Sermon for Sunday, December 6, 2020 || Advent 2B || Isaiah 40:1-11

I hate running. I hate it. Unless running is happening in the context of a soccer game, then it is far down the list of things I want to do. Still, in the fall of 2019, Leah and I committed to going to the gym, and since I didn’t know anything about the machines or the free weights, I spent my gym time running on a treadmill. I didn’t exactly dread my workouts, but I sure didn’t look forward to them either. I spent all winter running three miles three times a week in order to be ready for the Mystic Irish 5K. Well, of course it was canceled at the beginning of the pandemic, and after that I lost what little motivation I had. Thankfully, Leah had just begun a new weight-lifting regimen using a book recommended by a friend. I watched her lifting some makeshift weights (the YMCA was closed by that point), and it actually looked fun. I decided to try it too, and so we purchased a really neat set of free weights that can size from five pounds all the way up to 50 pounds.

So at the beginning of May, I quit running and began lifting dumbbells three times a week using a progressive workout program from a well-regarded fitness instructor. Eight months on, I am amazed – astonished really – at how much stronger I am. When I first started, I never thought I would need to pick up the entire 50 pound weight, but now I’m doing it routinely. And I’m champing at the bit to get back to the Y safely so I can lift heavier weights.

I wonder, though, about my astonishment. Why am I amazed that I am actually stronger than I was eight months ago? I’ve been lifting heavy things in a programmatic way designed specifically to make me stronger. I’ve missed exactly one workout in that entire time period. Even when we went to visit my parents this summer and left the weights at home, I lifted my children instead. So why my amazement?

I think the reason is that I had no first hand experience that working out really changed anything about my body. I had exercised on and off over the years, but never with any dedication or plan. But all that was a problem with my engagement, not with exercise as a concept. Now that I am committed to my weightlifting program, I am getting stronger. The commitment is key. Three times a week, I know I am going to lift the weights. Each time I do, I get just a tiny bit stronger as my muscles tear and reform, tear and reform. Since the start of the pandemic, weightlifting has become a practice for me — one that I look forward to, and one that gives me strength, physical and spiritual.

I’m talking about this today because of the first word in our reading from the Prophet Isaiah. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” You might be thinking, “What does comfort have to do with lifting weights? Seems like an activity designed to make you uncomfortable – sweaty, achy – did I mention sweaty?”

Well, it’s all in that word: comfort. The “fort” in comfort is the same “fort” in fortress and fortitude. It’s the Latin word “fortis” which means “strength.” Comfort, in the context of Isaiah’s message, is not about bringing someone a blanket and a cup of hot chocolate. Comfort for Isaiah means “encourage” or “give strength.”

The first 39 chapters of the book of Isaiah prophesy to the elites of the Kingdom of Israel to change their ways or there would be nothing stopping their enemies from conquering them. I’ll give you one guess as to what happened. You got it. The elites did not change their ways, and the kingdom was conquered. Many Israelites were carted off into exile. Then the book of Isaiah time travels a century and half, and what should be called Second Isaiah begins with the words of today’s reading. The prophet is no longer talking to Israelites who might be conquered. The prophet is talking to their descendants who have known nothing but exile and the stories of their people from before.

To the people in exile, Isaiah says, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” The exile is coming to an end soon. Soon. But not just yet. So for the time being, “Comfort.” Or better yet, “Strength.” Strengthen, O strengthen my people, says your God.

I can’t help but hear Isaiah’s words in the context of the Coronavirus pandemic. The experts tell us and our own experience confirms that we are headed for a winter filled with more hardship and heartache before the vaccine is ready. We are like the people in exile who will be returning home soon, but not yet. And to us, the prophet says, “O strengthen my people.”

We need God’s strength right now. Our own will not suffice. Our own strength has never sufficed, but we tend to ignore that reality. Right now, ignorance is impossible. Our strength is insufficient. We need God’s strength right now to renew ours. We need the strength of endurance to keep up our loving and lonely existence. We need the strength of resilience to stay committed to the compassionate practices that quell the virus, even when, especially when it is surging. We need the strength of community (community at a distance is still community) to remind us why we are making sacrifices and so we can support those making even more sacrifices than we are. 

We need God’s strength right now to renew our strength. And our faith teaches us that God’s strength is available to us. We do not earn that strength. We discover it. We cultivate it. We practice it. Such practice makes relying on God’s strength our default position, rather than our fallback position. We find strength in God by discovering what spiritual practice roots us in God’s foundational presence in this particular season of our lives. This practice might be silent meditation or daily Bible reading or a breath prayer or Spirit-led art or journaling or working for justice. We choose our practice and stick with it, even on days when we don’t want to. With our chosen practice we exercise our spiritual muscles so that we are ready to receive God’s strength in times like these. If I lifted weights every once in a while with no rhyme or reason, then the lifting would do absolutely no good. I would get no stronger. In the same way, spiritual practices are not practices if we don’t dedicate ourselves to them.

It is true that God is ever-present in our lives and engagement or non-engagement in spiritual weight-lifting is not going to change that. It is also true that dedicating ourselves to a spiritual practice, especially in times of crisis, opens us up more and more to God’s presence, God’s strength, God’s patience and resilience and creativity and compassion.

During this Advent, knowing that a winter of hardship is ahead, I encourage you to discern with God in prayer what your spiritual practice will be. In what manner will God help you grow stronger through your spiritual weightlifting? If you want to talk more about any of the suggestions I mentioned a minute ago or the many other ways I did not talk about, then please ask me. I’d love nothing more than to help you find your practice.

Right now, my practices are silent meditation and writing fiction. And, believe it or not, weightlifting. My commitment to exercise is making me more committed to my other practices. I know many of you already have a deeply strengthening spiritual practice. Keep it up. For those who do not, I invite you to try one on. Commit to a practice so that you can open yourself up more to God’s strengthening presence.

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” And we respond: in this time of exile, O God, grant us your strength.

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