When I went to Chicago in August, we had reservations at the Comfort Hotel. At the last minute, we got moved to the Quality Inn.
I was very disappointed--given the choice between comfort and quality, I'll take comfort every time!
Comfort makes us think of soft beds, good food--we all have our comfort food--and maybe a shoulder to cry on. So when God tells Isaiah to comfort his people, it sounds like great advice for a preacher.
But wait a minute. A second glance at the reading makes me wonder just how "comfortable" the prophet's message is.
There's sure a "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," as the rock and roll hit from the fifties went. Valleys are filled in, mountains are flattened, and there's a highway built through an uninhabited stretch of land.
Later in the reading, Isaiah tells us that God comes with might. Certainly God is a shepherd. But he is a mighty shepherd, with an arm that not only caresses the sheep but drives off the wolves.
Have you ever noticed how Psalm 23 says "your rod and your staff--they comfort me"? The shepherd has two tools in his hand: a crook to guide the flock, and a club with which to fight off the wolves. Divine comfort comes from divine power, not divine "niceness."
I thought about this last week when I was back East for a meeting in Toronto and short break in New York City. Everyone was preparing for Christmas: a beautiful and sentimental day of kindness and good will. But there was not much sign that anyone was preparing for Christ.
We sometimes talk as if Advent was a time of preparation for Christmas. It's not. Advent is a time of preparation for Christ. Christmas is comfortable. Christ is not.
There's no doubt that today's readings offer us some comforting words. We even like to sing some of them in the hymn "Like a Shepherd." He feeds his flock, and gathers the lambs in his arms. We need that comfort to deal with life's losses and trials.
But we can't let the comfort get in the way of the quality--the whole, true Gospel message, which is not entirely gentle. I think that's why we have St. Peter's stirring words about the end of the world, a time that no Christian knows but no Christian can ignore. We know very well that the last day will not be comfortable, as the heavens pass away and the earth dissolves.
Preparing for Christmas means decorating our homes, buying gifts and--last but not least!--making a good confession. But preparing for Christ means "leading lives of holiness and godliness." It means waiting in hope.
It's early enough in Advent for us to make the shift from thinking about Christmas to thinking about Christ. John the Baptist isn't a Christmassy figure in the least and his message today is the one word command that Jesus himself issued at the start of his ministry: repent.
If you're someone who writes reminders to yourself on Post-it notes or in your smart phone, you might want to put that one powerful word somewhere you'll see it often. Repent: it's a blunt word, but it only means opening our hearts to the Lord who opens his arms to us.
When my Dad used to go away on business trips, he always brought back gifts for his five kids. Later in life I thought it must have been a lot of work to find something for each of us; but a few years later my Mom said that she often bought the gifts in advance and had them ready for him to hand out on his return.
As I mentioned, I just got back from Toronto. When I go away, I always come back with a gift for the parish--nothing you can unwrap, but some resource or wisdom that's was shared with me on the trip.
This time, the gift came from one of the great leaders of our Church. He was speaking in private, so I won't name him. His insight was this: there are two great deceptions that Satan is using to attack Christians today.
The first is that God is so merciful that nobody will be lost. Of course we need to know about God's mercy, but that's so we can repent and accept that mercy. But today many people resist his mercy because they think they don't need it. We're all happily on our way to heaven! The problem is that Jesus never said anything of the sort.
The second deception is about those sins that keep us out of the Kingdom of God. With the help of feel-good psychology, we no longer worry about personal sin, even the most serious. Folks are deeply concerned about the environment but not about their own moral decisions.
These are uncomfortable truths. But these are the valleys that must be lifted up, and the mountains that must be laid low. The highway that leads to God is the truth--the truth that Jesus revealed, in all its fullness, in all its power.
Comfort does not come from compromise. It comes from repenting of our sins, and accepting the Lord’s tender mercy.
Comfort and quality go hand in hand when we live in the truth about God's love and about God's plan, preparing in hope for Christ's return.