by David Baer, December 6, 2015
Text: Isaiah 40:1-11
It has happened again. Another mass shooting. Another moment of ordinary life in our nation—an office holiday party—become a scene of terror and violence. More families whose mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and kids will be painfully absent from them during their holiday celebrations this year. Robert Adams, Isaac Amanios, Bennedetta Bet-Badal, Aurora Banales Godoy, Harry Bowman, Sierra Clayborn, Juan Espinosa, Shannon Johnson, Daniel Kaufman, Damian Meins, Tin Ngyuen, Nicholas Thalasinos, Yvette Velasco, and Michael Wetzel weren’t armed forces personnel deployed to a warzone. They weren’t cops chasing down armed criminals in the streets. They went to work as they did every day to do their jobs helping people with developmental disabilities. They didn’t have a job where you would expect to face lethal dangers. But they went to work in a nation where any setting has the potential to erupt in violence.
Our scripture today is a prophetic word. It’s a word of hope and encouragement for a people crushed by their circumstances, who needed to lift up their heads and strengthen their arms so that they could be ready for what God was about to do next. There is a way in which we are like those exiles. There is a word here addressed to us too. I promise I’ll get to that. This is the season of Advent, and it’s good to practice anticipation and waiting for what has been promised to us. So hold on… The best part is yet to come!
But I want to begin by looking at how we’re different from those people who first heard these words. These were exiles. These were people originally from the nation of Judah who, because they had worshiped idols and fell away from God’s ways, had lost their homeland, their capital city, and their temple. The Babylonians had carried them into captivity where they sang and wept and prayed for the day when they would be free to return home again. But as the years and decades passed they grew more and more discouraged. Their circumstances weren’t changing. Could God even hear their prayers in this foreign land? Maybe because they had abandoned God, God had abandoned them.
They were powerless, oppressed, and without the means to do for themselves the things they didn’t dare hope for from God. “Comfort, comfort my people,” says God, saying that powerful word not once but twice. God does for them what they are not able to do for themselves. God declares that their punishment is over, that their penalty is paid.
There are many things that distress us where all we can do is cry out to God. But when it comes to the devastating shooting tragedies that we continue to lament—whether inspired by some twisted, fanatical theology or racial hatred or just a troubled and disordered mind—we are not powerless. When it comes to the 301 people who are killed every day with firearms, or 902 if you include those who take their own lives, it’s within our power, if not to fix it, then at least to make things a lot better than they are.
If you’re feeling heartsick today, like I am, if you’re feeling fearful or saddened at the violence that threatens to erupt in any public place, if you’re looking for a word of comfort that’s simply going to make that heartache and that fear and that grief go away, it’s not here. It’s not to be found in this text. If you’re wondering, as I often have, why God doesn’t answer our prayers for peace and security, then maybe it’s because God’s answer is to point right back at us.
Jesus tells us that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our strength; and that the second is like it, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Because we live in a democracy, the way we participate, or fail to participate, in the political process is one way we love or fail to love our neighbors. The laws and policies we enact or fail to enact affect our neighbors—those laws can help or harm them. There is no part of our lives where we’re not responsible before God, and so I believe I’ll have to answer to God not only for hurting my neighbor with a cutting word, or failing to feed someone who’s hungry when I have food to share—I believe I’ll also have to answer for the votes I cast or didn’t cast, the letters to my congressman I wrote or failed to write. I’m grateful that God is merciful and gracious. I’m grateful that Jesus paid the penalty for these and all my sins. But I know that my participation in public life is lived out before God, and its a place where I can either act out of love for God and neighbor, or else fail to love God and neighbor.
Look, the subject of guns and gun violence brings out strong feelings. I suspect there are a lot of different views right here in this room. But I also suspect that most of us are grieved by what happened this week, and what will continue to happen unless we, collectively, decide to do something different. I don’t feel the need to spell out what that looks like. But I do know that our leaders and representatives don’t seem to be able to enact legislation favored even by majorities of gun owners or members of the National Rifle Association. And to me that’s a sign that we haven’t shown them how we feel. We haven’t shown them that it matters to us. And our neighbors—in San Bernardino, in Colorado Springs, in Roseburg, Oregon, in Charleston, in communities all over our country and in too, too many families—our neighbors are hurting. And that’s why those words, “Comfort, comfort,” may be ringing hollow to us—because we know we could do more for them, for the neighbors who will suffer in the next attack, than we’re doing. Those exiles in Babylon were powerless. We’re not.
Could I ask you, whatever your views might be, to join me in letting your congressman, your senators, know how you feel? I don’t feel the need to tell you what to say. I trust that God will speak through all of us, even through voices and opinions that contradict each other, to say what God needs them to hear. Because our Presbyterian tradition has always valued participation in public life, the Presbyterian Church has a tool that makes it easy to reach out to elected officials—just go online and visit pcusa.org/washington, and click on the link marked “Contact Congress.” If you enter your ZIP code it will give you a form you can use to e-mail your federal elected officials. I’ll send out the link by e-mail too.
Cry out! calls the voice in our scripture today. And the prophet, or maybe his people, object. What shall I cry? they ask. What difference will it make? All flesh is like dry desert grass, like the desert flowers that wither and fade in the hot wind. They won’t listen to me. You are right, replies the voice. The grass withers and the flower fades. But the word of the Lord endures forever. God’s promises are always fresh, always full of life. God’s promise is a home for the exiles. God’s promise is a world where families aren’t broken and communities made fearful by violence. What happened this week in San Bernardino has no place in the future God promises. And somebody’s got to cry out, to lift up their voice and say, “God wants something better. God is doing something better. Come and see!”
I promised that I would tell you how we’re like those exiles. We’re not powerless like they were. But we’re like them in that we’re not alone. God is speaking to us, holding out for us a different kind of future. And when God speaks to us it changes us. We can’t un-hear the good news.
If you remember the words from Handel’s Messiah, then maybe the scripture you heard today was a little different than what you were expecting. In that piece of music, we hear a voice singing, “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up to a high mountain.” In other words, there’s someone with a job to bring good news to God’s people. The job of God’s people is to listen to the good news. But in our translation it reads, “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings.” In our Bible, it’s God’s people who are supposed to be the ones bringing good news. Are God’s people meant to receive comfort or give it? It turns out that the Hebrew text is ambiguous. You can read it either way. And I think that’s by design. Because the hope God holds out for us is so good that it begs to be shared, to cry out through what we say and do. God wants us to comfort our neighbors with the comfort we receive. And God comforts us with the same comfort we extend to others. God’s good news, whether it comes to the powerless or to those who have some say in what happens to them, is meant to be acted out, meant to be lived.
I see our church living out the good news through an overwhelming generosity of food provided to the Family Promise Shelter over Thanksgiving weekend. I see it through the care and concern you extend to those who are dealing with chronic illnesses. You are living out the hope you’ve heard, you’ve glimpsed in God’s promises. And you can listen there for God’s comfort, because you can see God’s world taking shape. You have good news. By God’s grace, you are good news. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Centers for Disease Control, “FastStats - Homicide.” http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/homicide.htm. Accessed 12/5/15.
Centers for Disease Conrol, “Deaths: Final Data for 2013.” http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nvsr/nvsr64/nvsr64_02.pdf. Accessed 12/5/15.