In the season of Advent, we wait. We mark each Sunday as we get closer to Christmas. Spiritually we think of preparing our hearts even as we prepare our homes. We speak the language of longing and hope, expectation and joy. We wait for our hopes to become real.
This year my waiting started very early. Years ago my family had two dogs - littermates. In the years since they died, the question of another dog was a perennial family question. This fall Jay and I decided to get another labrador.
Advent started for me in October - that’s when I met the newly born puppy. I didn’t think it through. Turns out its very hard to meet a puppy and then drive away. I’ve spent the last 6 weeks pining away for our puppy, waiting for her to be old enough to come home.
We’ll name her Duchess. Now, I picked Duchess because we live in Whitefish Bay, home of the Blue Dukes. I thought it fit - every duke needs a duchess. But one of my friends teased me, saying I picked her name because every queen has a duchess.
The boys don’t know it, but we’re actually going after service to pick up Duchess. I like the idea of surprising the boys with a dog, but it made the waiting even more intense. What got me through it was sharing my excitement and expectation with friends. I didn’t wait alone. Friends comforted me in my labrador Advent.
I thought of this connection between waiting, comfort, and friends with our reading this morning from Isaiah. “Comfort, O comfort my people.” John the Baptist picked up these same words when he baptized people in the river Jordan. In so many ways these words are familiar - we read them every year, sing them in hymns, and even listen to them in Handel’s Messiah.
But this year I began to think of these words in a new way. If you pay attention to the reading, you notice it’s really a set of speakers picking up a theme. That’s why we had four readers proclaim the text this morning.
The reading from Isaiah begins with a divine command and then features three people trying to make sense of it. Three people trying to figure out how to put the divine command to ‘comfort my people’ into their own words. The divine voice gives a deployment order and the three voices act according to their marching orders.
The four voices in Isaiah’s reading can help us think more deeply about waiting, comfort, and friends.
The first voice, the divine voice, laid out an order. “Comfort, O Comfort my people.” The command was addressed by God to an audience. We could imagine this as God’s command to the angels in heaven. But we could also hear it as God’s command to the people of Israel. They are to speak comfort. And heard that way, the divine command becomes an order for us as well: we are to comfort.
Whom do we comfort? The prophet Isaiah spoke to the people of Israel during their exile. The Babylonians had defeated the Jews, destroyed the city of Jerusalem, and taken many people back to Babylon as captives - as slaves, hostages, trophies of their victory.
The people of Israel longed desperately to return. The poignancy of their longing comes out in Psalms, such as the one which began, “By the rivers of Babylon - there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” Zion, of course, is a name for Jerusalem; but it also means ‘dry land.’ The Israelites sat by a river and wept for their own dry land. Home, their own home, mattered more than the prosperity and abundance of Babylon. The Israelites felt lost and despondent because the land of abundance was not their homeland. In the midst of plenty, they lived like strangers.
The people Isaiah addressed felted alienated and estranged. Who feels this way today? Who feels a dread of loneliness amid the festivity of Christmas? Who feels the despondency of addiction amid the indulgence of the holidays? Who feels the pain of scarcity amid the gatherings of abundance? Who feels like a stranger in a land of celebration?
I know for me, names and faces of friends flash in my mind as I think of these questions. We know people who need comfort. The divine voice speaks, “Comfort my people.”
But how are we to comfort? I heard a news story on NPR this week which made me think about our hesitancy to speak. Steve Inskeep was speaking with Shankar Vedantam about a study of the connection between conversation and happiness. A scientist wanted to test how conversations affect our sense of happiness. The study enrolled train commuters - people faced with a constant choice between solitude and engagement with strangers.
Many of us might think solitude on the train would make us happier - the chance to drink our coffee in peace, or catch up on the news, read a book, or just breath before the rush of work. But the study found the opposite. Regardless of Myers Briggs types, whether extroverted or introverted, talking to strangers made people happier.
Vedantam explained, “So many of us think that strangers will bore us or bother us when in fact we are deeply social animals. And these social connections seem to press buttons inside our heads that make us happier.” This result can be found in many studies; rich social lives improve our physical and mental health.
But if that’s so, why do so many of us sit silently in such situations? In the study of train commuters - and I think this is true across the board - we fear starting conversations. What to say? How do say it? This hesitation with strangers can be equally intense with those we know who need comfort. And yet, reaching out will make us all happier.
The three voices which respond to the divine command can help us understand what we can say. The first voice offered comfort about the past. The second offered comfort about the present. The third offered comfort about the future. These three voices offer very different kinds of comfort. We could say these voices represent different languages of comfort.
One comforting voice spoke of the past. It was the voice which said, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord…” I’ve usually heard this as a call for the Jews to prepare for the journey from Babylon to Jerusalem, a journey through a literal desert, a wilderness. But recently I began to think of the wilderness as the condition of the heart. The Jews in Babylon felt as if their hearts were wasted places, desolate places, wilderness territory.
Elsewhere, Isaiah used wilderness as just such a metaphor, as when he promised, “For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord.” The wilderness was not some specific desert in the mideast; it’s a feeling in the heart, the wasted emptiness of remorse, the desert of loneliness.
This voice in Isaiah honored the feeling of desolation. But, at the same time, the speaker looked back to the Exodus story, the great work of God in history, to promise, “the God who got us through the wilderness before will do so again.”
I know friends who speak to me in this way when I’m struggling. This is the comforting voice which says, “times have been hard before, but we’re survivors!” The voice who helps a friend stumbling down the path to recovery, the voice guiding a friend through hard changes, “You’ve gotten through it before, I’ll walk with you again.”
The second comforting voice spoke about the present: life now, as it really is, without any veneer. This voice - and I think this is my favorite of the three - doesn’t sound like much comfort at all. “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades.”
Harsh comfort. As if the person said, “You think you’ve got it bad? Well, what did you expect?” But I think there’s comfort in this crass talk. Sometimes when I’m down I find friends can’t go to those depths; they want me to be cheerful or hopeful too soon. That’s when I need the crass voice. The one that says, “Yeah, it sucks.” The voice who can sit in the anguish and the pain, who can face the horror and the hopelessness. Comfort does not always mean making the pain go away. Sometimes we most need acknowledgement: we lose a job, we get a diagnosis, we grieve a loss. Comfort comes in the words, “that sucks.”
My most comforting friends are those who can go there with me. Who can acknowledge how badly it hurts, name the painful impermanence of life. This voice of comfort doesn’t sound anything like a Hallmark Card; and that’s why I treasure it. It speaks to the present reality.
But at the same time it doesn’t forget God. “The flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever.” It’s the voice that says, “I don’t know how we will get through it, but we’ll get through it together.” The one who says, “It’s awful; and I’m here with you.”
The final of the three voices looks to the future. “Get you up to a high mountain… see, the Lord God comes with might.” The Jews in Babylon needed to see a future beyond their present exile, to imagine the life they so desperately hoped for. And we can be in the same spot, metaphorically needing to climb a hill to see beyond the immediacy of our pain. And so our friends take us up from the hopelessness we’re mired in, take us up to see beyond our present, to imagine what could come next. We’re stuck in a perpetual search for a job, but a friend speaks of it all as preparation for the career of our dreams. We’re uncertain about a relationship, but a friend lifts up hope of working through the difficulty. It’s the voice of comfort which says, “I believe in you; you’re strong and are going to come through this.”
On Christmas, we will read the famous words that open the Gospel of John, “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” John spoke of Jesus; but he also speaks of our call as disciples. We’re meant to make the word of God become flesh in our lives. To take the divine word - comfort my people - and make it come true in our lives.
If talking to strangers on a train can bring us happiness, how much more meaning can come from offering comfort?
This Advent day, I ask you to remember someone who needs comfort in your life. What voice of comfort could you offer? Is it the same voice of comfort you need to hear? This Advent may we bring comfort to the people of God. Alleluia and Amen.