Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 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.
3 A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 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. 5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’
6 A voice says, ‘Cry out!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever. 9 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!’ 10 See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom; he will gently lead the mother sheep.
These poems of Second Isaiah are written 150 years after the first part of Isaiah. The Assyrians were defeated by Babylonia and Babylonia was in turn defeated by Persia. The prophet’s words ring with hope because of a new foreign policy. The exiles are allowed to go home.
Persia maintained control over the people, but allowed them to live in their native lands as long as they remained loyal to the government. Isaiah credits this change in foreign policy to God, who works through King Cyrus to change the status of the displaced Jews.
After half a century in exile and shame, a new word breaks through their gloom, a word that promises reversal, that speaks of expectation, of hope for those who wait in darkness – that their iniquity and punishment will be replaced in God’s mercy with restoration. This new voice of prophecy is a message that in spite of, and in the midst of, human misery, God comes to us, has plans for us, will gather, and carry, and gently lead us.
“Comfort, O comfort, my people, says your God.”
This is not a victory speech. The opening words of comfort aren’t announcing it so much as prescribing it, commanding comfort to be offered. This is a ‘reason to venture forth’ speech – a word of hope and anticipation to justify or outweigh the uncertainty, the hardship that is still to come. Isaiah balks: “ How can it be? All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field,” nothing new can happen. They can’t be faithful or stand firm, and so God will hide his face again and devastation will follow disaster.” But instead Isaiah is told, “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.” The prophet is sent to regather Zion, the scattered people of God, and recommission them with the covenant once given to Abraham – to be a blessing to the nations, be a light to the people, to show them the way to God.
That’s a far cry from life in exile under the oppressive and watchful eye of Babylon.
Isaiah is somehow to fortify and re-member the house of Jerusalem. He is to tell them that “you have served your term. It may seem like the Lord has forgotten his people, that God has turned away and favored our enemies, but your time is soon coming; a time when all the world will see that God’s power and love are for all time, that God’s justice is greater than the days of your oppression; indeed, your salvation and your deliverance are at hand.”
The poem doesn’t promise that all suffering will end, but it announces – reminds – that the unexpected can happen: that God still comes, still sends comfort into our short and frail lives.
The message Isaiah receives is that comfort is coming even though nothing has changed. The people are still in exile and based on what we know – based on what they have demonstrated in the past, they will always be in exile from God. They will never be able to live according to God’s intention or will for them. They will never be deserving of comfort – for they are as faithless as grass – it withers and the flowers fade – an apt metaphor for their inability to stick with the covenant. “Surely the people are grass.” Isaiah knows it. God knows it. And God says, “Speak comfort to them anyway, tell them the power of the Lord is coming to them anyway.” The people’s inconstancy won’t change, but God claims them anyway.
It’s not about what they – or we – will do; it’s about what God will do. “I will make a highway through the wilderness, I will provide springs in the desert, I will come to them, lead them and carry them. Surely the people are grass, just as surely, I am God,” says God.
It is in the season of Advent that we are so often and poignantly reminded, through scripture and in song, of the rift that lies between what is and what will be. The once and future nature of Christ’s coming reminds us that we are in the middle – trusting a promise, yet living a reality that is very different than that promise.
And as it always does, the world around us echoes the scriptural rift. There are bombings and shootings, domestic violence and drugs. There are harsh truths about the global climate. Disease and death come among us. The pace of life seems on a steady, stressful increase until we think we might break under the load.
Even in the relative safety and sanity of West Denmark we’re feeling the squeeze of our calendar, the pressure of preparation. And in the midst of it all, people we love get sick, injured, disillusioned. For some it is the first Christmas without a loved member of their family. For some, the addition of a new member to the established family means much loved traditions have to be changed. For some the financial pressures of what we expect to be able to provide or participate in become a stressful, guilt-ridden, conflicted mess. For some, the loneliness of Christmas seems overwhelming, but how can we bypass Christmas, when it is so pervasive.
“Comfort, O comfort, my people, says your God.”
What is your need for comfort?
Do you have enough food, resources, help? Do you have a relationship with God that brings you peace? We might feel exiled from God, estranged, divorced – or be in crumbling human relationships. Is there comfort to be found? A path forward? A home through others?
We might feel overwhelmed and long for those childhood days of joy and wonder and excitement, instead of the weight and effort and financial stress of the holiday. Can the church offer a new perspective?
Where is comfort to be found?
Most of us would say home, picturing the hygge components of comfort, companionship, food and warmth. But we know that homeless shelters are brimming this time of year and so are domestic violence shelters. Where is comfort to be found? How might we extend our light and privilege to those in need?
Where is it in your life that you seek the comfort of God?
Can you think of someone who needs a word of comfort right now? How might you meet them with acts or words of empathy and caring?
In these weeks leading up to Christmas we might feel more acutely than at other times, that we are conquered people: undeserving of God’s mercy, stuck in patterns and pathways that lead us nowhere, longing for deliverance and not seeing it on the horizon.
And into this, Isaiah repeats the word of God. “Comfort.” It’s not based on what we do to deserve it, it’s a gift from God. It’s a gift of God through you for the sake of others. “I will come to you,” said God so many years ago to a conflicted, defeated people of exile.
“Take Comfort, my people. I will come to you,” God continues to call through scripture, through church, through the weeks of Advent. “I’m coming,” says God, “as I have always come – into the midst of you, hidden, and in glory.”
God will come whether we get things done, or not. Whether we are disappointed by the results and by our own efforts, or not. Whether we stop to meditate properly on the significance of Christ’s coming, or not. Whether we can free ourselves from the encumbrance of too many traditions and expectations, or not. God will come to us, just the same. May you recognize him in the manger, in the workings of your life, in the companionship of others, in the comfort – that real comfort that we long for. May you anticipate and look for God’s coming in all the surprising and unexpected ways of God, and somehow feel that comfort of true belonging nurtured deep in your soul. God remains hidden, and yet God comes. May that be a word of hope for you as we wait.
Resources: Corrine Carvalho. Professor University of St. Thomas. St. Paul, MN Michael J. Chan Assistant Professor of Old Testament Luther Seminary Abraham Heschel, The Prophets, chapter 8, “Second Isaiah”