Yr B ~ Advent 2 ~ Isaiah 40:1-11
Comfort. O comfort my people, says your God.
It’s a message so critical the writer of Isaiah had to say it twice! Comfort! Nope, not enough. Comfort, comfort! Yup. That’s it.
The Hebrew word translated as comfort is a really wonderfully rich word. Its root means to sigh! It certainly means to comfort as in to console and offer kindness and security, but it also means much more than that. The comfort the prophet offers is like a profoundly deep sigh. Go ahead and do a deep sigh right now. See how it feels. [sigh] That’s the comfort Isaiah is speaking of.
It’s about letting go of what had concerned and consumed you.
It’s about being released from that which imprisons you – things like guilt, negative self-talk, feeling inadequate, feeling like you let God down or didn’t live up to God’s expectations of you.
When it feels like the world’s ganging up on you Isaiah says something big: Comfort! Comfort, O my people! Deep sigh!
Our theme for Advent 2 is peace! Isn’t that what peace is? Isn’t that the heart of real, deep peace – to be released from your own personal bondage? It’s the peace of relief from the heaviness that parks itself on your chest and your consciousness.
Peace. Comfort. Deep sigh.
This isn’t just a Hebrew Scriptures thing either. The apostle Paul said something very similar in Romans 8:26. He said, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”
Now, here’s the question we don’t ask often enough. How did that heaviness get to your chest in the first place? How did you get into the bondage you feel like you’re in?
Did God put you there?
Let’s move on to Isaiah 40:2 and find out.
According to God, and this is God talking through the prophet, not me making something up to make us all feel better, according to God the message we’re supposed to hear in this passage is this:
“Hey! You and me – we’re good. All is forgiven. No worries. We’re golden. No harm, no foul, no grudges. All is well.”
It’s remarkable to me, and it bakes my brain, that this has been the consistent message of scripture through prophet after prophet, and through Jesus himself, and still after all these centuries we still don’t believe a word of it. We think,
“No way God, you can’t really mean that. I’ve done bad things. I’ve fallen short. I’ve screwed up. I’m the poster child for inconsistency. You couldn’t possibly let me off the hook.”
And God responds with a mind-boggling and heart-healing assurance:
God says, “But I’ve never ever put you on a hook. I am God. I am love. Love is all I can ever do.”
Friends, if that’s news to you, imagine what it must have felt like for the people of Israel. Isaiah 40 was written to describe the time immediately after the Israelites were released from exile and they were coming home. Now, we have to remember that for them, in their understanding of how God worked, that they were exiled because they had been disloyal to God. In their view the Babylonian army was an instrument of God used to punish them. That is fundamentally NOT our theological understanding. But it was theirs.
That’s why verse 2 here takes such pains to emphasize that whatever debt they thought they owed had been paid in full. Twice even!
“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
Can you imagine how wonderful that must have sounded to a people who thought they had been punished for a couple of generations, and now they’re being told that their debt was paid? Double! And now they’re being forgiven and allowed to return to the land they had been exiled from.
What an amazing, unbelievable release that must have felt like! The 500 pound weight was taken off their chest. It must have been the deepest of sighs!
I doubt any of us have ever experienced actual exile, so how can we relate to this passage?
Let’s try this. Imagine that you were being punched in the arm for about an hour. Punch, punch, punch, over and over and over again. [pause]
And now imagine that it has stopped. You are being released from the punching. The bizarre part is that you probably believed that you deserved all that punching. Deep down you thought you had it coming. You didn’t, of course, that’s ridiculous, but we often buy into ridiculous things like thinking we deserve to be punished by God, even though God thinks no such thing.
So when you’re released from the punching, and when you’re told you’re forgiven for whatever you thought you’d done, you’d feel a tremendous relief, right?
But here’s the thing. Even though you’re grateful that the punching has stopped it’s really hard to shake the idea that you deserved it – because you’ve been telling yourself that for so long!
And here’s the even bigger thing – the thing that no matter how many times prophets and preachers seem to say it, it’s apparently really hard for people to believe.
Are you ready? Will you believe me this time? Here it is:
God is not the one punching you in the arm. You are.
God is love. God can only love.
Any punishment or sense of being in spiritual prison or exile is self-imposed. God doesn’t punch people in the arm.
We do that to ourselves.
I know this is tricky theological stuff. I’m not saying that we never deserve punishment. If you break the law you deserve punishment, maybe even imprisonment if the offense is big like assault, or robbery, or murder. I’m not talking about humans breaking human laws and being held accountable.
I’m talking about humans wrongly thinking God is hiding in the bushes somewhere waiting for you to think or do something “unholy” and is just itching to bring the hammer down and throw you into eternal damnation.
Again, God’s one and only orientation toward us is love. Period.
Now, that love is absolute and pure and perfect, and when we let that light shine on us and it reveals where we’ve fallen short because we’re human then WE become the ones who decide we need punishment for that.
God just continues loving.
But we think God must be disappointed so we feel bad, go into the corner, and start punching ourselves in the arm.
So through the prophet God says to the people of Israel,
“You’re forgiven! The arm punching can stop! Comfort. Peace. Deep sigh.”
So now they know they’re forgiven and the punching is over, but they’re wary. Partly because it seems too good to be true. And partly because, well, their arms are still really bruised.
And then something awesome happens.
The truth of it all starts to sink in. The reality that they (and we) aren’t in God’s bad books after all starts to come into focus and they (and we) start to realize what that means.
It means communion. It means that we’re not alone anymore! (Well, we never were, but it felt that way.)
And when that realization comes and the light goes on and the awareness that God really does love us starts to take hold, what does it feel like?
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 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. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
Just down the street from here we have a vivid, literal example of this. A highway is being constructed right here in our backyard. Valleys are being lifted, hills are being levelled. And when it’s done people will be able to travel super-fast and absolutely unhindered from flying down that highway toward their destination.
That is what the prophet is saying.
God loves us. The road to the heart of God is a super-highway. Once you’re aware that you’re allowed to travel on it you discover that all the tolls have been paid and you can just motor.
Isaiah 40:6 A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
Your whole life has turned around.
The punching has stopped.
Your deepest spiritual desires are made real.
You realize that God really does love you – yes YOU – so what shall you cry?
How about “thank you” – or “Hallelujah” – or “Wahoo! This is so awesome!”
The next couple of verses has that bit about people being like grass – which is really just a reminder that says that people are really human, fallible, inconsistent – but God is awesome!
And then Isaiah 40:9 says,
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; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”
Shout it from the highest mountain. God is here! You’ve felt the peace and comfort and deep sigh of release from your self-imposed punching, and you’ve zoomed along the highway to the heart of God, and the prophet wants to know how you’re feeling.
God is here! God is here! God is here!
And now I’m here too!
How can you refrain from shouting that over and over again?
Verses 10 and 11 can be a bit confusing, but they don’t have to be.
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.
It’s quite a juxtaposition!
So, is God strong and powerful and mighty – or is God gentle like a shepherd with lambs mothering us?
And therein lays the greatest comfort there is.
God’s Presence is both strong and gentle.
God’s love is both mighty and nurturing.
God’s being is both awe-inspiring incomprehensibly holy power – and a deep, deep sigh that is too deep for words.
The prophet writing in Isaiah’s name has taken us on a wonderful Advent journey of deep peace. It starts with an assurance of comfort, there’s a correction from our mistaken belief that God is punishing us, a release from our self-imposed arm punching, an all-tolls-paid onramp onto the super-highway leading to the heart of God, and an invitation to take a deep breath, realize how blessed you are to be constantly surrounded by and immersed in God’s awesome holy Presence, and to respond – to declare and shout out that “Surely, God is in this place!”
The peace comes when you notice!
And this is one of the great things about being part of a community of faith like this. It helps us remember to notice!
It reminds us in really tangible ways that we are not alone.
It gives us companions on the journey on that super-highway.
It gives us other voices to join us in shouting that “God is here!”
And it provides us with all sorts of people that we can share our sense of peace with.
We’re all in different places on this journey – and even though it’s supposed to be a super-highway to God’s Presence our journey is not without its share of detours and construction delays! (That’s that ‘humans are grass’ part again.)
I hope you’re travelling along in fine form, and your arm has long forgotten the bruising it once had.
But if you’re still feeling like you’re in the wilderness – in exile – or maybe that you took an off-ramp that you shouldn’t have and you’re looking for a way back to the highway – then I hope you will hear this message and allow yourself to believe it.
Comfort. O comfort my people, says your God.
Take a moment, have a long deep sigh. And know that peace is waiting.