Monday, December 08, 2014

Comfort - Isaiah 40

          Isaiah 40:1-8

Comfort, comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
    that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
    the way for the Lord[a];
make straight in the desert
    a highway for our God.[b]
Every valley shall be raised up,
    every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
    the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
    and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry out.”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”
“All people are like grass,
    and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of our God endures forever.”

Last weekend I was in North Carolina for a funeral of my cousin.

You know how that is – we’ve all been there. 

At some point during the time when we gather at such events there is that moment when you can speak to the spouse of the person who has died, or the parent, or the child – and as you approach them there is within your soul this haunting urging:

“Say something. Comfort the person. Proclaim a message."

And we often find ourselves wondering - "What message do I proclaim?"

What can one say?

It is an old question.   It was asked by Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson thousands of years ago.

As long as there have been human relationships, there has been the demand, "Comfort them, encourage them, proclaim a message."

With that demand there has also been that crippling and paralyzing question, "What can I say?"

At the dawn of time, two parents sit quietly. They wonder why their two sons have fought and why they could not have loved one another. Now word has come that Cain has killed his brother Able and the two parents sit and wonder.

Each wants to say something of comfort, but both are crippled by the question, "What can I say?"

Years pass. Not just centuries, but millennia passes by as nations and empires rise and fall, wars are fought, and discoveries are made, and the question still remains "What can I say?"

It is a question you have lived out in your own lives.

A relative is fired from a job. What can I say?

The fabric of a marriage is ripped apart and your two best friends become enemies with each other. What can I say?

A neighbor's child has died. What can I say?

And a friend writes a letter about illness and death.

What can I say?

The question in Isaiah is a living question and a haunting question. "Proclaim a message," declares the Voice.

"What message shall I proclaim," replies Isaiah.

We see the situation. We hear the voice within telling us to say something comforting and encouraging. And we feel our own inability as we think to ourselves about what we should say. What do you say to someone who is dieing and suffering?

A lot of us helplessly and hopelessly grope for clichés and platitudes that we've heard all too many times before.

It'll be alright.
It'll turn out for the best.
It's God's will.

But those clichés have never worked.

Sometime ago, Dear Abby's column ran a letter from a woman who wrote to complain about some of the routine phrases of comfort that people spoke to her in an unsuccessful attempt to console her in the death of her 14 year old son.

"I know how you feel."
“It was God's will."
          "Don't worry you can have other children."
"God needed him more than you did."

Each phrase was inadequate. In some cases they added to the pain. I suspect that we know from our own experiences how useless some of these clichés are. Search your own memory and you will find a time of loss or tragedy when someone came up to you and used those same words of comfort. But they did not comfort.

And now, as we try to comfort others, we find ourselves wanting to say SOMETHING. Not knowing what else to say, we lean on the same time worn phrases, even though they do not comfort.

We see our friend in the hospital bed, tubes running up his nose and an I.V. needle stuck in his arm.

Death is near.
There is no denying it.

What comfort can there be in hearing us say, "It'll be alright," when everyone knows that it won't be.

A mother and father sit in chairs under a mortuary's tent. They sit facing the tiny casket that is waiting to be lowered into the grave. Silently and bravely they endure the pain of hearing us say, "It was all for the best."

A lonely man faces the hardship of unemployment. He hears us say, "Trust in God," while he wonders if God even cares.

The platitudes and empty phrases give no comfort to the people we see suffering. But we don't know what else to say.

We want to say something. We hear that persistent voice within us crying out, "Comfort them.  Encourage them. Proclaim a message." We want to give hope and comfort, even if it is an empty hope and a false comfort.

The author of our Scripture reading from Isaiah's book is too honest to do this, however. The old prophet hears a voice cry out, "Proclaim a message!"

The prophet, who has been hardened by the experience of a lifetime of seeing tragedy, despair, death and sorrow, asks "What message shall I proclaim? All humanity is like grass.  They last no longer than wild flowers. Grass withers and flowers fade when the Lord sends the wind blowing over them.  People are no more enduring than the grass."

The prophet resists what many of us are unable to resist -- the old temptation to comfort others with meaningless, empty phrases.

But what does he offer in its place? Nothing, except perhaps a hopelessness and a despair. We know that won't comfort.

If clichés don't work and if the prophets realistic pessimism doesn't work, then how will we comfort those in despair and in trouble?

Maybe if we could understand the answer to the question of why God allows this or that to happen, then we would find comfort for our friends and neighbors.

"Why" is a natural question to ask when facing tragedy.

Frederick Buechner, in his book Wishful Thinking, has a brief essay on the life of Job, the Old Testament character who suffered so much. His children die, his property is destroyed, and his health gives way to a painful disease. Buechner says that while Job never takes his wife's advice and curses God, he comes very close to it. What Job doe do is to ask some unpleasant questions.

"If God is all he's cracked up to be, how come houses blow down on innocent people? Why does a good man die of cancer in his prime while old men who can't remember their names or hold their water go on and on in nursing homes forever? Why are there so many crooks riding around in Cadillac’s and so many children going to bed hungry at night?

“Job's friends offer an assortment of theological explanations, but God doesn't offer one. God doesn't explain."

If we would try to comfort those in sorrow by trying to give some explanation as to why God does what he does or allows what he allows, then we have a problem. Beuchner is right about what Job discovers. God doesn't always explain.

In our Old Testament reading from Isaiah 40, there is a haunting phrase that reminds us, "No one understands the thoughts of God."

Where is the comfortable message we can speak?

It is not in the cliché.

It is not in the Prophet Isaiah's pessimism.

It is not in reasoning out a REASON why tragedy occurs.

All of this may lead us to wonder as Israel must have in our Scripture lesson, does God really know our troubles? Does God care if we suffer? Is he really with us in our despair.

Elie Wiesel is a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust of the Second World War. In his book, Night, tells a story of one of the executions he witnessed. It was an hanging of three people. Two were adults, but one was a child. The three victims were forced to sit in chairs on the gallows. Nooses were secured around their necks. The two adults cried out to the witnesses "Long live liberty," but the child was silent. One of the witnesses near Wiesel asked quietly, "Where is God? Where is He?"

The chairs were tipped and the three were hung. The adults died quickly. The child survived for more than half an hour, his body too light to secure a quick death from the rope.

Watching this child struggle between life and death, Wiesel felt a voice within say, "Where is God? Here He is. He is hanging here on the gallows."

While the question "why" often does not have an answer, the question of "where" always does. The answer is "here."

God is here with us and present with us in our tragedy.

The prophet wonders what words of comfort he can proclaim. In response, a second voice tells him to tell the people that God is to be present with them.

A voice says, "Proclaim a message" and Isaiah asks, "What shall I proclaim?" And the answer is: "You who bring Zion good news, up with you to the mountain top; lift up your voice and shout, you who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift it up fearlessly. Proclaim to the cities of Judah: Your God is here."

There are no words of explanation of why there had been a tragedy. In this particular case, the people of the prophet's time had been in exile. There were no empty clichés. There was simply a promise from God to be with his people. That is all -- just a promise to be with us. Nothing more. Nothing less. But then, what more could we want or need?

          This is, in fact, the very message of the Season of Advent – a season of hope and joy and anticipation because God is here – Christ, the Son of God is born into the world!

So that – in times of death, illness, tragedy, when we are called to proclaim a message of comfort, what can we say?

God is here!  God is with us! God is with you.

Copyright 2014, Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved. 

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