December 8, 2002
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

Isaiah 40:1-11 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 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. A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 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. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken." A voice says, "Cry out!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 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!" See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 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.

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Sermon: Comfort or Confrontation?

This morning brings us the contrasting stories of two prophets - Isaiah and John the Baptist. Isaiah is the prophet who speaks a word of comfort and hope to the people, John the Baptist speaks a word of confrontation. They speak these words to people of different times and different circumstances, and the echo of their prophetic voice still lingers in the work and worship of the church today.

Isaiah says: Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 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.

These are the opening words of the 40th chapter of our Old Testament book of Isaiah. Some scholars think of this chapter as the beginning of a whole new book because they represent such a break from what has gone before. The first 39 chapters of Isaiah warn of an impending national disaster - but now it seems that disaster is in the distant past and the people are about to be set free from the consequences of having been invaded, conquered, plundered, and sent into exile.

For over a century the Kingdom of David was attacked and chopped up into little pieces. The last gasp was the burning of Jerusalem and the deportation of the population into Babylon. Now an entire generation had grown up away from their spiritual center - had grown up under a judgment of God that they struggled to understand. In these circumstances the Psalmist wrote:

Psalm 137:1-6 (NRSV)
1 By the rivers of Babylon- there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!"
4 How could we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

But now, in these words of Isaiah, liberation is in the air; there is the promise of a new exodus, with God at its head; there is the approach of a conqueror to break Babylon open; there is a new theme unfolding, a people set free to reveal the glory of Lord, to be a servant and a light to the nations.

The people of Israel do return to their land, but the leaders soon forget the humbling experience of exile and failed to live up to the call to be a servant people. And so later in the book of Isaiah we hear another prophecy - the prophecy of one who will come and fulfill this work of the servant - one who will bring the people to a change of heart through his personal witness and personal suffering - one who will be put to death and then redeemed and vindicated by God.

Isaiah 52:13 See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; he was despised and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.

There is, then, a direct line between the comforting prophecy of Isaiah and the appearance on the world scene generations later of John the Baptist, the forerunner of the Servant Lord, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.

John the Baptist is the prophet who speaks a word of confrontation and warning to the people: In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming,
Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

It has been said that the task of preaching is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, and I suppose that serves not only to describe preaching, but faith as well. Paul speaks of faith as an assurance, but faith is also a challenge; faith calls us to be faithful - faithful to God's righteous and just requirements on our lives and our society - faithful to our talents and opportunities, faithful to our promises and responsibilities, faithful to our conscience, our beliefs and our questions.

Faith is thankfully an experience of comfort in times of pain, but can also be a painful experience of change and risk - of loss of faith in the way things are and a sense that something new must be done, something different undertaken - a new way of life, a new path, a new beginning.

What does a prophetic word of confrontation mean to us in our time - this call to repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand? What do we have to repent from, what do we have to risk, what do we absolutely need to change?

A few years back the first Sunday of Advent fell on December 7, the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. In that sermon we considered the impact that day in 1941 had on the consciousness of our country - a day, as Franklin Roosevelt said, that would live in infamy.

We considered how the need to be prepared for every possible avenue of enemy attack drove American military, foreign, and industrial policy for 50 years. There would never be another surprise attack. There would never be another Pearl Harbor. We would be prepared for the worst.

Of course that sermon was preached before September 11, 2001, a day which will shape the consciousness of our children's generation with all the same force as Pearl Harbor. The nation is one again mobilized to be prepared for attack.

This notion of being prepared is, of course, not just for nations and military powers. Each of us develops our own defenses so that we won't be taken by surprise, attacked, hurt, humiliated, left defenseless. Sometimes we leave the defenses up even when we no longer remember the events that provoked them. Sometimes our defenses keep away the present good as much as they protect from potential evil.

That's not to say that we shouldn't be prepared. John the Baptist certainly fulfilled a prophecy of preparation:
'Prepare the way of the Lord,
    make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
    and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
    and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.' "

But John is a prophet of preparation, but not of defense. His role is not to warn the people to build fortifications or put up roadblocks or keep the enemy at bay. He's talking about just the opposite - about building a highway in the wilderness - about making a level path for one who is coming.

This one who is coming is a servant, a savior sent by God - indeed this savior was God with Us - and would reveal to us a side of God we had not know before. We knew God was eternal; we knew God was Almighty; we knew God was omniscient and omnipotent; we knew many things about God. But we did not know that God was defenseless.

Defenselessness does not mean God never exercises power - it simply speaks to the special way in which God makes his power felt. It has to do with God's willingness to be present with us in love and allow us to respond to that love in freedom. It has to do with God's patient endurance and long suffering.

Christ came into this world as a defenseless baby whose parents had to flee before Herod's troops swept into town to kill all the children. He left this world as a defenseless innocent victim of brutal oppression and callous indifference, nailed to a cross.

It was indeed a dark day when the Savior displayed his defenselessness on the cross. Roosevelt said that December 7, 1941 was a date that would live in infamy. September 11 will certainly be the same, and the same could be said of that Friday on the edge of spring when Christ walked the way of sorrow to the place of the skull to be crucified between two thieves.

Yet we call the day that Jesus was put on the cross Good Friday - a date not of infamy, but of hope.

We are all, I think, in a very defensive mode. Our country prepares for war abroad and attack at home. We face forces that seem to have no thought but destroying us and leave us with no alternative but to destroy them. It would be very easy to lose hope in a season of terror.

Perhaps it is our task of repentance to remain a people of hope. Perhaps it is our task of repentance to prepare ourselves to be defenseless to the love of God in Jesus Christ, to stop putting up walls and instead build a highway for the Lord in the wilderness.

The wilderness in which we must do our work is not the desert of Israel, but in our own hearts, the place where we have put up our first lines of defense.

Do we find in there traces of shame and fear of God? Do we find there a lurking apprehension of life and an ancient wall of protection? What separates us from the love of God? What will it take for us to repent and risk and prepare the way of the Lord?

Perhaps our repentance in this season of advent is best summed up in the last verse of a familiar carol.

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Let us make it our prayer for this season

O Holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in; be born is us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our God, Emmanuel.

Before you, O God, the source of our life, we join our hearts in prayer. We have gathered here today from many different homes, from many different walks of life, from many different experiences of faith. But you have called us together to hear again the sacred story of Jesus Christ, the story of your love made manifest in our midst.

Through sacred story we know that you see our common humanity, that you are fully aware of what is in our hearts, that you understand the concerns that occupy our minds. You look upon us with kindness and compassion, and the power of your spirit is always ready to lift us up and give us strength.

As we join together in prayers for our church and our world, let the congregation answer the call, "Lord, in your mercy" by responding, "Hear our Prayer"

With all our heart and our mind, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, in your mercy .... Hear our prayer

For the peace that is from above, for the loving kindness of God, for the salvation of the world, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, in your mercy .... Hear our prayer

For the unity of the church of Jesus Christ and for an end to the prejudice and hatred that exists between religious communities, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, in your mercy .... Hear our prayer

For the town of New Milford, for the greater Danbury area, for our country, our President, and all who exercise authority among us, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, in your mercy .... Hear our prayer

For people who live with injustice and fear as their constant companions, for refugees, the homeless and the destitute, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, in your mercy .... Hear our prayer

For all who are struggling with illness, with disability, with the loss of a loved one, with broken relationships, let us pray to the Lord. Lord, in your mercy .... Hear our prayer

Especially we pray for:

and those we name in the silence of our hearts.

Lord, in your mercy .... Hear our prayer

Lord, mercifully assist us in our prayers. In all things teach us to seek your will. Direct our lives as we seek to repent in our hearts and prepare the way of the Lord, Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray. Amen.
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