The scripture passage from Isaiah is a one of hope and assurance written to the Jews in exile in Babylon. The Babylonians had waged war against Israel and Judah and conquered the Jews. The Jews had been deported to Babylon, living there in exile for 200 years. While in Babylon, the Jews were able to build homes, plant fields, marry, and have children, but they were not free to leave; they were not free to return to their homeland. Some felt at home in Babylon and did not desire to return to Israel and Judah. Others, however, longed to return to their homeland. Babylon was like a prison to them. This passage speaks to them, assuring them that their God will prevail and that they will be released from Babylon and returned to Jerusalem.
For the Jews in exile in Babylon, the comfort that God would give had to do with being set free from bondage. It had to do with movement, with moving from Babylon to Jerusalem. It had to do with change. If they wanted to be comforted by God, they would have to be prepared to let go of what they had come to know. They could not retain their homes and fields in Babylon and still be comforted by God. Just like their ancestors had had to give up the fleshpots of Egypt in order to be released from slavery, so these Jews had to give up the fleshpots of Babylon in order to be released from captivity. God could not comfort them if they were not prepared to receive God’s comfort instead of the comforts of Babylon.
There are many kinds of exile. We can be exiled from our homeland, as are people who live as refugees. We can be exiled from our families, as are people who are estranged from loved ones. We can be exiled from our minds, as are people who suffer from depression and other types of mental illness. We can be exiled from our bodies, as are people who suffer physical illness. We can be exiled from God, as are atheists or people experiencing a crisis of faith. We can be exiled from love, as are people who were never taught how to receive or give love. There are many kinds of exile. As the prophet writes, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades” (Isaiah 40:6-7). Like grass and flowers, which are growing and thriving one moment, and withering and fading the next, we are not constant in our relationships. Our relationships with ourselves, with others, with our country, with other countries, with God – all of our relationships can decay and die. We are not constant. And so we can be exiled in a number of ways; or, we can exile others in a number of ways.
But that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because the word of our God will stand forever (Isaiah 40:8). It’s all right that we are not able to be constant because our God is constant. The prophet writes, “The Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead them” (Isaiah 40:10-11). God is constant, and he will comfort us in our exiles.
The thing we have to remember, however, is this: God’s comfort is not a warm, fuzzy “there, there.” God’s comfort has to do with setting us free from those things that have captured our hearts and minds and that hold us captive in exile. God’s comfort requires us to let go of what is familiar so that God can lead us to the place that is truly home for us. Whatever is our Babylon, we have to let go of it so that we can follow God.
Many of us feel, these days, that we are all in exile – all of us who live on the Earth. We hear, and see, and experience sin and evil to an extent that makes life, itself, feel like exile: terrorism, racial tension, economic woes, religious wars, refugee crises, climate change, political corruption, culture wars – need I say more? The Bible tells us that we are, in one sense, exiled while in our earthly bodies. Our true citizenship is in heaven, not on Earth. Paul states in Philippians 3:20, “Our citizenship is in heaven.” Although we journey on Earth while in bodily form, it is not our true home. Our true home is in heaven, and our true king is Jesus Christ. Regardless of what is going on here, as Christians we keep our hearts, minds, and souls focused on the kingdom of God – our true home – and Jesus Christ – our true Lord. That is why we let go of our Babylons – those things that keep us exiled from our true home and our true Lord – and follow the way and the will of God.
So, while await the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh that dwelt among us, bringing light and life (John 1), let us prepare by asking ourselves what our Babylons are. What are the things that are preventing us from receiving God’s comfort? What are the things that we are unwilling to let go of so that God can be our shepherd? Let us remind ourselves that whatever it is that stands between us and the comfort of God is not worth what we think it is worth. The only things worth having are the things to which God, as our shepherd, leads us. All else is as grass and flowers. They will wither and fade and pass away. But the word of our God stands forever. As we remember that, let us affirm it as we recite together the Advent Affirmation of Faith that is on an insert in the bulletin.
An Advent Affirmation of Faith
When the cold white ice of winter grips us,
when the white shimmering heat of summer melts us,
and we doubt that anything can survive
the extreme of this world’s harshness,
we still believe.
Somewhere in the depths of our souls,
despite the evidence,
We believe that the ruins of life can be rebuilt.
We believe that the tears we shed will water seeds of joy deeply buried.
We believe that the green shoots of God’s justice will bear fruit.
We believe that the Light that enlightens the world
will pierce the winter’s longest night
and eclipse the sun’s brightest moments.
We believe that in all circumstances the Light
radiates hope and joy, peace and love,
so that even in our darkest moments
we can see.
Even in the palest light of faith,
we can find our way through the shadows.
And for that we give thanks.
Sermon preached by the Rev. Amy Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Sunday, December 6, 2015, the Second Sunday in Advent.
 Seasons of the Spirit Congregational Life. Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, December 1, 2002 – March 2, 2003. Page 24.