A time for gentleness

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Are you someone who rushes towards Christmas, and can’t wait? Or someone who resists the Christmas madness until the last minute? This Sunday is Advent Sunday. Advent is a space of preparation before the celebration – a time of reflection so that we are more ready to receive the Christmas child who is already on his way. This is the time to take a deep breath. Here are some words from the prophet Isaiah which are often part of that preparation – sung in churches as part of Handel’s Messiah.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice of one calling:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
    and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

A voice says, ‘Cry out.’  And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’

‘All people are like grass and their faithfulness like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of our God endures for ever.’

He tends his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.

It reminds me a little of the backdrops that are often being prepared in Primary School halls at this time, ready for the nativity plays. Before we focus in on the very intimate setting of the stable, we have the chance to take in the big picture.

Isaiah is speaking at a very particular time. His people have been taken into exile in Babylon. They no longer live in the land God promised them. They can no longer worship him in the temple. They feel alienated and forgotten, and they don’t know when it’s going to end.

Our reading contains some powerful words of promise. They will return along a road through the desert which will pass through every obstacle. God has promised this, and his word is to be trusted. Isaiah is called to proclaim this great hope.

But when we reflected on this passage yesterday at Soul Food, what spoke to me were the words from the first lines which are not about power and deliverance, but about gentleness. Comfort, comfort my people… Speak tenderly to Jerusalem….

Isaiah is to give his message with gentle sensitivity. He is to be aware of the brokenness of his people – their sense of hurt and dismay at what has happened – their vulnerability in their place of exile – the fragility of their trust in God.

Maybe that is what we need. Maybe we need it as a country. Perhaps we feel that as a country we are a long way from being the people we long to be. We have no shared sense of vision or feeling of belonging. We are not at home with ourselves.

People shout at us from every side: Take back control! Get Brexit done! For the many not the few! Stop destroying the planet!

But maybe what we need first are those who can understand our sense of alienation and uncertainty – voices of comfort and tenderness that can offer us a different vision in a different way, a way that doesn’t try to bludgeon us, but gently invites us.

That might be true for us as a country – and it might also be true for us as people. Perhaps there are ways in which we feel we are in exile. I remember my first year’s teaching, in our tiny school Christian Union, singing with the line from the song ‘Do not be afraid’ which says ‘when you dwell in the exile of the stranger…’ and feeling that it was about me. It might have been living in Doncaster – but I think it was more to do with the job.

Sometimes our sense of exile is about place, or circumstances – sometimes it is about relationships – sometimes it feels like a spiritual exile – sometimes it is to do with how we are with ourselves – we are so far from the hope of ourselves. We may have a sense of not being a home – of needing something to change. But it can be hard to move – especially if we are hurt or disappointed, or lacking in confidence or trust.

Perhaps in this Advent waiting time, we can listen out for what God may be saying to us – softly, gently – first of all noticing our brokenness and offering the comfort of his love. And then tenderly inviting us to see the beginnings of a way home. And gently leading us as a shepherd leads his sheep.


Nana Du says:

Dear Simon,
This is such a wonderful reflection! Thanks so much for this! Indeed, in the Deutero-Isaiah, the juxaposation of comfort and judgment is because God acknowledges people’s difficulty in receiving the message of comfort in the midst of exile. Yet, he gently and patiently confirm his message of comfort again and again until people’s faith finally recover. Your observation on the gentleness is so important for me to slow down rather than keep rushing over all the tasks. Thank you very much!
Kind regards,

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