1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare[a] is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries:[b]
“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 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
6 A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said,[c] “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty[d] is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.
9 Go on up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good news;[e]
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good news;[f]
lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Behold your God!”
10 Behold, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11 He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.
Isaiah 40:1-11 ESV
Dear Christians Friends, we offer comfort in many situations ranging from having a rough day with the baby or the boss or the books through to standing at a grave full of grief and all situations in-between. Comfort opportunities have certainly increased during this pandemic.
When we talk about comforting someone there are two dimensions. There is the general dimension which tells us to be present, to listen, and to be supportive of the one in need. And then there is the specific dimension which tells us to be careful, very careful because people who need comforting are hurting or in need in some way and you want to really help them – the person, the specific human being in front of you – not a text book or a case study or a label – but a living, breathing and quite often aching person. Do I hug or shake hands? Should I offer to make tea or coffee or pour a stiff drink? Do I listen and say nothing? Do I listen and say back what they say? Should I give advice? Should I pray or offer to pray? Do I keep contacting them or let them make contact? And so on and so on. The presence, the words, and the deeds all have to line up to provide comfort – the better the alignment with the person in need, the better the comfort. It’s a tricky business comforting.
One further thought … if there’s anything that hollows out comfort, turns it into something macabre it is discovering that the one who is comforting caused the problem in the first place. We don’t want to be comforted by people who cause us pain and hurt. Rather we, by nature, want them to suffer like we are and to have them offering comfort or actually comforting us is usually a leap too far. In such situations comfort when there is no bridge of forgiveness or reconciliation is hardly healthy.
I have often wondered why Jesus or God or the Triune God seem to get so much flak or flippancy, why he is dismissed and even treated with contempt – and it’s more than because he’s not visibly present to be bumped into – it’s something deeper. Invariably I find that God is seen as the abuser, the bad guy, the one whom, it is believed, has caused the problems, the evil, the misery – and consequently any words of comfort I, as ostensibly representing God, might give can almost be like pouring petrol on fire.
Today’s text doesn’t help me because while there is no doubt that God was telling Isaiah that comfort was coming to people cut off and in exile, there are also messages that Israel is in this situation because God had judged their rebellion and their sins.
God’s coming – his glory to be revealed – would mean wilderness work – highway building – and the presence of the Lord will be seen by everyone – all people. When Isaiah asks for the message – “What shall I cry?” – it is not all that comforting, it seems to me – “We’re all like grass” and “the grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them” but what stands forever is God’s Word. Do we want it, asks humanity, if this is how God treats us?
But the message continues – see the Sovereign Lord is coming – these are good news times. His power will be obvious and his presence gracious for he will be like a shepherd wh ho gathers the lambs in his arms and gently leads the young and thus cares for the flock. Are you comforted?
I hope you are! However it is not because of the words per se – they are not magical – apply Isaiah 40 to any sorrow and you will be ok – but rather the words bring us face to face with God. That’s what happens in Advent as we are reminded that one day we will be face to face with God. We will have no choice about it and we won’t be like little children with a blanket over their heads who think: out of sight out of existence. Jesus talked about people wishing that mountains would cover them when that day comes (Luke 23:30,31).
I can imagine that happening and I seriously would cry out for it to happen to me – hide me – crush me if the coming God was Allah or Buddha or if the Mormons turned out to be right. There is no comfort for me if these gods are somehow real because I stand here each Sunday and say that the triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is the only true God and that we should fear, love, and trust in him above all things. Any comfort about anything is ultimately based here in this single truth. Any other comfort is momentary – not to be discounted because of that – but not significant beyond the moment and one day those moments will end.
Any talk of comfort is ultimately talk of a Comforter. Judaism is still waiting for the final comforter even though they returned to their land after the exile – were dispersed again after Jerusalem was destroyed in 70AD and less than 100 years ago returned to the approximate geography but it is not a land of messianic peace but one of constant turmoil and so they still are waiting to be comforted by the final fulfilment of Isaiah 40.
Christians see Jesus here as the Comforter, the glory of the Lord, the coming Sovereign Lord, even the Shepherd – he fulfils them all. He even told his disciples that he and the Father would send another helper, a Counsellor, a Comforter, the Holy Spirit to help us be convicted of sin and to know righteousness and to know Jesus. It all gets bound up with Jesus and the cross and before he is held by nails to the wood, we can imagine other wood in the shape of a manger holding him. God came in human form to rescue us – that is God’s will and goal – that we should be saved and live with him – not as his pets or lab experiments but as his children, as friends.
Our view of cause and effect, the mystery of God’s sovereignty and will, and the perversity of sin does mean that we don’t understand God completely – the God who allows suffering, who can send disasters, who judges – and we have to be up front about that – there is a scary side to God – why else is so much of the world wanting to stay away from him? Angry with him when something has happened – often death – for which he is blamed? But this doesn’t mean that we can not know God or say as I’m about to ‘God is good’ – despite what your evidence, even a Bible verse might suggest! I say that because of Jesus and his life and death – his cross is the lens by which we read the Bible – hear the Gospel – centre on justification – God’s rescue of us – the message on which we stand or fall – and we have truly the most comforting message of all.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians in his second letter – in a time of hardship and hassles and suffering: Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves have received from God. For just as the sufferings of Christ flow over into our lives, so also through Christ our comfort overflows. (2 Corinthians 1:3-5)
Comfort is only comfort because something is wrong. The wrong is us – either what we have done or what has been done to us – and what is wrong is not God. We live in this world, in ourselves, our bodies, doing actions, holding ideas, behaving in all sorts of ways and no matter the analgesic, the fix, the solution, the endurance, the suffering it is only in Jesus Christ can we find a comfort that can sustain us and help us each day. Only in Jesus Christ do we hear the message and the promise that God has not abandoned this world or left us alone. There is the general comfort and the personal comfort both from God – that’s what a manger, a cross, and an empty tomb proclaim and what words, water, bread and wine bring to us here and now – God’s comfort.
And the peace of God which passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, our Lord. [Amen]
- Isaiah 40:1 - 11