December 7, 2014

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Isaiah 40:1-11

Signs Spoken By God

testimony by Shiphrah, prophet from the exile

“Comfort, O comfort my people,” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem; her penalty is paid. The suffering is over.” This is the official oracle issued by the divine council, and I’m the one charged to go say this to the people and make them understand. Here in your day, you know these words because you’ve heard them sung in Handel’s Messiah or you read them in that big collection called Isaiah.

Sometimes people think there were only a few main prophets, the guys who get their names on the books, but you might be surprised at how many of us there are. My name is Shiphrah. I come from the sixth century before the common era, that’s like six hundred years before the first Christmas.

At this point, my people are in exile. Many of us have been kidnapped and taken as captives by the Babylonians, and if you think that involves unspeakable violence, you are right. Families torn apart, literally. The covenant was broken, and everyone is scattered. We have lost our place. Many people have gone missing. If you think God has gone missing too, you are right.

When it comes to being a prophet, there’s a perception that the work is straightforward. It should go like this: The LORD Almighty has something to tell the people. He goes and recruits a well-respected man, and then God announces his word down through the angels, to the well-respected man, on down to the people who hear and believe. It should go like this, we think. So orderly and vertical.

Really, let me tell you, the best prophets don’t just hear and recite, like one of your robot translators. The best prophets are gifted at talking back. Just listen to what my colleagues are saying these days:

“Look, O LORD, and consider! To whom have you done this?

Should women eat their offspring, the children they have borne?

Should priest and prophet be killed in the sanctuary of the LORD?

The young and the old are lying on the ground in the streets…” (Lamentations 2:20-21a)

They say,

“Remember, O LORD, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace!

Our inheritance has been turned over to strangers, our homes to aliens.

We have become orphans, fatherless;

our mothers are like widows,

We must pay for the water we drink…” (Lamentations 5:1-4a)

Now we are supposed to go into the streets and announce the word of God who says, “Comfort, O comfort my people.” My first thought when I heard this was, I don’t buy it. I don’t know how to go out and proclaim the coming of the LORD when I don’t even know who God is, because I don’t know how God could let this happen. That’s pretty bad. And that’s not even the worst part.

I lost my voice. Like I can’t find the words to make a proper protest like my colleagues are doing. Like  I can’t even pray. Because I don’t care. My faith has gone numb. I don’t know if this has ever happened to you. You go to pick up the faith that has always sustained you, and one day when the horror has gotten too loud and the Spirit has gone quiet, you see, you don’t have any prayer left in your heart. It doesn’t hurt, exactly. It’s like you’re wrapped in a cloud. And you just don’t care.  Some people can make their lives inside this cloud.

So here I stood, no words to speak, no prayer in my heart, nobody to care. Then I got into a fight into an angel. Listen, I know exactly how that sounds. You can believe I’ve come to you from twenty-five hundred years ago, but fighting with an angel? This is the part that makes me sound crazy. But actually, these happen all the time— they’ve probably happened to you. Often fighting with angels is where we get the blessing.

A voice cries out:

In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,

make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be lifted up,

and every mountain and hill be made low…

Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed

and all people shall see it together.

For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

This is what the angel said when he came into my cloud of not caring and just sat down. No, “Good morning or Fear not!” I said to him, “I can tell that you practiced all of that, but I don’t do prophesying any more. How can you come here talking about the glory of the LORD? We are in exile.

I used to believe God is our king, like you proclaim. We’re taught Yahweh is our husband. Our heavenly father. Our shield and protector. But you see the violence happening in the streets! Are we supposed to think this is a penalty for breaking the covenant? Like we just need to repent and we’ll get to go home? I don’t know who God is any more.”

You know what that angel said to me? “Oh my mistake. I thought you didn’t care.”

“Yeah, you’re going to have to find another prophet. I’m not up to proclaiming the swooping, saving power of God. I think I’m finished with this.”

But this angel is not finished. He says, “You think you’re the first prophet to feel betrayed, to think God is missing? You should hear what the others are saying. Listen to this prayer the people have been singing:

God, we have transgressed and rebelled, and you have not forgiven.

You have wrapped yourself with anger and pursued us, killing without pity

God, you have wrapped yourself with a cloud

so that no prayer can pass through…” (Lamentations 3:43-44).

“Look angel, I appreciate what you’re trying to do. I know we can bring prayers of outrage. We can stand in the place the LORD is supposed to be and say, “How could you?!” and not choke up or flinch. But I don’t even have this to say. It’s not just that I’ve lost my faith. I’ve lost my voice. I don’t know how to pray,” is what I tried to explain.

He sighed an angel sigh. “You human people think you always have to know. You don’t know all of God. God is coming and she might surprise you, Shiphrah. (Seriously, like God’s going to show up to us in the breath we breathe? Or maybe like a little baby?! Can you even imagine that.)

“Look,” says the angel, “You don’t have to know the right words in order to pray. Prayer is who you go and sit next to. That’s how you learn what to say.”

Prayer is who we go and sit next to.

“So I think what you’re telling me is to listen to the others? Yeah I can give that a try, but do you see what is happening? All people are grass… the grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows upon it. And the people can’t breathe. They can’t breathe.”

“I know Shiphrah,” he says. “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever… God is still speaking, even through the people. Even through people who don’t know it, even through prophets who question and quit.”

Then the angel reared back up into the air, so the fullness of glory shone before him, and I could tell he was going to make an exit as dramatic as his entrance: “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion… Lift up your voice, O Jerusalem… lift it up, do not fear. Say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God! See the LORD God comes with might…”

And this is the moment when I remembered what to say. Not because the angel suddenly convinced me of the mighty power of God. But standing here, trying to imagine this possibility of God, I thought of the others who watch and wait, who see the sick suffering and who don’t hold back their song. These are the people who make me remember a prayer we used to sing. Like if you’ve ever found yourself singing an old hymn you didn’t even know you knew:

“And God will feed her flock like a shepherd; She will gather the lambs in her arms and carry them in her bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. So comfort, O comfort my people says your God.”

“Comfort, O comfort,” is the promise the people say to each other, and I have to tell you, they are not wrong.

You don’t have to believe it because it gets said by a prophet or an angel, but maybe it’s a prayer you have always known, something you picked up from your grandparents or from all the saints who whisper through the walls of this place, like a truth in your bones deeper than the cloud of I don’t care.

“Comfort, O Comfort my people.” Tell it to your children, and let them tell you. Make it your facebook status, tweet it to the universe. When the world is in crisis and the ones in charge become afraid and hide behind riot gear, when everyone gets ready for more violence to erupt, somebody’s got to tell the truth.

Because you know there’s somebody who needs to hear it. Somebody’s in exile right now. Somebody’s sitting down in the stain of death. Somebody’s faith has gone numb. So if yours hasn’t, if you still have words of love, please don’t withhold them from the world. If we don’t tell them, who will?

God is still coming —not just in glory, but in love. God is still coming —not with any old power, but with mercy. With breath for the people.

“Comfort O comfort my people,” God is still speaking. And so are we.

May it be so.

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