Comfort and Joy

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Second Sunday of Advent
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, December 8, 1996


Isaiah 40:1-11 Comfort my people
Mark 1:1-8, 14, 15 Prepare the way of the Lord!
Arcana Coelestia #2682.2 Comfort in despair

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. (Isaiah 40:1)

On this second Sunday of Advent, I would like to continue our theme from last week: the contrast of light and darkness at Advent--the contrast we experience when the light of the Lord comes into our own darkness. Our reading from Isaiah highlights a different dimension of this contrast. Our personal times of darkness are also times of pain and despair. When we have experienced this despair, the Lord comes to us as a comforter, until at last our tears of pain turn into a song of joy. This is what Christmas is all about.

In The Messiah, Handel captures the essence of these feelings in a musical rendition of this passage from Isaiah. We can feel through words and music the great pain and suffering that we all experience at one time or another in our lives, and the great comfort of the Lord's coming into our lives after we have suffered. "Comfort ye. Comfort ye my people." The words of our reading continue, "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."

When we have been through a particularly difficult time, isn't this just how it feels? That for everything we did wrong, we have not simply received a "punishment that fits the crime," but have had double the pain and sorrow come back to us for all the mistakes we have made. Our behavior is like a bolt of lightning, but the repercussions are like thunder that keeps on rumbling and rolling along, echoing off hills and mountains with a terrifying and depressing roar--a roar that shakes us to our foundations. When our wrong actions come back to us, it is like a storm crashing around our head.

Yet after the stormy night comes the calm and peaceful day. There is nothing quite like the calm after a storm. Objectively speaking, there may not be all that much difference between the average sunny day and a sunny day after a storm. But it certainly feels different! When we have just been through a storm, the air seems clearer, the sun brighter, and the colors more vivid. I suppose the rain does clear away some of the airborne dust and smoke. But what really makes that day after the storm seem so bright and wonderful is the contrast between dark and light. It is the same contrast that makes Christmas such a wonderful season.

What is the purpose of all these sharp contrasts in our lives--contrasts between darkness and light, despair and joy? Isaiah continues,

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 and hill shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill 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."

Somehow, the pain of receiving "double for all our sins" prepares a highway for the Lord. It is a highway through the desert of our own feelings of spiritual emptiness. Swedenborg helps us understand how this spiritual highway is prepared in our desert. Though the life passages he describes are painful, it is a comfort to know they are a normal, even healthy part of our spiritual development.

When we are being spiritually reformed and renewed, says Swedenborg, we must become reduced to a state of mind in which we feel that we know nothing at all. We must reach a point at which we feel completely ignorant--when we feel that everything we have held onto as real and true is nothing, and even that we ourselves are nothing.

This does not square very well with current pop psychology, which always seems to encourage us to feel good about ourselves; bad feelings are to be avoided at all costs, because they tear down our sense of self. Yet if we are to grow spiritually, our sense of self is exactly what needs to be torn down.

I remember very well when I was a teenager in high school. It was a painful time for me--as it is for a lot teens underneath the brave exterior. I had many conflicting feelings of being a great person and being a terrible person. However, there was one area where I really thought I had it together. That was in my beliefs. The fact is, my stated beliefs were not all that different at that time than they are now. The problem wasn't so much that the beliefs themselves were wrong. Rather, I made them wrong in practice because there was too much of myself tied up in them. I was right, by golly--and that meant all those other poor folks around me were wrong.

This state of mind fits very well Swedenborg's description of the person who has yet to go through the spiritual refining process. Things that actually were true were turned into something false because ego got in the way. Religion is not about some people being right and other people being wrong. It is about loving and caring for each other--about using the truth that we do understand to make people's lives happier.

The church's teachings continued to percolate in my head. Eventually, I came to a point where I realized that everything I ever believed might be wrong. I really didn't know one way or another. The funny thing is, even though all the Swedenborgian concepts were still just as clear in my mind as ever, in a sense I knew nothing at all, because I had no idea whether these things were true or not. Maybe this physical world was all there was to life, and there was no God or spiritual world at all. Maybe everything I had ever learned about religion was just wishful thinking. I didn't know.

And this is exactly when the Lord can finally find room to get in. For me, at that point in my life, it felt like a crisis of faith in my beliefs. It was very much like a lightning and thunder storm shaking my inner house to its foundations--for I had intended to devote my life to those beliefs. For others it may be a crisis of faith of a different kind. It may be a crisis of faith that there is anything good left to life--that there ever was anything good to life. It could be a crisis of faith in ourselves. We may wonder if we are any good at all. It could be that we feel there is just too much stacked up against us, and there is no way we can make it through.

In a sense, our readings tell us that these feelings really do represent the truth. Isaiah continues,

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.

Compared to a mere breath of the Lord, we are like grass. In the larger scheme of things, we are insignificant. Our exaggerated sense of our own brilliance or stupidity, of our own greatness or depravity . . . all of these come to nothing in comparison to the vastness of the universe--and especially in comparison to the vastness of God.

There is no good in us that we can call our own. Nor is there any evil in us that we can call our own. By ourselves, we are nothing. Once again, pop psychology would object. But it is precisely when we realize that we are nothing that we can become the best person we are capable of being. For it is precisely when we recognize our own insignificance that we become open, not just intellectually, but with our whole heart and soul, to the realization that the Lord is everything. It is precisely when we hit a sense of personal despair and nothingness that we can receive comfort and joy from the Lord.

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!"

Yes! It is exactly when we recognize our own nothingness that the glad tidings of comfort and joy can pour into our souls. Then our ears are at last open to the message proclaimed by the prophet, "Here is your God!"

God is with us all along. But as long as we are full of ourselves, we leave no room for the Lord. There is no room in the inn. As long as we think we have all the answers; as long as we cling to our own importance in comparison with others; as long as our thought in any way centers on ourselves to the exclusion of other people and of God, then we leave no room for the Lord in our lives.

The advent season, then, is a time for emptying our selves out in preparation for the Lord's new birth into our lives. The beginning of Mark's Gospel picks up this message of preparation for the Lord's coming. John the Baptist was the messenger sent before the Lord's coming to prepare the way. He became the voice crying in the spiritual wilderness, "Prepare the way of the Lord!" After John the Baptist was arrested, Jesus himself continued to proclaim the good news, saying "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news."

We can only believe the good news of the Lord's coming when we set aside the bad news of our own fixed attitudes that block the way of the Lord into our hearts. When we do clear away our self-induced roadblocks, then the Lord can truly be born in us. Then we can feel deeply and fully the comfort and joy of Christmas.

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.

The comfort we feel when the Lord comes newly into our lives after a time of pain and sorrow is the beginning of a new journey of spiritual growth. When disaster strikes, and our friends and family comfort us, the pain in our heart is gradually healed. The Lord will also comfort us and heal the spiritual pain within if we will open ourselves up to that healing.

Then, as we continue along our spiritual path, we will move beyond the comfort of feeling that a new, God-centered life is replacing our old self-involved way of being. We will move to the joy of a richer and fuller life in the Lord than we ever could have imagined before. This is the comfort and joy that the Lord offers to each one of us. Amen.

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