A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 6th December 2020
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem (Isaiah 40:2)
Sometimes a sermon is there just to capture a mood and a moment and this seems like one of those occasions. The biblical texts point us to a response from God, but the hope that the scriptures offer us, the way they speak comfortably if you like, should offer a direction to look rather than a rush to offer total consolation.
A bishop I was in a meeting with the other day spoke of the moment we are living through as one of “soul-weariness”. The national mood and probably the overriding atmosphere in which we are living is one of tiredness. We are, in the main, heartily sick of social distancing and the rest of what goes with Covid-19. People find themselves more short-tempered; small irritations or anxieties become magnified out of proportion; the energy to offer help or support to others has waned. We turn on the television, which for some is the only company they have for long hours, and it’s wall-to-wall Covid, and even the good and hopeful news about the vaccination programme beginning seems a little unreal. It’s saying something when news about Brexit seems like a welcome relief!
But it’s more than that, isn’t it? “Soul-weariness” captures a deeper sense of fatigue. The spark has gone out of living. The darkening afternoons capture a darker mood for many. The spirit feels like it is going into hibernation. A number of people I’ve spoken to in the past week have captured this mood well. Despite the Advent message of hope, people are walking in darkness right now. We are yet to see a great light. The poet Mary Oliver, who died last year, puts it like this:
Feeling the icy kick, the endless waves
Reaching around my life, I moved my arms
And coughed, and in the end saw land.
Somebody, I suppose,
Remembering the medieval maxim,
Had tossed me in,
Had wanted me to learn to swim,
Not knowing that none of us, who ever came back
From that long lonely fall and frenzied rising,
Ever learned anything at all
About swimming, but only
How to put off, one by one,
Dreams and pity, love and grace, –
How to survive in any place.
It feels like we are not living at the moment, just surviving, on hold. That sense has deepened as the year has come towards its end.
This sense of spiritual depression or ‘soul weariness’ is perhaps the condition to which the prophet Isaiah speaks his words of comfort. Forty long years the people of Israel had lived in exile in Babylon, far from their homeland in Jerusalem; forty years to become used to the daily grind of the exilic life, forty years to forget the way things used to be, forty years away from their beloved Temple, forty years to adapt, grow bored, settle for things just as they are, and lose hope.
How things seem different from the days when we first entered this pandemic! Then we were talking of our own adaptation, of learning to swim. But now, maybe, we are no longer interested in adapting, we are simply waiting for this time to end – bored, settled into quiet nights of sadness and isolation, our own daily grind, our own forgetting of what it means to be physically connected, slowly losing hope.
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. (Isaiah 40:1-2)
To soul-weary Israel in Babylon, God is calling Isaiah to proclaim a message of comfort and hope. Friends, hope is not something that hopeful people need. It is to people sore in need of comfort and hope that Isaiah is asked to prophesy to. Biblically speaking, good news – gospel – always comes to the poor, the broken-hearted, the broken. The people to whom Isaiah is sent are not eagerly awaiting his message. They are worn down by their waiting, not chomping at the bit to set off. Exile has become ‘the new normal’.
This is why the gospel that Isaiah preaches is heard as good news, as a word of God’s grace if you like. Again and again, the Bible points us in this direction. It’s not the people who are sorted and hopeful who are the most likely to hear the good news: it is the lost, the last, the least.
And perhaps that now includes you and me in our once-in-a-lifetime (we hope to God) experience. Perhaps these words stand more than just the beginning of Handel’s Messiah for once. Perhaps they sound not like beginning the old familiar words of Christmas, but the genuine offer of something new, something better for the years ahead. God has not forgotten his people in exile. And he has not forgotten us either.
Which is not to say that these words are easily taken on board, as if we can – in our soul-weariness – just pick ourselves up like that and get ready for the journey home. Neither physical exile nor spiritual exile and barrenness are quite like that. We give thanks for those moment when grace is like the flash of a bright wing, but perhaps in this moment, the good news of God’s love will come gradually, like the promise of a vaccine. Maybe our immunity to soul-weariness will take time to kick in.
But like a vaccine, the gospel is the medicine. God has not forgotten us. Again and again the Advent message reinforces this, the slow drip of reminder that the healing balm of God’s love has not been forgotten, and has always been here to stay. It finds voice in the cry of the new-born Jesus, offering hope to those who visit the manger. Then it offers hope to Israel, whose own exile has grown long again, as the voice of the prophets has gone silent for centuries, and the promise of the Messiah finds a paradoxical mystery in the crucified Jesus. And finally it offers hope to humanity, as it always had been meant to, that the long soul-weariness of humanity’s exile from God’s love is coming to an end as we are invited home to God in Jesus.
It may take a while to hear that, because we are – as we know now once more – frail creatures, whose lives starved of human contact as they have been, have slowly diminished this past year. But the message remains, ready for the moment when we too can hear it.
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.
Even if you cannot hold on to much right now, hold onto that.
 The Swimming Lesson, Thirst