A sermon preached by Randle R. (Rick) Mixon
First Baptist Church, Palo Alto, CA,
Sunday, November 30, 2014
“Comfort, comfort ye my people…” With these words George Frederick Handel begins his great oratorio, Messiah. As I quoted last week, the masterpiece ends with a grand chorus proclaiming “Blessing and honor, glory and power, be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb, forever and ever. Amen.” (Revelation 5:13). But long before we get to that triumphant conclusion we hear a lone voice, crying in the wilderness tender words of comfort and forgiveness, hope and salvation. The story of the Christ who reigns with glory and power begins with words of comfort and compassion
The writer of Second Isaiah, addressing his people living in exile, proclaims that their days of distress are about to come to an end, that God has forgiven them and desires to bring them home. With surpassing irony he declares, “’Here is your God!’ See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.” Ah but is this reward and recompense what we might expect – harsh judgment, further punishment, more distress and destruction? No, the prophet promises, “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.” The word is one of restorative rather than retributive justice. God’s steadfast love surpasses all judgment.
These are beautiful words expressing lovely sentiments. But really, can we honestly claim to live with such hope, given the distress and destruction of our own existence? True, we are people of privilege with little or no thought of living in exile. We are blessed far beyond the average citizen of the world today. Still, we live with the threat of violence and terror, the rage of our sisters and brothers, the specter of poverty, the bloat of consumerism, the destruction of the planet. Our peace is uneasy. In truth, do we not live as far from the commonwealth of God as the Judeans lived from Jerusalem during their Babylonian exile?
“Comfort, O comfort…Speak tenderly…cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.” Don’t we sometimes long to hear such words spoken to us? Would we not like for someone, our father perhaps, to sing such a song of comfort, of tenderness, of forgiveness and restoration to us? Maybe it’s not such a stretch to hear Isaiah’s song sung on our behalf. “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.” This is a word for you and me.
The news this week has been filled with Ferguson and the aftermath of the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson. While we may have a variety of thoughts, feelings and opinions about this matter, we cannot ignore that those who have taken to the streets, who have lashed out in anger are still our sisters and brothers, as are those who have protested peacefully, those who have had to police the protests and those who have upheld the judgment and opposed the protests altogether. How are we to respond in compassion to such a range of expression? I have no easy answer, except to remind us that, as the body of Christ, we are called to compassion, to feel with others as we also utter words and engage in works of comfort, justice, healing and peace.
Here is one father’s song. How will we receive it? “’My emotions are all over the place. I don’t know what to feel. I’m just, I’m just here. I’m empty off of what happened,’ Michael Brown Sr. said in a back room at Greater St. Mark Family Church on Tuesday afternoon. ‘The whole thing with the death of my son and the verdict. I’m just crushed.’ The Rev. Carlton Lee, Michael Brown Sr.’s pastor, said the last three months have been extremely tough for Brown’s parents. ‘Right now he still wants peace but at the same time he’s full of pain, full of hurt.’” Can you hear, can you imagine the hurt, the pain? Where is the word of comfort, the work of compassion, the measure of healing? Ironically, such words of hope are part of Michael Brown’s father’s song, uttered before the grand jury verdict.
“My family and I are hurting, our whole region is hurting. I thank you for lifting your voices to end racial profiling and police intimidation – but hurting others or destroying property is not the answer. No matter what the grand jury decides, I do not want my son’s death to be in vain. I want it to lead to incredible change, positive change, change that makes the St. Louis region better for everyone. We live here together, this is our home. We’re stronger united. Continue to lift your voices with us and let’s work together to heal and to create lasting change for all people regardless of race. Thank you.”
Remarkable words of hope. As we embrace Isaiah’s words of comfort, tenderness, forgiveness and restoration, could we also join in this father’s song of hope for a day when racial profiling, police intimidation, destroying property and hurting others is left behind us? In compassion, could we commit ourselves to bringing about incredible, positive change that would make the world better for everyone, everywhere?
I was struck by a story shared on Facebook yesterday. It showed this picture, along with the following caption. “Peace among protest: A Portland police officer noticed a 12-year-old boy holding a sign that read ‘Free Hugs’ during a Ferguson demonstration in Oregon. The officer started talking to the boy about the demonstration, school and life. When they were done talking, the officer asked if he was going to get a hug. The boy teared up — and obliged.” Silly sentimentalism, like the cover of today’s bulletin? Maybe so, but that doesn’t stop me from wanting to believe that these kinds of tender, comforting, forgiving, healing embraces are possible – for all of us.
Another father, centuries ago, sang a song over his infant son. It, too, was a song of hope. Old Zechariah, the priest, had been struck dumb for questioning the angel’s promise that a child would be born to him and his wife in their old age. At the time of the child’s naming, his speech was restored so that he could confirm God’s name for this special child. His song is sung to a people living in oppression instead of exile. The Romans ruled the land and his people chafed under the bitter yoke.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” Has the old man gone mad in his time of silence? What is he talking about? It’s one thing to read from the scrolls of the ancients, but he’s talking like this is happening today, in our presence. Does he think he knows something we don’t? It all sounds pretty unrealistic, don’t you think?
One by one they slink away in embarrassed silence, leaving only a handful of stalwart believers to hear his quavering voice come to the climax of his aria. “…you, child, my sweet baby boy, miracle of my old age, you will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins.” Such tender words of promise, such powerful words of hope, such amazing words of vision! Could it be so, that little John was to be the forerunner of the Messiah, the one to announce God’s miraculous coming among his people? Then the coda, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
As with Isaiah and Michael Brown, Sr., God’s reward and recompense is not harsh judgment, further punishment, more distress and destruction. It is restorative rather than retributive justice which breaks like the dawn upon us, guiding our feet in the way of shalom, of peace and well-being, of healing and wholeness and home.
Well, if they had stayed they probably would have laughed at Zechariah’s vision, disdaining his silly sentimentality, mocking his song of hope. But, for some reason, these songs of fathers past and present keeping coming round. Somehow we can’t quite let go of them. As Desmond Tutu reminds us, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” There is something deep in us that longs to see through the shadows, even the shadow of death.
For us who claim to be followers of Christ, the promised one who comes to bring tender comfort, compassionate forgiveness, salvation and shalom, Brian McLaren writes this: “To be alive in the adventure of Jesus is to have a dream, a desire, a hope for the future.” However, it is not enough to just hold hope. He says we need to “translate that hope for the future into action in the present and to keep acting in light of it, no matter the disappointments, no matter the setbacks and delays.” He concludes, “…let us begin this Advent by lighting a candle for the prophets who proclaimed their hopes, desires and dreams. Let us keep their flame glowing in our hearts, even now” (Brian D. McLaren, We Make the Road by Walking, p. 66). In the light of that candle’s glow, let us sing the songs of fathers who have held hope in their hearts, proclaimed hope with their lips and lived hope in their lives that it might be so with us as well. Amen.