Brings Us Home
A sermon preached by Pastor Ken Carrothers on December 8, 2019
I shared with those in Bible Study a story I came across several years ago about a young woman’s first day of college.[i] On the day before she started the university she was petrified. She was sitting in a hotel room with her parents so convinced that she couldn’t do it that she burst into tears.
The woman shared that her parents were amazing. They dried her eyes and said, “I know you are scared. But let’s go to the first day and if at any point you feel you can’t do this that is fine. Tell us and we will take you home. We love you no matter what.”
The woman shared that the next day she was standing in line for registration when she looked around and realized she couldn’t do it. She made the decision that she was leaving and the minute she did, she said she felt a sense of peace.
So she turned to her parents to tell them it was time to go home when a guy burst out of a doorway in front of her wearing the stupidest hat ever. He had a sign promoting a charity and bucket full of lollipops. The man started walking through line handing out lollipops and talking about the charity to everyone. And then he got to the girl and stopped. The man stared at her for a second. It was like he could sense her anxiousness.
Then the man broke his gaze and looked at the young guy standing next to the girl in line and smiled. He reached into his bucket and pulled out a lollipop. He held it out to the young guy and said, “you need to give a lollipop to the beautiful woman standing next to you.”
No one has ever seen someone embarrassed faster than this particular young man. He turned a bright red. He was so petrified he wouldn’t look the young woman in the eye or speak, he just sort of held out the lollipop off to the side. The woman felt so bad for him that she took the lollipop.
And as soon as she did, the man in the stupid hat got a severe look on his face, looked at her parents and said, “look at that. Will you look at that. First day away from home and she is already taking candy… from a stranger.”
Everyone lost it. 20 feet in every direction everyone started to howl. And the young woman says, “I know it is cheesy… but in that moment that everyone was laughing I knew that I shouldn’t quit. I knew I was where I was supposed to be. And I knew I was home.”
We tell this story, because into the midst of this young woman’s anxiety came bursting forth a surprising moment which transformed her anxiety and fear into possibility. I would say it is the grace of God in the form of a goofy guy, in a stupid hat, carrying lollipops. God came down the road and offered comfort to this young woman and led her home.
Our reading today begins a new section in Isaiah commonly known as second Isaiah. This prophet’s words sound remarkably different when compared to the prophetic assault from first Isaiah. First Isaiah, written several centuries earlier, lambasted the people for 39 straight chapters. First Isaiah railed at the people for their sin, mainly around their complete refusal to care for the poor, the widow, the stranger, the foreigner, the orphan and any other marginalized population you can think of. According to first Isaiah, God was furious with Israel for their continual and unfailing inability to follow God’s way.
Then seemingly out of blue comes second Isaiah, beginning in chapter 40 with: “Comfort, O comfort my people says your God.”[ii] From this opening line, we know we are hearing a different voice. In sharp contrast to the unrelenting scorn of prophetic wrath come the soothing sounds of balm for the soul. For us as Christians these words have become so familiar that we often only hear them pointing to the coming of the Christ child who will offer final and complete comfort for us all. It is why this reading is so often placed in Advent.
But if we can hold ourselves from that movement and instead listen to the words as they were spoken to the weary Israelite exiles we might find that these words offer something to us, who long for comfort amidst the fear and terror of our 21st century world. For in many ways, we are very much like the original audience in Babylon — we are far away from home.
Have you ever felt like you are an exile from your true home and hope? Of course when I talk about our true home, I am talking about God. The God who continues to call us to love our neighbor, to care for the poor and to walk beside the marginalized. And our true hope is the presence and call of God in our lives — not in our own power, worth or work. Have you ever felt like you are an exile from your true home and hope?
I assume the answer is yes for most of us. Which is why we have an enormous need for comfort from the one who can truly offer it. This morning instead of the blast of anger and judgment, of frustration and demand, we hear God speak soothing words of comfort — that rain down on a land thirsting for such sweet grace.
“‘Comfort, oh comfort my people,’ says your God. ‘Speak softly and tenderly to Jerusalem, but also make it very clear that she has served her sentence, that her sin is taken care of—forgiven. She’s been punished enough and more than enough, and now it’s over and done with.’”[iii]
It is as clear a statement of God’s grace — of God’s unbreakable love for God’s people. There is nothing more to be done. All is forgiven. All is taken care of. The future before you is held in hope — surprising hope in spite of what seems to be. And we call that hope: grace.
Yet, why is it that so many people lean into these words as a threat of sentence and punishment — and contrive it to mean that God punishes us, penalizes us, makes us serve time, for our sins. It may not come out that blatantly, but you can hear it in people’s questions, in their laments, in their prayers. Who is to blame for the tragedy I experience personally or collectively? Why is God doing this to me… to us?
That is what the people in Isaiah’s time were asking. They were in exile. Yes, they had turned away from God. And yes, there were plenty of guilt and gloom prophets telling them it was all their fault… but then second Isaiah shows up and reminds them God promises comfort. God promises forgiveness. God comes with surprising grace.
Now like us I imagine there was some difficulty in hearing and experiencing God’s grace freely coming when you feel as though you don’t deserve it. I suspect, like us, they too laid upon God a quid-pro-quo accounting system in which there are checks and balances — nothing given for free. If something bad happens it is because we deserved it — we did something wrong and we must endure this terrible thing as our penance. If we experience good then I did something right and God rewarded me. And their logic was no more true in their time, than in ours. God doesn’t play by the rules we put upon God.
Rather life happens, both good and bad, not because God is causing it as reward or punishment, but because life happens. What is true is that God is present with us through all of life’s experiences. The exile we feel is in great extent of our own making. We know we have not loved our neighbor — we have not responded to the call of those in need — we have not lived in the way that God would have us — And in our guilt we find we can not believe in the amazingly free grace of God.
Our exile grows out of fear. We can’t trust the power of God’s grace, yet God’s comfort continues to urge us, lure us, entice us, woo us to the life of hope and trust and service to which God has called us. God will not give up. As Isaiah proclaims, “Comfort, O comfort my people says your God.”[iv] When we feel lost and scared and out of our element, and all we want to do is run, God is even willing to show up in the form of a goofy guy, in a stupid hat, carrying lollipops to be with us — to provide that comfort all in the hope that we become what God wanted us to be from the beginning, namely God’s children — God’s agents in the world — empowered by a love that will never let us go — seeking to draw others into our true home with God.
Incidentally, the young woman who was feeling like an exile in a strange new place and the embarrassed young man who handed her a lollipop dated all four years of college and eventually got married. It seems like just another instance in which God’s grace brings us home in surprising and unexpected ways.
Let us pray.
God, give us a spirit of openness to experience the comfort you offer. Help us to bathe in it. Help us to wrap ourselves up in it. Help us to move from fear to peace. And then move us to go out and be your children in a world — sharing and offering this comfort to all. Amen.
[i] Previously used in a sermon on the same text in 2015. Originally found on Ted Radio Hour – November 26, 2015 Episode entitled “Disruptive Leadership”
[ii] Isaiah 40:1 (nrsv)
[iii] Isaiah 40:1-2 (msg)
[iv] Isaiah 40:1 (nrsv)