Fr. Bill Carroll – The Second Sunday of Advent, December 10, 2023

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Walter Brueggemann, the great biblical scholar, once wrote that “There is no doubt that the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BCE is the defining historical event in the literature of the Old Testament.  That destruction and the dislocation that followed amounted to a huge upheaval of every dimension of Israel’s life, including displacement of theological certitude.”  

It was like the crucifixion for the first disciples.  The Messiah they got was not the one they expected.  Jesus was not a conquering hero, but a crucified slave and a homeless child.  And his violent death on the Cross struck at the heart of their faith in God.  

Brueggemann compares the destruction of Jerusalem to the September 11th attacks.  These willful acts of terror showed us vulnerabilities we didn’t know we had.  For the first time since Pearl Harbor, we faced an attack on our own soil.  We rediscovered something our ancestors knew:  Our place in the world is precarious.  And, ultimately, we must put our trust in God alone.  

This week, Vladamir Putin announced that he will seek another six-year term as Russia’s President.  Our own support for freedom in Ukraine is crumbling.  There were two shootings—one in here in Texas, another in Nevada.  The United Nations heard testimony about Hamas’ use of sexual assault as a weapon of terror.  The civilian death toll in Gaza passed 17,000 people, including more than 6,000 children. 

Lately, I’ve been reading a classic book called Trauma and Grace.  It is by Serene Jones, the President of Union Seminary in New York.  In it, she provides a series of meditations on different kinds of trauma in light of the Christian Faith.  She draws on the growing literature about trauma and post-traumatic stress.  For Jones, “To be traumatized is to be slashed or struck down by a hostile, external force that threatens to destroy [us].”  

At the same time, she’s clear that just witnessing extreme forms of violence can traumatize us.  We don’t have to be literally wounded.  Terrorists depend on this fact.  Consider the impact of the images of 9/11, or those on the nightly news.

There have been many recent advances in what therapists can do for survivors of trauma, including new techniques to help rewire our brains. Trauma leads to information overload, with massive doses of stress hormones.  Among other things, our ability to distinguish past, present, and future is eroded.  We get caught in a loop, where we relive past violence—either through flashbacks or in similar situations that we unconsciously seek out.  

Jones is concerned with our witness to God’s grace and healing in a world where people often experience violence.  She begins her book with the story of a young woman she was sitting with in church, who fled to a bathroom during the Communion service. Her memories of violence had been triggered by the mention of “shed blood” and a “broken body.”  It caused her to flee as her mind and body shut down.  

In addition to supporting the work of therapists and other helping professions, Jones identifies what she takes to be the distinctive contribution of the Church, especially when it comes to our shared traumas as a society.  “The church is called…(she writes)…to engage in the crucial work of reordering the collective imagination of its people…As people of faith (she continues), the church enables us to be storytellers, weavers, artists, poets, and visionaries who take…repetitive violence…and reframe it in the context of the story of our faith.”  

In her own reflections on 9/11, Jones notes that the disciples’ inability to see Jesus on the road to Emmaus is, in part, because they have experienced him being tortured and put to death.  Jesus must take the initiative and open our eyes to the new life and freedom he gives us, when he rises from the dead. 

In today’s lesson from Isaiah, the prophet is consoling Israel in a time of unimaginable losses.  Especially from the fortieth chapter onward, he offers vision and encouragement for their journey home from exile.  The Holy City has been conquered and the Temple, destroyed.  Many have died in battle, and others have been carried off into captivity. 

And so, God begins to prepare them for a new Exodus.  As with their ancient journey out of bondage into freedom, so too now God is unveiling his mighty arm.  God is acting to set his People free.  “By the waters of Babylon,” the Word of God comes to the prophet.  God calls Isaiah to speak his Word in creative and life-giving ways—to give the People hope, to renew their ties to each other, and to encourage them to act on God’s vision for a better future.  

As God prepares the way for his People to come home, it is clear that he is working for the whole world:  “The glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together…”  All flesh.  Not some flesh, but all flesh.  Flesh from every tribe and race and nation.  Wounded and hurting flesh.  Defeated and forgotten flesh.  Flesh from every warring faction under heaven.

“A voice cries out in the wilderness.  ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’”  For God is coming to us.  God is coming into our frail and mortal flesh.  God is coming to us as a little child.  God will make all things new.  For he “will feed his flock like a shepherd.  God will gather the lambs in his arms.  God will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.”

Comfort, O comfort my people…