PostHeaderIcon Speaking and Sharing

by Rev. Kevin J. McLemore

Isaiah 40:1-11

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Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.2Speak 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.3  A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.4  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.5  Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.8  The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

9Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”10See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.11He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.

Last week, I shared with you a bit of the story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who was essentially martyred by the Nazis during the last days of World War II, partly because he chose to speak out, to tell the truth about the nature of the Nazi regime and how immoral it had become. That got me to thinking about the whole nature of speaking, of sharing with each other those difficult truths that may be uncomfortable to hear, and how different we are from some of the previous generations who were far more reticent to speak about unsavory, ugly, difficult topics. I think the whole horrific scandal at Penn State and the way it was handled by a certain generation of men, the sweeping of it underneath the rug rather speaking of it, telling the truth, is an example of how things have changed, how we’ve become more comfortable with sharing with each other some of the shadows in our lives than perhaps other generations have been. Now, I know that truth telling can sometimes go overboard—you can find examples of people sharing too much sometimes, on places like Facebook, or the Jerry Springer show—but I think in general it has been a good thing for us to speak and share with each other our truths, our stories of pain and loss, as well as our stories of joy and triumphant.

But that self-sharing, the self-revelatory sharing in our culture is something fairly new in the West—I don’t know about the East, but here in the West we’ve kept those sorts of stories fairly private, especially since the Victorian era. There was a sense that everyone had a particular cone of privacy that ought to be kept secret, and not shared with others. But things began to change in the 20th century, I think, perhaps because of the spread of easier communication, radio, availability of newspapers, etc., and you saw a shift in the culture, a greater ease with sharing the difficult things, the hidden things, the private worries. Honestly, I don’t think programs like Alcoholics Anonymous could have flourished in an earlier age, and though it was theoretically anonymous, you still had to show up before others and name some of your darkest shadows, your hidden shame, your struggle with the demon of alcohol, that sort of things. A more public confessional age began, and there was something about that sharing that was healing for those in the AA movement. Bill W, the founder of AA, knew that when you gather together those who share a common struggle, who know what it means to suffer and stumble with the disease of alcoholism, that the simply sharing of that journey with others is something that can be healing for those in recovery. The rise of the self-help movement owes so much to people like Bill W. who had struggled to get sober all those years, and yet, I don’t want us to forget that he was as human as the people he tried to help. You know, Bill struggled all his life with addiction, and it was an addiction to cigarettes that eventually killed him, and an attraction to beautiful young women that he seemingly could not restrain that almost caused his marriage to collapse. But it was Bill’s broken humanity that helped so many people, not his sainthood—he was a man on a lifelong journey of recovery, like so many people are, and, frankly, you win some and you lose some in this life, and he was no different in that regard than any of us. The comfort for his followers and those in AA is that there are people who understand the daily struggle with addiction, and that they weren’t alone in the journey, that they could rely on a fellow traveler who knew what they were going through, to help them get through their own dark times and struggles.

That comfort that someone understands our personal journey, the comfort that comes from an ear that understands what is being said, a touch that is familiar and a voice that is hopeful, and yet realistic, that is what I think the prophet is trying to offer the people of Israel in this passage. Comfort is being offered here in Isaiah, in what is called Second Isaiah, because it is believed that the person who wrote this part of the book of Isaiah was different from the one who wrote the first 39 chapters, mostly due to a perspective that seems to be situated decades after the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem. The first 39 chapters were all warnings about the coming judgment through God by Israel’s enemies, the Assyrians, and then chapter 40 jumps literally decades later to offer words of hope and comfort in the midst of the Babylonian Exile, which happened when the Babylonians defeated the Assyrians. It’s a confusing setup, I know, but just know this: these words are meant as a comfort to a people who lives that were a mess, with Jerusalem in ruins, the Babylonians holding captive the best and brightest of Israel in Babylon, and seemingly no way out of a difficult situation. In the midst of all that, the writer says there is a comfort, that God recognizes that the people have paid a heavy price for their sins, a double portion, really, and that God will make a way home from Babylon to Jerusalem, to the home land. A highway, a pathway, a road home, an easy road, no less, will be built by God’s own hands, and all will see this path, this miracle of homecoming, and this will happen because God’s promises endure, God’s words do not wither like the grass, but will eventually come about—comfort is right around the corner, the comfort that comes with just being back home again, in the place that gave them birth, the land of Israel.

And yet, and yet, I just want to point out how emotionally disconnected it must have felt to some of those early listeners, to have this God offer this kind of comfort to them. I mean, God seems to be offering this way home, this promise of being a gentle shepherd, but does God really understand what it mean to be one of the sheep, the people of Israel, always dependent on the whims of kings, empires, and even God? What does this God really know of the suffering of God’s own people, if you think about it? It’s fine to say that God knows everything, but can God really know what it means to be human, to be enslaved, to be a sheep, not knowing whether the human or divine shepherd is going to send you to the slaughter house or to the safety of the green fields? It’s like the moment when a friend tries to sympathize with you, offering you comfort that’s well-meaning, but frankly, a bit shallow, because, really, they don’t know what you are really going through: they don’t know what it means to go through a divorce, or the loss of a child, or a job, or a home, or even the loss of loved one, not yet anyway, because they simply haven’t experienced it themselves? It may be well meaning, this attempt to comfort us, but they don’t really understand, if they’ve not gone through it themselves, do they? Not like someone who has been there before, someone who can offer you the comfort of having gone through what you gone through? More to the point here, can God really know what I am going through, or what you are going through, if God has never really walked in our shoes? Now, again, I know that some will say, “well, God can do anything and experience anything,” and I suppose that’s true, but that seems like the kind of knowledge that isn’t personal, isn’t rooted in actual experience—sure, God gets it in the divine mind, in theory, so to speak, but can God really understand our journeys if God has never walked in our shoes, never experienced our broken hearts, our deep grief, our shattered dreams, our deep disappointment in the people we love and struggle to love, in our own time in Babylon, in exile?

Last week, I mentioned that so much of Advent is all about the watching and waiting for God in our lives, watching on the watchtower, so to speak, watching and waiting for God to appear in our lives, in God’s own time. And yet, the question that was just asked, the question of whether or not God can really know our pain, our hopelessness, and even our real human joy—the question about whether or not this God really can give us authentic, real comfort, especially if this God has not gone through what we have gone through, that question really does gets answered on Christmas Day. We actually do get what we want on Christmas, a God who gets it, gets us, and that gift is a fellow traveler, someone who really does understand, completely understands, who knows what we have gone through—we get this gift in the Christ child who is born on that day. Last week I talked about the idea that God had already tried power, the use of power, with us, with humankind, and out of that experiment, God had come to understand that this path hadn’t lead anywhere positive, this attempt to heal this world by the use of sheer power—and what is worse is that humankind somehow thought it got the green light to try to solve its own problems through the sword, the gun, the bullet, and what we got was war after war. So God went a different route, a route that would flesh out these words of comfort we find in Isaiah, words that were meant to clear the highways and byways in our souls, the rough places in our hearts, the wilderness found so often within us.

And the road God took was right through the human heart, in coming to us as one of us in this Jesus of Nazareth. I wonder if God, at first, had originally simply planned to use the road in Christ as a way of revealing God’s own self to us most fully, most openly, and then, surprisingly, God ended up being surprised by the very experiment God had begun, surprised by what God had learned about humanity, and the revelations that came to the divine mind by simply traveling in our human shoes, our moccasins, so to speak. I think the revelation went both ways—we learned a lot more about God through Christ, and God learned a lot more about humanity because of the Christ. And what we got was a God who now knows us, who really loves us as we are, and now knows how difficult it can be to human, to love and lose in this world, to struggle with the despair and yet, still be immersed in the goodness of friends and family, and children, and this big beautiful, world, even a world sometimes scarred by sin and shadow. I think this is a God who gets it now, gets us, gets the dilemma we often find ourselves us in, and though God is still continually calling upon us to be good to ourselves and to each other, this God now understands how easily we can often fail that call to goodness. I think that is the reason why God is now so merciful with us is because God gets us in ways that God never got us before, not before that moment in a manger thousands of years ago. All of this happened because God shared with us our humanity in this Jesus of Nazareth, and that moment of sharing made all the different in the world, forever.

But, of course, walking with someone, walking beside them, immersing ourselves in their story, implicating ourselves in the outcome of that story because of our love for them, that will change you, much like it changed God, I think. We know that truth because of people like Bill W. and people we’ve shared our own stories with, our stories of pain and hope, joy and sorrow. I think when God chose to hear our human story in Jesus the Christ, in the flesh and bones of his life, I think God was trying to say something to us, to tell us something, and that was that it’s important for us to take a chance on sharing the difficult things we’ve perhaps kept hidden, those stories that might be useful and helpful for those who don’t think they can recover from what we ourselves have recovered from, from what we have eventually received resurrection. Now, don’t get me wrong—we often spend a lifetime coming out of a grave that has been especially painful—as they say in recovery work, one is always an alcoholic, but what matters is that one is a recovering alcoholic, that one is working towards that wholeness, whether it be from alcohol, or whatever thing that has kept you and me in our particular graves. The prophet Isaiah promises the people comfort, a divine comfort, and yet, who knew that divine comfort would come hundreds of years later through such human means, though this Jesus of Nazareth? And if that is the case, if the case is that God offers us comfort through the human, through Jesus, the Human One, maybe we need to do what God does, which is to take the chance on sharing our stories with each other, our stories of woe, our stories of wonder, our stories of hope? To comfort each other the way that God has chosen to comfort us in Jesus, by sharing ourselves with each other, and giving each other strength for the journey so that we can we know that we too can get through the wilderness and we know we can get to other side, because someone else has done it before us—and that one is not just the friend, or the stranger who just shared their story of personal resurrection with us, but it might also be the one who has done it before us, walked in our shoes, thousands of years, beginning in that manager in Bethlehem. If God gambled with speaking the truth to us in Christ—and hearing our truth, then maybe we are called to do the same—to speak the truth that we’ve experienced, even if our shakes, knowing that God has done the same in Christ. Amen.

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