Because sometimes you preach to yourself.
The texts are Isaiah 40:1-11 and Revelation 21:1-7.
There are dozens, many dozens, of passages in the Bible to which one might turn in planning a service of wholeness, a service of healing. Certainly there are countless stories in the Old Testament that remind us of God’s unswerving care for God’s people. There are numerous psalms in which God’s goodness and compassion are proclaimed. There is Jesus – Jesus at the center of each of the gospels, Jesus who walks through Galilee for three years, bringing with him the healing balm of touch, curing broken bodies and spirits alike, and the gentle words of a good shepherd: “Your sins are forgiven you.” One could plan services for healing and wholeness for months, for years, and not run out of new Scriptural approaches.
As I began to plan tonight’s service, I found my imagination wandering across three realms of thought. First, I thought about the many struggles which people in our little church and in our community itself face: Struggles against illness and physical pain. Interactions with a convoluted and confusing medical system. Families broken by heartache and misunderstanding and divorce, and reconstituted in ways that present challenges of their own. Death, often too soon and never really expected, and the grief and sadness and dislocations that follow.
Second, I thought about the most recent deaths in my own small areas of the world: the young pastor, ED killed in the car accident in January, and our own JC, who has just died after a lengthy illness. Both of them young women, gifted women, women whose family and friends mourn the loss of anticipated decades of their love and presence. And I thought about something that E’s pastor shared at her funeral service, something from tonight’s passage from Isaiah that I’ll share with you in a few minutes.
And finally, I thought about some work I did toward the end of my seminary career, some research and reflection and writing on tonight’s passage from the Book of Revelation. It’s a passage that has become significant to my personal understanding of the Christian journey and my personal faith convictions, and it’s a passage that does much to restore healing in situations in which it seems that the possibility for wholeness is simply out of the question.
Let’s start with the prophet Isaiah, who spoke 2,500 hundred years ago to a people in exile. The Jewish people, God’s own chosen people, had been routed in a war with the ancient Babylonians. In that time and place, a conquering nation took charge of its defeated opponents and disbursed them, sent them into exile. The idea was to make it impossible for those who had been defeated to rise again. Remove them from their leaders, their homeland, their familiar landmarks and practices. Break apart all that creates and fosters community, and they will be too fractured and demoralized to re-group and retaliate. They will be unable to rebuild their shattered lives; if they are driven from their homes, they will no longer be a problem.
These are the people to whom Isaiah speaks, a people in exile, a people sent to Babylon, far from home, far from all the was familiar and loved. These are the people from which come the words of the first verse of Psalm 137: "By the waters of Babylon – there we sat down, and there we wept when we remembered Zion".
And isn’t that how we often feel: that as a consequence of loss or illness, brokenness or grief, we live as exiles, cut off from all that is familiar, all that we long for? When we walk the halls of an unfamiliar hospital, do we not feel ourselves to be women and men in exile, far from home? When our family has disintegrated, do we not want to sit down and weep when we remember what was? The words of the prophet and the psalmist so often ring true for us.
And what do we want? We want healing and wholeness, of course, but what do we mean by those words?
We mean that we want to be restored, or we want our loved ones to be restored to us, just as we were or just as they were. We want the kinds of miracles that Jesus performs: the blind see, the lame walk, the mentally ill gain clarity, the dead rise. We want healing and wholeness in terms which we understand. And we want them right now.
But the Bible promises something different, something concealed in a cloud of mystery. The Bible offers us hope in a future we cannot see, and it offers us the strength to await its coming.
Listen to the prophet Isaiah: “Comfort, O comfort, my people,” he says. – This is something I learned from ED’s pastor. He began to talk about this passage and, as he did, I realized, for the first time, just before he said it himself, what that word comfort means. I don’t know why it had never dawned on me before, but in that moment it was as clear as new daylight. The prefix com – we know that it means with. And the word fort -- yes, you know what that means: it means strength. Like forte, in music: strong and powerful. Like the common word we know, fort – a place of strength and power in defense. “Comfort my people” -- give my people strength.
We have watered that word, comfort, down. We tend to think of comfort as something reassuring, something soft and relaxing. Nothing wrong with that – nothing wrong with a comforting song, or a comfortable chair. But that’s not where Isaiah stops. Isaiah offers the promise of strength in exile, strength in dislocation.
Isaiah tells us that yes, things change -- we are like grass, and the grass withers and fades – but the word of God stands forever. And what does God, through God’s word, do? God stands firm and rearranges everything else. Listen to this passage:
“Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” God changes the topograhy! God moves the very earth around. The world as we know it will be transformed; the events and experiences that cause us so much pain – they will be changed. And this is the news that comforts us; this is the news that gives us strength.
Can we see and understand such a thing here, in this world where, as Paul says, we see only through a glass darkly?
We cannot see and understand when we insist upon falling back on ourselves.
But when we begin to grasp that there is another vision for us, another hope for us, when we begin to peer into God’s hope-filled future, perhaps we see that even in our present travails, we are invited into am experience of wholeness and healing. An experience in which we open our arms to the promise of a new heaven and a new earth.
The new heaven and the new earth that the writer of the Book of Revelation proclaims: the new heaven and new earth where “God will dwell with them; they will be God’s peoples, and God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.”
What a promise this is! When I worked through this passage in seminary, it became clear that this promise of a new heaven and new earth, of a new life for us, contains within in the promise that all that we know here and now or brokenness, of sadness, of pain -- all of that will be eradicated. That God’s healing will be radical and complete – so complete that we will not even remember the things that today cause mourning and crying. That the life our God envisions for us, a whole life, an embodied life, a healed life, is a life without the heartache of life as we know it today.
We may not evade the cancer or the surgery that await us. We may not be able to alleviate confusion, bewilderment, grief. Not at all. Not by our own efforts, according to our own standards.
But God has ways that are not ours, and standards of measurement that are not ours.
Perhaps when we pray for healing and wholeness, we need to remember that while we pray, of course, for healing and wholeness as we understand those words, we are also praying to be receptive to God’s understanding of those words.
We pray, naturally and hopefully, because God has invited us to do so; we pray that a loved one recover from injury or illness, be made whole again, return to life as it was. But within that prayer might be a deeper one: a prayer that someone be made whole in an unexpected way, perhaps by reaching out to others and accompanying them on a similar journey.
We pray for financial recovery in this time of economic downslide; we pray for energy and resources for caregivers, we pray that the grieving and hopeless be released from the emotions that trap and limit them. But within those prayers might be deeper ones: prayers for a return to God, prayers that those who are burdened turn to Jesus and his friendship, prayers for a deeper trust and confidence in the God who invites us into God’s fold, who gathers us like sheep in anticipation of the new heaven and the new earth, places in which all will be made whole.
And so, when you come forward to pray in a few minutes, breathe in deeply the presence of the God who longs to heal you and your loved ones, whose greatest desire is for human restoration and wholeness. Breathe in deeply the presence and movement of the God whose ways are not our ways, and who may be strengthening us for journeys we would not choose, inviting us into places we do not want to go, and healing us in ways that we do not seek. Open your hearts to the God who makes all things new, and place your prayerful confidence in the one whose word stands forever.
Thanks be to God.