December 7, 2014
If I were to say the name, Tiny Tim, to you, what would you say? I venture a guess that most of us would respond, "God bless us everyone." If I were to describe someone as a Scrooge, I would bet that most of us would understand that person to be a stingy, miserly, uncharitable person. Charles Dickens' book, "A Christmas Carol," is less than 90 pages, but unlike some of his other classic novels, "Great Expectations," and "David Copperfield," this story has become iconographic in a way none of his other novels have. There are images and illustrations from this story that people know without ever having to read the book. God bless us everyone, indeed.
Because this Christmas fable is so well known, at least in pieces and parts, it is easy to forget the depth of the message that Dickens sought to convey, as well as the depth of his main character. In a scene that is often overlooked, Scrooge is journeying with the first of the three spirits -- the Ghost of Christmas Past. They have looked back through time to Ebenezer Scrooge's school days. While the other boys in the school he attended went home to loving families for the Christmas holidays, Scrooge was the forlorn boy left behind. Until one Christmas when he is unexpectedly visited by his little sister, Fan. She comes to tell him that he is going home. Dickens' words are much better than mine.
"I have come to bring you home, dear brother!" said the child, clapping her tiny hands, and bending down to laugh. "To bring you home, home, home!"
"Home, little Fan?" returned the boy.
"Yes!" said the child, brimful of glee. "Home, for good and all. Home for ever and ever. Father is so much kinder than he used to be, that home's like Heaven! He spoke so gently to me one dear night when I was going to bed, that I was not afraid to ask him once more if you might come home; and he said Yes, you should; and sent me in a coach to bring you."
Home. Ebenezer Scrooge was going home. His long exile at that sad and lonely school was over. He was going home. That must have been the most wonderful news a lost and lonely boy could hear.
Although we can't know what Dickens' thoughts were when he wrote that scene, I can't help but think about these words from Isaiah 40. They were spoken to a people long exiled from their homes and homeland. They were announced to people who had spent generations far from their home. These words were told to those who may no longer have believed that there was any comfort to be had. Perhaps, once, they had been God's chosen ones, but they had forgotten what that meant and what it required of them. These opening words were told to those who were lost, once again strangers in a strange land.
"Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak 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."
"Comfort, O comfort my people." What wondrous and incredible news to hear! Especially as they follow 39 chapters that mainly speak words of judgment and condemnation for the ways the people turned from the Lord and neglected the least of those in their midst. Certainly we find words of comfort, of hope in those 39 chapters -- I think specifically of the verses we hear this time of year from chapter 9 about the Prince of Peace. Yet even those amazing words are couched in judgment.
So the 40th chapter of Isaiah marks a significant change and turning point, not only for the relationship between God and God's people, but also in the book of Isaiah itself. Biblical scholars refer to this as Second Isaiah. This second Isaiah was most likely a different prophet writing in the first Isaiah's name. And in this chapter, these words of comfort must have felt like a healing balm flowing over the wounded hearts and weary souls of those people far from home.
These words of comfort signify a new call as well. The Lord is calling his prophet not only to tell the people this news, but to herald them, to preach them. Preach to them that not only shall they be comforted, that their time of judgment is ending, but that everything will be changed. Even the physical landscape will be changed. Crooked roads through the desert will be made straight. Mountains will be brought low. Valleys will be lifted up. The uneven ground will be made level. The rough places will become a plain.
As in other prophetic call stories, this second Isaiah questions the call he is given. In response to being told to "cry out," he asks, "What shall I cry?" Grammatically speaking, there is a question about verse 6 in the New Revised Standard Translation -- the one I use and the one you read in the pews. When the prophet asks, "What shall I cry," closing quotation marks are placed as a signal that the prophet has stopped speaking. However commentators believe this is an error in punctuation. The prophet's words actually continue to the end of verse 7.
"What should I cry? All people are grass, their constancy is like a flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass."
In other words, I think the prophet is asking, "Why bother?" Why bother preaching these words of comfort to them? Why bother telling them any of this good news? These people are no more constant than the grass or flower that blooms for a short season then fades away. They are fickle. The word of the Lord has been given to them over and over again. They have been warned, exhorted, urged, even condemned, but they never seem to learn. They just don't get it. So why bother, Lord, why bother?
God replies, "The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever." Yes, the people are like grass. Yes, they are inconsistent and fickle, but I am not. They may wither, but I do not. They might fade, but my words remain. I remain. So preach these glad tidings. Preach this good news. Tell the people, "Here is your God!"
Here is your God.
It seems to me that those four words are what Advent is all about. Here is your God. While we technically know this already, we know that this is a time of preparation for God to be born among us, do we really take the time to consider those words? Here is your God. Think about them for a moment. Think about the import these four simple, short words carry. Think about how wonderful and unlikely and awesome and even terrifying these words truly are. Here is your God.
When I really ponder them, hear them, feel them, I am overwhelmed. Because I realize that in this time of preparation, whether it is lighting the candles on the Advent wreath or putting up our Christmas tree at home, I tend to think of my preparations as making Advent happen. I know that sounds strange, but don't we all do that to a certain extent? We prepare in so many ways, but I think in our preparations we come to believe that we bring Advent and Christmas about. But the truth is that Advent happens to us. God comes to us. God changes the landscape. God alters the course of history. God breaks in and breaks through and comes to us. Ready or not. God comes to us with words of comfort and tenderness. These words that may have been a balm to the exiles so far from home should have the same effect on us.
I may not have been sent away from my homeland, but I have to tell you, my homeland is no longer one I recognize. I am more aware than ever before of how broken we are, how broken this world is. It seems as though violence and hurt and despair are all that thrives. I cannot begin to imagine how anything can change, whether it is the geography of people's hearts or the topography of the land around us. But here are these words, these glorious, unlikely, wonderful words. "Comfort, O comfort my people." "Here is your God."
Advent happens to us. God comes to us in the most unlikely of ways. God comes to us through the most unlikely of messengers. God comes to us bringing words of comfort and grace, mercy and tenderness, whether we believe we deserve them or not; whether we are prepared for them or not. Advent happens to us, because God comes to us. Here is our God. Praise be to God! Let all of God's children say, "Alleluia!" Amen.