By Rev. Chris Jorgensen
December 6, 2020
Video of whole service: https://fb.watch/2fJAwujj_n/
Scripture: Isaiah 40:1,3-11
This week, as I prepared to preach, I kept thinking of a fairly iconic line of movie dialogue. It is from a movie of my youth, something I’m sure the Gen Xers among us would know right away. It’s a military court scene, and in it, Tom Cruise is interrogating Jack Nicholson – about what, I honestly don’t remember. But I do know, that at height of Tom Cruise’s cross examination, he yells at Jack Nicholson, “I want the truth!” And what does Nicholson respond? “You can’t handle the truth!”
You can’t handle the truth.
It got me to thinking about what it means to have a faith that can handle the truth.
Speaking of truth, I’ve preached on today’s scripture before, and I just ignored a rather interesting though perplexing bit of truth about it. This slightly inconvenient truth is that there are actually multiple divine voices speaking in the scripture. Now, I never left this out in any sort of nefarious way…it just didn’t seem particularly relevant before this moment.
Let me show you what I am talking about. So the scripture starts out like this:
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Then in verse 3, we hear a response.
3 A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Then, in verse 6, another voice chimes in. 6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” Arguably, verse 9 might be even another voice. So we’ve got 3 or 4 speakers in this text.
So who are all these voices, you may ask. Well, at various points in the Hebrew Bible (what we sometimes call the Old Testament), we see this image of a divine council. It’s a kind of pantheon of Gods, or perhaps one God and a number of slightly-lesser divine entities. This image gets downplayed sometimes because eventually a much more strict monotheism in Judaism and Christianity develops. But here in this scene in Isaiah, there is definitely a presence of this divine council. These voices are not equal to God. They are below God, and God is directing these lower divine beings to do God’s work in the world.
The direction that God is giving in this case is to comfort God’s people. The first voice complies. He or She offers a word of hope that rough places will be made smooth and all flesh will see God’s glory. But, the second voice, at least at first glance, does not seem to be doing what God asked.
God says, “Comfort my people.” Voice #2 replies:
“Cry out!” … “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
So God says, “Comfort my people,” and Voice #2 decides to remind humanity of its ultimate decay and demise. Voice #2 decides to remind humanity that, like the grass, all of our lives end in death.
Now some scholars believe that this voice is a character called ha-satan in Hebrew. (This is where our word Satan comes from, but ha-satan is not an evil character per se.) This ha-satan shows up in the divine council in the Book of Job, and he is known as “The Adversary” or “The Accuser.” His job is to point out the shortcomings of humans. He is regularly sort of oppositional or confrontational. It could be that this is the voice of ha-satan, saying basically that people get what is coming to them.
That might be what this voice is trying to do. Maybe. Or maybe when God asks the divine council to comfort God’s people, this Voice #2 knows that you have to start by telling the truth about the human situation. Maybe Voice #2 believes that we can handle the truth.
The truth is that we are like grass. The truth is that we all die, and we are surrounded by people who will one day die. The truth is that we all experience loss. We all experience the loss of the things we want to hold onto. We are often unable to have or do or achieve all of the things we want to have or do or achieve. And this truth is all the more palpable during our current global pandemic reality.
The first step in offering the comfort of God is to let people be honest about the true difficulty and struggle of the human condition. That’s what we do during Blue Christmas. Instead of papering over the struggle or looking away, we name it. We cry out the truth. The truth is that even at Christmas time, we struggle.
I want to give you space here to name the things that you are struggling with this season. I know we are all experiencing anxiety and grief and loss because of the pandemic or just because life is difficult. Whether we are worried about ourselves or others…I want to invite you to name those things in the Facebook comments.
What are you grieving this year? What are you missing this year? What is hard for you during this particular holiday season? Share as much as you feel comfortable. If you just want to name a word like “grief” or “sadness” or maybe a phrase like “death of a loved one” or “can’t see my family this year” or “financial worries.” Whatever it is that you are struggling with this year, I want to invite you to name it in the comments or just hold it on your heart if naming it out loud feels too tender.
I’m going to just pause and give you time to share those areas of struggle with one another. I will even add mine to the comments. Use this as your space to “cry out” about the truth of what we are carrying at this time.
Everything you have named is true. It is all true. Life withers, flowers fade, we can’t see our families, people we love have died, people we love are sick, so many have lost jobs or housing. We can’t see our grandkids or hug one another like we used to. The pandemic just makes our everyday struggles even more difficult. It is all true.
We are called to tell the truth so that we can see and support and love one another.
Yet even Voice #2 is compelled not just to tell the truth, but to tell the whole truth.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.
In the words of the mystic Julian of Norwich, “[God] said not ‘Thou shalt not be tempested, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be dis-eased’; but [God] said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.”
You shall not be overcome with the suffering of this world. That is the truth. The whole truth. There is suffering, but God is with us. There are the other voices of the divine counsel. Yes, there’s the voice that calls us to acknowledge the brokenness of our humanity. But there are other voices.
God tells those voices to get themselves to the top of a hill and cry out and not to fear, and they cry out:
“Here is your God!
“Here is your God who comes with power. Here is your God who gathers you – with all your struggles and disappointment and grief – into Her loving arms. Here is your God who carries you close to his chest and gently leads the mother sheep.
Here is your God who is present. Here is your God who is powerful. Here is your God who makes a way in the desert when there seems to be no way.
Here is your God. With you. With you in the truth of the struggle. With you in the comfort of presence, and with you in the hope of transformation and resurrection.”
Here is our God-with-us, even now.
Thanks be to God.