Reverend Mel Baars
December 4, 2011
“Speaking to the Heart”
Isaiah chapter 40 is one of my all time favorite passages in the Bible. When I discovered, earlier this week, that this was the text for this Sunday, I was excited, I mean really excited. Which, I admit, is little, or even, a lot, nerdy. But, it’s not often that I know a passage by heart like I know this one. You may have noticed though, that I didn’t recite it from memory and this is because I actually know these verses as a song. I would have sung it to you, but it’s supposed to be sung by a man. That clearly won’t work for me. It is the opening song in Handel’s Messiah. This three hour oratorio begins with these very words, “Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem. And cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.” The King James version is a little different than what we read today, but the sentiment rings through as clear as a bell.
A pastor friend of mine, who also loves Handel, pointed out the importance of his choice for the beginning lines of Messiah. Most of us would probably begin the story of the Messiah as the gospel’s do, with John the Baptist in the wilderness, shouting “Prepare the way of the Lord,” or with the angel Gabriel’s visit to Elizabeth or Mary with news of God’s imminent coming, or perhaps even the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. But that is not where the story begins. Instead it begins with these words, “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.”
For Israel, this was good news. In fact, it was great news. For about 150 years this people had been in exile, separated from their homes, oppressed in Babylon. In many ways, they felt that God’s judgment had gotten the best of them and that their offenses were too great to be pardoned. In fact, the first 39 chapters of Isaiah highlight the reasons for God’s judgment. We cannot hear these words today, of comfort and pardon, without remembering what comes before them. And yet it is here, after a series of iniquities, that a new chapter begins in the story of God and the world. Into this dark, depraved situation, where violence and oppression reign, where it seems that God has abandoned God’s people and there is no chance of hope, it is here that a prophecy of grace and restoration is heard. “Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.”
I found the Hebrew words here especially poignant. What is translated in the King James Version “Speak comfortably” or in newer versions of the Bible “Speak tenderly” literally means, “Speak to the heart.” In these verses, it is as if God is trying to come off of the page, into the pain of Israel, the brokenness of the world, and somehow make it better.
Perhaps, this year it might be easier for us to hear the power of God’s message of comfort which Isaiah proclaims. Normally, at home, with the tree alit and, if there is money, the presents bought and the Christmas dinner planned out, comfort is all around us. The need for God’s comfort is not always obvious, that is unless we happen to be without a job this year or in the process of loosing a home or facing a serious, potentially terminal illness or mourning the loss of a spouse or a parent or a child. Those who bear this crushing load may know better the power of God’s comfort when the world has gone black.
For us gathered here perhaps this promise of comfort is a relief from what we see and hear each day. Though mostly we are focused on the mission at hand, at least every once in a while, the harshness of this place seeps through our protective layer and we are faced with a pretty hopeless scenario. We live and work in a place and amongst a people who have only really known war and poverty, year after year. I hear stories of ANA soldiers who scrounge for our thrown away blankets to stay warm in the wintertime or of US service members struggling to find boots for the ANA to wear because they have none. And, these Afghan soldiers actually have employment. We know outside of these walls is one of the poorest countries on earth, with perhaps the lowest literacy rates in the world.
This past Thursday I went with a group of service members to the Egyptian Hospital over on main BAF as a part of Operation Pencil. Walking down a line of children, greeting each child who had come for new backpack full of school supplies, I was blown away that every single child who shook my hand, every one, pointed down to a broken shoe, looking at me with such hope and anticipation. Winter is coming and a flip-flop with holes and torn edges will be hardly any protection against the snow and cold. But, on thursday, I had no shoes to give. All I could do is shake a hand and greet them in peace. I couldn’t help but wonder. What would it be like for these children to hear God’s promise of comfort or for this country to hear these words? What would it be like for our world to hear? A promise of comfort, of an end to all of the suffering and pain, this would be good news, very good news. Some days, though, facing the darkness, even a promise is hard to hold on to.
No matter what our role is here, whether we command a task force and see the big picture or are called into the prison cells to work with detainees, day by day, we are all human. In this place, sooner or later, we will be confronted with hopelessness. We struggle when we have no shoes to give and not enough blankets to share. When we face whatever darkness that confronts us here, we realize just how much we need God’s comfort, too.
For those who live in exile, who carry sorrow from loss or grief, who stumble around in the darkness, there is no true hope but God’s hope. Even hope in a community which is loving or a country which strives for freedom and equality, all these are like grass which in time wither and fade, but the word of God, this stands forever.
And so we come to another Sunday of Advent, waiting and watching for the presence of God to dwell among us. We have heard the promise. We want to believe that this light which we celebrate, the light of Christ, will actually make a difference in the darkness. But, the wait has been long, and for some, full of sadness and pain. Even “Comfort, O Comfort my people says your God” just isn’t enough. We need something that moves us beyond words. We need someone to really speak to our hearts because in this world laced with uncertainty and doubt, words mean very little and are easily forgotten.
When I was at the Egyptian hospital, unsuccessfully attempting to communicate with the children in bits of Dari and spotty English, I experienced something very curious. I wanted so badly to express love to these kids, hoping to lift their spirits and maybe even make up for the fact that I didn’t have any shoes to give them. But, no matter what I tried to say, I was continually at a loss. My pantomime skills are good, but not that good. At some point in the morning, a grandfather introduced me to his nine year old granddaughter who had come to the hospital hoping to have her hearing restored. She was not able to communicate with words at all. Instead, we sat together on the sidewalk. She would look at me for a while smiling, and then she would take my hand into hers. After a while I would pat her on the head and then hug her. We repeated this routine quite a few times as we waited for the school supplies. She never made a sound and after a while I stopped trying to talk to her with my mouth. In our mutual exchange, I realized that speaking to the heart has little to do with words. It is all about presence, being with one another, side by side, even in silence.
I wonder if this is a little like God’s experience with us. After saying and trying to say everything under the sun, through prophet after prophet, from a burning bush, through stone tablets and dove and rainbow, through dreams and other encounters, finally God just came down to us to be present with us. Where words are lost in translation and interpretation, where leaders, even those with the right intentions fall short, God just comes to us, right next to us, wherever we are, in the midst of our sin and our shame, no matter how deep we have sunk, and taking our hand into his own, simply speaks his love into our hearts.
And this is the greatest news of all. Emmanuel, God with us. God’s promise of comfort and restoration fulfilled in Jesus. This is what we witness, God’s presence among us even now. We carry this light into the world, into the places where suffering and war and pain and sadness reign. We go there and we sit, side by side, maybe taking a hand into our own, perhaps not even saying a word, but sharing God’s love, speaking to the heart. Amen