“Comfort, give comfort to my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her service is at an end,
that her guilt has been expiated;
indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD
double for all her sins,” (Isaiah 40:1-2)
“…the heavens will be dissolved in flames
and the elements melted by fire. But according to his promise
we await new heavens and a new earth
in which righteousness dwells,” (2 Peter 3:10)
This Sunday’s readings—Isaiah’s promise of comfort to Jerusalem, the proclamation of the day of the LORD, and a voice in the desert preparing the way for God’s chosen one—take on a particular edge and poignancy in light of recent events. They raise a question that is likely on many people’s minds and hearts this Advent season: how or where can we find comfort in a world on fire?
On Wednesday, President Trump announced that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and would begin preparations to relocate its embassy there, provoking strong reactions from Palestinians, as well as from across the Arab world and the broader international community. Even many Jewish groups and supporters of Israel have expressed misgivings about the timing of the announcement. Though some U.S. Evangelical leaders praise the decision, in an open letter to Trump, numerous Catholic and Orthodox leaders from within Jerusalem itself expressed their conviction that “such steps will yield increased hatred, conflict, violence and suffering in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, moving us farther from the goal of unity and deeper toward destructive division.” Violent conflict and protest broke out almost immediately in response to what has been called “a blatant challenge and provocation to the feelings of Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims,” and Abdul Latif Derian, the grand mufti of Lebanon’s Sunni Muslims, stated that “this step would turn the region into a flame of conflicts that would inevitably lead to disastrous consequences.”
As the fires of conflict are given fuel in the Middle East, on U.S. soil, “the flames raced across brittle hillsides like advancing armies” in Southern California, spreading over hundreds of square miles and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate their homes, many of which have been lost to the blaze. Though residents of California are accustomed to wildfires, many say that these recent fires are unlike anything they’ve seen, as the powerful Santa Ana winds make the fires erratic and difficult to contain. “We’ve never a fire with this much speed and range,” said one 36-year veteran of the Ventura County Fire Department, and experts on climate science predict that dramatic fires like these and those which consumed hundreds of thousands of acres in Northern California earlier this fall are a sign of what is to come in years ahead.
Beyond these conflagrations, there are many more reasons to feel deep anxiety about the future of our nation and our world: in this past year we’ve seen historically devastating storms and floods, the looming possibility of nuclear war and the ever-present terror of mass shootings, a plutocratic attempt at tax reform, ever-growing evidence of the pervasiveness of sexual predation and the abuse of power. On many days, it seems quite plausible that we are living in some sort of “end times” in which much of the world as we know it will pass away, whether by fire or flood or simply the collapse of the present order under the weight of its own injustice and corruption. Though my point is not to make doomsday predictions or pronouncements on international politics or climate science in this post, I am struck by the way the readings seem to speak to events this week, affirming a source of comfort in the merciful power of God even through human experiences of exile, anxiety, and upheaval.
The first reading (Isa 40: 1-5, 9-11), offers comfort to those in exile and calls Jerusalem by name—an interesting coincidence in a week when the fate of the city is on the minds of so many people. Jerusalem stands as a paradoxical symbol of both peace and division, holiness and realpolitik, destruction and fulfillment in our world—and scripture bears witness to the depth of that history and Jerusalem’s power as a symbol. With language that suggests a complete transformation of the world as we know it—“every mountain and hill shall be made low, the rugged land shall be made a plain”—Isaiah proclaims the glory and power of God, who tenderly cares for God’s people, making a way in the wilderness “like a shepherd [who] feeds his flock.” In the verses of this passage that are not included in the lectionary readings (6-8), however, the prophet reminds his listeners of the fleetingness of human life and the constancy of God: “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field . . . The grass withers and the flower fades; but the word of our God stands forever.” The second reading (2 Pet. 3:8-14), warns that although “the day of the Lord will come like a thief . . . and the elements will be dissolved by fire,” readers are counseled to consider “what sort of persons you ought to be” as “we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
In the gospel text from the first chapter of Mark, John the Baptist appears as a fulfillment of Isaiah: a “voice of one crying out in the desert” who recognizes that his own significance is to prepare the way for the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit. I find it interesting that in the parallel passage in the other synoptic gospels, the Baptist proclaims that the Christ “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire” and “his winnowing fork is in his hand . . . to gather the wheat . . . but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” ((Mt. 3:11-12, Luke 3:17). The ambiguity here is provocative if we consider that it may be the same fire that baptizes and burns away the chaff in our world and our hearts, so that we might ultimately be “found without spot or blemish before him, at peace” (2 Peter 2:14).
In this second week of Advent, the scripture does not offer an easy message of peace and comfort, or a kind of assurance that those who await God’s promise of a new heavens and a new earth will not face difficulty and anxiety. On the contrary, they state that these things will surely come—but, like my own life, they will just as surely pass away. God’s promise alone will stand, and we are called to find comfort in aligning ourselves with that promise and that hope. This doesn’t mean apathy in the face of the suffering created by the literal and metaphorical fires that are burning around our world, but the recognition, along with Ahmed Aduelhawa, a 60-year old Palestinian, that “The future of Jerusalem isn’t in Trump’s hands, not in Abbas’s hands, not in Netanyahu’s hands, it’s in God’s hands.”
Not only the future of Jerusalem, but the future of our world and each of our lives is in God’s hands. The season of Advent reminds us that this life is a time of turmoil and anxiety, a difficult, dangerous, and uncertain journey through the wilderness to the place where God’s light and peace are born. As we await the day when “the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,” we can hold on to and find comfort in knowing that the Holy Spirit of God shepherds our world: sometimes in total darkness, and other times only by the light of the fires that burn all around us.