Comfort ye

Advent II        December 10, 2017

Isaiah 40:1-11

“Comfort ye, my people” – so begins our first reading today, with these so familiar Advent words. Words that themselves embody consolation, and comfort, and encouragement to a heartbroken and discouraged people.

Now I can never hear these words of Isaiah without hearing them to music. I know I am not the only one. These familiar words call up the familiar music of Handel’s Messiah. The reading we just heard forms the framework for the first part of the Messiah, the part dealing with Jesus’s birth – it provides the text for no fewer than five arias or choruses. Let’s hear just a short passage:

So just a taste and reminder, the first words of today’s reading, “comfort ye”. (Though I’m told that at the performance in Annapolis Royal the other week one young girl asked her mother, “Why does the man keep singing ‘Come for tea’?”)

If, as I said before, these words embody comfort, how much more so does the music. It starts quietly, a lone, slow, careful voice breaking through the silence and the darkness, itself a voice crying in the wilderness. It reaches the listener gently, softly calling us out of sadness and despair. It stands still, quavers, perseveres as it threatens to be overwhelmed by silence; and then gradually grows in power and firmness, building to its conclusion in wondrous good news: her warfare is ended, her iniquity is pardoned.

And so the music itself perfectly reflects the mood of the passage. Historically speaking, this is the beginning of the prophet we call Second Isaiah, because we don’t know his or her real name: a prophet speaking to the people in Babylonian exile, a people broken by violent warfare, and defeat, and loss, and servitude. And, as well, a people crushed by guilt. Up until now, through the long years of Israel’s power and decline, the words of the prophets have been overwhelmingly words of judgement and condemnation. The prophets were the social justice warriors of their day, alive to the many ways in which their society fell short of God’s intention for a healthy nation. The poor were oppressed and forgotten; the worship of the God of justice and mercy was forgotten; the wealthy built bigger houses with no thought for social peace and cohesion; the kings put their trust in military investment and cynical alliances with the world powers, rather than pursuing justice and peace. It is the story of our time. All of this, the prophets warned, would lead to disaster. So when disaster came, the nation had no one to blame but itself.

But now, when Israel has reached rock bottom, caught in a hopeless catastrophe that is all the more bitter because they know it was their own fault, now a new voice is heard. A new word from God, a word speaking comfort, speaking peace, speaking good news of God’s favour and redemption. It is certainly not the first time we hear of God’s fundamental grace and mercy, that runs like a thread through the whole Bible. But it is nonetheless a fresh voice, proclaiming God’s grace, the gospel of God’s faithful love, with a new purity and intensity. And so it was a brilliant idea to make this the starting point of the Messiah, that wonderful retelling of the story of Jesus the Saviour.

The question I want to think about today is this: what difference does the music make? How can music help us to hear Scripture in a new way?

We might be tempted to think that the music really doesn’t add much – that it is just some kind of additional decoration that doesn’t really change what really matters: what the words mean. Music has to do with feelings, with emotion. Listening to music makes us feel things: depending on the music, it makes us feel energetic, or sad, or triumphant, or mellow, or a hundred other things.

Now we tend to think of emotion as a private matter. It’s just the way we happen to react inside to something we encounter. It’s the objective facts that really matter in this world; how we feel about them is irrelevant. And we tend to bring this attitude to the way we read Scripture. The first question we ask when we read the Bible is “What does this mean? What is it trying to tell us?” And that lines up with the way we often think of faith, as something we do with our minds. We think that believing means accepting the information that the Bible gives us as true. The second question we bring to the Bible is “What does the Bible want me to do?” But the question we find difficult to ask (and we experience this in Bible study again and again) is “How does this passage make me feel?” Not so much, “what does the Bible want to say to me?”, but more “What does the Bible want to do with me?”

I believe it is an important question. Faith is not just about our minds, it is about our whole person, body and soul. It is about a relationship with God. We don’t have relationships with people just through our heads, of course, but through our emotions. Again and again we hear the Bible speak to our hearts. Jesus doesn’t say “Let not your intellects be troubled”! It’s our hearts, they are the centre from which our whole person is changed and brought into relationship with God.

As I said before, we tend to think about emotions as private, and so unimportant. If everyone feels something different, what’s the point of talking about it? But the thing about music is, it makes us all feel the same things. Listening to music becomes a collective emotional experience. Whether it is Handel or Johnny Cash, Leonard Cohen or Miles Davis, when we listen to music it shapes our emotional response together. It takes us out of whatever we just happen to be feeling, and makes us feel something new together, often something richer and more complex than we have ever felt before.

So I think Mr Handel was onto something when he set this passage to music: something that is bigger than just this one passage, something that can point us in the right direction in the way we read the Bible. That emotions matter when we read the Bible, much more than we tend to think. I think sometimes they may be the most important thing; the first question we should be asking ourselves is not what does this mean, but how do I feel when I read this. When we get too caught up in our heads, trying to decypher the meaning, that can be a way of keeping God at a safe distance. The way we really need to listen is heart to heart, a much more intimate and scary place.

The point is, our feelings are not just our initial reactions; they can move and be shaped. Like Handel’s music, Scripture can form our emotions, give us the capacity to feel in new and more complex ways. Reading Scripture – like we do here together every Sunday – is about shaping and forming our hearts at least as much as it is about forming our minds.

We can see that so clearly in the Advent season. The great Advent themes, hope, peace, joy, and love, are not just ideas we have about the world. They are words that we have to experience in our hearts if they have any meaning at all. Our Advent scriptures want to teach us to experience hope, in a world where hope is a rare and precious commodity. They want to teach us to experience peace, not just peace out there in the world, which we can only hope for, but being at peace in our own inmost being. They want to teach us joy, so that this can be one place where we experience the exhilaration of joy. They want to shape our hearts for love, as we prepare to receive the gift of love in the child of Bethlehem, and respond in our hearts with love.

As we hear passages like this one from Isaiah – either with or without Handel’s music – as we mull over them prayerfully and let them settle deep in our hearts; as we sing the Advent hymns, and let their music waken joy and expectation; as we receive again the self-giving of God in the eucharist, and are fed by his grace – in all these things, we are letting God form and shape our hearts, our capacity to feel and relate. We are learning to experience things that we may not experience elsewhere: consolation, and comfort; hope, and joy; compassion, and pity.

We cannot change the world. But we can allow our own hearts to be changed. And that is the first step to changing the world.