Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 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; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower in the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arms 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 the mother sheep.
I’ve been asking a lot of people the same question recently: “What’s your favorite Christmas song?” It’s a great question because it accomplishes three things: It’s gets a conversation going even among people who don’t know each other very well, it sheds light on what kind of hopes and expectations people place on this season, and it helps me learn which hymns you all know how to sing on Sunday mornings!
The answers have been marvelous; I’ve heard memories of standing with long lost family members with the words of O Holy Night passing between them. I’ve been told about the power of Handel’s Messiah and it’s ability to make even the tightest lip quiver with joy. I’ve even learned about bizarre traditions like family competitions to make up new words to Joy to the World on the spot without any practice.
There is some really good Christmas music out there. Perhaps we think it’s so good because we only listen to it for a season every year and therefore are not overwhelmed by it. But nevertheless, there is at least one song that drives me crazy this time of year, one song that I will immediately shut off the radio if I hear the opening chords, one song that has no place in the Christmas lexicon: Baby, It’s Cold Outside.
Now, don’t get me wrong, when I was younger I loved the song. There’s something about Dean Martin’s voice that just makes the song sound like melted butter, and the scene in Elf when Will Ferrell starts singing it in the shower makes me laugh no matter what. But as I’ve aged, the more I’ve realized how problematic the song really is.
When you pull back the veneer of incredible voices and dynamite harmonies, the song is nothing more than a man forcing a woman to stay the night against her own will. It is, in verse and chorus format, sexual misconduct.
Check it out: I really can’t stay, I’ve got to go away. This evening has been, so very nice. My mother will start to worry, my father will be pacing the floor, so really I’d better scurry, but maybe just a half a drink more… The neighbors might think, say what’s in this drink?
All the while the male voice is doing everything in his power to convince and force her to stay.
The cultural acceptance of a song like Baby, It’s Cold Outside is precisely why we are hearing, every week, about more people (and in particular men) being accused of this kind of behavior.
Behavior we learn about in an all too beloved Christmas song.
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Who are we supposed to be comforting this time of year? Those who sit in the warmth of a church sanctuary on a cold December morning? Those whose trees are almost hidden behind mounds of presents? Those who have a full family around the table for dinner every night?
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; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
The Lord declares that a reckoning is coming; all will be made new. The mighty shall be brought low and the weak shall be made strong. Only then, only with the reversal and evening of all things, shall the glory of the Lord be revealed.
During Advent we are forced to recognize that God is in the business of toppling things over, particularly the things we’ve grown all too comfortable with.
Over the last few months there has been a continuous revealing of sexual harassment from some of the most powerful people in our country. Whether substantiated or not, we haven’t gone a few days without another name bubbling to the service. Roy Moore with young girls many years ago, Al Franken both before and after he became a senator, Matt Lauer installed a button to lock his door to trap women in his office, Harvey Weinstein repeatedly used his power to assault and manipulate young actresses. Even our president has not escaped the scores of women coming forward to name the terrible things that have been done to them. And I don’t think the naming is going to stop any time soon.
But to make matters even worse, many of these men have had these habits for a very long time and nothing was ever done about it. The abused women were made to feel powerless and threatened if they ever revealed what happened, others in power knew about the behaviors and made light of them, and many of us have grown all too comfortable with a world where women are made to feel inferior.
Even the United Methodist Church is not immune to the degradation of women. In the Virginia Annual Conference, clergywomen who have the same education and worked the same number of years make, on average, $12,180.94 less than their clergymen counterparts. (UMC GCSRW)
I could go on and on with examples of how sexism and disruptive power dynamics have done terrible things to and against women. A song like Baby, It’s Cold Outside is only scratching the surface but it goes to show how deeply entrenched these practices and behaviors really are.
The word from Isaiah, from God, comes as the people are suffering under an oppression that seems inescapable. God declares that a new thing is happening to and for a people who feel no hope. Babylon, like too many men today, rules with an iron fist, the power feels inescapable, and that precisely when God describes the coming change, the evening of all things, and we’re part of it.
I’m ashamed to admit that as more and more names have come out, the Kevin Spaceys and Charlie Roses and Louis C.K.s, I’ve been surprised how pervasive this is. My surprise is embarrassing because I see the world through my own lens (white male) and therefore have ignored or been blind to what actually happens. When I talked with my wife, and my sisters, female friends and church folk, they have not been surprised. Their lack of surprise is due to the fact that for every famous and powerful man that asserts his will or degrades a woman, there is an equal (if not higher) number of men in the workplace or in the community who do the same.
We live in a world where women are made to feel less than men.
And God is doing something about it.
During the time of Isaiah, the people of Israel existed in a state of misery: they were stripped of their institutional structures that shaped their lives, their temple was destroyed, and they were compelled to worship the Babylonian god Marduk. And God, like God had done before, has a new vision for God’s people, a way through the wilderness, a wilderness reshaped by the Grace of God.
Today, we are captured and captivated by a culture that tells us all is well when we know that all is hell. If the world had it’s way, we would be prevented from entering and contemplating these difficult things, but we come to a place like this precisely to hear a counter to the culture.
Women in the world exist under the threat of male chauvinism, physical and emotional abuse, and a patriarchal frame of reference that would make Jesus turn even more tables.
It is good and right for us to receive this word from Isaiah during the season of Advent, while word of female suffering comes forth every day. It is good and right because the story of Advent is one about believing what a woman says about what has happened to her, namely Mary. Advent is the season in which we relearn how God identifies God’s self with those on the margins, and not with the powerful. Advent is the time where we look for the ways God is turning the world upside-down and we give thanks.
When we hear these words from scripture, about comforting the people of God, they are meant for those who have been forced to the margins of life by the powers and principalities. They are words of hope to those with no hope that a new thing is beginning.
And for those of us who feel too comfortable in life, too comfortable with this season, too comfortable with the status quo, those of us who might not be able to witness the suffering of others because of our towers of privilege, there is something for us to hear as well.
We should hear this word and tremble.
This Word helps to establish the distinction between those who rejoice at the word of God’s arrival and those who see God’s rule as a threat to their own power and position. Advent shines a light on the truth of our lives in a way that most of us would rather avoid. The prophet shouts to us through the sands of time and beckons us to imagine where we have fallen short, to wait for God to judge our iniquity, and to respond to God’s grace made manifest in the manger.
This is the God we worship. Or, as Isaiah puts it, “Here is your God!” The One who makes all things new, who brings down the mighty, who comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable, who makes a way where there is no way. Here is your God who provides a voice to the voiceless, who empowers the powerless, and breaks the silence.
On this Second Sunday of Advent, as we step closer and closer to the manger in Bethlehem, as we wait for the next Advent of God’s Son, the Word grabs hold of our souls and begs us to consider: “Are we aligning ourselves with those on the margins? Are we listening to the people that Jesus listened to? Are we participating in the great reversal of all things?”
God is making a way where there is no way, every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
Here is our God! Amen.