Isaiah 40:1 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,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
We’re going to be in Isaiah this morning, that wonderful passage in Chapter 40, which begins with the word ‘Comfort’. We’re going to look first at ways in which we’ve been searching for comfort, and then secondly, look at how God’s comfort is at hand; and thirdly, how easy is it to trust that comfort?
- Searching for comfort
- Comfort is at hand!
- Do we trust it?
- It’s hard to imagine a better word for our times than ‘comfort’. Not only do we seek comfort during winter – a warming fire, a hot drink, comfy slippers and plenty of mince pies (I know you’ve started eating mince pies already) – we all need comfort more than ever at the end of a very difficult Corona year.
Our society is into comfort. Most of the Christmas ads you will see at this time show a cozy scene with everyone round the table, or someone sinking into a squashy armchair to eat chocolate, with soft lighting and preferably an open fire crackling in the grate. It’s all about ‘hygge’ – for those familiar with the Scandinavian term.
2020 has brought little comfort; instead it’s been a litany of bad news and bad prognoses for the future. At last, as we come towards the end of the year, there are pinpricks of light as we’ve had news of a vaccine. A pinprick of light is perhaps a good image – because it’ll be a pinprick in the arm that no doubt saves us. A pinprick of light is something small that begins to dispel the darkness, and continues until it has triumphed: ‘the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’.
And comfort is our theme in Isaiah this morning. The whole of Isaiah is conveniently split into two parts – roughly the bad news and the good news. And it’s better that way round, isn’t it! ‘There’s bad news and there’s good news’ seems a more hopeful thing to say than the other way round.
There’s some disagreement about whether the whole of Isaiah was written before Judah went into Exile in Babylon, or, whether this second part was written as the Exile was coming to an end. Whatever the truth, the second part of Isaiah brings us good news and comforting news. And incidentally, since the bible contains 66 books, 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New, this pivot point in Isaiah, mirrors, if you like, the structure of the bible itself – OT style for 39 chapters and NT style Good News for the next 27!
I wonder how you have searched for comfort this last few months? In the first lockdown I unwisely searched for comfort by obsessively checking the news every few hours. There was no comfort there. Maybe, like me, you found comfort in the garden or in the outdoors. There was comfort in calls with friends, and the comfort of knowing that not even lockdown could stop the church family from functioning. There was comfort in sitting quietly and confronting fear, and interrogating it: what is it I am afraid of? Is that a realistic fear? What’s the worse that could happen? Ultimately there was comfort in knowing that anxiety shows we are human and that we love, that even if the worse happened we would still be in the hands of God.
So we’ve been looking for comfort. Some of us have found our mental health really challenged by the pandemic, and we are not alone. The percentage of teachers who feel stressed has risen from 62% to 84% and young people have been particularly adversely affected. It’s not surprising that some have questioned their faith. Some have found they didn’t really miss church in the building and are asking themselves what it was they really did there.
In a year that has felt a bit like a wilderness, it’s interesting to note that one of the famous sentences of this passage that is quoted one way but may have a different resonance if we look at the punctuation, is that phrase we associate with John the Baptist: ‘a voice cries out in the wilderness’. In fact, the quote is this: ‘a voice cries out: “in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord”’. We are asked to prepare for God whilst in the wilderness, not to wait till we’ve come out of it. So let’s turn to that thought and examine the nature of the comfort offered by Isaiah.
- Our reading declares that comfort is at hand. ‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God’. You’ll recall the famous ‘Comfort ye’ of Handel’s Messiah, with that long first note of the second ‘comfort’ that builds through a big crescendo until the full word is articulated, more than 8 beats later!
God takes the initiative in offering comfort. Judgment has occurred, brought about by the bad choices of the people themselves, but judgment is not the last word. It reminds me of a Brian McClaren book on hell entitled ‘The Last word, and the word after that’. Judah’s judgment has been harsh – it is always our worst choices that bring the most heartache. Indeed she has ‘received double’ for all her sins. At first sight this hardly looks fair, until we consider that it was the cruel Babylonian empire that was the instrument of judgment here, and it’s as if God’s saying the Babylonians undoubtedly went too far.
But all that is over. Restoration is now beginning. Does this offer us hope perhaps that despite our collective sins of consumerism and over consumption, we now see more clearly the ways to bring about a response to climate breakdown, to inequality and to the culture of power and deference in the Church that led to our shameful cover up of abuse? Because these three issues, among many, are serious collective sins and like Daniel we should be seeking repentance for them, even if we don’t feel directly implicated.
Because God is offering forgiveness here in Isaiah. The comfort offered is a wonderful combination of strength and tenderness. Firstly strength: if you’ve spent any time in the Psalms recently, as we have in Morning Prayer, you’ll know that many are couched in terms that we might find difficult – imagining God as a kind of strong man who can sweep away entire armies: ‘Lord; destroy the wicked; I want nothing to do with them; they are my enemies and yours, O Lord; how I hate them with a perfect hatred’ – that kind of thing.
If I’m honest I’m quite squeamish about these texts. I wonder if this squeamishness (which you might share) has to do with our largely being the ones on top in society (most of us). Imagine yourself instead as a victim of war, or torture, or war-induced famine or a victim of fraud or of disenfranchisement – then you might be quicker to ask the warrior God to intervene.
On the other hand, tenderness. Who do you know that you’d describe as tender? We normally reserve the word for love scenes in films. Although we all love a gentle and tender person, if they’re always trying to make things go smoothly for you, they may be unable to tend to their own needs and could be conflict avoidant and easily duped. So tender alone is not always enough.
Strong AND tender. This is the conundrum that faces us as human beings – how do we be both gentle but wise as serpents? One of the tropes of the Far Right and an observable issue in the Trump administration is this emphasis on being strong, and defending borders against perceived threat. The strongman approach approves weapon carrying as a right and at its worst, despises weakness, and even those people who are weak. Someone trapped in this warped image of masculinity will have trouble speaking tenderly.
But in God we have strength and tenderness combined. It’s a wonderful combination. Can you think of someone (it could be a man, but it doesn’t have to be) in whom strength and tenderness are combined? It’s quite hard to do. On a PCC, you normally get the strong voices and the tender ones. But not often combined in the same person! How wonderful to have someone ‘speak tenderly’ to you. When did that last happen to you? Have you observed how the most normal of people go gooey when they see a baby, or a kitten? Or when they speak to someone frail. Their whole voice changes and they bend low and speak quietly and gently. Tenderly.
I had my first ever flu jab in the week. I’ve not had a flu jab before and I knew there might be some flu-like symptoms afterwards. I entered the very small room (more a cubicle) and sat nervously opposite a man with a facemask and a needle, and rolled down my top so my left shoulder was exposed. I’d seen this man working in the Pharmacy before and he was obviously the boss and very efficient, so I trusted him.
At that point he could’ve spoken harshly, or been offhand, or said nothing at all as he plunged the needle in. But instead he ‘spoke tenderly’. I said ‘I haven’t had one of these before’. He said ‘okay, if you relax your muscle it won’t ache afterwards. If you have some mild flu symptoms, don’t panic. This is normal and you should feel fine by day three. You can take a full day’s dose of paracetamol if you like – for three days – that’ll be fine. And would you like to sit outside for ten minutes afterwards to make sure you feel okay before you leave, because if you have an anaphylactic shock I could give you a shot of adrenaline. But don’t worry, this only happens to one in ten million people’.
It was all very soothing. I went home with a big smile on my face and noted at the end of the day when I did an Examen, that it had been the time of my jab when I felt most consoled. The health and wellbeing of others is directly affected by our way of speaking with them. Strong AND tender.
The image of strong and tender in Isaiah reaches its climax in verse 11: ‘He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them close to his bosom. He will lead those that have young’. It’s such a warm and comforting image of carrying little ones, and even carrying the ones who care for little ones – a reference I’ve always cherished as encouragement for struggling parents. And then there’s the etymology of the word ‘comfort’ – God’s comfort is his presence with us (com) that strengthens us (fort). That’s why we can, I hope, testify to the fact that even though we’ve lived through something very difficult that is still on-going, God has been there in the midst of the worst of circumstances.
- Or has he?
Have you felt that God has been there in the difficult times, or has it seemed as though God were absent? Can we trust the divine comfort? Have we heard God speaking tenderly? Returning after Exile proved to be harder than many Israelites thought. As one commentator put it “Second Isaiah was forced to preach to an audience that had experienced trauma and whose relationship with God had been deeply wounded as a result” (Michael J. Chan, Assistant Professor of OT, Luther Seminary). That may apply to a large percentage of the population right now. It might apply to you or someone you know.
For Isaiah’s hearers, God had apparently been absent for 70 years. That’s a long time to feel abandoned, even if it was your own doing. When we feel that God has been absent, that bad things have happened to us that God apparently did nothing to prevent, it can be difficult to return. We might feel resentful or just numb. Or we might make an inner vow that from now on we’re on our own. Life will be hard grind; we basically have to be our own god and do this church thing as best we can, because after all we’ve been doing it for decades – no one will notice if we’re actually doing it without God’s help…
If you think you’re immune from that sort of practical atheism, consider this common occurrence that I’ve noticed in myself (and I’m thinking if I have this, I’m probably not the only one). I pray about something that is very important. I really want God to hear my prayer. I pray about it several times and nothing happens, or at least not the things I thought would happen. Then something happens and it seems my prayer has been answered. And what is my reaction? I am astonished!! If God’s comfort is so here and now, and if he’s carrying the lambs close to his bosom, if he’s strong AND tender, why am I so full of unbelief?
Maybe this pandemic has just rocked our world too much. Maybe we’ve had a number of painful experiences, or watched others go through them, and it’s seemed that God is more absent than present. That’s where Isaiah 40 has a personal challenge for each of us. What is God like? Is it that on the one hand he doles out judgment and then randomly says ‘enough of that; here’s some comfort’? This would make him capricious like the gods of Israel’s neighbours: think of Nebuchadnezzar who blew up into a murderous rage every time anyone came against him. Or is Yahweh kind and compassionate, like the best of parents, grieving when we live as though we were alone in the universe?
We need to be honest, but also not get stuck. As we ponder this, we end with a reminder that today in the second Sunday of Advent when we think about the prophets. Isaiah was writing for his Israelite audience either before or during Exile, and foresaw a joyous return to the promised land. But Isaiah also prefigures the Messiah whose way was prepared by John the Baptist. Mark’s gospel, like Isaiah 40, begins with a longed for announcement. Good news! Comfort is at hand! The saviour is coming!
And for us who come to the reading third hand, as it were, it’s the same proclamation – prepare a way, even if you’re in the wilderness. God is coming amongst us.