By Jim Vitale
What brings you comfort?
This season leading up to Christmas is the season for comfort. The Christmas Song, “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” is a veritable litany of all the things that bring us comfort in this holiday season. And these comforts are good comforts. Enjoy them; they only come once a year. But that’s also the problem; when the Christmas season ends, so do the comforts that come with it. And then what are we left with? Ice. Snow. Frigid wind. Grey skies. The harsh reality that the sentimentality of Christmas is mostly just …sentimentality.
The band Relient K speaks to this in their angsty song, In Like a Lion. They sing:
When February rolls around, I’ll roll my eyes,
turn a cold shoulder to these even colder skies,
and by the fire, my heart it heaves a sigh
for the green grass, waiting on the other side.
I know there are far worse discomforts out there than cold weather; and I’m sure you can think of a few. In moments of discomfort, so often we reach for comforts that are fleeting. They may make us feel better for a moment, but they don’t last.
“Comfort, O comfort, my people!” God shouts in Isaiah 40:1-11. God wants us to feel comfort; but what sort of comfort, exactly? In Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11, we take up that call and explore the comfort God offers to us.
In Isaiah 61, Isaiah says that he has come to “proclaim liberty to the captives”. That small phrase, “proclaim liberty” is easily missed, but really important. It is a quote from the ancient law of Jubilee found in Leviticus. The Jubilee law states that every fifty years anyone who was sold into slavery or servitude is to be freed and any land that has been sold is to be returned to its original owners. This law exists for two reasons: first, it ensures that no one can gather too much wealth or property nor own a person or his family in perpetuity. Second, it reminds the people that all life is valuable because all life and land belongs, not to people, but to God.
So why is it important that Isaiah is quoting this ancient law? Well, this particular chapter of Isaiah is addressed to the people who are returning from exile. Those who were in slavery now experience liberty. The Israelites are allowed to leave their servitude in Babylon and the land that once belonged to them is returned to them again. It would have felt to the Israelites exactly like a Jubilee year.
God sends Isaiah 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, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.” With these words, God announces a new Jubilee, not just for Israel, but for the whole world.
In Isaiah 61:8, God says, “I will make an everlasting covenant with them.” God is starting something new, something big. God is going to put an end not only to the kinds of injustices we commit against each other, but to the very empire of sin and death itself. In this new covenant, God proclaims a universal Jubilee, a sign that all life is precious to God and in God’s care. In this new Jubilee we will be released from the slavery of sin, and we will regain all that death has taken away from us. God will clothe us with righteousness and salvation, putting an end to sin and death forever.
So as we explore this idea of God’s comfort, what exactly does God’s comfort look like? I think God’s comfort comes to us in three ways: in part, in hope, and in full.
First, God’s comfort comes to us in part. There are moments in our lives, when we can feel a tangible comfort from God. These are the moments when something that we longed for comes to fruition. Perhaps you have been praying for a friend’s cancer to go into remission and it actually does. Perhaps you have been praying for relief from debt and an anonymous donor pays your bills for you. Perhaps you’ve been begging God to reconcile you to your estranged child and your child finally reaches out to you. Each of these moments is like a little Jubilee. In these moments God proclaims us free from the illnesses or debts or broken relationships that have held us captive.
But I say that these moments are comfort “in part” because there is no guarantee of them. We don’t always get what we pray for. Although God promises Jubilee to us, but God doesn’t necessarily say when it will come.
Which leads me to the next form of comfort: comfort that comes “in hope.” The hope of future comfort can bring comfort in and of itself. After your third hour traveling in a cramped and stuffy airplane, you may find yourself longing for the comfort of your home, your favorite chair, a good meal, and the company of your family. You haven’t yet experienced those comforts, but just thinking about them brings you some comfort.
So it is with God’s comfort. God may not have taken away your illness or your debts or your broken relationships, but we know that God is creating a new covenant with us, one in which God offers us Jubilee for all of the things that keep us enslaved. And so even in the midst of the various discomforts of this life, we can gain some comfort by looking forward in hope to the day, whenever it may be, when God will set us free.
And that, of course, leads us to the final form of comfort: comfort that comes “in full.” This is the kind of comfort that can only come at the end of all things. This is the comfort that is coming in the new creation, in the resurrection. In the new heaven and the new earth, God’s promise of Jubilee will finally be fulfilled. Sin and death will be no more. All the things that hold us captive will be destroyed. The chains that bind us will be broken. This is a comfort that goes beyond the shallow and fleeting comforts of our everyday lives. At the end of all things, God will declare an everlasting Jubilee, eternal liberty to the captives. On that day, we will know God’s comfort in full because all of the things that have made us so uncomfortable will fade.
This coming third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday, “gaudete” being the Latin word for “rejoice.” As our God comes to offer us the comfort of a new Jubilee, I can’t think of a better response than to rejoice. On this third Sunday of Advent, as we sit in the wilderness of our longings, we can turn to God not in despair, but in joy. One of the beautiful things about our relationship with God is that we can rejoice even in the midst of our sorrows, not because sorrow is good, but because God is good; and the day is surely coming when God will come and usher in a new Jubilee, proclaiming liberty to all of us who are captive. And on that day, God will hand to us “a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.” And all that has been devastated in our lives will be restored, all that has been ruined will be made new.
So rejoice—Jubilee is coming. Amen.