Sunday, December 10, 2017

God Wants to Comfort (Advent 2B)

When was the last time you were comforted by a homily?

I’ll bet you can’t remember. Most of the time, we preachers instruct or challenge rather than comfort.

For that matter, when was the last time you were comforted, period? Only children get comforted on a regular basis, if you think about it.

But comfort is front and center in our first reading today. God commands Isaiah to comfort his people—to speak tenderly to a forlorn and battered group of Jewish exiles in Babylon.

So it seems to me that we need to look for comfort this morning—to find in the Word of God, and in this Advent season—the comfort God wants us to receive.

But let’s first look at Isaiah’s text in its historical context. God isn’t comforting the exiles in some touch-feely way: he’s promising them a return to their homeland, a return to Judea and Jerusalem. Cyrus the Great will soon arrive on the scene, bringing liberation to the Jews exiled by Nebuchadnezzar. Cyrus will be God’s instrument and make it possible for them to return to Israel and rebuild the temple that Nebuchadnezzar destroyed.

This is not only a promise of homecoming but a gift of forgiveness. The Jews saw their long exile as punishment. Now that’s over and done. No wonder God says it twice: “Comfort, O comfort my people.” Truly this second Exodus is a double comfort—the restoration of Jerusalem, and the forgiveness of sins.

The prophet also speaks a double message of comfort and consolation to us, gathered in prayer on the second Sunday of Advent. In the first place, Christians are all exiles on earth, wherever we live. In his first letter, St. Peter calls us aliens and exiles. No less than the Jews in Babylon, we need to be comforted by the promise of a return to our homeland. As St. Paul writes to the Philippians, “our citizenship is in heaven.”

We might not feel like exiles—in fact, we can feel pretty comfortable on earth. But our longing for heaven is behind the nagging question that bothers even the most successful among us: is that all there is?

Our sense of exile disturbs us when we least expect it. I stumbled across a local Christian blogger, who told the story of how the perfect vacation reminded her that this life is not sustainable. She wrote “We are all toiling away. We get stressed and overwhelmed. We are all aging and breaking down. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Even a month of time off does not solve these problems.

“All a month of time off seemed to do was tempt me with something unattainable: a life of leisure and security. This is not to be ungrateful in any way! I am so, so, so amazed and thankful to have had such a wonderful time away with my family. But man, I do so wish it could be more lasting. Maybe eternal.”

There’s a Christian who wants God’s comfort—the comfort that promises our true and final liberation, the absolute and eternal freedom brought about by the coming of Jesus, our Redeemer and Messiah.

And notice that Isaiah mentions that the penalty has been paid—not only for Israel’s unfaithfulness, but ours. I've often seen stories in the paper about people convicted of crimes they committed many years ago, and think how awful it must have been for them to wait for the day their wrongdoing was revealed. But Christians have the comfort of knowing that their penalty has been paid.

This first comfort, the promise of salvation, is certainly the most important of all—it anticipates the words of the Christmas Gospel, “the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.”

But God wants his promise of comfort to reach all of us, whatever our needs or emotional state.

And so Isaiah tells us that “the Lord God comes with might.” Our God is powerful, and his arm is strong. Even Our Lady rejoices in God’s mighty arm in her prayer we call the Magnificat: she calls God “the Mighty One” who has “shown strength with his arm.”

If the comfort we need is a sense of protection by someone much stronger than we are, God is there.

Sometimes, though, we need a different kind of comfort—the kind a child gets after a skinned knee or a bad dream. Here, too, the Lord is promising consolation: the gentle protection of a shepherd who scoops up a frightened lamb. Prayer is a door to that kind of divine tenderness.

Whatever our individual need, let’s decide to accept real comfort from God this Advent. It takes some effort, but it’s well worth it.

In his podcast this weekend, Bishop Robert Barron reminds us that we’re not the key players in God’s plan—God is. God’s like a helicopter pilot who wants to land. All he needs is a clearing in which he can set down.

Our Advent mission is just to clear the ground so that God can do what he wants to do—to comfort, console and save us.

To do this, we may have to deal with a mountain of attachments, Bishop Barron says. Attachments are earthly goods we imagine to be ultimate goods—wealth, power, success, “all the things that beguile the ego.” We knock down the mountain of attachment by putting these things in their proper place. In other words, we detach ourselves from the hold they have on us, perhaps by some simple Advent penance targeting something we like to think we can’t live without.

Or we may have valleys of indifference—indifference to God expressed by not praying, sloppy attendance at Mass or indifference to the needs of others. We fill in those valleys by spending some quiet time with God. No-one was ever comforted while racing around. There are wonderful on-line prayers, meditations and other resources; one of the easiest ways of listening for a consoling word is by reading one of the Mass readings every day.

Let’s think of levelling those mountains and filling in those valleys not as an Advent chore, but as preparing the way for comfort and consolation, especially during this hectic season that can threaten to overwhelm us at many levels.

Advent’s our time to come to come back from exile.

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