Disruptive Comfort (Advent 2)
December 6, 2020 (Advent 2)
Rev. Fritz Nelson
By the time I reached the top of Sideling Hill my car was going so slow its state of the art, four windows down, speed at 60 air conditioning system had ceased to function. But my slow speed gave me plenty of time to admire the sheer rock face towering over my car.
Stretching from West Virginia into Pennsylvania, Sideling Hill forms the front edge of the Alleghanies. The original PA Turnpike tunneled under it. The current Turnpike snakes over it. I was on Interstate 68 in Western Maryland. I-68 just blasts through a 100 meter deep cut in the mountain. In planning the road the engineers channeled the prophet Isaiah, literally lifting up valleys and making mountains low. They created a masterwork of human engineering. The view from the summit rest area is serene and beautiful.
The easy to drive road opened up Maryland’s western counties. You can still see the holes in the walls from the drills, the scars of the dynamite, the rubble of fallen rock along the side of the road. What does it take to lower a mountain? What does it take to raise a plain? What does it take to make a pathway for the comfort of our God?
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to them. Cry to them.” How we long for divine comfort, especially in times like these. We desire a God who reaches from on high and cradles us in the divine arms. That’s all we want. To be held. Right where we are. To be held, told it will all be okay. Held and healed until everything goes back to normal.
We want deep comfort and God delivers deep comfort. We can hang with Isaiah’s comfort and tenderness as long as we need to. All week I’ve been working with Jo Barto, the HUB Coordinator and Shannon Martin, who is part of the HUB core community, on a service of healing for Advent. Its an amazing service, taking all of our fears, hurts, sorrows and losses experienced during this pandemic time and wrapping them all up in a giant, divine hug.
So we can linger in comfort as long as we need to, but Isaiah moves on from words of divine comfort to words of divine upheaval. The earth literally bends and breaks to make way for the Lord’s coming. The receipt of comfort disrupts geology, ecosystems, lives. During Advent time we’re always tempted to rush quickly to the quiet of the manger, to Silent Night by candle light, but before we get to the manger we find ourselves in the wilderness, on the banks of the Jordan, with John the Baptist. Camel hair. Locusts and honey. Wide leather prophet’s belt. A man from another place, another time, even in his own time. His words seem anything but comfortable.
“Even now,” he says to those who have ventured out to hear him, “the axe is lying at the root of the tree. Every tree bearing bad fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” The Lord is coming. His winnowing fork is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor, saving the good wheat, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
A friend falls down the stairs to her house. Comfort is riding with her in the ambulance to the hospital. Comfort is visiting her in rehab. Comfort is being present to help her out when she gets home. Comfort is surrounding her with love, hope, well being. Comfort is helping her move from her home.
“I’ll be fine,” she says. “I just took a misstep. I’ll only go up and down a couple times a day. I can scooch down on my butt. Chair lifts are too expensive. No you can’t remove the threadbare carpet I slipped on – we got it as a wedding present.” And then she falls down the stairs again.
Sometimes true comfort requires great disruption. We want the hug. We want the normal. But sometimes the normal isn’t what we really need. Or maybe the normal wasn’t really that comfortable. Someone comes to the pastor after an unhealthy relationship comes to a conclusion. Maybe you should take a relationship break for a little while, the pastor says. Find out who you are on your own. Get personally strong, emotionally strong, spiritually strong so you can break the cycles of abuse. A week later they come to the pastor filled with ecstatic excitement. “I can’t wait for you to meet my new partner,” they say. I was lonely. I was scared. They’re so wonderful – they only drink a little, only yell at me when I deserve it.
Christ promises comfort. Christ promises healing, renewal, restoration. Christ promises to make all things new. We can pray, Is this pandemic time for the comfort of returning to normal, or we can pray for the lasting comfort resulting from being made new, a newness born out of the discomfort of change. Accepting the turmoil of moving out of a dangerous house results in freedom to live a new stage of life. Accepting the turmoil of self-evaluation after an unhealthy relationship results in the freedom to make healthy, life giving choices.
The pandemic has revealed a society where the hills remain dreadfully steep, the valleys remain dreadfully low, where the trees continue to bear bad fruit, where the grain remains lost in the chaff. We, in this Advent time, remain caught in the turmoil of quarantines and hospitalizations, lost wages and messed up schools, of deaths, too many untimely deaths. We can yearn for normal or we can yearn for the inbreaking of a savior to make all things new. New social systems where we remain connected even in isolation. New economic systems where workers deemed essential also earn a living wage. New political systems enabling us to pull together as a nation in times of crisis. Accepting, instead of fighting, the turmoil of this time may lead us to a new future, one of lasting comfort, deeper healing, eternal hope.
We desire the way of the Lord. We yearn for the way of the Lord. But sometimes – most times actually - the mountains must first move into the sea. Christ promises lasting comfort – but only after the axe, after the fire, after divine disruption makes a way in the wilderness for the coming of our Lord.