Readings: IS 40:1-5, 9-11, PS 85:9-10-11-12, 13-14, 2 PT 3:8-14, MK 1:1-8
“Comfort – give comfort to my people” – that’s the first line of the first reading from the 40th chapter if Isaiah today. If you know your Bible, you know This is one of the most important turning points in the whole Bible: the first 39 chapters of Isaiah are known as the book of woes. He warns them Israel and over and over that bad things are gonna happen – change your ways – bad things are gonna happen – change your ways - … but they didn’t listen… they didn’t think they NEEDED to change. That’s an important point – Israel was warned many times, but they didn’t think they needed to change. So, the consequence of their stubbornness was they were sent into exile.
Then we come to chapter 40 and suddenly Isaiah changes his tune – instead of warnings and gloom and doom, God recognized that His people now need a word of comfort… of hope. Yes, you’re in exile, but all is NOT lost. And that’s where we pick up today.
This may not make sense until after the homily – but the theme of today is ‘God wants to comfort us, but He doesn’t want us to get comfortable’. Ponder that a bit.
Tomorrow marks the 79th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. In one fell swoop, the American naval fleet was effectively annihilated in the Pacific. 48 hours later, the Japanese attacked the Philippines, where the US had a strong defense force. Our troops fought as best as they could for four months, but without a Navy to protect their supply-lines, their defeat was only a matter of time. In early April, they surrendered – the single greatest defeat in our nation’s history. 70,000 prisoners of war were marched 60 miles to POW camps in what has become known as the Bataan death march. An estimated 15,000 died or were killed along the way.
In over-crowded, deplorable conditions, our POW’s waited and waited and waited. Nobody came to their rescue. The US was busy fighting Hitler, and trying to rebuild our Pacific fleet, so for three years, the POW’s waited: dying of malaria, malnutrition, and murder. They were forgotten.
I share this history because most of us never heard of Cabanatuan. It’s a forgotten story about a forgotten people. Most Americans believe that if we get into trouble, our military will rescue us… but three years of waiting had to make those POWs wonder whether rescue would ever come.
I would imagine that’s how the Israelites felt... God had forgotten them… their temple was destroyed… they had been carried off to Babylon – away from the Promised Land, the very Land that God had given to them…. And this lasted for 70 years…………... Ain’t nobody comin’ to the rescue.
In late January of 1945, the tide had turned and the Allied forces were making headway in the Philippines, pushing back the Japanese forces. As the Japanese pulled out, stories were trickling out of atrocities as they killed prisoners rather than allowing them to be freed. American forces decided to take action, and a daring raid was planned to free prisoners from the POW camp at Cabanatuan.
To accomplish this took the coordinated efforts of United States Army Rangers, Alamo Scouts and Filipino guerrillas, and even some air support and support from the locals. On Jan 28th, 121 Rangers slipped behind enemy lines and walked like 30 miles to the camp. The first sign of hope for our POW’s was on Jan 30th when a lone American plane flew over the camp several times to provide a distraction as our men took up their final positions. Just after nightfall on January 30th, our forces executed a bold attack which ended with over 500 prisoners being led out to safety.
Comfort, give comfort to my people… the Rangers and Filipino guerillas brought hope, freedom, and comfort to the POW’s who had all but lost hope.
Israel had no hope… they had messed up big-time. Like I said before Mass – they had been warned to change their ways, but they didn’t think they NEEDED to change. God knew they needed to feel the consequences of their actions in order to get them to change their ways…. But God doesn’t like to see His people suffer either… He recognized that they NOW needed words of comfort, lest they despair.
Isaiah tells them that God himself will come to rescue you! God himself will be slipping behind enemy lines to launch a daring raid and free his people… and He did! You may remember that years later, King Cyrus sent them back to Israel to rebuild their temple. God kept his promise.
Why all this history lesson? Because too often, we don’t think the words of scripture actually apply to US: These words are just meant for those people two or three thousand years ago… but that’s not true.
I want to stretch your imagination just a bit… first, Imagine for a second that you were one of the Rangers going in to free those POW’s – and when you got in there, they said – no thanks – leave us alone – we’re fine just as we are. Not a chance… they KNEW they were prisoners. Like Father said last week – when you’re a prisoner, every moment of every day is consumed with thoughts of escape or rescue… That’s important: They KNEW this was not home – this is not where they belong. …
Now imagine this: How would you react right now if someone stormed through the door of the church right now saying We’re here to rescue you!!! We’d all be like – ‘rescue from what?!’ – we’re fine – leave us alone. Well – that’s the message of today’s readings: God has a detailed plan to RESCUE US! This covert op started with a scout named John being sent to the desert to prepare the way – then the rescue team – Jesus – slipped behind enemy lines as a baby to avoid detection by the enemy. (Really, God – THAT’S your plan!?)
2000 years ago Israel didn’t like the message – you’re here to rescue US??? We’re fine, leave us alone… so they killed the rescuer.
Trouble is, that attitude didn’t stop with Israel… it seems to be part of our human condition. How do you and I respond when we hear that Jesus is coming to rescue us? ‘Rescue us from what?!’… ‘no thanks, I’m fine’…. ‘I don’t need to change’.
God tries to break into our lives constantly… to show us where we need to change: to fight our addictions, to squash our selfishness, to seek virtue – to seek to be a saint… but too often our response is, “I’m fine – leave me alone – I don’t need to change”. Let that sink in to each of us personally – I’m speaking to myself here too… Where do I resist change? What addictions and habits do I let control my life? What chains are wrapped around my wrists that I don’t even see anymore? What virtues do I ignore even TRYING to build, because “I’m fine”…I don’t need to change.
Many of us don’t even realize that WE are the POW’s. In one way or another– we’re all a prisoner to the things that we’re addicted to. A slave to sin. As long as we’re in this world, we’re sorta behind enemy lines - constantly barraged by temptation – dealing with sickness, viruses, physical ailments, and death… this ain’t how it’s supposed to be.
We’ve been tossed into this war between good and evil, and we’ve been in the battle for so long that we think this is our home! But this is not our home! We are in exile! We are still waiting to be rescued.
So God gives US these words of comfort today, but He also warns us – DON’T GET COMFORTABLE… we’re not home yet. Jesus is ready to enter behind enemy lines today – to enter into your heart and mine. So, “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
It’s interesting to me in the Cabanatuan raid, the Rangers could NEVER have made the 30 mile trek unless the locals helped…. So use your imagination one more time – imagine if there were 121 Rangers walking through our community right now – right by your farm or neighborhood. Could they get by unnoticed? The farmers ‘muzzled their dogs and caged their chickens’ to avoid giving away the Rangers’ presence. Likewise, Is there anything in OUR lives that could foil Jesus’ rescue attempt? You and I need to prepare the way of the Lord – to ‘muzzle the dogs’ in ourselves – to take the chains off of our hearts… to remove any obstacle that could prevent Jesus from gaining a beachhead in our hearts.