December 8, 2019

“Comfort, Comfort My People”

Isaiah 40:1-11

A sermon for Hawaii Kai UCC by Janice Ogoshi

 

In a bulletin insert last week I shared some reflections about my experience of a retreat at Kalaupapa on Molokai.  This week, I participated in a series of meetings in which we sketched out plans for a Hawaii Conference mission and a retreat center at Kanaana Hou Church in Kalaupapa, an historic UCC church.  Kalaupapa is in transition because as the population of patients declines—there are about a dozen patients still alive—the settlement is being given over to the National Parks Service.  When the last patient dies, as the patients themselves wanted, the whole peninsula will be a National Historic Park that will carry on the stories and legacy of the leper colony.  I think that for many people, the hope is that by preserving the buildings and town of Kalaupapa, we will be prevented from criminalizing a disease and treating people cruelly again.

 

A group of people in the United Church of Christ would like very much to preserve the legacy of the Congregational mission at Kalaupapa.  The idea is to have a mission center where people can go to learn about Kalaupapa and the stories of the patients, serve by helping with maintenance and restoration, and experience the place as a liminal space—a place where, because of the depth of suffering there, God’s presence is felt.  

 

Before the retreat, I didn’t know much about Kalaupapa except that people with Hansen’s disease were sent there in order to quarantine them from the rest of the population.  When I was there, we heard and read stories, and we watched videos of interviews with the patients.  Many were told that they were being sent to Kalaupapa for treatment, and when they got better they would be able to go home.  But then people slowly realized that they were sent there to die. 

 

Hansen’s disease was called “Mai Ho‘oka‘awale”, the Separating Sickness, because it separated people from their families and communities.  It was heartbreaking to hear stories of children taken from their families and never seeing their parents or siblings again.  Husbands who contracted the disease were taken from their wives and children, who were left without any financial support.  The impact of the forced quarantine of Hansen’s disease patients was felt throughout the land.

 

While I was at Kalaupapa, the word “exile” was used to describe the experience of the patients.  The term resonated because they were taken from their homes to a place that was far, far away.  And it reminded me of the exile of the people of God in the Bible.

 

Like the Jewish exiles, the Kalaupapa exiles had been banished from their hometowns and had little hope of ever returning.  Nevertheless, they built their lives on the peninsula, built homes and relationships, built community.  In a very real sense, Kalaupapa became their home, and many died without ever seeing their families or returning to their places of birth again.

 

It took many years before effective drug therapies were developed to stop the advancement of the disease.  It took years of research before the medical community understood how the disease was—and wasn’t—transmitted.  The first patients were exiled to Kalaupapa in 1866, and it wasn’t until 1969 that the order exiling patients with Hansen’s disease to Kalaupapa was lifted.

 

As I reflected on today’s Scripture reading, with the stories of Kalaupapa relatively fresh on my mind, I heard the words, “Comfort, comfort my people” with deep appreciation for what it might have felt like for those in exile to hear this proclamation from God.  “Comfort, comfort my people” was a message of hope, a promise of God’s presence and attention to their suffering.

 

“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.”  After years and years of rebellion and warning, God allowed Israel and Judah’s enemies to destroy them and take them into exile.  And now, their punishment was coming to an end.  There is the sense that the foreign kings had been too hard on God’s people.  They had suffered the consequences of their rebellion and now it was time for the exiles to go home.

 

The way home looked daunting, but God would accompany them:  

“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…” (vv. 3-5).

This is good news!  They get to go home!

These words are a promise from God—a promise of deliverance, a promise of God’s presence, a promise for a future of hope. 

 

There are different opinions about who is speaking to whom in verse 6-8.  Is it the prophet feeling unsure about the message to be delivered?  Or is it the message God wants cried out to the people?  Regardless of who is speaking, and to whom it is addressed, what is stated is true: 

“All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is 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 forever” (vv. 6-8).

People are fickle and unreliable.  People’s commitment to God may come and go.  People break their promises.  But God’s word, God’s promises are forever.  Maybe we can’t rely on people, but people can certainly rely on God.

 

The trip home from will not depend on the faithfulness of the people.  The trip home is guaranteed by the word of God, which does not wither and does not fall.  The word of God endures forever.  God’s faithfulness will see them home.

 

This is indeed good news that needs to be proclaimed to all:

You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain.

You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout,

lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah,

“Here is your God!” (v. 9)

This faithful God is no wimp, but God is also tender:

See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm.

See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.

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 (vv. 10-11).

 

Second Isaiah spoke these words while the people were still in exile in Babylon.  They had not yet been released.  But they had God’s word, God’s promise that they would be able to return to Jerusalem.  So how do you think they began to live?

 

If they believed God’s word, they would have begun preparing for the journey back to Jerusalem.  They would have started to get rid of excess stuff that they couldn’t carry back to Jerusalem.  They might have begun saying their goodbyes to their Babylonian neighbors.  After all, God had told them to settle down for the duration of the exile, to seek the peace and prosperity of Babylon.  If they had embraced the promise God had made to them, their lives would have changed to reflect that promise and live into it.

 

The people who were sent to Kalawao and Kalaupapa didn’t have the promise that they would be able to return home as the people of Judah had received from God.  But the promise they did have was that God was with them.  And that promise shaped their life in exile.  On January 6, 1866, the first patients, 9 men and 3 women arrived in Kalawao, on the western side of the peninsula.  On December 23 of that first year, 35 patients gathered to call their first pastor and to give birth to Siloama Church - Church of the Healing Spring.  Although they still had the disease, the place where they were exiled became a place of healing because God was present.  

 

In 1915, when most of the patients were moved to the Kalaupapa side of the peninsula, the congregation of Siloama Church moved as well, and they birthed a sister church, Kana‘ana Hou, which means “new Canaan.”  They took to heart God’s promise from Jeremiah 29:4-7:

4 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. 6 Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. 7 Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

 

The promise that God would never leave or forsake God’s people shaped the lives of the patients at Kalawao and Kalaupapa.  They settled down, made their houses into homes, married, created a community that celebrated life, played and worked together.

 

As people of God today, we are called to do the same thing that the exiles in Babylon and the exiles on the Kalaupapa Peninsula did.  In a very real sense, the Advent season reminds us that we are in exile—we are not at home in this world.  The kingdoms and governments of this world, the peoples and cultures we live in do not yet recognize Jesus as Lord and Savior.  We are not at peace with each other nor with creation.  We yearn and pray for God’s reign to come to earth as it is in heaven.  

 

But because we have the gospel—the good news; because we have God’s promise that Jesus will return and God will ultimately reign, our lives can be lived differently.  We can live lives of love for our neighbors.  We can work for justice in our communities.  We can be bearers of the peace of Christ, the reconciliation with God and each other that is available to all.

 

I was reminded how God’s promises can impact our lives when I read this reflection on Isaiah 40:

“Indeed we are in exile. These words of Isaiah may have been written initially for those Jews then living in Babylon, but ‘Babylon’ is our present country for those of us in the church.  It is not home. It is not even particularly familiar. The culture around us and the values are not what we connected with when we were in more familiar surroundings. 

 

“So this promise of God’s does not belong to the Jews only, but is ours too. So hear these words of Isaiah. Let these words reshape how you live now. As soon as you take comfort, the promise begins to be fulfilled for this comfort invites us to live differently now.  God is doing something. The future has been rearranged so live less fearfully, less anxiously and more faithfully. That is the beginning of promise-fulfilment.”

Spill the Beans, issue 17, p. 16, © 2015 Spill the Bean Resource Team

 

The best example of this that I can think of is Jean O.  She is house-bound, and often tells me that she is ready to go home to be with the Lord.  She could live with fear and anxiety because of her age and her many limitations.  But she has grasped the word of God.  She knows that every day that she wakes up to is a gift, and that God has a mission for her.  So she shares the gospel with whoever comes to her.  She tells her younger helpers—cleaners, therapists, anyone who comes to help her that they should go to church.  She tells anyone who will listen how God provides her with parking spaces, help, encouragement, and just-in-time visits from church members.  Jean allows the promises of God for her future to shape and inform her life in the here-and-now.

 

The patients sent to exile in Kalawao and Kalaupapa allowed the promise of God’s presence to shape and inform their lives there.  They—and Jean—have become inspirations for me to do likewise.  So instead of obsessing and fretting about the terrible state of the world, with its violence and partisanship, its hopelessness and extreme need, we can focus on God’s presence and God’s coming to us in Jesus and receive hope to carry on.  We can allow God’s abiding presence and love to fill us and flow out of us into acts of love and service to others.  We can take the peace of Christ that we experience in our life together into the world, especially during this very busy, stressful time of year.  

 

So friends, how does the promise of God’s presence give you peace in spite of the many troubles in the world?  How does the assurance that God loves you inspire you to behave toward your neighbor?  How does the comfort you receive from God enable you to comfort those around you? 

 

Because we have the word of God, and because Jesus is our Savior who came to us, and because we have the promise of God’s presence and care, we can shout out to the world, “Here is your God!”  We can bring comfort and peace to the world by allowing the promise of God to shape and inspire our lives.  Thanks be to God.