“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 the 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.”
Our word for the week is Love. Love can be a noun, but love as a verb is what changes us, love as an active agent has power to transform.
In the heavenly council, Isaiah hears God say, “Comfort my people, speak tenderly to them. O herald of good tidings, lift up your voice. Tell them I am coming in might to rule for them, I am coming in love to care for them.”
To the people of Israel, it’s a word (almost) too good to be true. They have been languishing in exile for the last 50 years, caught up in the turmoil of international power and politics. They survived the violence of war but are far from home, remembering but hopeless. And now, after a long pause, a word of God breaks through the gloom that promises reversal, that says mercy and restoration are on the move. In spite of, and even in the midst of their misery, God promises to come to them, has plans for them, will gather, and carry, and guide them home. “Comfort my people”, says your God. “Speak tenderly, reassure them. I will come, wait for it, the light is on the horizon.”
Waiting is the faithful action of Advent (active non-action). We are intentionally out of step with the culture that is bustling toward the yearly arrival of Santa, and, by necessity, ourselves bustling toward the yearly birth of Jesus, the cosmic coming of Christ, and the gathering of our clans, our family, our friends at Christmas. We are perhaps vaguely aware that we haven’t gotten it quite right, that Santa and Jesus begin to blur by the third week of Advent. If we think of it at all, it comes as a reminder of the rift between what is and what will be. The once and future nature of Christ’s coming puts us in the middle – trusting a promise, yet living a reality very different than that promise.
The news of our world gives magnitude to the despair and grief and heartache that many know all too well on a personal, individual basis. Grief, loss, and death are never far away: a phone call, a breath, a moment, a storm. In the presence of darkness, we hunger for the light. We lean wearily and eagerly into the earthly reign of Christ, who has promised to be with us, and for us, now, here, and always.
Comfort is another of those words that functions as both noun and verb – a promise and a command. “Be comforted, take comfort for God has seen your plight and will deal tenderly with you”… and “Go, comfort someone, be comfort to my people.” The old saying is that the word of God is an affliction to those who are comfortable and a comfort to those who are afflicted. That is Isaiah’s message.
The people of Jerusalem are not “deserving” of comfort according to the norms of their own justice. In the context of the Book of Isaiah, Jerusalem is not a sympathetic character. Chapter after chapter describes how the people of Jerusalem prospered through wickedness, took part in oppression, lies and injustice, refused to heed the prophets’ calls to repent, reform or be reconciled to God. Even in their misery, they believed their dispossessed state of affairs was justified. But now God insists that they be comforted. Compassion, not condemnation, will determine how Jerusalem is treated. And Jerusalem in turn is to announce good tidings to the cities of Judah. Jerusalem – the city judged, conquered and exiled – is commissioned to give comfort to others.
The poem doesn’t promise that all suffering will end, but it announces – reminds – that the unexpected can happen: that God still comes into our short and frail lives. Comfort is coming even though nothing has changed. The people are still in exile – and based on what they have demonstrated in the past, they/we will always be in exile from God. They/we will never be able to live according to God’s intention or will for them. They/we will never be deserving of comfort – for we are as faithless as grass, complicit beyond our knowledge or intension. Our inconstancy won’t change, but God claims us anyway. Came – and comes – to us anyway. To many people today, it’s a word (almost) too good to be true.
There are pandemics of disease, dis-ease, drugs and suicides, domestic violence, mass shootings and deadly tornadoes. There are harsh truths about the global climate. Consumerism and militarization are touted as the path to security and freedom. The pace of life seems on a steady, stressful increase until we think we will break under the load. Disease and death are among us.
Our hearts are broken for the families who have lost everything dear to them in the path of the tornadoes. Broken for all that is lost. When destruction is of this magnitude, how does the land recover? What is done with all the contents and shredded remnants of the buildings blown around the countryside? How are the shredded contents of displaced lives regathered, reassembled? Who is there to help?
And our hearts are broken for the hungry poor at our gates and left behind as consequences of war, as leverage between nations. What are we to do? How does God speak comfort in these places? How do we demonstrate true Christian values of humility, loving kindness, justice? To be frank, it’s easier to wait for Santa.
“Comfort, O comfort, my people, says your God.”
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
The pathway God chooses is not through the cities and towns like a conquering warrior, but through the desert and wilderness, where the settlement and survival is precarious, where community is essential. God comes through the deserted, dry, horrible places is our lives to bring peace and restoration – “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain”.
As we heard last week with the vision of the peaceable kingdom, the promise and command of comfort does not, by itself, result in a better tomorrow, it does not ensure that what lies ahead will be any different for the exiles of long ago or for us in our daily dance with disaster. But for our sake, God chooses to be involved in that future.
God provides comfort within our spirit – in some mysterious way, we receive a sense of God’s presence, a lightening of pain and sorrow. God provides comfort through faith – in gathering together, sharing stories, sharing prayer; and God also provides comfort through us as verbs, as the active agents of the body of Christ, the community of faithful, the helpers and heralds of good, compassionate, and cheerful tidings. God is on the move, do not fear. That is the declaration of the incarnation, and the promise 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, in love and out of love, just the same.
May you recognize him in the manger, in the workings of your life, in the companionship of others, in the comfort you are able to give and to receive. May you anticipate Christ’s coming in all the surprising and unexpected ways of God, and somehow feel the love 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.