December 7, 2014

Isaiah 40: 1-11, Mark 1:1-8

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people. These are some of the most well known words in the Bible. We can almost hear the ringing of a clear tenor voice from Handel’s Messiah. This text, beginning with Isaiah 40, begins a second portion of the prophecies credited to Isaiah. Second Isaiah marks a clear shift in prophetic tone, largely due to the different historical and cultural circumstances, recorded nearly 150 years later.
Previously, prophetic tone had been about judgment, predicting war and famine. Now, in second Isaiah, that had already happened. The words shift to reassurance, comfort compassion. The people of this time had witnessed incomprehensible calamity and destruction: the fall of Judah and Jerusalem in 587 BCE at the hands of the Babylonian empire, and deportation of upper and middle class members of Judean society. People of this time doubted whether their God would continue to choose them, covenant with them, save them.
“Comfort, oh 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.” Isaiah tries to make meaning out of the suffering. It’s because we can handle it, Isaiah tries. Jerusalem has paid double all her sins, because, as Susan Ackerman in the Women’s Bible Commentary says, the belief was that “The covenant community of Israel is able to and should bear the sins of the entire world.” God will fix what has been broken, and will create a highway through the wilderness, back from Babylon to Judah- and the glory of God will be revealed.
A voice cries out in the wilderness, from the darkness, from the suffering and says, “cry out!” “What shall I cry? All people are grass, their consistency is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.”
We are hearing voices cry out from the wilderness right now. So many people are echoing the words of Eric Garner from Staten Island, who cried out, “I can’t breathe.” His cry is heard loud and clear now, but far too late. Comfort, oh comfort my people.
It doesn’t take much to set our hearts on the suffering in our world. We see it, we hear it, and we want comfort and respite from it. More than anything, we want those suffering most deeply in the world, for God’s glory to swoop them up into an embrace. Isaiah says it best, “The lord comes with might! He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, carry them in his bosom and gently lead the mother sheep.”
But we don’t want comfort in suffering to mean it will still continue. We want justice before peace. The protest song goes, “We who believe in freedom cannot rest. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.” We who believe in freedom each have our own suffering, connected to the suffering of the world. What does comfort in our own darkness truly mean?
You’ve probably noticed by now that I don’t like to equate darkness with evil. I think there can be true gifts of darkness. Dreams happen in the dark- literally your dreams in the night, and dreams are sometimes our unconscious speaking to us, an unrealized part of our mind processing the world around us. The unconscious is sometimes represented as darkness, shadow or even as water.
We run from the dark, because it is hard, and scary, it feels bad. Really normal. Someone in our book study this Wednesday reported that when she rules the world, there will be no darkness and suffering and no going through it. We will go around the darkness. We all feel that. It is so human.
Sometimes in the dark, we start to feel the discomfort or pain, perhaps the darkness within us, and we go back to what is safe and comfortable. One thing that keeps us stuck in darkness, though, is pretending it doesn’t exist. When it comes up, or we feel it resurfacing, shoving it right back down, keeps us in the dark. Vague notions of anxiety, which are usually unfelt feelings, flood our movements, and we direct lives around avoidance of these feelings, of avoiding the dark. And we get real serious. And real stuck. And this keeps us in an “imaginiative gridlock.” Where our way of being in the world becomes so emotionally familiar to us, that we can’t imagine another way- whether we enjoy those emotions or not.
But if we stay with the dark long enough something amazing happens in the dark. There are moments of clarity before we awake from slumber. Our dream state, our unconscious comes to surface. If we go through the darkness, not around it, transformation is possible.
Something amazing can happen in the dark. We can get unstuck. We reach out beyond ourselves. We get past our own emotional maps. The fortitude and the strength of the human spirit, is what we discover by spending enough time in the dark. We are flooded with love and compassion and grace.
Sometimes moments in the dark bring us truth so loud that it terrifies us, so much that we can’t possibly shift our lives to make it so. At least not yet. But why not? What are we waiting for?
I love when the character of John the Baptist waltzes into our minds and ears during Advent. This wild man, asking people instead of going to the Temple to worship, to go swimming with him in the woods. Eating locusts and wild honey. Perhaps this is a man who has let his unconscious become seen.
Sitting in the darkness is what made the need for the light of a Messiah so necessary. John, clothed in camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, eating bugs and sugar, proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” He is talking about Jesus. The text in Isaiah is not, but Christians interpret it to mean the coming of Christ.
For this light to come to us, for the sliver of the moon to appear, we need to prepare the way way. Make way in our spirits, in our hearts. We need to walk through the dark first. In the time of John the baptizer, people confessed their sins. This is how they made friends with the dark. What is your preparing in the darkness? What is your way of making friends with the dark?
Comfort in the dark for me means making friends with the unknown. A baptism of the holy spirit, or the unseen parts of ourselves, bearing wisdom. This is sometimes the unconscious. Making friends with the unknown, with the wilderness, not having to rush to a solution or an answer or a vision right away. Not thinking that if we employ the right techniques or have the right data or try harder to understand the darkness, that we can solve the problem. But maintain a spirit of playfulness, adventure, being light. This is the most profound challenge in the dark, because our instinct is to reach for safety and comfort. Everything seems so serious. But sometimes deep tears lead to deep laughter.
A woman told me once that she was sobbing and sobbing face down on the floor, and from down there, she noticed a crack in her wall, then noticed she was on the floor, and began laughing.
The moon is dark for 3 days every month, Jesus spent 3 days in the tomb, Jonah spent 3 days in the belly of the wale. There is something about 3 days of darkness, of going through it, not around it.
Now this doesn’t mean we each need to wallow in a pit of misery to experience joy and true light. But all of us, as a result of being complex human beings, have something bubbling up under the surface of our consciousness right now, waiting to be seen and noticed by us. If this is you, start tracking your dreams, and see how they can enrich your spiritual life.
And some of us have seen and experienced true darkness and suffering, and maybe are experiencing it now. We all can see the way suffering and injustice are alive and well in our world. Comfort in the dark does not mean safety, does not mean freedom from suffering, or trying harder to get out of it, or learning all we can about the dark so we can really know what we are getting in to.
Comfort in the dark is staying with it, walking through it, and the recognition of the strength and fortitude of the human spirit from within the dark. We notice we are not alone there. The sovereign of the universe has already scooped us into her arms, but we need to go through the dark to feel it. That God’s arms are around us, holding us through the dark. And the voices we hear crying out are heard. Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron says, “Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.” Walking through the darkness, means giving attention to the voices crying out in the wilderness, whether they are from our own souls, or from the soul of the world. This is the only way the light can appear. Emmanuel, God with us. Let it be so. Amen