O Come Emmanuel, Bring Comfort and Joy

December 17, 2017

O come Emmanuel, bring comfort and joy. Those words are our advent theme, beautifully designed by Mair Dundon, on our altar frontal, the display board, and the pew cards for Christmas. We’ve heard those words, comfort, joy, in the readings this season.

Today as the advent candles were lit, we prayed the words,  ‘In our world of despair let us be your witnesses for joy.’  That’s because today is known as Joy Sunday. Where are you on the joy scale today? Perhaps you are home for Christmas vacation and feeling joy because you are together with beloved family and friends. Or perhaps you are down in the dumps because this is the first Christmas for you without a loved one. Or the umpteenth season of loneliness and grief, feeling the loss of loved ones. Or perhaps you are a mixture of both.

This advent I’ve been privileged to have some powerful experiences of comfort and joy, in the midst of suffering and difficulty.

Yesterday I left home at 6.30am and went to meet Carolyn Bowker at the county main jail at 7am. Together with one of the chaplains, we went door to door on a number of floors, offering communion for Christmas to those who wanted it. Some asked for prayers, for their families, to stay sober, to help them make good choices, to live right when they got out. One of them asked if I knew Trinity Cathedral, and said that was his church. We offered a brief connection to God’s love through the body and blood of Christ, and the prayer. Hopefully bringing a sliver of comfort into their lives. I found it enlarged my compassion and my heart.

Because I was in San Jose, I then went to Santa Maria Urban Ministry, and joined a huge crowd of mostly young people and a couple of St Jude’s folks who were putting together Christmas gifts for families in need and wrapping the presents. Alfonso Mendez, the Operations Manager, showed me the brand new van they got from a grant. This means he now only has to make one trip to pick up food for their food pantry, as it is bigger. Signs of comfort and joy.

Then many of you know that I went to Haiti with Peter, Kathy and Susan, together with Amber the rector of All Saints Church, Carmel. We went to meet the new priest, Denise Tervine, who oversees St Patrick’s Church and school, and to develop deeper and broader relationships with the community, so we can build the partnership begun a few years ago. Their joyful and generous hospitality was astounding. To give you an idea, she actually got married yesterday! And hosted us two weeks before in her home, giving up her bedroom and bathroom for us, spending her days with us, helping us understand more through translated conversations.

It was an intense and challenging experience, filled with learning, sharing in community, and also joy! It was hard to go without the basics of everyday life like a flush toilet, clean water, constant electricity and wifi.  Despite the reality of grinding poverty, living with so little, there was a joy to it all, and Sunday eucharist was incredibly joyful and life giving. We’ll be showing some slides and videos after the 10.30am service and telling some stories. If you want to see your rector entertaining the school kids by playing soccer and taking a spectacular tumble, come on over.

We visited families in their homes, visited a large teaching hospital funded by Paul Farmer’s non profit, Partners in Health, that brings hope to hundreds of people every day. We visited the schools that are part of Denise’s parish, an art center cooperative, and an Episcopal center for people with disabilities that has been rebuilt after the earthquake. I found myself energized by the experience, and renewed in my commitment to serve the least of these.

The jail. SMUM. Haiti. All signs of hope, signs of comfort and joy amidst extreme poverty and suffering.  Today’s readings speak deeply to this, as we rejoice in the expectation of God entering the world in human form to transform and save God’s people.  

In the passage from Isaiah, which Jesus then quotes in his mission statement in Luke 4, the theme is transformation. It’s a passage of hope. The exiles have returned from Babylon and now they have to rebuild their city, to create a new Jerusalem. The messianic overtones and gospel message are unmistakable. The anointed one heralds the coming of a new era: the Kingdom of God on earth. The encompassing gospel message of mission is announced, and it’s inspiring poetry:

  • to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;
  • to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, which is a reference to Leviticus chapter 25 and the sabbatical year when all debts were to be cancelled.
  • to comfort all who mourn;

The people of Israel needed to hear these words, as do we. Their city, the center of their religious identity, had been flattened to rubble, those who survived had lost everything, they had lived in exile for decades and were now returning to rebuild and restore it. They were faced with insurmountable obstacles and overwhelming grief at what they had lost. Not unlike Haiti after the earthquake and hurricanes, or Puerto Rico and other countries and US states after the hurricanes, or those in California who have lost everything in the ongoing wildfires.

They needed to hear the vivid metaphors of the prophet/poet of Isaiah, that the transforming work of the anointed one would give the people of Zion a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit. Psalm 126 echoes these words of comfort: ‘Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves’

We all need to hear these words of comfort and joy. We may not be in prison or jail, but sometimes we can be imprisoned by our fears or anxieties, our ongoing grieving, our obsessions and addictions, our need to control or keep things the same.

We may not be poor in possessions or money, but we may be poor in spirit and lacking in joy and hope, depressed and paralyzed by forces outside of us.

Our hope for comfort and joy this season is rooted in trust and hope and faith in the coming Kingdom that John the Baptist proclaimed and Jesus lived out. The promise of the Scriptures that all things will be set right, there will be no more tears, no more sorrows, no more poverty, no more oppression and injustice.

That kingdom is now but not yet. We work towards it, empowered by the Spirit, transformed by God’s love, one step at a time, one inch at a time. As we work towards it, we are transformed, empowered, and we find comfort and joy! Sometimes it’s one step forward, one step backward, and one step forward again.

It’s rooted in transformed relationships, in vulnerability, in authenticity, and living our true selves out loud.  In living in community, asking God and others for help, offering help and support to others. In persevering when it all looks hopeless. Trusting that like the clouds obscure the bue sky, God is not absent even though we can’t feel God’s presence. Trusting that God never goes on vacation and never abandons us. Trusting that Jesus is with us always.

Today, where do you, do I, need God to bring comfort and joy? How is God calling us to bring comfort and joy to others?  How is God trying to come into our lives, our world?  O come Emmanuel, bring comfort and joy.

Amen.

Whoever you are, wherever you are on your journey of faith, you are welcome here.