Scripture Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11
This time of year is often a time of comfort isn’t it? The days are so short, the nights are so long. The weather is really starting to feel like winter, with a little snow now and again, the cold north wind blowing. So we often seek things which comfort us.
The warm glow of the Christmas lights. Maybe a fire in the fireplace (or the fireplace channel). Maybe curling up in our favourite chair with a blanket watching Christmas movies which make us feel good.
While, as a species, people don’t hibernate officially, this is the time of year when we start getting as close to hibernation as we can. We just want to keep comfortable, stay warm, and relax as much as possible. And why not? It’s not like this is the most desirable time of year for outdoor activities!
When we look at Isaiah 40, the term that best describes this passage is indeed “comfort.” The first 39 chapters of Isaiah is often seen warning and referring to the upcoming exile from Judah. These first 39 chapters are often referred to as “First Isaiah.” Now we have entered into what they call “Second Isaiah” and it appears as though the exile has happened. Babylon has come and exiled all the Israelites from their land. The people are spread far and wide.
We’ve moved about 80 years to roughly 540BC in our reading this week. Last week King Josiah led the nation in a recommitment to the covenant promises of God with the people, based solely on an encounter through the reading of scripture. Words which had been long forgotten by the people.
And now the prophet Isaiah is writing to the people who have been exiled, and he is sharing a message from God to offer them comfort and hope. And it begins with, “Comfort, O comfort my people… speak tenderly…”
The “speak tenderly” is actually better translated as “preach.” God is saying preach to my people, that is share the words of hope God is offering to a people who are living in exile, refugees who have been forced from their homes, living in the nations which surround them.
And what is God’s message to the people? It is the people have served their term in exile. The penalty has been paid for their unfaithfulness, and even more importantly, God is coming to rescue them.
Think of the work it takes to make a new road. As you drive the 125 around Sydney you see the work it takes to twin the highway. They’ve had to move hills, level out small valleys, build bridges over existing roads. As part of this process the landscape has had to change. It’s no small task to say the least, it’s a lot of work using heavy machinery to move just a small hill to make way.
This echoes part of our message from God. God exclaims that a way must be prepared, that there must be a straight highway built, where mountains will be moved, valleys and hills made level and smooth.
This is the message to the people living in exile. People who have travelled these mountains and valleys to get where they are. Walking through wilderness and deserts, long, hard days, weeks, even months of travelling to find somewhere to live. And now God is promising them a way home, clear and safe for those who follow Him.
Verses 6 and 7 say,
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. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. (Isaiah 40:6-7)
The prophet is saying the people just won’t listen. They can’t listen. They just aren’t able to hear the words God wants them to hear. Sure they may hear it for a while, but just like the grass and flowers, they will wither and fade in time. So what is the point of doing all this if the words aren’t heard?
But God responds, “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.”
The word of our God will stand forever. The same word we looked at last week. The same words King Josiah read from scripture which caused a nation to immediately recommit itself to God, even though these words were long forgotten.
God is saying, “Sure the grass fades. Sure flowers lose their blooms. But I am much bigger than those things. My Word stands forever. So get out there! Go out and preach! Get up to a high mountain, let everyone hear my words! Don’t be afraid to say ‘Here is your God!’”
God is sending the prophet out to let the people know that God is coming to get them. God will come and save them from their pain. God will bring these refugees home.
What a promise to make.
In the world today we have millions of refugees fleeing their homes because they need to live in safety. Today we have stories of people, incredibly broken people, walking into marketplaces and workplaces seeking destruction and taking the lives of innocent people. In America there have been more mass shootings in 2015 than there have been days. In Cape Breton, far too many children live in poverty while our drug and addiction rates soar.
Where is the hope in the midst of all this pain?
There is only one place we can look for comfort.
We need to look to God. If there’s nothing else we take from today’s reading, it’s that we have the promise that the future belongs to God.
That’s been His promise all along. The words of the prophets, all those promises of a Messiah? That’s God’s promise that the future belongs to Him.
This time of Advent leading into the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, it’s a time to hear those words again, the future belongs to God.
That promise is in the Bible, all through it, from start to finish. God’s love for His creation, His people, His children, all of us… His love is too great, He will never leave us, He has a future in store for us.
Have you ever said to someone, “I give you my word…” We say that when we are making a solemn promise with someone. To give someone our “word” is to comfort them and let them know we have their back. If there’s anything they ever need, we promise to be there for them.
Well, imagine hearing God make that same promise… “the word of our God will stand forever.”
And it’s backed up with more promises, more prophesy about what will come. Verses 10 and 11 say,
See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
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.
What does that mean?
It means God is there for us. God has come for us in Jesus Christ. God is the source of our future.
And it begins with a baby in a manger.
Emmanuel, God among us.
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, God’s Promised One, the Saviour of the world…
This is our future, this is our hope in the midst of exile, strife and pain.
In this, we trust in God’s mighty Word that we will never be alone.
And like God said to the prophet, we need to let the world know this promise. We need to let people know God holds the future, and so we preach. We go out into the streets, we go to the high mountains and share the love of God, the love that has come in Jesus Christ with a world full of people living in exile.
People hiding, running, afraid because they do not know the promise of our God, He is with us. We are never alone.