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We the people of Glen Rhodes United Church, are determined that our life together will be fully inclusive for people of all ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, differing abilities, ethnic origins and economic circumstances. Therefore, we hope that God will work in us so that we will be a sensitive congregation, willing to share our faith and gifts in language and worship, in the life and work of our church and wherever God calls us to do justice in the wider community, with compassion, fun and laughter

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Sermon December 4, 2011

“Comfort, O Comfort My People!”

Isaiah 64: 1-9; Mark 13: 24-37

Jong Bok Kim at Glen Rhodes United, Dec. 04, 2011

We open our hearts to you, O God.  As we continue on our Advent journey, may we hear your words of peace and become messengers of peace to others. Amen.

           Last Sunday afternoon, we enjoyed  the musical celebration, “Gift of Love.”  Singing Christmas carols and popular Christmas songs and listening to professional soloists, we experienced the power of music in our lives once again.  Thanks to Gerald’s superb leadership, all the music and songs have lighted up our life together for this blessed season of Advent.

Singing is not my gift;  do not ask me to sing.  However, I enjoy singing along with you.  I like singing along to various kinds of music.  Particularly, I love to listen to classical music.  Like many of you, one of my favourite classical music compositions for this season is Handel’s Messiah.  I always feel uplifted when I listen to the Hallelujah chorus.  Sometimes, while driving, I try to sing along with it, “Hallelujah, Hallelujah....” 

It is no accident that Handel chose the text from Isaiah 40 as the introductory recitative and aria for his magnificent oratorio, Messiah.  It opens with the tenor, “Comfort, O Comfort my people….,” which we read from Isaiah a short while ago.  These are words of comfort and hope for a depressed and desolate people in exile, who had longed for a Messiah to come and save them.

Isaiah is thought to have been written by at least two authors. Chapters 1–39, the words of one prophet, warn Judah that its covenant with God is in jeopardy, primarily by worshipping gods of other people. Chapters 40–66, written by at least one poet-prophet, are often described as “The Book of Comfort.”

Clearly, comfort comes to those who are prepared and who have waited. Let us listen to him again: “A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.  Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” (vv. 3-4)  It sounds like we have to build a highway for God to come to us. At the outset of his Gospel, Mark introduces John the Baptist with the words from Isaiah: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.” (v.3)  Both the evangelist Mark and the prophet Isaiah ask us to prepare the way of the Lord by making straight a highway for our God. 

The second part of Isaiah is believed to have been addressed to the people of Israel who were in exile in Babylon.  The Israelites who were in captivity far away from their homeland had desperately longed for years and years to go back home.  They had dreamed of returning home day and night.  They had yearned for so long to be saved from their miserable life of slavery.  So, for them, the highway meant the way home, being rescued from their terrible captivity.  The highway meant the way of returning home with great joy, being redeemed from oppression. 

“Comfort, O comfort my people!”  While many of us today might equate comfort with stability or lack of change, it is important to remember that our ancestors in the faith were living in a foreign land to which they had been taken by force. Although they were able to build homes, plant fields, marry, and have children, they were not free to leave. For them, “comfort” meant being released – set free.  Leaving Babylon to return to a destroyed Jerusalem was not a simple act. The return would be through the wilderness, high mountains and deep valleys, between Babylon and Jerusalem.  In the image of mountains lowered and valleys lifted a major change occurs.  Therefore, comfort meant change, major social change, perhaps turning the whole world upside down.

Is it a once-upon-a-time story?  Last week, the media drew our attention to the conditions of First Nations communities across the country, thanks to the public appeal by the chief from Attawapiskat near James Bay, a remote northern Ontario reserve, accompanied by a shocking video tape of their housing crisis.  We had a picture of twenty-first century exiles living in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. This housing crisis is shocking and horrifying.  Many of the overcrowded homes, consisting largely of shacks and tents, are without running water, adequate heating and proper hygienic conditions. Human waste is dumped into ditches.  It is heartbreaking that children in the reserve suffer more than anyone else. It is also appalling that their land hosts the richest diamond mine in North America.  In one case as many as 27 people are living in a home while up to 90 live in a construction trailer left behind by the diamond mining company De Beers Canada Inc. Both the federal and the provincial government are reluctant to take the responsibility for the situation.  Later, Mr. Harper tried to blame the First Nations community themselves, the victim of the situation.  “Comfort, O comfort my people!”  What does comfort mean to them?  I wonder if they will have to wait until “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low” (v.4) before they will be comforted.   

In the video, one mother said that a prison cell was larger than her home which she shared with her grandparents and young children.  No wonder that aboriginal people are over represented in prison.  In some Federal Penitentiaries, more than half the population is aboriginal.  Now, the Federal Conservative government is trying to pass the controversial omnibus crime bill before the holidays.  The bill is troubling as it proposes new and mandatory minimum sentences.  For example, judges won't be able to consider individual circumstances like the horrible living conditions of the First Nations communities when imposing sentences.  “Comfort, O comfort my people!”  What does comfort mean to the aboriginal offenders behind bars?  I wonder if they will have to wait until “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low (v.4)” before they will be comforted. 

When thousands of Egyptian protesters took over Tahrir Square, no one was concerned that they were violating local bylaws.  Last week, ‘Occupy Toronto’ was ordered to obey the bylaws and get out of St. James Park.  Some critics say that if the Occupiers want to take it further, they should join a political party.  In theory, democracy is one of humankind’s noblest creations — a system in which people govern themselves. In practice, the results have been, well, disappointing. 

Just look at what is going on in our city hall right now?  We seem to have a mayor who knows only numbers and has no idea of what the life of ordinary people in this city will be like if so many essential services are cut next year.  Is the election of such a mayor a celebration of democracy?  Democracy is disappointing us in this city.

As the Occupiers note, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the top 1 per cent undermines meaningful democracy, blocking the will of the bottom 99 per cent.  The Occupiers have drawn attention to nothing less than the fundamental dysfunction of our economic system, which massively favours a privileged elite at the expense of the rest and which led to the disastrous 2008 financial collapse, from which millions still suffer around the world including in Canada.

“Comfort, O comfort my people!”  What does comfort mean to us?  Today’s passage from Isaiah makes it clear that comfort means more than wishing for things to be all right. To comfort is to nurture and encourage, strengthen and empower for movement, change and action. The prophet Isaiah calls the exiles and us to build a superhighway, lifting up every valley and making low every mountain, so that God may ride in triumph and bring comfort to us. 

The theme for the second Sunday in Advent is peace.  It is only through our movement for change and action that we will be able to build a highway to usher peace into the present tension and turmoil of our world.  The biblical concept of peace, Shalom, is relational; it involves a sense of unity and harmony with oneself, with others, with Creation and with God.  As we continue our Advent journey, may we build a highway for our God today and in the days ahead.  Amen.

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