HAPPY NEW YEAR to you all, and welcome to the season which can seem the gloomiest time of year –The Christmas star is gone from the sky, the wise men have returned to their own countries, the Holy Family has fled to Egypt to remain there as refugees until King Herod is dead. And in our time, we face the long stretch between Christmas and Easter when the days are short, the sunlight is less direct, and the weather is cold. Perhaps we find ourselves a bit let-down, a bit depressed, and in need of comfort.
When have you felt like you are stuck in the wilderness, the scenery around you has changed. You don’t fit in any more. One such time for me was when I knew retirement was near; we had hired a new faculty member, and I said to myself : His star must rise and mine must set, and that was strange indeed. I had been responsible for many years for the health of my Department, and of others areas on campus where I held positions of responsibility. Now what? Where do I go from here?
Can you remember a time in your life – long enough ago that you can look back on it and say, Yes, I remember that. Share, just briefly in a sentence or two, a time like that in your life.
Death of a spouse or a family member can do that. Now what? This is not where I want to be? All those questions, all that regret, all that guilt. If only I had . . . What if I had done that differently. . .
We are turning our attention today to something the prophet Isaiah said. You may ask:
What could anyone say in the 6th century BC that would be relevant to us today? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Because it is not hard to find people in discomfort, lives in exile, and a world in turmoil. God’s words ring true in every age, place, and life because exile happens in every age, place, and life.
The prophets in Old Testament times had more than one responsibility. The one that comes to mind first is that they were told to warn the people when they were straying from God. So their message would be “Repent of your wrongdoing and turn back to God.”
But there are times when the prophet’s message was one of comfort, and this passage in Isaiah is one of them
The setting here refers to the Babylonian captivity. Remember, the Israelites were told that they were special, that God was going to make a great nation of them, and they would move toward the establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth — and now they find themselves defeated in war and carried off to a strange country with a strange culture. What about all those promises of God? Can God be defeated by the Babylonians? What are they supposed to think?
Prophet tries to address 3 questions that the people have: Does God want to deliver us? Is God able to deliver us? WILL he deliver us?
Isaiah 40: 1-5
Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
2 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.
3 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]
4 Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
The theme of this message arose when a good friend of mine began adding a note at the end of her e-mails which said “For comfort at all times” followed by a web address. During the midterm elections I went to the link and it DID comfort me, so I want to share it. The song is “Comfort, Comfort Now My People” and it’s in our hymnbook, so you can look it up and follow along with the words, since our sound system doesn’t amplify the computer output very much.
“Comfort” is not the best of words here – to us, comfort is soft and fuzzy – the Hebrew word is better translated as “encourage” my people, “strengthen” my people. I am on my way to rescue them.
Handel’s Messiah includes this passage, set to music– in picking out from the whole Bible what the most important messages are, this is one of them.
Then further along we come to vs.10-11 and they are also chosen by Handel for The Messiah:
10See, 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.
The Prophet tries to address 3 questions that the people have: Does God want to deliver us? Is God able to deliver us? WILL he deliver us?
And God answers these questions. Yes, God wants to rescue us. You are forgiven. Can God deliver us? Yes, God can deliver us and comes to us a shepherd. Will God deliver us? Yes, God says, I have NOT given up on you. I’m on my way to rescue you right now.
Exile can happen in every age, at any place, and at any time in our life. Exile takes us to the wilderness. In the wilderness the mountains are high, the valleys are low, and the ground is rough and uneven. Many of us have climbed the mountains of arrogance, ego, and pride. Likewise we have descended into the valleys of despair, depression, and fear. We have travelled the rough and uneven ground of sorrow, loss, and pain. The wilderness is not so much about the geography around us as it about the landscape within us.
Every one of us could tell a story about a time when we were in exile, alienated from life, ourself, those we love, and our God. Some of us may be in exile now. Exiles live in a foreign land: a land of guilt and regret, fear, sorrow, despair. That is never where God intended us to live. It is not our true home, but sometimes that is where we are
God sends Isaiah to carry his words of comfort to Israel and to us. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” he instructs Isaiah. God knows that life in the wilderness is fragile. This is not a time for condemnation, judgment, or ridicule. Sometimes exiles are holding on by a thread. They need words of comfort, encouragement, and hope. Isaiah is to speak softly to their heart. He is to call them home. That is after all what repentance is about. It is about coming home. When John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness proclaiming a baptism of repentance, he was echoing Isaiah’s words. “It is time to come home.” Repentance prepares the way of the Lord. It prepares the way home.
God’s promise is that the mountains will be made low, the valleys will be lifted up, and the rough and uneven ground will become a level plain. The way will be prepared. This is not so that we might get out but so that God in Christ might get in. God is always coming to us. There is no situation in which God cannot come to you. Isaiah (sounding a lot like Diana Ross) reminds us that there is no mountain high enough, no valley low enough, no ground rough enough to keep God from coming to you.
“Here is your God,” Isaiah exclaims to Israel. In the foreign land of exile “here is your God.” God comes to us in the worst places imaginable. He gathers us in his arms and carries us next to his heart. God’s words of comfort come to us in our exile. Our wilderness is the geography of new beginnings, reconciled relationships, and salvation. It all starts with repentance.
Repentance is not so much about the guilt of our past but a present hope that reveals a new future. Love and new life cannot be sustained by the same old ways, the ways that took us into exile. There must be a conversion, a change of heart. If new life and love are to last, we must call into question our usual ways of being and doing. We must be willing to grow and change. We need to orient our life in a different direction and live at a new level of consciousness. We must face the truth of our life; not as the final judgment of our life but as the foundation for our hope, expectation, and longing for the one who is can save us.
Name the places of alienation and exile in your life, and you will also name the opportunities for repentance and homecoming. Repentance happens when exile and words of comfort meet. We do not repent so that we can hear God’s words of comfort. God speaks words of comfort so that we might repent. “Comfort, O Comfort my People”
This message was given by Lois Kieffaber at Spokane Friends Church on January 6, 2018.