying to comfort his people. He tells them to look at God’s work in and through His people in days past. That’s a very important message – to look at what God has done in past terrible situations and to look at God’s work in and through His people. Because that is almost always the way God seems to work – in and through others.
Isaiah wanted God’s people – the exiles from Babylon, and those of Israel’s ultimate regathering – to not be discouraged about their small numbers. They are directed to look back to their origin, and the smallness of their beginning. He tells them, Abraham was one man, from one simple family. Yet God called him alone and increased him. The prophet wants the people to realize that just as God had done great things with Abraham and Sarah, He could do great things through them. Remembering Abraham and Sarah should give them hope for this promise.
The prophet then reassures them that this wasteland that they now find themselves in can become like the Eden God first created. He is trying to instill joy upon their long-awaited entry.
In our second reading, Paul had learned that the church at Corinth was struggling, and he sought to take action to preserve the unity of that local body of believers. So he begins his letter like Isaiah, by trying to comfort them. And he reminds them, “God comforts us in all of our troubles so that we can comfort others.”
We have heard over and over again that God is Love. Sometimes I think that that expression is overused to the point of having lost its impact. And love is such a big word. Sometimes it’s helpful to break it down. Comfort and Joy are key ways of loving. Comfort is the antithesis of anxiety, fear, insecurity, pain, tension and so much more that we seek to avoid. Comfort is both an emotional and physical balm. And Joy. During this Christmas season haven’t we tried through cards and gifts and visits and food to bring joy to the ones whom we love and even to strangers in need? I think that comforting and bringing joy are key ways that God loves us – usually through others.
Imagine how much good we could accomplish if each morning, even before getting out of bed, we took a few minutes and asked ourselves, “To whom could I bring joy today?” And, “Who and how could I comfort?” It needn’t be anything big. It would take some time and effort to develop this habit. But isn’t that what love requires?
In Isaiah 40 God exhorts us, “Comfort, comfort My people.” During this season, we celebrate Immanuel, God with us. But as in the days of Isaiah, and for all time, we most usually experience God-with-us in and through His people.
And, as we heard this morning, God does not need many people to do a great work. We as individuals and as a church can bring comfort and joy to others and be an epiphany, a manifestation of God with us. And doesn’t our broken world need more such epiphanies?
We’re not, for the most part, a young crowd at Union Church. Many of us have retired from meaningful professions. And we’ve raised our children. But we don’t retire from Christianity. When we became members of this church we promised to follow in Jesus’ footsteps – Jesus who comforted and brought joy throughout his public ministry.
The Spirit who strengthened Abraham and Sarah, Isaiah, Jesus, Paul, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, whom we remember and honor this week, and the many other individuals whose actions and accomplishments we admire, is the very same Spirit who strengthens and supports us.
And so, we gather around the table this morning, to remember, to be nurtured and strengthened so that we will act with generosity and courage and be bearers of comfort and joy.