Isaiah's Song

When I visited Hungary and the Czech Republic, an era of communism and Russian rule had just ended. Some visiting scholars from Czech Republic, who became family friends in Seminary, told us this beautiful story about a wall, “Lennon Wall,” when they found out I was traveling to their home country.

When John Lennon was murdered in 1980 he became a sort of hero to some of the young activists working for a more just society, and his picture was painted on this wall. Now the Czech people had few opportunities to express their feelings, and so put themselves at risk to be imprisoned by writing on the wall. And yet, the threat of prison couldn’t keep people from slipping through the shadows of the night to scrawl graffiti and odes to Lennon, and later painting their own feelings, dreams, and songs.

The Communist police tried to whitewash that wall the day it was up. On the second day it was again full of poems and flowers, songs filled with hope from the young activists. And repeatedly they tried whitewashing over the portrait and messages of peace, but they could never manage to keep the wall clean. Today, the wall represents a symbol of such ideals as love and peace, imagination and hope.

When I arrived in Czech Republic, after hearing this beautiful story, all I wanted to see was this wall. And NOBODY wanted to show it to me. They wanted to show us the beautiful architecture or massive churches, but most refused to talk of hard times, and if they did it was only under whispers in locked away rooms. After much begging and pleading, I finally convinced our tour guide, Libby, to take us to the wall. When we finally came to it, I was moved to tears because of the fight for peace and love I knew it represented. Libby said, “See, it is nothing.” And we moved on.

But I needed to know their story before I could look to the architecture of their churches and beauty of their land, or it meant nothing to me. And I could only appreciate that wall, I could only hear their song, after I heard what was risked in order to proclaim the messages of comfort, imagination and hope.

The same is true on this first Sunday of advent when we meet Isaiah 40. Isaiah 40 is also a word of comfort, a word of imagination, and a word of hope. Isaiah 40 opens a window to the relationship found in the first 39 chapters of the book, which feature immense chaos and destruction.

And like the Lennon Wall, we can’t really appreciate the 40th chapter of Isaiah, the Song of Isaiah, until we hear, until we know what’s at stake, until we know what’s been done, until we understand the disaster that surrounded the people of Israel.

Up to this point in our text, everything the Israelites valued and knew was destroyed. First, the Davidic Dynasty (the line promised by God) was nullified and the king ignobly taken away. Second, the city of Jerusalem, locus of God’s Promised Land to Israel, was razed. And thirdly, the Temple, place of God’s assured presence was devastated.1 And then the people, in an effort to temper any possible uprisings, the Babylonians deported the people, deported them in a Trail of Tears-like journey, to a land where they knew not the language, the livelihood, nor the god. And so having arrived in Babylon, immediately these Israelites remembered those promises of their God. The promise of fertile land—now razed and destroyed; the promise of a great nation ruled by a Davidic king—who was now exiled; and the promise of God to be with them—who was now lost without a Temple to reside. Their questions of faith became: Is God not powerful? Or is God not faithful?

In the least, God is silent.

And so chapters 1-39 are about the cries of the people and the punishment of the people. Until we get to this text. Let us turn to Isaiah 40: 1-11.

READ SCRIPTURE:

“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 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. 3 A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 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. 5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken." 6 A voice says, "Cry out!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 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!" 10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 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.”

The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever.

I love how, after 39 chapters that read of God’s abandonment and punishment, this 40th chapter, a voice after so much silence; this song of hope and imagination… it begins and ends with comfort.

The first verse: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.”
The last: “God will gather the lambs in her arms, and carry them in her bosom.”
I was at the park with my family a couple of months ago, the kids playing on the playground, and Clay and I talking on a bench about this church, about this, Peace church. I was telling him how much I love this church. I have come to love you all and this place, well not this place, but this community, dearly, as I’ve begun to hear your stories. My heart has broken for many of you during your illnesses, during the death of loved ones, during job losses, during your devastations. You’ve taken off false pretenses and let one another in during the hardships of life. You’ve allowed one another to comfort you. And I was telling him you all seem to treat and love one another even in the midst of all of this, and I have felt your love. A couple walked by and said, “Where is this church you are talking about?” I told them how wonderful you were and where you were located…hopefully they’ll be able to find our signs.

But this is why I love the Old Testament. The images of a God who comforts, and cares: just like this passage from Isaiah whose message of a God full of might is surrounded with an inclusio of a benevolent and gentle God. And while I love these images, it’s not where our hope rests, is it? For a people who are suffering, for a people like you, comfort, is well, comforting, but it’s not enough is it? It’s not ultimately what we Christians are seeking.

What is it that God offers the people of Israel? What is it that God offers us in the midst of devastation?

"A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 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. 5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken."

Imagination. With awesome creativity our prophet declares a new imagination.

A voice says, "Cry out!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

Imagination and Hope. The word of our God will stand forever. Yes, the grass will wither. Yes the flower will fade. But the Word of our God will stand forever.

Do you know my other favorite part of this scripture is this: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem” It comes right after the Comfort, o comfort my people part. Speak tenderly toJerusalem. Except the word tenderly can also be translated as “in the midst of.” Comfort, O Comfort my people, in the midst of….

In the midst of death and destruction. In the midst of exile. In the midst of a lost country, king, and Temple.

In the midst of your suffering. In the midst of your joblessness. In the midst of your sicknesses. In the midst of your heartache. In the midst of your unbearable losses.

Comfort my people.

I wonder about that Lennon wall. Who was it for? Was it for the regime? I don’t think so. I think it was for them, the suffering. In the midst of persecution, it was their comfort. In the midst of persecution it was their imagination. In the midst of persecution it was their hope. It was their song. It remains to be their song, their way to remember their story, to proclaim the truth about who they are and what they are for, in spite of where they had been.

The Word of the Lord is in the midst of. It is our story. It is the truth about who we are, and what we are in spite of and in the midst of where we have been. The Word of the Lord is our Lennon wall. It can’t be whitewashed away—no matter how many regimes or empires have tried—no matter how seemingly impossible it looks—it lives. The word of the Lord lives. The word of the Lord stands forever.

In the midst of, God brings comfort. In the midst of, God brings imagination. In the midst of, God brings hope.

So yes, God offers these things in the midst of our lives, not when we’re done suffering, not when things are all right. But always and in the midst of.

November 30, 2008
Reverend Tricia Dillon Thomas in the pulpit

But we Christians have another understanding of “in the midst of,” don’t we? In the form of a human, God dwelled in the midst of us. God emptied God’s self and became one of us. And while we can’t speak of the birth of Jesus without remembering his life, his death, and his resurrection, it is this Sunday, this first Sunday of advent, that we begin to sing our song, that we begin to wait with hope, and love, and peace, and even a little imagination for the birth of the Christ child.

God dwelled in the midst of us. And it is in the midst of, that the birth of the Christ child happened. It is in the midst of, that we wait for Christ’s return.

Amen.

1 Birch, Brueggemann, etc., The Theological Introduction to the Old Testament (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999), 319-46.