Do you remember how last April, all those ring lights and other gizmos to help us look our best on Zoom were just flying off the shelves?
Don’t just sit there looking like Jabba the Hutt, they said. Raise your laptop to eye level.
When you do that, don’t just use some random collection of coffee table books, they said – use a special laptop lifter instead so you can get it juuuust riiiight.
At one point last spring, you may remember, the New York Times offered expert advice in setting up a good background for a life now lived on screen.
Want to look thoughtful? Make sure you have a bookcase behind you, they suggested.
Want to look classy and like you have it together? Go minimalist, they suggested. Have an empty room with a single orchid behind you, or maybe a Japanese print on the wall.
These seemed like good ideas.
Unfortunately, these suggestions quickly became minefields all their own.
It turned out that people cared what the actual books were and pondered what your bookshelves said about you.
How thoughtful were you, really? What did your reading reveal to the discerning eye?
Then people started critiquing the orchid, or your choice of print.
I’m glad to say that it seems like we’re over a lot of that.
Books? No books? Fancy ring light? No ring light? Print? No print? Whatever: it’s still Zoom. Let’s do this. Life is hard enough already.
Lately, in particular, it seems as if things are pulling back, and we’re settling in for the long winter’s nap.
A certain kind of striving is out. Comfort is in.
The catalogs have been saying so for months now—telling us that it’s time to stock up on everything fuzzy, wuzzy, cozy, and comfy.
For the first time, accountants are letting people claim things like plush velvet jogging pants as a legitimate business expense.
It’s a new world.
It’s like that moment in the marriage when you stop trying to rush the other person and just try to find somewhere to sit and wait until they’re ready.
These things take however long they take. You might as well get comfortable.
Unfortunately, the Christmas story moves in the opposite direction.
From start to finish, it is a story of people willing to put up with every imaginable kind of discomfort.
It starts with Jesus’ mother and keeps her constantly in view, but the centrality of discomfort extends well beyond her.
There are the lowly shepherds terrified by an angel chorus that shows up—boom—out of nowhere.
There are the mysterious magi who journey thousands of miles to follow a star and understand its meaning.
The story of Christmas is deeply intertwined with the story of John the Baptist, a man who could have had a cushy life like his father’s – a life of occasional business trips to the capital and great respect all around, as Luke’s Gospel suggests.
Instead, John opted for the wilderness, finding God, somehow, in that discomfort, with his greatest peace coming finally in a prison cell.
Then there’s the moment, well into the ministry of Jesus, when one of the Jerusalem scribes seeks out the Lord for a kind of informational interview as he ponders giving it all up and following him.
Jesus warns the scribe, “The foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head” (Matthew 8:20).
Jesus seems quite clear that if what you’re after is a comfortable life, then the life of faith may not really be your thing.
At Christmas, we especially remember that for Jesus, himself this had been true from the very beginning, going all the way back to that manger in Bethlehem.
Paul reminds us that Christ, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and because obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).
If Paul’s exalted language is unfamiliar to you, what he means is that, in coming down here struggle and suffer with us, Jesus gives up nothing less than his equality with God, his exalted perch on Heaven’s throne.
His point is that such is God’s great reservoir or love and hope for us, Jesus is willing to bet the farm that for all our brokenness, we might yet find it in us to be healers, if only someone truly decided to show us how.
What a vision!
But as the Gospels remind us, it’s a vision that begins with disruption.
How could it be otherwise? Because things are going to be different now, starting with us.
Believing in Christmas is about believing in change.
We find it in ourselves to become disrupters of anything and everything that would disrupt God’s abundant vision for Creation.
This morning, we heard the words recorded by the prophet Isaiah in another moment of profound dislocation—words that God speaks to God’s people in the midst of their captivity in Babylon.
“Comfort,” says God, “Comfort ye my people.”
It is not entirely clear whom God specifically intends to do the comforting.
What is more important is that God speaks these words of comfort—the very first expression of the tidings of comfort and joy we would come to sing about at Christmas so many years later.
It signals God’s intentions at a moment when they seem murkier than ever.
For some, God had been silent for generations, unwilling or unable to rise to the occasion.
You can hear them now, and understandably so.
They held that God was a false hope…a distraction from doing whatever you could to get comfortable, to hole up and hold out in whatever way you could.
It’s into this moment that at last, God speaks again.
The comfort God offers has little to do with getting comfortable.
What God offers instead is the comfort we find in getting ready.
“Prepare ye the way of the Lord” says the prophet Isaiah.
Centuries later, by the banks of the Jordan River, John the Baptist would take up Isaiah’s cry, sensing something urgent in it once again.
Neither Isaiah nor John the Baptist understood waiting on the Lord as an invitation to sit back and relax.
It was a call to do nothing less than lower the mountains and raise the valleys, to make a highway in the desert for the Messiah, the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
They wanted us out there with our bucket and our shovel.
They understood that the very things that offer us true and lasting comfort have little to do with the things that make us comfortable.
That’s especially interesting to ponder right now, in this year when every catalog in our mailbox, and many other voices besides, say we should be trying to figure out how to get comfortable.
There are days when getting comfortable sounds really really good.
Yesterday, I read that the lines for nice-smelling hand cream at Bath and Body Works are out the door and down the block this year.
There’s nothing wrong with hand cream.
But in its own way, Christmas reminds us that we shouldn’t settle for being comfortable when what we actually need is comfort.
Christmas says: let’s disrupt each other’s pain. Let’s disrupt each other’s loneliness. Let’s disrupt each other’s worry.
The world is busy wringing its hands and trying to find its hand cream.
Meanwhile, there are people who are still focused, still out there, still making calls, still double checking the numbers on a spreadsheet, still helping a kid with her 3x tables, still worrying about the folks who can’t afford heating oil with winter coming. Still bringing forth the Kingdom.
People are taking care of other people – not just the ones that God has particularly placed in their lives, but many others besides.
We need to be among them.
So go get your bucket and your shovel, and let’s do this.
The old Heidelberg Catechism captures it well.
“What is your only comfort in life and in death?” it asks.
Its answer is this:
“That I am not my own,1
body and soul,
in life and in death—2
to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ…3”
I think that’s it.
Seeking to be comfortable is what happens when we imagine that, in the end, the only possibility is that we belong to ourselves.
It may well be harmless. But it’s also pointless.
By contrast, to be comforted is to remember that, in truth, we all belong to God. That we always have and always will.
Comfort is focused on the things that can never be taken away.
Instead of moving inward, comfort moves outward, seeking to love what God loves, and to disrupt anything that would seek to deny that love.
So when Isaiah and John the Baptist call us to “prepare the way of the Lord,” this is what they’re talking about.
That’s what they want for us.
In the time of Corona, maybe at last we have finally come to the end of appearances and merely seeming.
There we are on Zoom, watching one another, wondering who it is we really are – what those books on the shelf behind someone might reveal, why we went with that print instead of another one.
Christmas is calling us to a different, disruptive vision—a very different answer.
This morning, it beckons to us once again.
The God who brings a new heaven and a new earth is coming to be born, so that you and I and all the world might be reborn.
May it be as Isaiah writes: “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.” (Isaiah 40:5)
May it be soon.