The Comfort of Christmas
Who is the comfort of Christmas for? Those reaching a certain state of mind? Those buying the right gifts, selecting the right tree, baking the right things, or decorating the right way? Is the comfort of Christmas for those who get to that spot where they can say, "Ah, now this is a good Christmas"? Those not getting there can only be glad to be done with it. Let's get the tree down, eat the leftovers, and move on to some other celebration. They've missed the comfort of Christmas because they don't know who it's for.
The comfort of Christmas is for those who've been at war with God. Isaiah 40 literally says, "Comfort, comfort my people...Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her warfare has ended." The people Isaiah wrote to had declared war against God. They rebelled against His commandments. They fought against His leadership. They tried to overthrow Him and set up there own gods. But their breaking of His commandments only brought heartache. Their attempts to go their own way only led them into political alliances that let them down; and the other gods they worshiped turned out to be demons. They ended up making a mess out of their life.
They also lost the war. As a result, they were carried into captivity. For 70 years they languished in Babylon, for 70 years their nose was pushed into their sins so that they might smell their stench, for 70 years they suffered the consequences of rebelling against the Holy God.
Imagine the comfort that washed over this defeated people when the Lord's prophet spoke tenderly saying, "Your warfare has ended; your sin has been paid for. As terribly as you have suffered for your sins, you are going to get back double whatever you lost!" But there was no comfort for the Israelite who didn't realize he had been fighting against God, had sins that needed paying for, and had been suffering deservedly for his sins.
Likewise, there is comfort in Christmas for people who realize they have been at war against God, have lost the war, and are now being held captive by the consequences of their sins. You who know you've fought against God's leading this year, who know you've lived by your rules rather than God's, who know you've suffered the consequences of your pride, lust, anger or greed, Christmas brings great comfort for you.
How so? Christmas announces the war is over. Your God has made peace with you. He has put your sins on His Son; killed Him on the cross in your place; and wrote a peace treaty using His blood which says, "I forgive your iniquities and remember your sins no more! Though you deserve temporal and eternal punishment for your sins, not only won't I punish you, I will reward you and bless you as if you had never sinned."
The comfort of Christmas is for sinners who realize they have been at war with God and lost. Christmas says the war is over, and God is coming in person to bring you the peace treaty. But this presents another problem. Who will prepare the way for Him? There is comfort in Christmas for those who see this problem. There's no comfort if you think you can prepare the way for Him. This is why many end up disappointed with Christmas. They think they are capable of preparing the way for their King. They think that if they get all the presents wrapped, all the cookies baked, and all the family together, they've prepared the way for their coming King.
Hear Isaiah's words as if you lived in his time: "In the desert, prepare the way for the Lord: Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain." You've been held captive in Babylon for 70 years. You've been told that the King who placed you there has declared the war ended and is on His way with the peace treaty. All you have to do is make a highway in the desert, fill in the valleys, level the mountains, and remove the boulders.
The first thought that would cross your mind is, "That's impossible! I can't prepare a highway; I can't build the road my King needs to come to me!" Think about it. If God coming to you at Christmas depended on you making a road between here and Manor, could you do it? No. God shows us something physically impossible for us, so we might know what is spiritually impossible, and so we might listen to a second voice. The second voice not the first brings the comfort of Christmas.
But you who run yourself ragged to prepare for Christmas don't hear the second voice. You only hear the first thundering, "Prepare the way of the Lord" and off you go. By golly, you'll get everything necessary for your family to have a holly jolly Christmas this year. But the comfort is not in the first voice demanding, "Prepare!" It's in the second crying, "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field...The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God stands forever."
Men and women are nothing but frail grass. Even the best of us is only the flower of grass which fails even sooner than the grass. Frail men and women can't level mountains, fill in valleys, or remove boulders. Frail people can't prepare things so that Christ arrives in their home and everybody is happy. There's no comfort in thinking you can; there's only frustration and disappointment come Christmas. The comfort of Christmas is knowing that you can't prepare anything but God has prepared everything.
That's the message of the second voice. It not only declares man's frailty but God's strength. The weakness of man's substance and the eternal strength of God's Word. Physical man is not as strong or permanent as God's Word. The Words of God last longer than the bodies of men. And that Word brings comfort at Christmas to those who know that no matter how hard they try, how much the buy, how often they cry, they won't be ready for Christmas. It is not going to be a Michael Buble, Faith Hill, or even a Charlie Brown Christmas for your family. Your kids are going to be fighting. Your spouse is going to be out of sorts. Your house won't be clean let alone decorated the way you want. And the only comfortable feeling you're going to get is from eggnog.
But God's Word will have prepared everything for your Savior to come to you by stirring up in you the need for peace, for forgiveness, for comfort. Christ doesn't come to peaceful homes, but to homes in need of peace. He doesn't come to homes with cherub-like kids and "It's a Wonderful Life"-like parents, but to homes with sinners in need of forgiveness. He doesn't come to comfortable homes but to homes that need comforting.
There's one more group the comfort of Christmas is for. This will seem contradictory, but hear me out. The comfort of Christmas is for those who are afraid their Savior won't come. He's not really going to cross that desert with the peace treaty. What reason does He have to actually show up? This is an attitude befitting prisoners of war, isn't it? A prisoner of war doesn't get his hopes up, so he remains in doubt until the very day he's freed. This element of doubt is found in most Christmas stories. It's doubtful that Charlie Brown, George Bailey, and all of Whoville will have a Merry Christmas or that Santa can fly on a stormy Christmas Eve.
An element of doubt is found even in God's Christmas story. Imagine you're a captive Israelite hearing this. The prophet Ezekiel has already shown you God's glory leaving His people, going off into the desert, abandoning you to the consequences of your sins. But the prophet Isaiah points you back out into the desert saying, "Look the glory of the Lord is coming back again." Then the prophet reminds you of your inability to prepare. There you sit in captivity; you can see the glory of your King coming across the desert. You know He has your peace treaty. But you have to wonder, Will He really come after all?
That's where your Christmas is, isn't it? Out there, and if you do everything right it will come here. Your spiritual needs have become like stockings that need to be hung by the chimney with care, like cookies and milk that need to be left out just right, and like not pouting or crying so Santa will come. But what does the prophet do? After telling how frail sinners are, he doesn't look again at them. He's ordered by God to get up on a high mountain and say, "Here is your God!" There's no question if the captives are worthy or ready. There's just the proclamation God has come. Christmas says, "He's here!" Christmas says you don't have to be afraid to shout this message from the mountaintop to all people. There's no one in all the world, no Scourge, no Grinch, no abominable snowman that can't be told, God is here for you!
Of course, that message might make some uncomfortable. This is the God we've been at war with. This is the God that we fought against so resolutely that He had to abandon us to our sins until we cried for mercy. This is the God who could only make peace with us at the cost of losing His Son. And now He is on the scene with the power, might, and the right to rule us any way He sees fit.
These are the thoughts running through the minds of the sinful Israelites, so imagine their surprise when instead of being shown a conquering King Isaiah shows them a Shepherd picking up little lambs and dealing gently with mamma sheep. When a conquering king wanted to teach a vanquished nation a lesson, He dealt savagely with children and mothers. Our God wishes to teach His people a lesson about how He deals with former captives and enemies, so He deals gently with the most defenseless of us.
The comfort of Christmas is not just that God comes but that He comes gently. He doesn't roar into your home finding this wrong, that dirty, and this unacceptable. He comes in Christ gently righting the wrong, cleaning the dirty, and making us acceptable by forgiving our sins. He comes to make our homes comfortable not for Him but for us. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second Sunday in Advent (20141207); Isaiah 40: 1-11