December 3 | The Comfort and the Cry

There is no video recording this Sunday due to technical difficulties. 

The Comfort and The Cry 
Text: Isaiah 40:1-11
Speaker: Joel Miller


The second coming of the Messiah took place one dull Monday morning as he arrived anonymously at the gates of a great city.  There was much for him to do.  While many years had passed since his last visit, the same suffering was present all around.  Still there were the poor, the sick, and the oppressed.  Still there were the outcasts, and still there were the righteous who pitied them, and the authorities who exploited them.

For a long time no one took any notice of this desert wanderer with his weather-beaten face and ragged, dusty clothes – this quiet man who spent his time living among the sick and unwanted.  The great city labored on, ignorant of the one who dwelled within its streets. 

The Messiah eventually decided to reveal his identity to a chosen few who had remained faithful to his teachings.  These people met together in a small, unknown church on the outskirts of the city to pray and to serve the poor.

As the Messiah entered the modest sanctuary one Sunday morning, his eyes fell upon the tiny group huddled in the corner, each one praying and weeping for the day of the Lord.  As they prayed, those who had gathered in the church slowly began to feel the gaze of Christ penetrate their souls.  Silence began to descend within the circle as they realized who had entered their sacred home.  For a time no one dared to speak. 

Then the leader of the group gathered her courage, approached Christ, fell at his feet, and cried, “We have waited so long for your return.  For so many years we have waited patiently for you to come.  Today, as with every other day, we prayed passionately for your arrival.”

Then she stood up and looked Christ in the eyes:

“Now that you are with us we have but one question.”

Christ listened, knowing already what it would be.

“Tell us, Christ, when will you arrive?”

The Messiah did not answer but simply smiled.  Then joined the others in their prayers and tears.  He remains there still, to this very day, waiting, watching, and serving in that tiny, unknown church on the outskirts of the city.

This story, “Awaiting the Messiah,” comes from the book The Orthodox Heretic and Other Impossible Tales (pages 80-82).  It’s a collection of parables written by the author, Pete Rollins.  If you’re looking for a book to buy for that certain special orthodox heretic in your life, you might want to look into it.   

There’s no indication Pete Rollins wrote this with Advent in mind, but it fits the occasion. 

While Advent as a season anticipates the birth of Jesus – something that has already happened – this first Sunday of Advent traditionally focuses on what has been called the Second Coming of Christ – something yet to come.  This future and final arrival has been at the far horizon of Christian faith – the end of the age, the day of the Lord, the reconciliation of all things in Christ.  Into our world of suffering, Advent comes as a consolation, reminding us of this full scope of Christian hope.  It places us between those two arrivals – one a longing fulfilled, the first coming of Christ, the other a longing unfulfilled, the second coming.   

Like any good parable, “Awaiting the Messiah” does not unfold the way we expect it to.  The second coming of the Messiah looks much like the first, not much of an arrival at all.  At least not in any definitive sense.  The visitor is unnoticed, and notably, the city, the world, is mostly unchanged by his presence.  Those who do notice, those who have so attended to their longing for the Messiah that they can sense his presence in the room when he appears, do not have all their hopes and longings fulfilled.  What if, the parable seems to be asking, What if the coming of the Messiah, rather than fulfilling all our longings, actually deepens them?  What if the arrival of Immanuel, God with us, rather than delivering us out of the moment, takes us deeper into it, beckons us to participate more fully in the joy and the pain of the world?    

Well, it’s just a parable, just a playful story, told by a self-proclaimed orthodox heretic, so do with it as you will. 

It does potentially share some common themes with the reading from Isaiah and the chapters that follow it.   

This section of Isaiah is known as the Book of Consolations.  Consolations because the primary role of the prophet, rather than condemn the people for injustices they’d committed, as prophets were wont to do – the primary prophetic task here is to console.  To meet the people in their suffering.  To assure them of God’s steadfast, abiding love and that they have a future as a people. 

The nation had been battered and exiled.  People were forcefully removed from Judah to Babylon.  Families had given birth to children in a foreign land.  They had wondered what would become of their lifeways.  The prophets had delivered their harsh evaluations of why this had to be.  The exile had lasted decades, generations.      

And now, the opening words of Isaiah chapter 40 serve as the prophet’s new job description during this time of upheaval.  “Comfort, O Comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.”  Comfort, tender speech, consolation.  The prophet becomes a chaplain to a people who are displaced and disoriented, still grieving, longing for a future they can’t quite envision. 

For the people of Judah in Babylon, Isaiah is a bringer of solace.  This consolation includes the stirring of a longing for home.  God is making a way in the wilderness, he says, that vast wasteland between where we are, and where we want to be.  The roadcrew is already hard at work – raising up the valleys, bringing down the mountains, leveling off the uneven places.  And the Glory of the Lord will be revealed to all flesh.  Lift up your head.  Wait.  Watch.  It will soon be fulfilled.  

And this is more than just a dream or wish.  This is about to become concrete sociopolitical reality.  Just a few chapters later, still within the book of Consolations, Isaiah names a Messiah, which is Hebrew for “anointed one” who will bring this about.  Cyrus the Persian king, conqueror of the Babylonians, the Lord’s Messiah, will help level those roads.  He’ll release the people to return back to Judah. 

Consolation can look like real, tangible, deliverance.  Policy change.  Refugees reunited with family.  We pray for this in our own world today.

Consolation can also happen on another level. 

In a brief essay about Solace, David Whyte writes, “Solace is the beautiful, imaginative home we make where disappointment can go to be rehabilitated.”  “Solace,” he says, “is the art of asking the beautiful question, of ourselves, of our world, and of one another, in fiercely difficult and unbeautiful moments.”  Consolation, according to Whyte, rather than simply being about comfort that makes us comfortable, prompts us to ask a more beautiful question than we had previously been able to ask.  To go deeper in, rather than just find a way out. (Quotes are from Whyte’s book Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Words, p. 217)

For the exiles, even those who returned home to Jerusalem, perhaps that beautiful question had to with an expanded sense of home, not merely tied to one plot of land.  Or a recognition that the Glory of the Lord, as they called it, appears to “all flesh,” even in Babylon.   

For Isaiah, this takes the form of a literal question not long after he is told to speak tenderly to the people.  Isaiah 40:6: “A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” 

The art of consolation takes Isaiah deeper into the unknown territory of how his words might be part of the rehabilitation of his people.  It’s a beautiful question for a fiercely difficult and unbeautiful time: “What Shall I Cry?”  It’s not a question to find your way out of.  Not one you resolve with the right words in the moment and then move on.  Not a question that ends, even when your people do return home. 

Isaiah, too, is referred to as an anointed one, later in chapter 61.  And as a messiah it is his to be alongside his people as they watch and wait, grieve and rejoice.

Advent is a time of consolation, a season of longing and hopefulness.  Even, a season of fulfillment. 

The exiles who heard the words of Isaiah will return home to Judah.  They will remake their homes.  Their children will be surrounded by elders who will teach them their good ways. 

And the angel’s message will come to fulfillment.  Mary will conceive, Joseph will accompany, and Jesus will be born in Bethlehem. 

And, awaiting the Messiah, as we do in Advent, doesn’t just mean we await a time when our longings will be fulfilled.  Awaiting the Messiah can include welcoming an arrival that will deepen those very longings.  Open up new questions we hadn’t even thought to ask before.  Place us in solidarity with a wider scope of creation by plunging us deeper into the moment rather than pulling us out of it. 

The Messiah is coming.  The Messiah has arrived, and joins us in our longing and embrace of the beautiful questions that lead us further toward home.