The Comfort of the Gospel
Here’s my meditation/ sermon from our December 10 Advent Vespers, titled “The Comfort of the Gospel.” First there’s a link to the recording of the vespers, then the written text.
The Comfort of the Gospel
Isaiah 40: 1 – 11, Mark 1: 1 -8
December 10, 2023
When I first read the Old Testament passage for this Sunday, the second Sunday of Advent, I got to the final verse and just felt a sense of relief, of comfort. It almost brought me to tears. I guess I had been feeling a lot of pressure, which we do, don’t we, this time of year, although not only now.
This passage from Isaiah begins with these words, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” Many of you will hear those words as sung, forcefully, in Handel’s “Messiah.” Fear not! I won’t break into song.
Then you get to the last verse, a verse we read on this second Sunday of Advent because this prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. That last verse, the one that flooded my soul with relief, with grace is this,
“He 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.” It speaks of God’s love and providence — or as my friend Don Mayer likes to say, “God’s pro-vi-dence” — God’s tender and unfailing care in Christ the shepherd of our souls.
The verse just before is different. “See the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.” We don’t like that as much. Jesus as a warrior engaged in a mighty battle with the evil one. We’re told this is “militaristic” and so we can’t like it. But both are needed and both are true. Christ Jesus is a mighty warrior against sin and evil and all that holds people — you and me — captive in fear, captive to shame. And he is the gentle shepherd who gathers the vulnerable and leads those with child.
Here in Advent we need comfort, God’s comfort. It is, as we are often reminded a hard time for many. And that is true, but not the whole truth. I think it is a hard time for everyone.
I think of the couple I knew who had divorced in January. They both thought things were going well, certainly as well as they could. They believed they had moved on and the kids, they told me, were doing fine. Then Christmas came and nobody was doing fine. Who would “get” the kids for Christmas? As the couple argued about that, they had the sudden realization, stopping them in their tracks: they were speaking of their children as objects, one them would “get.”
Or the parents that had finally adjusted to the empty nest but still having the comfort that the nest would at least fill up again for Christmas. The kids, no longer kids, came home. What joy! But then came the year when the nest stayed empty. The now-grown and married “kids,” were with their spouses’ families. Mom and Dad had, of course, given their blessings and wished them all the best of holidays. But when they looked at one another, they couldn’t quite hold back the tears.
We could go on. You’ll think of other people, other stories, of your own stories of loss, of sadness, of regret. It’s just such a complicated time of year. So many memories, some lovely, but still memories. And expectations. The perfect home. The perfect family. The perfect tree.
Trees are a bugger. Ours started listing to the right the other day. I remember the year I got home from teaching in Toronto just days before Christmas. My assignment was to get a tree and get it up ready to be decorated. I got the tree and put it in a bucket, using rocks to hold the tree in place in the bucket full of water. Lots of water. Wanted the tree to be happy. I got it all set. Stepped back, pronounced it perfect, then went out to do some other errands. When I came back home, the tree was on its side, our dog — ever helpful — lapping at the water on the floor, the bucket tipped over, water everywhere. I said a four-letter word, maybe more than one.
Add this to all the swirling feelings of Advent and Christmas: we live in times when it seems nearly impossible to keep up. The nature of modernity is “acceleration,” always going faster. Things always speeding up. More is possible, so more is expected. Did you download your “Updates”? If not, you’re out-of-date. You have to move faster just to stay where you are.
But Christmas has a particular catch to it. Despite all the holly-jolly, a time that was meant for grace often turns into a time of law. What do I mean by that? There are two huge forces in life and in the Bible, Law and Grace. The law says, “you should do this,” “you must do that.” The law is not a bad thing. It’s a good thing. Only, it can never bring about what it demands. Only grace can do that. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms.” That can bring relief, that can bring faith and peace.
You can tell when the Law is at work because it is characterized by a certain grammar. It’s always an if/ then grammar. We talk about Jolly Old St. Nick. He doesn’t sound so jolly to me. How does the song go? “He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake; he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake!” That’s how many people think of God. As a kind of cosmic bookkeeper, always watching, keeping score. If you do the right thing, then you’re in. If not . . .
Hear the “if/ then”? “If you are good then Santa will come and bring your wonderful gifts. If not, well, tough luck. I mentioned that song, “Santa Claus is coming to town,” in a sermon once. Afterwords, a woman came to me, tears welling up in her eyes. She recalled the Christmas when she was a child when the gifts were opened, but none were for her. She said to her father, “Where’s my gift, Daddy?” He said, “There’s no gift for you; you weren’t good enough.” My heart ached for that little girl, now a woman, still carrying the death of the law in her heart.
The if/ then is not just in the mixed message we give the kids, it’s in all the ads pelting us this time of the year. The jewelry ads are my favorite. They always begin with a gorgeous woman. Then a guy, almost as gorgeous, shows up with the perfect ring or braclet or necklace. She smiles as if totaly stunned by such a glorious gift, they kiss — with the promise of more heavily suggested. If you get the right gift, then you will be loved.
One of the things I most love about the actual Christmas story is that it’s just such a mess. You’ve got a unwed pregnant teen mother. A father who wonders what’s going on. They are traveling when the roads are packed. No reservation for a room at the inn, try the barn. Oddly, the king wants to kill their baby. Not a perfect Christmas, not by any conventional standards. And not a perfect family, not by a long shot.
But we forget that. We strive for the perfect Christmas, the perfect home, the perfect family. It’s an if/ then. If you have the perfect family, then you will have a wonderful Christmas. And when it goes, like my tree, over and there’s a mess, we beat up on ourselves.
Linda came home that evening. “How’d it go with the tree?” “Oh fine,” I lied, trying to get the mop back in the closet before she asked, “What are you doing with that?” “No, the tree is great, went great. Go see.”
The point here is not just that the season is a minefield for memory and regret, but also of pressures born of the Law, all the if/thens, all the demands to perform, to get it right.
The gospel is not the law. If/ then makes you the subject of every sentence. If you are good, then you get a gift. The pressure, the focus is all on us. And it can be brutal.
The gospel is a different word, a different grammar, a grammar of Grace. With grace, we are not the subject of the verbs. We are not the active agent. God is, God in Jesus Christ, is the actor, the subject of the verb, the one doing the work. Listen:
“He will feed his flock like a shepherd.” He will feed you. He will feed you his body. “This is my body, given for you.” “This is my blood, shed for you.” There’s no if/ then there. Christ Jesus is the actor, the one who is working. We are the beneficiary.
“I am the light of the world, and all who trust in me shall never walk in darkness.”
“I am for you. I will never forsake you.”
These are not if/then words. They are unconditional. They are words of promise in which God is the subject of the verbs. “Because I love you, I forgive all your sins.” Period.
Or in the preceding verse, “The Lord God comes with might . . .” Well, thank heavens, he does because the evil one is crafty and clever and nothing if not persistent. He’s the one whispering words of shame, “There’s no present for you, you aren’t good enough,” in your ear.
The gospel is not a if/ then statement. It is a word of grace, an unconditional statement, a promise. Because of that it comforts us, and it strengthens us.
I spent a little with the word “comfort” this week. A dictionary definition of “comfort” reads, “comfort is a state of physical ease, freedom from pain or constraint.” Well, physical ease is nice; freedom from pain, that’s a great thing.
But when you push back a bit, linguistically speaking, “comfort” is something more. The Latin word, from which our word comfort comes, is “confort.” It means “to strengthen greatly, to strengthen much. “Con” is “with, together.” “Fortis” is strong. Comfort doesn’t just mean a L-Z-Boy Chair. It means you are strengthened, strengthened in the Lord.
Many people stagger out of church after it’s over, dispirited. That’s because what they heard is Law. “You should be more loving.” “You must be more generous.” It’s all about you, all on you.” That’s not the gospel. The gospel says,
“If Christ Jesus is for you, who can be against you?” It is a word of promise. That’s the gospel. It strengthens us. God strengthens us. “Nothing in all creation can separate you from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Period. No if/ then.
The law is not bad. The bible’s law is good, good guidance. But it can’t bring about what it demands. Only grace does that. Only grace creates faith.
Some years ago, at my second call church, I was having a hard time. The church I was serving had experienced deep conflict, much of which I didn’t learn about until I was there. In fact, my predecessor had taken her own life. But no one told me. No one talked about that.
Being young and arrogant, the message I gave myself was, “If you are a perfect pastor, if you are an exemplary Christian, then everything will go fine. The church will heal. The church will grow.” Didn’t work. What happened was I got depressed, deeply depressed. I could hardly get out of bed. I was living under the Law, under a very grandiose “if/ then.” If you are perfect in your work, then all will be well. Understandably, I was having a really hard time.
I went off to a place called “The Spiritual Life Center,” a retreat house, run by an elderly Maryknoll sister, Sr. Katherine. Sister Katherine met with me daily as my spiritual director. Each day she gave me a passage of scripture to pray, over and over, and to meditate upon. “See where it leads you,” she said.
When first I headed off to pray and mediate, Sr. Katherine called after me, “Oh, and if you fall asleep, that’s fine. You’re probably exhausted.” That was a word of grace itself.
The first passage she gave me was also from Isaiah, not far from ours today. From Isaiah 43. She also said, “Whenever you come upon a proper name, like Israel, insert your own name.” So altered the passage read:
“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, Tony; he who formed you, Anthony.
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you.
When you walk through fire, you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One . . .”
As I prayed those words over and over, I noticed a change in my body. I felt as if I could breathe again, that I was breathing freely and deeply for the first time in a long time.
Why? I had heard the gospel. No more if/ then. Just grace. “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name, you are mine.”
So in this crazy, wonderful season of Advent, amid the memories that gobsmack us and the joys that surprise us, and in the midst of a culture of constant acceleration, pause now, hear this word of comfort, of gospel, of promise.
“He will feed his flock like a shepherd.” He will feed you. “He will gather his lambs in his arms.” He holds you. The Lord Jesus Christ comes to you and for you, with healing in this wings. I have called you by name, you are mine.”
It’s a promise and because the promise comes from Jesus Christ, the sovereign one, the Lord of all creation, you can trust it, you can believe it and you will be strengthened by it. Instead of being laid low and overwhelmed by all the if/ then’s of the law, the word of grace, the word and presence of Jesus, will strengthen you and cause you stand. To stand in the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen.