Comfort, Comfort my people – 10 Dec 2023

Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

A voice of one calling:
‘In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

A voice says, ‘Cry out.’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’

‘All people are like grass,
and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures for ever.’

You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
‘Here is your God!’

10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.
11 He tends his flock like a shepherd:
he gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.

I am not sure there are more beautiful words of relief in all our struggles than these words in chapter forty of Isaiah. Both Luther and and Calvin heard them as pure good news:

“The most joyful things concerning Christ and the church in our time.”

(LW 17:3

Maybe these words, ‘Comfort, comfort my people’ are so comforting because we live in continual discomfort!

This word, ‘Comfort’, describes a pure relief for the people of the time. They were really struggling and facing a very uncomfortable future.

The image behind the word is of a heavy breathing horse after a sprint or taxing uphill climb. The climb is finished. You have hiked up that mountain and now stand atop physically exhausted but filled with this sense of achievement and relief as you suck in the oxygen. This is the comfort of pausing when that difficult thing has finally come to its end, that stressful deal has finally been settled, that tough exam has finally been completed or the Yr 12 results are finally in, and you did OK.

The people need this comfort pause. God’s people are severely under the pump from the violent Assyrians and headed for eventual complete destruction under Babylon.

This dreaded future could not be more clearly put by God. In fact, immediately before this beautiful word of comfort is this stark confronting truth;

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, ‘Hear the word of the Lord Almighty: the time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your predecessors have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the Lord. And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.’

Bad news indeed. But God also sems to need comfort. Sometimes in the long story of God relating to his people, this same word is used of God about himself. He needs relief from the constant battle with wayward human beings!

The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time. The Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.

                                                                                     Genesis 6:6

 

Throughout Isaiah, God is quite discomforted and says so!

There is an ongoing battle. It is a war of who we will trust with our lives. God zeros in on the underlying issue at the heart of our struggle. Trust – lack of trust in him.

‘Woe to the obstinate children,’ declares the Lord,
‘to those who carry out plans that are not mine,
forming an alliance, but not by my Spirit, heaping sin upon sin …     (Isaiah 30:1)

Fear-filled people have been conflicted within; scrambling around trying to make their own life and avoid the threats all around them.

All of this lack of trust is usually accompanied by unjust behaviour;

Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people,
making widows their prey
 and robbing the fatherless.

So, the Lord asks an uncomfortable but fair question – a question of trust:

What will you do on the day of reckoning,
when disaster comes from afar?
To whom will you run for help?
Where will you leave your riches?
Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives
or fall among the slain.                                    (Isaiah 10:1-4)

 

This an Advent question that requires a response.

In all the difficulties we face; from money trouble to reputation trouble to health trouble to relationship trouble to trouble within ourselves, let alone the trouble of which we hear constantly playing out in the world, to whom shall we go for life and hope? How do we avoid being either cringing in fear at all that assails us or being overwhelmed by it all and lying ‘dead with the slain’?

Or, who will be the Star of our life show? Who will we praise this time of year? Who will we trust as the Real Star of Christmas? Will we remain resistant to God’s presence and promises in his Word or will we suck his Word, his breath, his life in?

Isaiah is telling us that in this Star of Christmas we have somewhere to go. We still have a God in whom we can trust for our life now, and onwards.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

For Luther, Isaiah is pre-visioning the massive change John the Baptist will eventually announce in the coming of the Messiah who will bring double good for all our bad.

The Saviour will bring a new way to live that will have the character of comfort and relief and even joy, not endless demand, shame and fear.

We will be changed from living under God’s Law which shows us our sin and accuses us rightly, but cannot save us, to living under the Gospel which delivers the Star of Christmas, the Saviour of Love and his transforming forgiveness and new life.

So we are shifted from living your life like it all depends on what you do and say and how you behave, to living life reliant on who God is and what he says and does; from the anxiety about many things, to the perfect comfort in the ONE THING – forgiveness, new life, hope and meaning that this baby in the manger will bring the world.

And ‘Comfort, comfort, MY people’, says the Lord. We are still HIS people! He speaks his exacting Law; words of truth about us, but only to get us ready for his real work – saving, loving, searching for us, and finding us. Christmas is coming. We know how far he came for us!

And note the timber of his voice; the tenor of his approach to you today.

Speak tenderly to her… he tells his prophet.

 

Tenderly. This is how God addresses wayward you today.

Isaiah beautifully captures this tenderness of the Lord toward us:

Isaiah beautifully captures this tenderness of the Lord toward us:

11 He tends his flock like a shepherd:
he gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.

Luther gets this:

He (God) assumes the role of a mother and a nurse … He will feed His sheep, that is, the believers and the instructed. Then He will gather the lambs. This is taken from the life of shepherds, who deal thus with the newly-born lambs. As a shepherd protects them with his cloak and in his bosom and gently leads the mother with him, so our God gathers us in His bosom and His arms like a shepherd. He grazes the strong flock running about, but He carries the weak little lamb. These are charming words. Here you see that in the church there are the strong and the weak in faith, and a conscientious pastor looks after them both (as God looks after strong and weak pastors!). To carry in the arms means to receive the weak brother (or sister). The kingdom of God rejects no one but receives all who hear the Word.

Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 17: Lectures on Isaiah: Chapters 40-66, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 17 (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 16.

For all your hard labour of trying to make your own life, live on your own wits and win your own battles with pure will power or positive thinking or the accumulation of things or money or reputation or just getting all your thinking and theology so right, as if God wants all of this from you, be relieved of the burden today.

Christmas is coming and the Star of it all is the one who did all the hard work, trusted his Father, rightly believed everything, took all the pressure, did all the worrying, endured the confrontation with the darkest enemy, and won, at enormous expense to himself – and all for you.

John enters our Advent and tells us again that the tender voice of God is speaking to each of us again and calling us to give up performing our way into God’s good graces and simply seek his good graces; receive his good graces in this momentous event we call Christmas.

So, we all have John to hear and a response to make. It is to trust.

Maybe all we need do is pray:

Prepare my heart, Lord Jesus,

don’t turn aside from me,

grant that I receive you,

this blessed Advent-tide

from stall and manger low,

you, come to dwell within me

loud praises I will sing to you

and show forth your glory.            LH 6 You sons of men in earnest

Yes, restore us again, O Lord God of hosts, that we may  be saved. Amen

[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 17: Lectures on Isaiah: Chapters 40-66, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 17 (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1999), 16.

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