Comfort. Prepare. Cry.
| Isaiah 40:1-11
||Sun, December 8, 2002
Rev. Ed Searcy
|“Comfort, O comfort my people”. This is an astounding announcement. Handel begins “The Messiah” with these first words from Isaiah, chapter forty. This is where it begins. The story of God’s making new begins with the surprising news that comfort is coming for a defeated, demoralized and despairing people. But that, of course, suggests that this is not really the beginning. This is a second act in the drama. This isn’t the beginning. It is the new beginning after all has been lost. There is a long pause between the final verse of Isaiah chapter thirty-nine and the first verse of Isaiah chapter forty. And a long pause it is - a pause of one hundred and sixty years between the deconstruction of the known world of Israel and the comforting news of new construction. Those who confront Advent in their own deep season of loss and of grief know in their bones the aching season of the long pause. It is that long hard Saturday of absence between Friday’s awful crucifixion and Sunday’s awesome resurrection. And this is problematic for us as a church. Many in the Western church are only now beginning to see that the way things have been is coming to a rapid end. Even here, where we have been wrestling with the drama of the loss of property, influence and relevance for a few decades, even here we still do not fully comprehend the deconstruction that God has in store for the church we have known. And this makes a rush to comfort problematic for us. We long for comforting news, for hope and promise in the midst of disarray on every side. But if that comfort simply props up the ways we have been - if it is a kind of divine sanction for a way of life that is not faithful to God’s ways - then it does not tell the truth. This comfort is not a placating: “there, there, don’t fret ... everything is going to be alright”. This comfort is the strengthening of a community that is lost so that it can risk a new way of being in the world. That is what makes this an astounding announcement. This word of comfort comes to a lost people who have no reason to imagine that God will call upon them or be with them or love them anymore. This comfort comes to a people who are convinced that they are not lovely, not beloved, not beautiful in God’s sight. This comfort comes to a church that knows how far it has strayed from the purposes of God. This is an astounding word of comfort because it is so unexpected. It is uttered by the LORD after a long, long pause in which we have come to imagine and to believe that we are beyond hope. It is a word of hope to a people who have long since given up hope. It comes out of the blue to a people who sing the blues. “Comfort, O comfort my people ... speak tenderly to Jerusalem”.
It is, you understand, going to be difficult to speak tenderly to Jerusalem when Isaiah and his compatriots are locked up in Babylonian exile. They live in another world - culturally, politically and geographically. Jerusalem lies in their past, a memory of their grandparents. Jerusalem lies in ruins, its Temple long since torched. Home is a long way away in every way. Getting back to Jerusalem to speak tenderly to her must be impossible. For so many exiles, and for our exiled church, going home to the place where we belong is a deep and impossible longing. But homecoming is precisely the promise and the comfort of this amazing text.: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD”. A people who long to go home and to live as citizens of God’s kingdom come are called to prepare the way of the LORD. This way leads - as it did before - through the wilderness. There is no other way to the promised home, except by leaving behind the place where we are enslaved. The way of the LORD is the way of the people who dare to get up and to go. It is the way out of Egypt and out of Babylon and out of Christendom through the wilderness and into the promised new world. So much of our present journey seems to take the form of preparation. We are preparing the way of the LORD. We teach our children and one another the odd ways of the LORD in preparation for life in the kingdom of God. We organize our calendars and our time by the peculiar rhythms of God’s own time. We venture into the hopeless precincts of the city’s addiction and despair, offering a humble gift of cleansing for bodies that are thought to be unlovely but are, we now see, beloved. We are in the wilderness, preparing a way home ... a way home for our children, for ourselves, for all who are far from home ... and in this we prepare a way for the LORD’s glory to be revealed once more, for the presence of God to be seen in our children, in ourselves and in all who are judged unclean, unfit, unacceptable, unlovely. This preparation is, well, preparation. It is like the frantic activity of a couple expecting their first child. As the babe’s arrival becomes ever more immanent they work with increasing pace to prepare the room, the cradle, the clothing, their hearts. This preparation begins once we are convinced that there is actually a future worth preparing for. The work of preparing for the kingdom of God begins when we dare to trust the astounding announcement of “comfort, O comfort my people”. When this word is heard by a people who have given up hope - when they have ears to hear and hearts to trust this unexpected news - then such a people begins to live into a deep and transforming hope. Then we set about preparing the way home to the kingdom of God, the way ahead through the wilderness to the promise, the way of the LORD.
The astounding announcement comforts. It gives strength and energy and vitality where there was frailty and fatigue. The promise of an end to an endless season of absence and the promise of a long awaited homecoming sets in motion all manner of preparation. Now hearts turn around to wait in anticipation, now minds seek to take hold of God, now hands and wallets are opened in obedience to the one who comes in the lost and the least. And then “A voice says, ‘Cry out!’”. In a world of so many cries, so many voices, so many pitches and truths and lies we ask: “What shall I cry? All people are grass.” Isaiah knows that there is no human word worth shouting adding to the babbling cacophony. We imagine that our ideas and our words and our plans can save us. We shout them, hoping to drown out our enemies - whoever they are - liberal or conservative, rich or poor, fundamentalist or relativist, religious fanatic or secular zealot. But “the grass withers, the flower fades ... surely the people are grass.” Still, the voice says, “Cry out ... 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.” This is a crucial moment. Everything pivots on this call to speak with strength and with no fear. The city of Zion, ruined Jerusalem, is called to get up and to dare to speak “glad tidings”, good news, gospel. This is the first use of the word gospel in scripture. This is the beginning of the good news, after the long pause of terrible silence and absence and ending. Before the newness appears in Jerusalem, while the city still sits in its long practised grief, it hears a call to announce the impossible to its surrounding kin, the cities of Judah. The good news is so simple and so improbable for a people who are so drenched in trouble and in heartache and in loss: “Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” This is the good news. It still is. And this is still the call to a gospel people. Even before the glory of the LORD is revealed for all to see, the gospel people, the evangelical witnesses, the odd bearers of hope in the midst of the darkness point to the horizon and wait for the dawn of light and of life. These determined radicals have re-discovered the ground of all hope. They are rooted in the promise of the LORD who has broken the silence and spoken “comfort”. They glimpse the awesome power of God to overcome the forces that oppress and addict and violate all manner of God’s beloved children: “See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him.” They know that this dangerous God is also tender and gentle, mothering and fathering and tending ... a ruler who “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.” These daring proclaimers prepare the neighbourhood for the One who comes unannounced and who finds no room. These announcers of the good news intend to awaken a sleeping city and a slumbering church to the unexpected One who comes with power to love the unlovely back home into beauty.
And us, who are we? We are, at once, both bearers of the glad tidings and the slumbering people. Our life together is intended as a daring proclamation of hope in God’s power and promise to remake souls and characters and hearts and minds and neighbourhoods and churches and nations and peoples. But we are somewhere between that living bold announcement and the long pause of a nightmarish sleep. Let us pray that we awaken us to amazement at the word of comfort and to the urgency of preparation and to the risk of a life together that testifies to the One who comes, even as we wait. Amen.