Comfort my people

Sermon : Comfort my people, given by Revd Sue McCoan at St. Andrew’s Ealing, 6th December 

Isaiah 40:1-11

Mark 1:1-8

A week or two ago, we were out walking the dog when we saw one of these lying on top of a gate. I don’t actually know what these are called, so it’s good we have the Gift Day today and I can bring one for the baby bank. It is, essentially, a small square of very soft material, fleece, with a little soft toy rabbit in one corner. The rabbit appears to be holding the cloth. It’s very sweet. These are for babies and small children to hold, and cuddle, also to suck and chew. They are for comfort.

The one we saw on the gate had been much loved and was quite worn. It was probably dropped from a buggy, and then someone had picked it up and put it on the gate to keep it out of the mud. The sad thing was, it was still there the next day, and indeed for several days after that. And each time I saw it, I thought of some poor little mite missing it, and minding that it was gone.

I’m thinking of this because our Advent candle reading started with asking for God’s comfort, and that’s take from the reading we heard from Isaiah which starts with the familiar words, Comfort, comfort my people.

But what does God’s comfort mean? Surely God is not telling us to retreat into a corner and suck our blanket – though this year I think we might be forgiven for doing just that. And, indeed, Isaiah goes on to talk about preparing highways in the desert which sounds like a major bit of roadworks, filling in valleys, flattening mountains and levelling uneven ground. That sounds like something quite different from comforting a baby.

Or maybe not. Think about the first few months of a baby’s life. They are learning and growing at a phenomenal rate. They double in size; their eyes learn to focus and the brain to process the images so they develop vision; they process sounds and begin basic communication; they experience differences in touch, taste and smell. A few months further on, and they have learnt enough about sounds to start exploring language – mama, dada – and then the whole realm of movement and balance and all the exploration that can bring. And it’s all new. Every day there are new things to take in, new connections to be made. No wonder they get tired and hungry. And no wonder they need something that they can hold close, that they know, that feels and smells and tastes the same, that gives them rest and safety. And from that rest and safety, as well as sleep and food, they are ready and able to go back to the learning and growing that is all part of life.

Comforting a baby is not just about giving the parents some peace; it is a deep need. It’s good to know that there will be some babies who are comforted by what we have given today.

We never stop learning. Whether through conscious choice – through taking up a new hobby or interest – or because we need it for work, or just in passing as we go through life and come across new ideas or opinions. In some ways, learning is easier as we grow older, because we already know so much and we can make connections; and in some ways, it’s harder, because our brains are not as flexible and agile as the brains of an infant. And it’s still tiring, even if we’re learning something we really want to know.

This year, we have all learnt things we never even dreamed of knowing. In March, we learned how to live without the freedoms that may of us had long taken for granted, to go out when we wanted, where we wanted, with whom we wanted. We learnt new language: coronavirus; lockdown, R-numbers. We learned about the lives of other people – in hospitals and care homes, at food banks, in business. I never knew that beer didn’t keep, that if you can’t sell what’s in the barrel you have to tip it down the drain. We’ve learnt to listen to birdsong. Many of us have learnt new technology. When one of the elders from Wembley Park suggested we could have our meetings via Zoom, none of the rest of us had heard of it. I thought, ‘we’ll never do that’.

As a church, we’ve learnt how to worship without being able to meet in person. We’ve discovered that that can bring unexpected benefits, like being able to include people who live far away or who can’t get out. We’ve now learnt how to go back to church and meet safely, with all the distancing, and the masks, and hand sanitisers, that now seem quite normal. We had to work out, and learn, how to share communion online, and then how to share it safely without touching each other’s bread. We’ve had one week of Advent online, and now this second week back. It does feel lately that as soon as we get used to one way of doing things, it changes again.

And all this is on top of the things we have each had to learn as individuals within our own homes and working life – all the adjustments we’ve had to make, the relationships we’ve had to negotiate, all the issues around money, all the plans we might or might not be making for Christmas. Maybe you are hacking this better than me but I think there is no shame in saying, we are tired. We have taken in, and taken on, so much. We need our comfort.

And here is God to provide it. The people Isaiah was speaking to were in exile. They had been uprooted from their country, the land promised to them by God, and taken into exile in Babylon. They, like us, had to adjust to a whole new way of life. To learn a new language. To work out how to live in a strange situation. They too lost incomes, and businesses, and were cut off from family and friends. They too were tired, and losing heart.

God speaks to them through the prophet Isaiah: Comfort, comfort my people. Oh, thank God! It’s going to be all right. God goes on, to Isaiah, ‘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.’ The exile was a punishment for going astray but the sentence has been served and now, at last, God is ready to bring the people back. And for that, they need to be ready.

There will be huge work to do. The image of preparing roads in the desert is both about preparing place in their hearts, and giving God proper place in their lives, and about the sheer hard physical work of rebuilding their homes and livelihoods after such a long absence. God sends words of comfort to say, I know how hard it has been; I know how much you have had to do; and well done for doing it and getting through it. And now come back to me; come back to the love of God – there is the wonderful image in verse 11, ‘He will feed his flocks like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep’.

Being gathered back into the fold of God’s tender love, like a little child being comforted, will give them the strength they need to go out and tackle the new phase of life that lies ahead.

It’s the same with us. We have work to do next year. This year we started looking at eco church and how we can better care for God’s creation; next year we need to take practical steps to make things happen. God is still leading us forward. So now, in Advent, especially this year, is the time to come back to God, to dwell in God’s comfort, to allow ourselves to be led, and fed, and nurtured, to be made safe and whole and well. And then we can face the new year with confidence and purpose.

Today we share in communion, our last communion service before Christmas. Let this be a time when we are aware of God feeding us like a shepherd, enfolding us in his love, filling us with his comfort.