Comfort My People
I remember taking a school trip to Atlanta, Georgia when I was a teenager. We were all very excited to go to the big city four hours to the South. We were going to go full-on tourist while we were there. We were going to the Coca-Cola Museum, where you can try Coke products from all over the world, most of which will rot your teeth. We would go to the very touristy Underground Atlanta, a series of shops and restaurants in a part of Atlanta that has been covered over by viaducts. And, perhaps most excitingly, we were going to the headquarters of CNN and Headline News. Not only would we be able to peak behind the scenes of a national cable news network, but we would also get to actually be on television. There was a show they did live out in the open at the network headquarters. They had the hosts and experts sit in the middle of this amphitheater seating area, and the guests, including my group of high school students, would sit around them in a roped-off area.
On the day we arrived, the topic was set to be very exciting. All that people had been talking about for several days was the mass suicide of members of an apocalyptic cult called Heaven's Gate. Thirty-nine members of the group, all but 2 of their total membership, had purposely ingested poison out of the belief that once they died, their souls could board an alien spacecraft that was following the comet Hale-Bopp in a near earth orbit. For so long, their religious beliefs initially seemed to be a fairly harmless mix of Christian apocalypticism and New Age-y alien lore. Their religious community existed for about 20 years without any kind of violence or self-harm. Then, in 1997, that all changed. Their leader grew afraid or inspired or something and thought the earth was about to be destroyed. The only way that they could escape would be to first destroy their earthly bodies so their souls could join the aliens and proceed to their next spiritual level.
We high school students were very excited to talk about such a scandalous event, an event that would have almost seemed funny had it not been so awful. Most of us had grown up hearing some version of Christian apocalypticism, perhaps even believing that we were waiting for the End Times and Christ's return. For those who believed in Christ's imminent return, cults like Heaven's Gate gave the Apocalypse a bad name. Of course aliens weren't going to take your soul to heaven. That's not how the End of the World works. These folks were simply foolish and not following the Bible. Or, they had been deceived by the Devil. Either way, how could anyone take the End of Days seriously if these pretenders kept popping up. People needed to be ready and watchful for the signs. This kind of thing was just a distraction.
Now, with nearly 20 years of distance, I can say that I actually agree that these kinds of cults do give the Apocalypse a bad name. Despite the fact that Jesus calls upon us to be willing to make sacrifices, any religious community that asks you to kill yourself is not following Christ. That being said, I think a bunch of other folks are giving the Apocalypse a bad name, too. I can't count the number of times that I have heard the End of the World used to manipulate, shame, and coerce people. I have heard so many people speak with glee about the destruction they are observing in the world as a sign that God is finally dealing with the sinful people. I have heard too many version of this statement: These people will finally get what is coming to them now that Jesus is getting ready to return. I am pretty sure that if you see earthly devastation as the Good News in the Apocalypse, you are doing Christianity wrong.
That being said, I don't think that we who are followers of Christ get to ignore the Apocalyptic strains of our faith just because some people use it to be hateful. Christianity, from it's inception, has been firmly rooted in the idea that God is thoroughly invested in the well-being of humanity. This, too, is the soul of the strains of Jewish Apocalypticism out of which Christianity grew. This is a theology born in the experiences of a people mired in oppression and war, deeply in need of an intervention from a force beyond what they could muster on their own. They came to believe that God controlled everything that happened to them, good and bad. In the end, though, God would bring redemption. God would bring them peace. At the very center of this kind of theology is not fear but hope... hope for the future and trust that God intends good for God's people.
This is theology that undergirds our reading from Isaiah. It begins with hope. "Comfort, O Comfort my people says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term." They would no longer be punished for the ways that forgotten the commandments to love God and love the neighbor. God's grace and peace are described as a radical disruption of the oppression under which they lived. It is a like a wilderness road made easier to travel because the valleys would be lifted up and the mountains would be brought low and the rough terrain would become a flat plain when God changed the world. The people of Jerusalem would be able to see the evidence of God's work in their lives and testify to it with confidence to all their neighbors. They will look to the revived world ahead of them, and they will say, "Here is our God." So, this message from Isaiah ends in hope, too. Hope for the new way through the wilderness that God has shown them.
Like his ancestors before him, Jesus knew what is was to live mired in oppression and war. Like his ancestors before him, he lived in a nation that was controlled by wicked outside forces. Perhaps he understood his own life as one of these radically disruptive signs of God's inbreaking. Maybe he knew that it was his calling to remind his people of their Divine hope for the future. Rather than describe valleys raised up and mountains laid low, he spoke of the sun, moon, and stars, the sea and it's waves all being changed by God's intervention on behalf of God's people. When he shared this Apocalyptic vision with his followers, he was telling them that it didn't matter than Rome had taken over their country and co-opted their king. It didn't matter that their holy days were surveilled by the Empire for possible acts of sedition.God had delivered them from Babylon. God would deliver God's people once again. God was bigger than Rome. Like the people of Jerusalem before them, Christ assured his followers that, even when the world seemed most dangerous, you can still have hope. Even though you will see terrible things, you will be able to stand up and raise your heads high, knowing that redemption is drawing near.
The Gospel of Luke seems to understand the ministry of Jesus to be a hinge in human history, a central pivot point in the life of God's people that ultimately points us to redemption and peace. We are to understand that Christ's life, ministry, and conquering of death as radically changing the trajectory of history. I think we begin Advent with this Apocalyptic story from near the end of Jesus' life for a reason. It reminds us of the ultimate hope that the people were looking for, and found, in Christ. People were not looking for a simple change of their current predicament. They were looking for a world-altering, star-shaking, mountain-toppling re-orientation of their nation back towards God's redeeming love. They saw this in Jesus, a man of scandalous birth from a nowhere town who's first bed was a feeding trough. This warning about the end of the world isn't here to make us afraid of the destruction. This Apocalypse is not here to terrify us. It is here to remind us that God intends us to live with Christ's help and hope. It is here to point to God's ultimate hope and care.Christ's own ministry will help us to figure out how to respond to the devastation around us. Our goal for this season is to be begin watching for signs of hope in his life as presented in the Gospel of Luke. Hope is here. May we find it.
Resources Pastor Chrissy used to write this sermon:
Robert Hoch: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2692
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=3740
David Lose: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=480
Kristin J. Wendland: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2254
Elna K. Solvang: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1099
Kathryn Matthew Huey: http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_november_29_2015
Walter Wink: http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=2208
Info about Heaven's Gate: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heaven%27s_Gate_(religious_group)
Salon article about Heaven's Gate: http://www.salon.com/2014/11/15/anatomy_of_a_mass_suicide_the_dark_twisted_story_behind_a_ufo_death_cult/
Pulpit fiction: http://www.pulpitfiction.us/show-notes/143-advent-1c-nov-29-2015
Walter Brueggemann, An Introduction to the Old Testament: The Canon and Christian Imagination (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003). pg 353-355
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.