Updated: Aug 1, 2021
Today’s readings include some of the most beautiful and reassuring language in scripture. “Comfort, O comfort my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid.” These words are a balm to a people who have been suffering from societal turmoil, violence, division, and disease. Like the Christmas lights that are already hanging from many houses, the call of God communicated through the author of second Isaiah brightens our hearts during a season of darkness. But although it may feel like they these words were written for us, they were to the people of Judah in about the sixth century BCE. They had been living in exile for approximately 50 years after they lost God’s favor and their kingdom was invaded and occupied by destructive forces. All the structures of their religion had been destroyed, their religious leaders persecuted, and their lives uprooted. For those of us who are feeling put upon by the current political climate and dire news about the future of Christianity, comparing our situation to theirs may provide some perspective.
Nonetheless, the similarities are striking. Like us, many of these ancient children of God feared being rejected and abandoned by God. Accustomed to their belief system being the established norm in their country, they had trouble figuring out how to worship in new and different ways. Most of all, they were challenged to continue to believe in a benevolent and merciful God in the face of what appeared to be an extreme and unfair punishment for misdeeds they had, perhaps conveniently, forgotten.
The people to whom the second letter of Peter is addressed were in a similar situation. Although it is supposedly written by the apostle Peter, biblical scholars tell us that this letter was probably composed at least a generation after Peter’s death – in about 100 C.E. By the time this missive appeared, Christ had been gone long enough so that many no longer believed he would return at all. Living in a time in which the Roman Empire was becoming increasingly unfriendly to followers of the executed heretic who they called Jesus the Christ, the early Christians wanted to know what was taking Jesus so long – and if he was actually coming back for them at all.
The answer, the writer tells them, is “yes” – but then suggests that it might not be a good idea to rush Jesus’s return. The Lord, the writer says, is not slow, but merciful – and patient; he’s taking his time so we can get ready. Peter’s children seem to have forgotten that while Jesus’s salvation will surely include beauty and peace and much rejoicing, first there will be judgment. This is the same reminder that the prophet gives the Judean exiles. The joyful herald of God who portends the lifting of the valleys, the leveling of the land, and the revelation of the glory of the Lord also proclaims the frailty of human beings. All people will wither and fade in the face of God’s strength and will receive recompense.
This is the same thing that happened to the people who went out to see John the Baptist in the wilderness. They too lived in a time of political upheaval. They too were waiting for comfort and relief from their suffering. These people traveled to the wilderness to listen to the words of a man who foretold the coming of a great savior who would rescue them from their oppression and suffering. When they got there, however, instead of telling them that they were saved, the speaker started yelling at them to repent. What happened? Did they stumble into the wrong meeting? Suddenly, this end of the world idea wasn’t such fun.
We don’t like to think about judgment. We want God to sweep in like a Marvel superhero and take us to the promised land without comment, because, honestly, in our private thoughts we believe that we deserve to be saved. We may as well admit it – when we hear these passages about how God will save his flock, grant prosperity to her people, and that Jesus will hold his followers in his bosom, we are sure those people are us, so we impatiently pray for Jesus to return so that the heathens and the hypocrites (not us) will be driven out and justice and truth will be restored in the land.
My mother used to tell me to be careful what I wished for, because I might just get it. Before rushing to get to the happy ending of the story of humanity, we would do well to remember that God has promised salvation for believers and judgment for all people. That’s why “we who look to God to deliver us from our enemies must first examine ourselves to see whether we are fit to stand before a righteous God.”
John the Baptist’s proclamation should not have shocked his listeners – nor should it shock us. The herald of Isaiah provided the same double-edged message to the Judeans – that the glory of the Lord will be revealed and those, “secured by position and privilege will hear and tremble, but those who long have suffered under another’s death-dealing rule will rejoice.” This demonstrates that God’s preference for the mistreated and marginalized long pre-dates Jesus, but it is embodied in Jesus’s life and teachings. This understanding is critical to our theology. We can certainly find parts of the Bible that detail the inequities and injustices that people have visited on one another in the long history of humanity. It’s easy to point out sections of scripture that suggest that our God can be angry and vengeful. There is also no doubt that there are passages in both testaments demonstrating the imperfections of God’s messengers -but what you cannot find in our Holy Scriptures is a pattern of God’s acceptance or promotion of any of these things. Individual passages of scripture taken out of context do not excuse bigoted, cruel, and selfish acts. We must look at the whole of our Holy Scriptures when we attempt to understand the will of our Maker and Savior. What the Bible shows us over and over is a God who consistently tells people to treat one another with kindness and dignity – a God who judges us on our willingness to put the needs of others in front of our own. The testament about Jesus is the same. Nowhere do our scriptures contain any evidence that Jesus ever encouraged or accepted exclusion, injustice, or hatred. It is this understanding of and faithfulness to the merciful and loving God who is revealed to us in Christ Jesus that is the only criterion on which we will be judged.
That’s okay with me – because even though I often get it wrong, I would rather spend my life trying to emulate Jesus and face the terror of my final judgment than betray the nature of a God who loves this beautiful, craven, creative, and ridiculous creation enough to live and die with us. I would not die or choose for you to die to worship God in the same room with me, but I would gladly lay down my life if it brought someone to God’s love and mercy.
Do not rush to God’s judgment, but do not run from it either. “The God who rebukes and sends into exile is also the God whose mighty arm can mend what is broken and make right what has been distorted.” For the church of God, the darkness of winter is not a time of despair, but an opportunity to repent and restore our community on earth so that it may more clearly reflect the Beloved Community of God. Remember what the psalmist tells us: We shall not always be judged; salvation is near. The time is coming when those who love and fear God will see mercy and truth meet; righteousness and peace exchange a kiss; and virtue will gaze at us from the presence of God. Long for it. Prepare for it. Live into it – and be comforted my people. AMEN.
Christopher R. Hutson, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press], 48.
Cynthia A. Jarvis, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press], 28.
George W. Stroup, (2008), in Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume1: Advent through Transfiguration), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press], 28.