December 10, 2017 “Comfort” – Isaiah 40:1-11
December 10, 2017 – Second Sunday in Advent
You hear sobbing and sit straight up in bed. You pad barefoot down the hall to where your child is crying. It was a bad dream, monsters and scary shadows and being left all alone in the dark. So you sit down on the edge of the little bed and rub that tiny back and murmur quiet words: “I’m here. It was just a dream. It’s all right now.” Those words of comfort have their effect. The sniffling stops and she drifts off back to sleep. In the morning she doesn’t even remember what happened.
In our text, Isaiah begins God’s words of comfort for what was yet only a bad dream for the people of Israel. Up to this point, through Isaiah chapter 39, the prophet predicted coming disaster. It finally became specific in 39 verse 6, as Isaiah says to King Hezekiah, “Days are coming when all that is in your house, that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord.”
With chapter 40, however, the perspective changes. The Babylonian captivity of the Jewish people is no longer seen as future, but as present painful reality. Some Bible scholars draw a line at chapter 40 and say that it and everything after was the work of another author, a “second Isaiah,” writing 150 years later during the captivity which the first Isaiah predicted. I’m not convinced by that two-writer theory, but it is obvious that chapter 40 speaks from a new viewpoint.
Where before Isaiah had mixed warnings and woes with some promises of future deliverance, now the words which come from the Lord are all summed up in the repetition with which verse 1 begins, “Comfort, O comfort my people.” The punishment has been enough, the lesson has been learned. God is ready to forgive and to restore, to bring His children home to their own country.
So verse 2 says “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty has been paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” Devastation, exile and slavery are soon to be over. God will build His city once again and bring her inhabitants back from the far country.
That is what the voice is announcing in verse 3: “in the desert a highway for our God,” on which His people will travel, making their way back from Babylon. The Lord will even smooth out the mountains and the valleys, verse 4 proclaims, so that the exiles may return. And verse 5 proclaims that everyone will see it. The glory of God as He saves and redeems His people will appear to the world.
The record stands in Scripture that the prophecy was fulfilled. Around 536 B.C., after almost 50 years of exile, the Persian conquerors of Babylon, directed by King Cyrus, released the Jews to return to their own country and rebuild their capital city. In the book of Ezra you can read how God gave them a safe highway through the wilderness and brought them to Jerusalem where they began construction of a new temple to God.
These ancient promises of deliverance were given fresh meaning hundreds of years later when John the Baptist arrived on the scene as we heard this morning from the Gospel of Mark chapter 1. John called out in the desert for people to prepare once again a way for the Lord’s arrival. Once more a prophet predicted that all people would witness the glory of God and the salvation of His people. John the Baptist was announcing the coming of Jesus.
Jesus Christ is the completion of God’s promises. Isaiah prophesied that the glory of God would be revealed. That prophecy was completely fulfilled when His Son was born to a poor woman in a little town in Judah. God appeared in human form when Jesus walked among us. John 1:14 says, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. And we beheld his glory.”
Our daughter has been in England this fall. She was able to see some beautiful buildings, libraries, museums and cathedrals. When Beth and I were there 15 years ago we noticed that at Canterbury Cathedral and the Bodleian Library, much of the most glorious beauty was overhead. High ceilings were intricately painted or crisscrossed with enamel and gold symbols of faith and history. And we quickly learned how painful it is to stand for very long with heads back, looking straight up to see these wonders.
Fortunately, a thoughtful tourist service occasionally provides large mirrors on rolling carts. Without straining, you can position a mirror and look down to see the paintings or coats of arms reflected from high above. It makes it possible to take a better look, even to study what you were seeing.
Jesus came as a mirror reflecting the glory of God so that we could look at Him, study Him, get to know God as He really is. As the Word of God in flesh, Jesus reflected and revealed His Father to us, made it possible for us to see that which is too high and difficult for human eyes. The glory of the Lord was revealed and all humanity may see it now in Christ, in the living Word He has spoken forever.
In verses 6-8, Isaiah pictures our fleeting lives. We are spoiled by modern irrigation and lawn sprinklers, but in those times, in that climate there was a constant reminder of how temporary life is. When rain came, grass and wildflowers sprang up. But when rain stopped and dry wind blew, it all withered and die. Friends and family in California are experiencing that all-to-painfully right now as wildfires consume desperately dry vegetation. Hillsides there are green and colorful with blossoms if it rains. But let the sun shine and hot winds off the desert blow, and it all turns brown and desolate and fuel for fire.
Human flesh, says Isaiah, might as well be grass and flowers. We wear out and fade. Forgive me for sharing my aches and pains, but that’s what us old folks do. Most of you know I’ve just come back after two weeks of illness. And I also learned I need to have a little more skin cancer sliced off my back. And I’ve got a pain in my calf muscle that won’t seem to go away. The grass withers and the flowers fade… and so do you and I.
Mortality is the awful truth we live with day in and day out. All flesh is grass. We spring up green and fresh for a few bright years and then begin to dry up, at best to be blown away by the winds of time and at worst to perish in fiery agonies of illness. In the face of that hard truth we look for sources of comfort.
We seek comfort for our mortality in many ways, often in products and programs which promise to stave off the inevitable awhile longer. We spend money on wrinkle creams and exercise bikes. We elect politicians who promise security and jobs. We diet and take vitamins. In all of it we seek the comfort of assurance that we will fade a little slower, live a little longer. Isaiah is here to make us face the fact that it is all ultimately in vain. We all will go the way of spring’s flowers, falling to the earth one by one.
Yet the prophet does not leave us without comfort. We are mortal, but there is one who is not. John the Baptist said one more powerful than he is coming. All our words and plans come to an end. But there is a Word which never fails. Verse 8 declares, “The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God will stand forever.”
For the ancient Jews, Isaiah’s assertion that God’s Word will stand forever meant His promises would not fail. God does what He says He will do. He promised their return to Jerusalem and they did come back. His Word outlasts all the twists of an unknown future. They were comforted by the hope and confidence that when the mouth of the Lord has spoken, unlike when human mouths speak, it will happen. God is as good as His Word.
We have the same comfort and more in Jesus Christ. As Hebrews 1, verses 1 and 2 says, God spoke through prophets like Isaiah at different times and in various ways, “but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” The Word of God has come to us in Jesus and that Word is our best comfort in all times. That living Word stands when everything else falls around us.
This week we’ve heard again about horrific fires in California, about people being evacuated from their homes, and even about what to do if you find yourself trapped by fire rushing down upon you. The advice I read was to seek out water, any body of water, a swimming pool, a pond, or a fountain and to submerse yourself and stay there until the fire has passed. Your only hope when all else fails is that water will shield and protect you.
God’s Word is our shield and protection. When all else fails, what God speaks remains true. And God speaks to you and me through Jesus Christ. Jesus the Word stands forever, our help and our comfort. His forgiveness, His strength, His love and grace are living water to soothe and save us when the fires rage around us.
In these days, the living Word Jesus comes to us in the written Word of Holy Scripture. We do not see Jesus in the flesh like the first disciples did, but we receive their witness to what they saw every time we open this Book and read their words. The Bible comforts us because Jesus the Word comes to us through its pages.
The Bible as the Word of God has stood the tests of time. Merely as a work of literature, it has outdone any other book ever written. It has sold more copies, been translated into more languages, and touched more lives by far than all the other great books of history. When printing was invented, it was the first book published. It has often been criticized, attacked and suppressed, but God’s Word endures.
So we turn over and over to Scripture for comfort, finding there a stability which holds firm when all our other anchors and comforts break loose. The beautiful novel Peace Like a River by Leif Enger is told through the eyes of a young man whose oldest brother guns down two delinquent youths who are tormenting his family. He is arrested. The night before he is to be sentenced, he escapes and runs away. At the very same time his father loses his job. The family is penniless, torn with grief, without hope.
Then that youngest son comes in one evening to see his father sitting at the kitchen table, reading from a King James Bible clutched in his hands. He realizes that this is where his father is getting the strength to go on. This is the anchor he is holding onto as the storms tear his life apart. “The word of our God stands forever.”
Yes, you can derive a lot of comfort in hard times when you read the Bible. But as good as private Bible reading is, it is not always enough comfort to come to God’s Word by yourself. Isaiah’s thought here is that there will be those who speak His Word to others. The comfort of the Word of God will be shared aloud, one person to another. That is why we are encouraging each other to read the Word again together at the beginning of next year and then to get together in small groups to talk and share what we’ve read and heard.
“You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain… lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’” Verse 9 pictures God’s Word spoken aloud, in a loud voice, shared in joy with those who need to hear it. The Word of comfort is not a solitary affair, not a lone man reading quietly to himself. It’s good news for a whole nation, an offering of comfort to everyone with ears to hear it.
The comfort is there in verses 10 and 11. It is Advent for Israel. The Lord is coming. It is our comfort too as Christians. After Paul explains in I Thessalonians 4 how Jesus will come again to raise the dead and save those who are still alive, he writes “Therefore, comfort one another with these words.” Our best and most perfect comfort is the promise of God’s Word that He will come. He will come to us and make this world right.
Verse 10 focuses on reward and recompense. The coming of the Lord will bring justice to the world. Evil will be punished and good will be rewarded. The news is full of women seeking justice against men who have harassed and abused them. But justice is not complete. There are many men in positions of power and privilege who are still not being held accountable. Full justice hasn’t happened yet. Isaiah promises that Our Lord will make it happen, will bring recompense on those who deserve it. We will hear more about this next week. But for right now, let’s move on to the best promise of all, in verse 11.
In the last verse of this morning’s text our hearts are turned completely to the living Word, to Jesus Christ in perhaps the best image of His grace and love. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms and carry them close to his bosom; and gently lead the mother sheep.” Here is true and complete comfort. Here is a promise for which the world waited long centuries.
Somewhere around the time Israel was languishing in Babylon, waiting for God to appear and bring them home, around 560 B.C., a sculptor in Greece carved a statue, a kouros, a pre-classical sculpture of a young man. But this particular kouros was crafted carrying a calf on his shoulders.
Hundreds of years later, Christians would carve a statue of a man in the same pose, carrying a lamb on His shoulders. It was Jesus the Good Shepherd, fulfilling Isaiah’s prophecy and fulfilling even that ancient Greek dream carved in stone. The whole world had been waiting for Him, even if they did not know it. They were waiting for the Shepherd who would wake them from their bad dreams, comfort them and carry them home.
People still wait to hear the Word of God. Despite all the Bibles printed and purchased every year, they wait for the Word to be spoken aloud, to be spoken loudly but tenderly in comfort. That is why at Christmas we take verse 9 to heart and sing “Go tell it on the mountain… that Jesus Christ is born.” Ears are waiting for the Word. Hearts and souls are waiting for the comfort only the living Word, spoken by flesh and blood, can bring.
Lloyd Olgivie tells the story of a church service in which two men repeated the 23rd Psalm. One was a famous actor who delivered it with magnificent eloquence. The other was an old man who walked slowly down the aisle, up to the pulpit where he leaned on his cane and repeated the psalm slowly in a shaky voice. The congregation applauded when the actor finished, but for the little old man there was silence. The actor, touched in a new way, broke the silence, got up and said, “I know the shepherd psalm, but this man knows the Shepherd.”
If you know the Shepherd, then there are people waiting for you to share His comfort with them. If you don’t yet know the Shepherd, there are people here who would dearly love to share His comfort with you. This world is harsh and cruel. We feel that more painfully every day it seems now. Yet there is comfort, comfort in Jesus Christ. He has come to gather His lambs and carry them home. In all the harsh discomfort of these times, let us seek His comfort. It is waiting here in the Word which stands forever.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2017 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj
 Lloyd John Ogilvie, Falling into Greatness – Psalms (Nashville: Thomas Nelson) 1984, p. 52.