Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
A voice says, “Cry out.”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
“All people are like grass,
and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.”
Isaiah 40:1a, 6-8
One would not expect this to be comforting.
When God tells you to comfort someone, I don’t usually remind them that they’re grass, and that they’ll fade away, and that they are flowers of the field that are going to die.
But perhaps this is comforting in the same way that I was oddly comforted in college by my Ancient Near East professor, red-haired, bespeckled and freckled. He spent class tossing us terrible pop culture references and giving us insanely difficult tests of unpronounceable words from dead civilizations (I literally wept while studying. Wept, my friends). He used to casually name drop entire civilizations that we had never heard of, and say “that one lasted 800 years” or “that dynasty was around for 500 years.” We’d all gape, because how could something that lasted that long be so long gone now that no one remembers it except scholars, people who spend their lives carefully analyzing inscriptions of dead languages on dusted off relics from the dry earth overseas.
I sat in his office one day, and he told me that he was going to vote, and he certainly believed one candidate was better than the other, but he wasn’t worried about the presidential election. (This was back in the days of McCain/Obama, which today seems like indulging in nostalgia to think about). I was shocked that he wasn’t worried. What do you mean you’re not worried?
He chuckled, because he was a chuckler, with his handlebar mustache and huge orange eyebrows. “When you’ve studied as many civilizations as me,” he said, “you know your own scope. We’re smaller than we think.”
I went home with that gem, and I didn’t internalize it very deeply. I still cried while I studied for an exam for a class that wasn’t even for my major, for a class that I have since forgotten almost all of the information out of except that there were many, many ancient civilizations that came before us, and I didn’t know their names before that class, and now, ten years later, I don’t know their names still.
“We’re smaller than we think,” my professor said. He wasn’t worried.
But he still dove in, and taught us things, and lived with intentionality and integrity, and kept attending the evangelical church that I was a member of in college, and the day that I sat panicked in his office and blurted out that I wasn’t sure if the Bible was good or true because it looked like Genesis was a myth – he didn’t worry about me, either. When I begged him to tell me The Answer, to tell me how he stayed a Christian when clearly the Bible was just another ancient text with myth stories about floods and creation and wars – when I almost cried in his office because I was so scared that I was starting to open a can of worms that I wouldn’t know what to do with –
He told me to keep reading, to read Enuma Elis and Gilgamesh with an open mind, and to keep reading my Bible with an open mind, and that he wasn’t going to tell me the answer.
He wasn’t worried.
His sense of scale didn’t mean he disengaged in my life, or in the life of the church, or in seeking truth. He didn’t quit his job. He didn’t love less fiercely or work less hard.
He just wasn’t worried.
He listened better. He laughed easier.
I left his office without answers, but with less fear. I left his office without answers, but comforted.
Comfort, comfort my people! the prophet hears God say.
Comfort them, and tell them that they are only grass.
Remind them to laugh, because at the end of all things, we are so, so very small.
Take a breath, release the overwhelming fears of failing and the terrible vanity of succeeding, remember you’re small, laugh a little, and carry on, my dears.
And also remember how crazy it is that this passage happens during Advent, when we’re waiting for God to enter into human history and have a story alongside us, alongside all us people that are just grass. “Comfort my people, because they are only grass, and yet, despite them being grass – I am coming for them, anyway. I am becoming one of them, anyway.”
This Advent I am repenting, but also pouring myself warm eggnog and hot buttered rum, and trying to write faithfully and carefully and well, and trying to love the people that God has put in front of me graciously and gently, and calling my senators, and sometimes yelling a little bit about injustice, and saving money for a house but also trying to give generously to the people I love and the organizations that fight for the world. I am trying to be quicker to laugh, less embarrassed to cry, less afraid to yell, and ready to move more quickly to love than to judge and to comfort than to scold.
It’s all easier to do when I remember that we are small, that I am small, and that Jesus is coming for us anyway.