December 6, 2020

Second Sunday of Advent (12/6/2020), Pastor Lois Pallmeyer

Dear Friends in Christ, God’s grace and peace be with you.  Amen

“Comfort, O Comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to them that their sentence has been served[i].”

I can’t remember a time the world was more ready for a message of Comfort[ii]. As others have said, it almost feels like Lent never ended, and that Advent is just another variant of the themes we started to sing in March:  the isolation, the fear, the discord, the frustration, the illness, the grief, the fatigue, the loneliness. Our season of wandering in the wilderness has proven to be much longer than we ever anticipated. And now, after all we’ve been through, even the sweetness and goodness that Advent should bring us seem a little fragile this year.

We normally spend these four weeks in joyful anticipation of the goodness Christmas will bring. This time, with so many restrictions in place even Advent expectations have been dampened. If we take the chance to be with those whom we long to see, we know we risk following our celebrations with regrets and illness. Most of us will determine that Christmas will have to be marked much more quietly and simply this year. We won’t get together will all of our loved ones. We won’t attend a slew of annual concerts and festivals. We won’t be able to join each other in person here on Christmas Eve.

In fact, we worry that the waiting this Advent imparts will last much longer than the four candles on our wreath would indicate. It may be many months after the decorations are cleared away before we can really imagine celebrating. Has there ever been an Advent so full of longing? Has there ever been an Advent this long?

Ever since the pandemic began, I’ve been reminding myself about how much of the biblical narrative is written in times of ordeal and challenge. In exile and captivity, the people of God compile their history and compose songs. In prison, they write letters. Under foreign oppression, they tell of liberation. And in the wilderness, they recall the voice of the prophets who cry, “Comfort,” and “Repent.”

This section of Isaiah was written when beloved Jerusalem had been destroyed and many of the leaders had been forced into captivity in Babylon. To Isaiah’s peers, the promises of God must have seemed foolish and unreliable. Nothing they had banked on had proven to be dependable or permanent. Their temple, the power of their monarchy, their armies and their traditions had crumbled. God’s people were without a home and without a recognizable religion.

But Isaiah does not lose faith. Traditions and homes and monarchies may fall apart, he sings, but God’s word remains. God’s promises to be with us, to sustain us, to carry us to safety, and to hold us in love, are sure. Comfort! Comfort!          Look, hope, hold on. God has not given up on us.

Some 500 years later, the gospel of Mark would be compiled when Jerusalem was threatened again. Mark writes after John the Baptizer and Jesus of Nazareth had both been executed, when the lives of their followers are in danger, and when hope seems lost again. But he writes his account of their lives in the light of the ancient prophets. Just as Isaiah sang of comfort and hope, so Mark asserts that the story of Jesus is actually a story of good news[iii].

John the baptizer appears in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance. Life needs to start over again, John proclaims. Wash away the presuppositions of what has been, and begin new. Renew your confidence in God’s promises that despite the atrocities of Rome, Babylon, or any corrupt administration, God is faithful. God is coming to baptize us in Holy Breath, in new life. God’s promises are just as sure now, as they were in Isaiah’s day.

Repentance has never seemed like a very great Christmas word. After all, the season is normally about holding on to old traditions, to cherishing the things we love the most, to singing the most familiar and comforting of carols. But repentance turns us around. It calls on us to leave past patterns behind.

Could this be a year to really embrace an Advent of repentance? After all, we’re going to have to leave behind some traditions anyway. Repentance offers us a fresh start, a new awareness, a change of heart. Maybe it will take us celebrating a whole new kind of Christmas to experience the new life God is bringing us.

I’ve read so many hope-filled messages about what life will be like once we finally get the vaccine and the infection rates begin to fall. So many of us can describe the things we’ve missed the most and are most longing to return to. Like people held in captivity, there are songs we long to sing back in Jerusalem, and we can’t wait for things to feel like home again.

But I think most of us also acknowledge that some things won’t ever be quite the same again, and maybe that’s okay. It’s no good to return to life in which 35 million people face food insecurity in the richest country in the world. It’s not worth returning to a society in which people of color have less access to adequate health care, quality education, and a fair judicial system than their white neighbors. There’s no point in resuming practices which continue to abuse the environment, create an unsustainable amount of waste, and neglect the needs of future generations.

Frankly, there are some habits and patterns that we need to let go of: taking our loved ones and communal joys for granted, neglecting to check in on people who live alone, caring only about our own well-being without noticing those who are suffering around us. Repentance might do us some good. A new way of life more fully aware of our biases and privileges, more ready to work for justice, more committed to a sustainable future, more prepared to confront systemic racism, and more eager to join in the work God is doing in the world, would quite honestly be a refreshing change of pace.

The prophet’s song has always reminded us that inequalities would need to be leveled, and rough places made plain. Ultimate comfort won’t ever really come to us until the ideals of God’s reign are realized, when debts are paid, reparations are made, and reconciliation can be real.

Isn’t that the sweetness of Christmas we’ve always loved the most?

300 years after John appeared in the wilderness, preaching of repentance and pointing to a new way, Bishop Nicholas of Myra served in southern Turkey. Orphaned at a young age, St. Nicholas, whose feast day we celebrate today, offered his family’s wealth to those in need in his community, and began serving the church.

There are many stories about St. Nick’s miraculous ability to assist those in trouble, but the legends we hold dearest are those that point to his generous spirit[iv]. The wonder and delight of generations who tell tales of St. Nicholas focus on the playful ways to keep his spirit alive by offering treats in his name, and caring for those who suffer around us.

We tell his story when we send gifts to strangers as we will do through the Giving Tree[v]. We honor his witness when we take care-packages to those who live outside, as some in our community have been doing, when we offer food for the families in our neighborhood schools, when we serve a meal at the Dorothy Day Center, when we send a card to a member we’ve missed seeing, when we run an errand for a neighbor who works the second shift at the hospital.

We celebrate the goodness of St. Nicholas, and the promises sung by the Prophet Isaiah, the message of John the Baptist and the death-defeating mission of Jesus the Coming One when we choose to look at the brokenness around us and say, “That’s enough. I can help. I can make a difference. We have work to do[vi].”

Far from being unable to celebrate as we’d like, we may find this year offering us opportunities to mark a Christmas like we never have before.

“Comfort!” the prophet sings. Comfort those who are hurting, those who are grieving, those who are lonely. Cry unto them that a new day is dawning, and that God comes to save us.

This is the beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.

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[i] Isaiah 40:1-11

[ii] Schifferdecker, Kathryn, “Hope on the Horizon,” November 29, 2020, Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/hope-on-the-horizon

[iii] Mark 1:1-8

[iv] https://www.stnicholascenter.org/

[v] www.gloriadeistpaul.org/2020-giving-tree

[vi] Schifferdecker, op. cit.