United Church of Jaffrey
December 6th, 2020
If you would like to hear this sermon as preached in a zoom call, please press play below:
If you worshipped with us last Sunday, in the parking lot of our beloved church, you may recall that I went on at some length about the vast stretch of time (750 years or so) between the life the prophet Isaiah and the birth of Jesus Christ.
I commented that Isaiah predicting Jesus’ birth, would be similar to Genghis Khan or Marco Polo predicting my birth.
27 generations separated Isaiah from Jesus — which, when you think about it, is a really long time.
If you think about the 27 generations that separate Marco Polo from you and me, it seems even longer.
Marco Polo, who famously travelled from Italy to China, left Venice when he was 17 years old and arrived in China when he was 21. If Polo lived today, he could breakfast on cappuccino and biscotti overlooking the grand canal in Venice and have Lo mein and Oolong for dinner in Shanghai, on the same day, without breaking a sweat.
It seems, from our vantage, here in 2020, that it is not only time, but also the headlong pace of technological innovation that sets us apart from people like Marco Polo, who lived in a bygone age.
It’s almost like we are living a different existence from them.
When I teach class, I roll out of bed, and walk down to my basement, where I turn on a screen that connects me to my students in Bangkok, Moscow, Shanghai, Montana, Taiwan, Connecticut, Miami and New Zealand. I just accept it as part of my morning routine, but if I actually take a second to think about it, it’s absolutely astonishing! It is hard to imagine the level of sophisticated technological ingenuity and the feat of human engineering that have developed in the last few decades, to make such an act possible.
It’s tempting, isn’t it, to think that we are the best, and that, compared to us, folks in the past lived in a state of deprivation. If we are too hot we can turn on a machine to make us cool. Hungry? There is food waiting for us, that is preserved in a temperature controlled box. Have an infection? Antibiotics. Want to speak to someone in California? No problem, we’ve got a box for that too.
Those poor saps who lived before the advent of electricity and antibiotics! They were perpetually uncomfortable, and most died young.
No wonder Thomas Hobbes, the renowned 16th century philosopher, described human life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
In the 40th chapter of the book of Isaiah we encounter this morning’s scripture reading.
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.
Each year when this scripture appears as part of our worship, I feel a deep tremor of satisfaction. A big part of this reaction derives from the fact that this verse is the scriptural basis for the first tenor solo in Handel’s Messiah, and so my association is not just with the meaning of the language, but also the beauty of that music.
But the beauty of the music is only part of it. I feel that the beauty of the music is a kind of latch — a latch to a door that begins to slowly swing open.
The door leads to a sanctuary. A safe place. A holy place. A place that seems to exist outside of time.
This, you see, is another way we can think.
Religion allows us this possibility — to imagine in ways that are not constrained by the limitations of time.
We don’t have to think about long stretches of time across generations of people.
We don’t have to think of centuries, or of millennia.
We don’t have to think about history as a time-line that stretches from one side of the classroom to the other.
These are the ways we normally and habitually think about time — as a line that moves forward from the mists of time, gradually becoming clearer with the passage of the years as it comes closer to the present.
But since religion concerns itself with God, religion introduces an alternate possibility.
Religion offers us the possibility of the eternal.
The possibility of being outside of time.
In our time — in 2020 — this is kind of a radical notion. By far the dominant assumption that governs our attitudes toward time, is the idea that, as we move forward in time, we progress.
We get more sophisticated.
We know more.
We are better off.
Progress for us, is synonymous with “the good.”
Or, perhaps more accurately, we believe progress to be equal to our good. Our effort to make things good for us.
Religion suggests a different idea.
That there is something eternal — something outside of time…
something that is decidedly not us
that is nevertheless, dedicated, in some meaningful and mysterious way to our well-being.
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Yet, while religion presents us with a new way of looking at time, religion cannot free itself from constraints of human language. The only tools we have to point to the elusive and eternal presence that we call God… are tools that are woven into human culture — tools like language, art and music.
And so when Isaiah writes about God, he does so in familiar terms. In terms that make God sound like an indulgent parent:
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
However, I submit to you, this morning, that this language — the language of the indulgent and forgiving parent who comforts us, is more than just a passing indulgence on the part of the prophet Isaiah.
It is a kind of eternal language.
One thing that hasn’t changed from the time of Isaiah, to 2020, is that we all have parents, or at the very least parental figures in our lives.
And since we have all been children once, we have all entertained the earnest hope that our parents will comfort us.
Will hold us, and tell us that everything will be alright.
Will speak tenderly to us.
This is not the language of progress.
This is the language of religious… the language of the eternal now.
The language that needs no interpretation.
The language that relies on no technology.
what, dear friends, could possibly invoke this kind of “eternal now” feeling more, than the image of a child.
A child in his mother’s arms.
This is the ultimate expression of comfort.
This is God.
This is the eternal now.
Now in Bethlehem 2 thousand years ago,
And now in Jaffrey in 2020.
The eternal now Emmanuel
God among us.