What Child is This Who Brings Us Comfort?

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[a]make straight in the desert a highway for our God.[b]
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 forever.”

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 arm and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.

I want us to dwell for a while on the Old Testament reading today.  We need to have a double track in our mind, and at various points during the message this morning,  I just want to place a picture in your head. The picture I want you to have in your head at the moment is of a railway track.  If you’ve ever been close to an active real railway track you know what sort of noisy place it is.  A railway track by definition has got two parallel lines which are inseparably held together with the sleepers, which in the olden days used to be made out of red gum, and used to make excellent firewood.  The fact that those two tracks ran parallel and the fact that they were inseparable from one another is what allowed the train to get safely to its destination.

Now when we come to the season of Advent you need to have two tracks in your mind.  On the one hand there is one line of Scripture which refers us to the coming of Jesus Christ through the womb of Mary.  On the other hand there are always readings of Advent which draw our eye further on to the coming of Jesus Christ at the end of what we call history, the last day.  The thing that we should not miss is that these two tracks are actually inseparably connected.  They are not two separate things that God is doing, they are the one action of God to fulfil the promises that he made from the day of creation onwards, and yes we see one fulfilment of that set of promises through the birth of Jesus.  The nativity scenes we are going to see set up here before too long depict this.  On the other hand we see the final fulfilment of all of those promises on the last the great day of the Lord.  People sometimes say, “when is that day?” and of course sects of all sorts have got into great trouble because they’ve taken their people away, even one of our early Lutheran leaders, Pastor Kavel, did on the top of the Kaiser Stuhl, waiting for the Lord to return on an appointed date.

There’s this temptation to want to know the times and the seasons, and the Lord warned us against that.  The thing cuts to the chase here at this point though in the Old Testament reading, were it says, “all flesh is like grass, it is like the flower of the field and you breathe and it withers and it dies.” “Yes, there will be a day finally, when the son of man is revealed in glory for all of the nations to see” But inescapably and inevitably for every one of us in this building this morning, there is a day which you know not, when you will take your last breath on this earth. When you take your last breath on this earth, in effect, that’s the last day. You are moved from time to eternity and the things of heaven are suddenly present.  The eternities are real and in effect you are at the end.  You have broken past the barrier which prevents us to see all things as they really are.

So what we are talking about today in terms of that parallel track of the Lord coming through the womb of the Virgin Mary and the Lord also coming at the end of history, actually is very close to each of us because each of us will meet a day when we go to be with him.  However, we express it or he comes to take us home, or we die.  “He who lives and believes in me will never die” even if we die. So there is the hope!

Advent comes simply from the Latin word which means “coming”.  We talk about the coming of the Lord into the world, the coming of Jesus on the last day, the coming of Jesus into the world through the womb of Mary.  That very language can be very confusing for us because it implies a couple of things.  It suggests that there is a gap between him and us, and that somehow or other he has to bridge that gap by travelling either through time or through distance.  A spatial gap or a chronological gap that suggests that we’re here, and that God is there, and that history is going along somewhere and every now and then God intervenes and breaks into history.  If that’s the way we are thinking, (which is understandable because we have that language about Advent and God’s coming) – if that’s the way we are thinking, we are wrong.  Because the Scriptures actually speak as much, if not more, about God’s unveiling or revealing or his appearing. Jesus said even as he was ascending into heaven, “Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”  So his ascension was not to take him away from us, but happened so that he could be present with us through his spirit, in a way he couldn’t be before.  Now there are various indications of this throughout the Scriptures. Do you remember the story of Elijah the prophet? At one point, the king sent a whole army to arrest him and the Prophet stepped out of the door and there were the horsemen, the great hidden, angelic hosts on the hills all around. The prophet’s servant couldn’t see them, because the prophet was saying that the ones who are with us are greater than the ones who are with them and the Prophet said, “Lord, open his eyes,” and suddenly he saw this great angelic host and he realised of course that this puny little human army had no power in the face of that.  And of course you know the story how they were led back blind and without raising a sword they were defeated.

Just little illustrations like that indicate that there is a spiritual world around us all the time and it’s not so much that the Lord comes to us from a distance because he is absent but he’s appearing or unveiling reveals what is always there. Does that make sense to you?

So that’s what we are looking at when we are thinking about Advent –  the appearing, the unveiling of God’s action in history particularly through the coming of his son into the world but that appearing or that coming, that unveiling, happens in history.

How many of us here have come through or perhaps are now right in the midst of a crisis?  If I was to modify that a little bit and say how many of us have come through a crisis, how many of us are in the midst of a crisis, how many of us will ever face a crisis.  It’s actually universal, isn’t it? As we’ve already alluded to, the last and the great crisis for all of us is our final breath.  We yet have to face that crisis.

When my first wife was dying in the hospice, there were restless days around the end of that time and one of the very helpful palliative care nurses said to me one day, “Noel, she’s never died before, so she’s never experienced this before.”  It is a crisis, it’s new and it’s hard. You’re breaking through into something that up until that point has only ever been theory.

So the crisis of which we speak, finally, the crisis of our own death is a universal crisis, and passages like Isaiah chapter 40 which start “Comfort O comfort my people” actually appear in the midst of not just personal crisis, but a national crisis.  It in the midst of a prophecy of destruction, a prophecy which is speaking about not just losing one thing or another thing. You know, it’s not like your Thermomix isn’t working properly or you’ve lost your phone charger.  This is where the whole nation is invaded and overrun, and the temple is torn down and the prophets are taken away.  The king is captured and your army is defeated and your children starve before your eyes. You are taken away into slavery, that sort of national crisis.

Isaiah 39 – and in the ancient text of Isaiah there’s no break between 39 and 40, they appear on the same scroll – Isaiah 39 finishes with a prophecy of judgement and Isaiah 40 immediately after says, “comfort O comfort my people”, in other words, when God comes or speaks or appears or reveals himself in the midst of our history more often than not if you go through the Scriptures the Scriptures are carried on through a narrative of one crisis after another, as he reveals or speaks to us in the midst of those crises. He is doing something there which he can do in no other place and that’s why when we are in the midst of that crisis we have to ask a very telling question – Isaiah the Prophet says in the story of this judgement ”They have received back double for all of their sins”.  The construction there of the Hebrew is unusual. It’s a formulation called a “dual” – means two of or a pair. What it seems to be suggesting or alluding to, is a piece of cloth which is folded perfectly over so that it’s double, and this side matches that side exactly. Isaiah the prophet is saying there is this judgement, there is this difficult national crisis of immense proportions but in this God is bringing something by way of that judgement, which is entirely going to match that. No area of that wickedness and sin, which has led to that crisis, will be untouched. But when God’s finished bringing you through this crisis you will see that what he’s done has perfectly matched where you’ve come from. The question is this, as the Prophet says, “they have received from the hand of the Lord double.

How many of you here wearing a watch? Thanks be to God no one’s been looking at their watch. At the first service they were, and the sermon was shorter.

There is a story which goes something like this, it’s an argument for the existence of God which says if you walking along the beach and you find a perfectly formed watch on the beach you make the assumption that this watch is owned by someone.  If it’s an Oyster perpetual date, Rolex Gold you also make the assumption that it’s yours to keep. No, you would probably take it to the police or do whatever a good honest Lutheran would do.  The second assumption is that an instrument like that could not have been formed by mere chance. If you had 400 million years or 400 billion years that bit of sand on the beach would never form itself into a Rolex Oyster perpetual date rolled gold watch. Someone must have manufactured it.  So the argument is a sort of argument from design. You look at the complexity of this universe. You look at the complexity of the human body. You look at the complexity of one organ like an eye, or an ear and that just can’t happen by accident. Someone’s behind it and that’s the argument for the existence of God that has got something going for it. The thing that is wrong about it or the thing that it may lead us to think wrongly about is this, it implies that there is a watch and a watchmaker and that they are separate from one another.

Many of us live as though we are in this creation.  It is magnificent!  It’s exceedingly complex.  It is proof that God exists and he’s made us but he has wound it all up and he is now just watching it all unfold mechanistically. So we function in our day-to-day lives virtually as atheists because we’ve got a world in which God is not directly involved. The prophet here, indeed the whole of Scriptures will not let us hold that view because the very things that we are facing in the crisis are not mechanistic accidents but manifestations of God’s action. All things hold together by the word of his power, that is if he withdraws his breath we all return to dust. It is not that God is absent, watching this creation unfold.  He’s present with you right now, keeping every atom and molecule and quark  (you know those tiny little subatomic particles), he’s keeping all of those exactly where they need to be to constitute this present moment.  If he were to do something different in the next moment, who knows what would happen. As one great theologian said, “All of our science is just a footnote to the logic of God”.  A lovely statement.  The thing that so beautiful is that he’s predictable.  We talk about the law of gravity. What that means is that God is faithful. to keep what we call gravity in operation all the time.  He doesn’t change the rules every morning.

The point of my long diversion is this. Don’t think of your relationship with God as a watchmaker. Think of him as the one who is being actively involved right now, right at this moment, right in the midst of that crisis you are coming through in every small detail you are dealing with God – and God is dealing with you.  That’s the good news, or if you’ve got a mindset that doesn’t want to receive it, it’s the bad news.  It means that you’re not in a universe which is subject just simply to laws that you have to follow.  You have a God to face in the midst of the crisis.  That’s what Isaiah the prophet was talking about in the midst of this judgement, in the midst of the national crisis. In the midst of a crisis so destructive we couldn’t even begin to imagine what would be like, he says we are actually face-to-face dealing with God.

Railway tracks, watches – now another picture.  A plate of spaghetti!  Sometimes a crisis happens and there is no other person involved.  For example dear Job.  All of the loss of his family and the deaths and the loss of his income and livestock.  It’s as though something is just happening completely out of the blue.  People came and they sat with him and they caused a problem. They turned a crisis into an even worse crisis.  One Old Testament theologian said that Job’s friends stayed to sympathise but unfortunately they stayed to explain.  Once you start explaining in the midst of a crisis to someone suffering like Job, you caused more problems.

Most of our crises, and indeed this one here in Isaiah, are not just something that comes in from the blue because we too have participated in forming it.  We’ve made decisions, we’ve engaged in actions. We therefore becomes subject to remorse, and we become self-critical and self-analytical. We raise a whole group questions like, What if? or If only?   It’s not just us, there are other people in that crisis, people of whom we say “What if they had said?” or “If only they had done?” and in the midst of it you find there is a plate of messy spaghetti where everyone’s lines are tangled up together. What you want to do is to get your little bit of spaghetti and straighten it all out and say “My bit of spaghetti is alright. Your bit of spaghetti is in a mess”. But you can’t do that. The whole of the Reformation was fought on that principle, that principle of pulling out that bit of spaghetti.  Making is nice and straight, that is called self-justification. Martin Luther’s whole Reformation was based on the fact that no one justifies themselves.  You all have to be justified by God in the midst of this crisis.  Yes, with what you’ve done wrong.  Yes, other people have done wrong. Yes, with the mess that’s as the result of all of those tangled lines together, God is still doing something.  He is still present, and the question is, where do we look?  Do we received this from his hand?  If not, then we become increasingly hard and bitter and angry and resentful.

As we receive it from his hand we ask a different set of questions.  We say, “Lord what are you doing here in this?”  As you try and untangle the spaghetti, in Lutheran terms, the law rides on your shoulders and it always points you back and says, “You stupid fool, you should have done this. You would have been better if you’d done that.  You shouldn’t have made that decision.  What were you thinking?”  It’s a bit like when I used to teach swimming, like you say to someone who’s fallen into a pool. who’s never been able to swim and you say, “You stupid fool”.  “What it did you do that for?” “You know you can’t swim”.  It’s not really any help. It’s the voice of the law.  What you need is for someone to actually jump in and get you.  (Never do that actually, because they will bring you down with them) which is what happened to the Lord Jesus by the way.  You reach in with something.

So the question is, in the midst of this crisis, when you look at ‘What Child is this?”  Are you looking to the works of your own hands to try and fix it?  Where the law will ride on your shoulders and it will just make that confused plate of spaghetti even more confused.  Or do you look away from yourself in the midst of the crisis and say “Lord what is your hand doing here?” B ecause this Lord Jesus who was born through the womb of the Virgin Mary – his hands that were pierced and when finally he was ascended to the right hand of heaven he blessed by extending his hands and the last sight that his disciples had of him were his hands over them in blessing.  And the call for us this morning is to look away from ourselves, and away from the work of our hands, and away from our attempts to solve the crisis whatever it is.  To look to him, to look away from ourselves to the blessing that we are under because God is doing something.  If you’re fighting a bushfire you can’t outrun it.  You have to cross the fire line and go to where the burnt ground is.  That’s where you are safe.  In the crisis you can’t outrun God, you cross through his blessing to where his burnt ground is.  He has burnt up all the dross and all the wasted stuff and there you stand under his hands.

May the Lord grant to us the hearing of these things in the power of his holy spirit this morning.