St Andrew Catford
December 4th 2011, Advent 2

Comfortable Words

Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people saith your God

Do you know what a Baboushka Doll is? It’s coloured, wooden, made in Russia, and looks like a friendly mother. But if you hold her tight and twist her two halves in opposite directions, you’ll find a smaller look-alike doll inside. And every time you open one up you find another, ending in a tiny baby!.

Isaiah, who spoke those words we heard in the first reading, was God’s prophet. And prophecy is like a Baboushka doll in the sense that the further you ‘unscrew’ it, the more you find inside it.

The Bible tells us what God said to His People through Prophets – people like Isaiah, Joel and Amos. It warns that there are prophets both false and true ones, and that if we ignore a true prophet, it’s as bad as believing in, and following a false one. Both mistakes will land us in dead trouble.

Jesus likened false prophets to wolves posing as shepherds in fleeces, crook in hand; today they’re more likely to be crooks themselves, with a microphone in hand, and posing as Wise Men

God’s true Prophets weren’t (and still are not) like fortune-tellers or ‘futurologists’ – people who forecast what will happen some time in the future. They generally addressed their contemporaries about what was already happening, or would happen very soon if they didn’t change their hearts and ways here and now, and listen to what God was saying to them. It was the false Prophets who predicted the distant future.

The true Prophets spoke to God’s people on behalf of God Himself. They prefaced their message with ‘The Lord says…’. So when read the prophets, or listen to them in Church, it’s God who’s speaking to us, and we need to take them very seriously – ‘read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them’, the Prayer Book Collect says. So it pays us to know what was happening in the world in which those Prophets were living.

When Isaiah’s said ‘"Comfort ye, my People", saith your God’ (the word comfort here also means ‘take courage’), things in his world were pretty uncomfortable and discouraging as they are today. ‘My people’ included both those being held captive in Babylon, or the small Remnant left behind in Jerusalem after its destruction in 586BC. There they’d been scratching a living for the past 50 years. Now Babylon itself was under siege with the Persians at its gates; their leaders, from the King downwards, behaved even worse than our leaders today; corruption and double-dealing went on everywhere, and, as so often happens, daily living had become a matter of ‘every man for himself’. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

But let’s open up our prophetic Baboushka doll. What do we find inside? We find messages from God to His People spoken by Prophets like Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos and others. And their messages are broadly the same. God says: ‘First, Don’t despair – I, your God, know what I’m doing; second, Turn away from your sins and turn towards Me (that’s called repentance); third, Stop allowing your feelings to dictate your behaviour; fourthly, Follow my instructions’ (that’s called obedience). In short, Trust and Obey!

Well, some of them listened to God, and some of them didn’t. But the listeners made the life-changing discovery that once you start listening to and obeying God, His messages will continue to flow in, and, little by little things getting better, and the old question ‘Why did this happen to ME’ gets answered.

Of course, if someone ceases to obey God, and goes back instead to ‘doing what they feel like’, they will soon find themselves back at Square One, and their life little by little becoming meaningless again. That’s why, back in August, so many people who had stopped thinking about God and fulfilling His Plan for them, took to rioting, looting and arson in the streets instead: because they ‘just felt like it’.

But if, instead of playing Follow My Feelings, those people seriously started asking themselves ‘What does God want me to do?’ (as opposed to ‘What do I feel like doing?’) it’s like opening-up the Baboushka Doll. They’d find far more inside themselves than they supposed. Not like peeling an onion when there’s nothing left at the end. But, where unpacking the Baboushka Doll leads to our discovering a baby doll, unpacking the will of God as He has revealed it to us, brings us face-to-face with quite a different Baby – a Baby in a Stable Who is none other than God Himself!.

Now let’s fast-forward about five hundred years, in a village called Bethlehem. What happened, is beautifully described in Ursula Fanthorpe’s famous poem called ‘BC : AD’. It reads:

This was the moment when Before turned into After…
And this was the moment when a few farm workers and three Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight Into the kingdom of heaven.

And that ‘Something’ was the Incarnation, when God, the Author of the whole Pageant of Life, walked on stage and became the Man we know as Jesus Christ

The world He came into wasn’t all that different from the world of Isaiah – or our world to-day. Judća, had become a Roman colony, and therefore, in Jewish eyes, Enemy-occupied territory. Their leaders were a puppet government of the Romans. There was poverty and affluence existing side-by-side. There was a great deal of civic unrest, with potential troublemakers often being imprisoned or crucified just on suspicion. The Jewish Temple and its satellite synagogues were deeply corrupt, with most of its leaders acting like self-serving civil servants. Most people were uncertain as to what they, let alone their clergy really believed. There were no prophets to guide or comfort and optimism of the previous 500 years was rapidly draining away; and the few good men and women, who might have helped to put thing rights were all saying ‘…but what can we do about it.?’ – and, as a result, doing… nothing!

Yet that was the very moment that God, in His wisdom, chose to launch His ‘D-Day’ invasion of the world in the person of Jesus Christ. Over the next 350 years that ‘pale Galilean’ captured the minds and wills of thousands of people – including the Emperor himself. And little by little, with many setbacks, God’s Baboushka-like Plan, revealed that there was much more to it than most people had imagined.

And what was true then, is just as true today. God is still working His plan and purpose out – except today it’s people like you and me, rather than Isaiah and Amos, Peter, James and John that He is using as His Prophets and spokesmen. Our role is ‘comforting’ people – ‘comfort’, that is, not only in the sense of convincing them that there’s no doubt about the ultimate success of God’s Plan; but also ‘comforting’ them like the True Prophets did two thousand years ago – by persuading them to put their trust in God; to have the courage of their convictions; and to start opening themselves up to God, layer by layer, like a Baboushka doll, so as to uncover, or reveal, the unique Plan which God has designed for them.

Above all we must never let the way things appear to look at any given moment lead us to imagine that they’re always going to be like that. God is a God of Surprises, and inside every one of His plans there is another plan, and inside that yet another one – and so on ad infinitum. Each of those plans, whether it’s His plan for individuals like you and me, or His Master-plan for the whole World, points towards that Person we know as Jesus Christ, the Eternal Word – Who was in the beginning with God, is now, and ever shall be; of Whom His Father said ‘This is my Beloved Son, listen to Him’

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