Comfort ye, comfort ye my people.
As I listened to those words this morning, they were different to me. Our congregation gathered to worship with the help of some of the grandest music ever, “The Messiah” by George F. Handel, with a full choir, orchestra and soloists. What was it? Perhaps it is that I am more and more aware of the yearnings of every heart.
We do need comforted– every man, every woman, every child, in every valley, on every mountain, in every village and city. There is so much that is not right. There is so much that is wounding. There is so much that is hard. There is so much that is unjust. There is so much that is malicious. And in thousands of very different ways we hurt
Two weeks ago some of my good friends spent the day in New York City engaging a filmmaker over his interest in the novel, “Silence” by Shusaku Endo. A terrifying story of martyrdom and apostasy 400 years ago in Japan, it is only one more story of theodicy, the great question of God and suffering. Where are you? Where were you? Why are you silent? Why don’t you say something?
Anyone paying attention to life and the world knows that that question is asked, and asked again, all over the face of the earth, day after day, year after year. It is not a cheap question, and there are not cheap answers.
So what are we to make of Handel’s beginning, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people”? With all the wonder and glory of “The Messiah,” listening with my heart to every word. I heard those first words differently today, aware that everything from that point on is an artful wager on the meaning of the Incarnation. Either we conclude that God is silent, and we despair, crying out into a silent heaven; or we sigh deeply, and hear the words of Handel, and Isaiah, as true, and at the end of the day, worthy of an honest hallelujah.
It is reported that Handel’s servants described him this way, in the late summer of 1741, as he wrote his masterpiece. “He was praying, or he was weeping, or he was staring into eternity.” Someday I want to ask him about that. My guess is that he was praying, weeping, and staring into eternity all at the same time. And I think he understood the wager, and put everything he had on it.