Isaiah 40:1-11 First Sunday of Advent
Elizabeth M. Deibert 30 November 2014
Where do you go for comfort? To the bag of chocolate not-so-well hidden from yourself in the pantry? To the bottle of alcohol to quiet the discomfort? (risky choices, when you are in great need!) Do you go to the friend who always tells you are okay, and who makes it clear to you that even if you are not okay, you’ll still have a friend who cares? To the dog, who always accepts you and cuddles with you, no matter what you’ve done? To some physical activity in the bedroom or the gym that alleviates your stress? Do you go professionals like Toni, Troy, and Jenny for healing touch? Or to professionals like Chip and David for healing talk? Think about it. Are you are person who needs talk comfort or touch comfort or taste comfort?
All of us have talk and touch and taste needs. You can see all of these primal needs in infants, and they do not develop well if missing any of these three. But when we are feeling the need for comfort, we should quiz ourselves on our deeper needs. Our greatest need is for TOTAL comfort. We are healthiest in our seeking for comfort needs, when we recognize in our souls that it is the Triune God who supplies our deepest longings, who comforts us with a hope that cannot be taken away. That’s what I want us to consider today. That complete comfort of hope.
But I must say that as I worked on this sermon, I kept trying to decipher between hope of comfort and the comfort of hope. Rebecca had surgery on her deviated septum on Tuesday. She was not nervous; she was hopeful for a good surgical outcome – no more breathing problems and a straightened nose. She was fine the first day or two out, but then as the length of discomfort wore on, she begin to wear down. If relief is coming, we can endure pain. It’s when no relief is in sight that we lose our hope. But hope can be restored with some comfort. And there is definitely comfort when we know that suffering has an end or a purpose.
The writer of this part of Isaiah, known as second Isaiah, faced the challenge of giving hope to a people facing the long-standing despair of captivity in Babylon. To these disheartened people, who thought God had abandoned them, Second Isaiah cries out, “Here is your God! Comfort is here. Suffering is over.”
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.
“Comfort, comfort. Speak tenderly, compassionately to those who are suffering.” Some people who have had little creaturely comforts in this life are still people of hope. Some people who have no promised end of suffering still are people of hope. Some people without hope find new hope when given the comfort of compassion – suffering with. Like the one who is despairing or grieving who spends time with a friend or a pastor or a therapist or a Stephen Minister.
Like the one who has been treatly unfairly, but receives the attention and support of others. Comfort provides a space for hope to be held. Yet too much comfort without challenge can lead to complacency. Strong hope is born of the character developed by enduring suffering. Paul says to the Romans, “We boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Rom 5:1 NRS)
If we resist character-building by rushing to comfort ourselves in unhealthy ways, without working on root problems, then hope is not given time for long-term character development, for trust in the One who give Total Comfort. Equally well, we can rush to offer comfort to others, the kind of comfort that does not lead to hope. If all we do is offer acts of compassion to those who need us to help them work for change, then we have provided a short-lived comfort. If all we do is work for change, without speaking carefully of the One who capable of changing the world, we have supplied hope with a cheap battery instead of a plugged-in hope.
What does it mean for the Florida farmworkers to have hope? It means that they know that God cares about their suffering and wants to relieve it. It means that hard work will one day bring a decent level of comfortable living. The playing field will be leveled. It is shameful that we have a farming economy built on the cheap labor of slaves followed by successive generations of powerless immigrants. Hope calls for justice in the fields.
What does it mean for refugees and warriors in the Middle East to have hope? It means they can truly believe that their warfare will end, such that they begin to imagine the day. They can begin to build bridges because they see the humanity of the other side, and they can turn their swords into plowshares. Hope calls for visions of peace.
What does it mean for Ferguson to have hope? It means that young men of color can be treated with dignity not fear, and that authority figures can be respected, not mocked. Hope calls for mutual understanding and trust.
What did it mean for second Isaiah’s people to have hope while stuck in Babylon? God declares that they have suffered too much already as captives. Cyrus the Persion King is advancing on Babylon and the Prophet helps the Israelites to see this as God’s hand – their coming liberation. God will go before them, making the rough places smooth and gently carrying in his arms the ones who are unable to travel by themselves. We see here Yahweh's sovereignty over the nations. Humans may think they have complete control over history, but they are mistaken. The moral order brought by God is higher than the moronic chaos created by humans. God’s way will prevail, Isaiah tells us.
So whether we are talking about the Israeli captives in Babylon, or religious and ethnic conflict in the modern Middle East, or race relationships in Ferguson, or economic concerns for farmworkers in Florida, or some problem of grief, loss, frustration, or shame in our own personal lives….we have confidence that God who came as one of us, Immanuel, is bringing hope to our weary world.
The great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says, “No words have gone further in offering comfort when the sick world cries” than these words of second Isaiah. Here’s the crux of the matter according to the Rabbi, “More excruciating than the suffering itself is the agony of seeing no meaning (no purpose) in the suffering.” We humans want to believe, need to believe, have to believe that our suffering has meaningful purpose – that God has not forgotten us. To comfort is to throw light into a cave of darkness. (The Prophets, by Heschel) Our ultimate hope is that “The glory of the Lord will be revealed, and that all flesh shall see it together.”
It’s not that our way, our religious group or our countries will receive the glory.
It’s not our flesh against your flesh, but all of us together, basking in the glory of God. We are not comforted to be comfortable, but to be comforters. (Dr. John Henry Jowett)
So we begin to see the glory of the Lord, when the rough places are smoothed, when the high places or people are brought down and the low places or people are brought up, a message we will hear again from Mother Mary in a couple of weeks. A voice says, “Cry out.” But what shall we cry, but that people are like grass, withering and fading.”
Even powerful people wither and fade. Why are we so inclined to glorify human beings – celebrities, CEOs, politicians and pundits? They are grass. We attend to them like as if they are gold, but they are grass. We relish their fall from glory as much as their rise to it. Our hope is not in the rise or the fall of any earthly power. Hope is not in the rise and fall of our bank account. It is not in our new car, new house, new Iphone. Short-lived battery comfort may be found in a pantry or liquor cabinet, in a physical or emotional pleasure or even in the smooth operating new technology. But short-lived comfort is not hope. Hope is what we live on. As Emily Dickinson said, “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul – and sings the tunes without the words – and never stops at all.” Never stops. Hope is the dove (the Holy Spirit of Christ) that sings in your soul when there are not words to sing.
Our hope is found in the living God who comes to us, remarkably in the risk and joy of an infant King, God with us, the one who knows our suffering and provides the comfort of empathy and the promise of resurrection – new life, as only Christ can do. There is hope in finding comfort and being comforters for one another. And this comfort when it is rooted in Christ always leads us into sharing a deep relationship with the Hope-bearer, Immanuel, God with us.
O Come, O Come Immanuel, Your comfort and your hope within us dwell. Embrace us, call us, fill us with grace that we may be your faithful in this place.