My dear brothers and sisters in Christ
Peace be with you. For the last three years, ever since I started growing popcorn, I’ve taken home three or four ears at Thanksgiving to see if it’s time to harvest it. At first, I figured my nieces and nephews would like to see what popcorn looks and feels like before it’s shucked and may be willing to shuck the an ear or two but, thus far, they’re more than willing to let their Uncle Dennis rub his hands raw on the pointy seeds. And, thus far, each year it’s been ready to go. I often say that there is something satisfying when I eat my popcorn because I know that it’s the fruit of my own labor. In fact, sometimes priests will kind of make fun of me for having a garden because I could just ask my parishioners for something and, chances are someone would probably grow it and supply me with it. However, I think it’s worth the struggle of planting, weeding, and harvesting.
I’m struck today by two phrases that come from our readings today. The first is “comfort” from the first reading. Even though this is the 40th chapter of the Book of Isaiah, most scripture scholars believe it is the beginning of a new section, either from the same author or from a pupil from his school of prophecy. The transition between the 39th and 40th chapter is quite stark and seems to imply several years have elapsed. In the 39th chapter, King Hezekiah brags about receiving emissaries from Babylon to whom he showed the beauty of his country, his vast wealth and storehouses of food as well as the location of his armaments and weaponry. The prophet responds by letting the King know that this act will bring about a war that will result in a great deal of death, the exile of his people, and the servitude of his own sons. Hezekiah’s either cynical or mocking response is basically “Well, at least we’ll have peace and stability while I’m alive.”
That’s what is written directly before we hear the words of the Lord to the Prophet Isaiah from the first reading; “Comfort, give comfort to my people…” It’s clear that a lot has happened between chapter 39 and chapter 40. The people are now in the very captivity promised them by Isaiah and God has determined that they have suffered enough and now it’s time for comfort. If this were to be portrayed in a sitcom, one moment Hezekiah and Isaiah would be dressed in nice clean outfits in a professional office with all kinds of the King’s sons and servants walking by looking busy. Isaiah and Hezekiah would be arguing and Hezekiah would say something like, “Oh, that’ll never happen!” And then the scene would shift to Hezekiah’s sons and Isaiah working as slaves in a quarry carrying wheelbarrows of rocks and each time they passed each other Isaiah would mutter “Your Dad said it would never happen but here we are. Great Job Hezekiah Jr!” We don’t hear anything about that. We aren’t concerned about the hardship they endured along the way, just that God has relented and has told Isaiah to “Give comfort to my people.”
In the gospel, I was struck by the phrase “good news.” For the next year, we will hear almost entirely from the gospel of Mark. Today, we heard the first 8 verses of that Gospel. Unlike Matthew and Luke who begin their gospels with two chapters describing the birth and childhood of Jesus, Mark jumps right into the heart of Jesus ministry by talking about its origins in John the Baptist. But even before he describes the clothing and diet of John the Baptist, which is quite similar to someone in exile, he offers a summary of what he is about to write. It is the gospel or good news of Jesus Christ. Most of the time we hear the word gospel, we associate it with one of four writings about Jesus Christ; Matthew, Mark, Luke or John. But, it’s important to remember that, before it described a particular type of writing, it described an attitude. This is the good news: that Jesus Christ came into this world. That it was announced by John the Baptist, the last of the great prophets. And that it was, indeed, good news of great comfort.
Sometimes, we struggle to understand why bad things happen to us. We can believe that as long as we follow the 10 commandments and do our best to come to church and lead a good life, that nothing bad will ever happen to us. But, sadly, bad things happen to everyone. Every one of us have something or someone in our lives that we wish we didn’t. It could be our job or our relatives or a friend or our house or car or even our own body. Today, God speaks to us words of comfort. He invites us to cleave to him in prayer, in the Eucharist, and in confession to find the joy of the good news. Jesus has come into the world not to condemn us and judge us but to bring us comfort and good news. Let’s bring that same comfort and good news to those around us.