Sermon Dec. 10, 2017

“The God Who Brings Us Comfort”
Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC

Isaiah 40:1-11
December 10, 2017

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” — Isaiah 40:1i

Sometimes it is difficult to square the wrath of God with the love of God. This has led some to dismiss the Old Testament in favor of the New. For many, the Old Testament view of God is one of a judge who meats out punishment while the New Testament’s view of God is more forgiving and loving. But to jettison the Old Testament does violence to the reality of Jesus. If Jesus was anything, he was a Jew. The idea of dismissing the Hebrew scripture would have struck Him as absurd. How do I know? Because Jesus bases His ministry on the words of an Old Testament prophet. Remember when Jesus visited His home town of Nazareth? He goes to the local synagogue on the Sabbath and stands to do the reading. He is handed the scroll of Isaiah and He reads from Isaiah 61 f.f. This is how Jesus, reading from Isaiah in his hometown, described His ministry in Luke 4:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free,19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

We cannot throw out the Old Testament if we are to understand Jesus. The two go hand in hand. Yet the idea persists in many moderns’ minds that the Old Testament speaks about a vengeful God and the New Testament points to a loving God.

This is where we will begin – with this seeming dichotomy between the two Testaments. But this is not the purpose of this sermon. While it may be necessary to illuminate the merciful God of the Old Testament lest we think the Old has nothing to do with the New, my purpose is this: to convince you that you are loved by God. That’s my purpose.

Having given you the purpose, let us turn to the tension between the Old and New Testaments. Some things I take as givens. The Bible is not inerrant. It is not a book of science. It is a book that gives meaning and purpose to human existence. It is not meant to answer the “How” questions of life but the “Why” questions that shape our lives. So I don’t come to the Bible needing to defend everything that’s in it. I believe that the authors’ view of God can be flawed. An example. In 1 Samuel 15:2-31 God orders the slaughter of all the men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys. Can you hear the screams? Is not the ground red with blood? I believe the author of 1 Samuel thought God ordered the destruction of the Amalekites, but I cannot agree. I cannot square the cross of Jesus with a God who orders genocide. If Jesus is the fullest revelation of God, then God would order no such thing.

With all that in mind, I want to look at passages in the Old Testament that speak of God’s tenderness.

  • The words from Isaiah 40. “Comfort, comfort ye my people, says your God…
  • Isaiah 66:13 “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you…
  • Hosea 11:4 “I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them.”
  • Hosea 11:9 “I will not execute my fierce anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and no mortal, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.”

Are there differences between the revelation of God in the Old Testament and the New? Certainly. But the tenderness abides. So my friends, Jesus was not dismissing the Old Testament. He was fulfilling it.

I hope that has helped when looking for the caring tenderness of God within the Bible. Be that as it may, I want to focus now on the central purpose of this sermon – namely, to convince you that you are loved by God.

I do so by way of two stories. When I was just beginning my ministry, one of the central duties assigned to me was to lead the Junior and Senior High Youth Groups. I had some wonderful young people to work with. Each year we went on a three-day retreat to Gove Hill, a camp and conference center in Thetford – not far from here. It has since closed but at the time groups were housed in this huge home. Each retreat had a theme and I developed a program designed to engage the young people. One year, I ordered a film. In those days films came in a can. You had to thread the film through the projector and hope the thing would work. Anyway. I think the film was entitled “The Bridge,” and although my memory may be spotty, I can remember the film’s power to this day.

The story has two main characters – a man and his young son. They lived in a rural area and the boy had chores to do each morning. His father had a unique job. The railroad past very near their home and crossed a bridge that spanned a large river. It was the kind of bridge that pivots in its mid section. The bridge was left parallel to the shore so ships could navigate the river but each day at a given time a passenger train would race across the bridge on its way to the city. The father’s job required him to row to the center of the river and climb a ladder to the bridge’s control center. There he would throw the switch that caused the bridge to pivot and join both sides of the train tracks.

One day the father left home to go to the bridge and forgot his lunch on the kitchen counter. His son came in to get a drink and noticed his father’s lunch. He decided he would take the lunch to his father because he knew the bridge would have connected itself to both sides of the river and thus he could get to the control center. The train was streaking towards the bridge with hundreds of men, women and children aboard. The father’s son by now was on the bridge, the train behind him. The father’s heart sunk. He screamed for his son to go back but the roar of the river drowned out his voice. To save his son the father had to do was throw the switch. The bridge would pivot and the train would plunge into the river. Still screaming, he waved wildly at his boy, but to his son it looked like a greeting. The father got into position to throw the switch and save his son. By now tears were streaming down his checks. The train is racing towards the bridge, the passengers unaware of the torturous decision the father had to make. He never throw the switch to disconnect the bridge from the tracks. You see the train race over the water below and the screen turns black. A few seconds pass and then in white lettering these words appear: “For God so loved the world.” Do not cheapen the death of Christ by refusing to accept the love of God.

The second story stems from a spiritual retreat I attended a number of years ago. I have always had a problem understanding Christian mysticism but I wanted to see if I had missed something so I went to a retreat that featured a professor who had focused her career on one particular 14th century Christian mystic – Julian of Norwich. When Julian was an adolescent she became deathly ill. So ill, in fact, the priest gave her “the last rites.” Clearly, she was dying. Julian writes of that experience, of the priest holding up a cross as part of his ritual and in her minds eye how the cross began to glow. The light from the cross filled her field of vision and then the light was gone and she was left with this amazing feeling of being loved unconditionally. No judgment. No shame. Love. When asked about her experience and what message she might have for the world, she said, “All will be well.”

The professor asked us to raise our hands if we thought that despite who we are, we are loved by God. My little hand shot up along with most in the crowd. “You got it wrong,” the professor said. “According to Julian of Norwich, you are unconditionally loved. It is not despite who are. It is all that you are.”

Perhaps our greatest problem is we do not love ourselves enough. We think that if folks really knew me, they wouldn’t even like me. So we judge ourselves and live in shame. But there is a train coming down the tracks and a father will lose a son that others might live. There is light that overcomes the darkness and enfolded in God’s love you come to know that all will be well.

The real scandal of the Christian faith is not our belief in the resurrection. It is the scope of God’s love. Every human being is loved by God – even our enemies. The question, then, is not whether God loves you. It is how you will shape your life in response to that love. Come. The world awaits.

1 1 Samuel 3  “’Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ ”

i Isaiah 40:1-11  Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” 6A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.  9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”  10 See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.