See Your King is Coming audio (3MB)
“Comfort, Comfort, my People, says your God.” Do you sometimes feel the need for comfort. Cadbury’s and Lindt make a lot of money out of that feeling don’t they? But when you hear a passage like this does it speak to an inner longing? That sense that you need someone else to support and care for you? It’s a word that’s addressed to the people of Israel who were in great need of comfort. The prophet Isaiah speaks to them and says: “Here is what God says to you: ‘Be comforted.’” The repetition of the verb is meant to add emotional intensity to the call. It’s as though God is pleading with his people to take comfort in his words. He says “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” Literally, “speak to her heart.” The way lovers woo each other, speaking sweet nothings to one another, wooing, persuading, inviting a response of love. But then “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.”
Sometimes we have trouble hearing when God speaks to us, but here the prophet is told to speak with quiet words of love and a loud shout of proclamation. Whatever it takes they’re to hear this message: ‘Comfort, Comfort!’ and believe that it’s true.
If you’ve been here for the last few weeks you’ll know that the city of Jerusalem has been under attack and in fact it’s now been destroyed and its people have been taken off to captivity in Babylon, where they’ve found that they can’t sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. They’re cut off from their land, and from their God. So this word of Isaiah is truly a word of comfort. Notice how he addresses them: “Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God.” He reminds them that even though they’re in captivity, in exile, even though they feel like God has abandoned them, or they’ve failed him, God is still their God. They are still God’s people.
So it’s a message of subjective comfort. They can feel relieved that God hasn’t forgotten them. But at the same time it’s a message of comfort based on the objective historical reality of what God’s doing. God is about to rescue them, to bring them out of captivity and return them to Jerusalem. He says, “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.” This doesn’t mean they’ve suffered more than they deserved, and now God’s realised it and so is bringing them back. No, what he means is that God is giving her double in exchange for all her sins. As we discover when we come to chs 52 & 53, the Servant of the Lord’s sacrifice has paid for their sins. And now in God’s grace he’s about to restore them despite their unworthiness.
And so we read “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” Notice, it isn’t: “prepare a way for the Jews in exile.” No: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” If you were a nomad out in the desert tending your flock of scrawny goats or sheep, and you looked up as this exodus went by, all you’d see would be a great horde of Jews trudging along, looking tired and thirsty. But the eyes of the prophet sees the LORD God coming, - and as he comes he brings with him his people.
As you look around this church today, what do you see? Do you see a fairly motley group of Christians, or do you see God at work? It takes the eye of a prophet, or the eye of a believer, to see God at work sometimes. The Jews in exile needed to be reminded that God was still at work. That even if they felt like they couldn’t sing the Lord’s song, that he was still at work, working for and with them. Can you see that God is at work in our midst? That’s the only basis on which we can feel true comfort in the midst of the struggle and hard work of being God’s people here in Burwood.
And notice how when God acts, seemingly impossible hurdles are overcome. Mountain ranges are made low, valleys are lifted up, uneven ground made level. When we think about the obstacles to our work of outreach here, we could very easily get depressed couldn’t we? We’re still only a small congregation. The number of young families has dropped off in the past few years as our children have grown up and we’re struggling to replace them. Most of the people around us have little or no connection with Church. On top of all that, we’re about to embark on a multi-million dollar building project that will probably stretch us financially. You could almost say it’s an impossible task.
But then so was the situation for these Jewish exiles. But when God works, nothing is impossible. It’s as though the obstacles move aside as he approaches. Mountain ranges are made low, valleys lifted up, uneven ground made level.
Still, Isaiah isn’t convinced: “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass.” In other words, how can all this happen? How can they possibly leave Babylon and return to Jerusalem? What will they do when they get there? The city is in ruins, the Temple’s destroyed, they have no money to rebuild, there’s no developed land there for them to farm. What there is has been taken over by foreigners. How can they do it? You see, faith in God isn’t easy. Our outward circumstances are usually far more obvious to us than God’s power. We’re weak and withering. Our resources are stretched, our energy levels are limited. How can we possibly do the things that God tells us to?
And the answer comes loud and clear: “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” Do you believe that? Do you believe God’s word? Do you believe when God says something, he’ll do it? Or do you hedge your bets. Do you say “well, let’s wait and see.” Do you think, “well, I guess the odds are pretty good.” Or worse still, “the odds are against it.” What about when you read something like Hebrews 4:12: "the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Do you believe it? Do you believe that when God’s word is proclaimed it touches people’s hearts? Or when you read this in Is 55: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Do you believe it? Do you believe that God’s word will accomplish what God intended it for. If so, are you acting on that belief? Are you telling your friends and neighbours God’s words. Are you sharing the gospel with them? Are you telling them about Jesus, the Word of God incarnate? Or are you scared to because you don't really believe it will do what God intends.
Perhaps a prior question is “do you know what God’s word to people is? Do you know what the content of the gospel is? Are you able to verbalise what you believe? If you don’t, or you’re not sure, then you need to do some training don't you? You need to study God’s word so you are sure, so you are confident to express your faith to your friends and neighbours, to speak God’s words.
We can be confident in God’s words, purely because they’re God’s words. This is the God who spoke and the universe was created. This is the God in whom all things hold together. This is the God who, in the person of Jesus Christ, spoke and the storm was stilled, water was changed into wine, the blind received their sight, and the dead were raised; and who promised that he’d send his Spirit to empower us so that we’d do far greater things than he did.
So God tells Isaiah: “You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’”
Now I like to talk to people, which is a good thing I guess, given the job I’m in. I occasionally talk to animals - mostly nicely - as long as they leave me alone. I occasionally speak to my computer. I tell it to hurry up when I want to get something printed off quickly and it’s taking forever, or I yell at it when it crashes and loses the last page of my sermon. Mind you I never yell at the photocopier, because everyone knows that if you yell at a photocopier it just gets flustered and it’s likely to develop a paper jam, or something worse. So I do occasionally speak to inanimate objects, but here the prophet Isaiah is told to speak to the towns of Judah. In fact if the NRSV has it right, it might even be Jerusalem who’s being sent to proclaim the good news to the surrounding cities.
Now remember, Jerusalem is lying in ruins, not one stone standing upon another. The Temple is just a pile of ash and rubble. So it’s bad enough that he’s to tell the message to Jerusalem, but that isn’t enough. All the surrounding cities need to hear this message, as unbelievable as it may sound. God has spoken and so it will come true. God is coming and they need to be ready.
God is coming with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. That is, he’s bringing with him the people of Jerusalem, to resettle it and rebuild it.
And as he comes we see that God isn’t just a conquering warrior. No, “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.” He’s the good shepherd who cares for his sheep and looks after them.
It was a long road from Babylon to Jerusalem. They may have wondered whether they’d make it. But he assures them that he’ll be there with them, carrying the weak ones on his shoulders, feeding them as they go, gently leading those who have others in their care.
Do you ever feel like that? Do you ever wonder whether you’ll make it in the Christian life? Do you ever wonder whether the job God has given you is too great for you; whether you’ll burn out, or run out of stamina in the long haul ahead? Do you look at others who have lost their faith and wonder whether that might happen to you? I think sometimes the problem we have is that in all our effort to serve God we forget how we came to be one of his children in the first place. We think it’s all up to us. So we push ourselves to try harder, to do better. But we forget that we don’t have to get to God, it’s him who comes to us. We forget that it’s God who leads his people out of exile. They don’t have to go and find their way to him. He’s showing them the way. “Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God.’” It looked like it was the people coming through the desert, but it wasn’t. It was God, carrying the lambs, the weak, on his shoulders. We don't need to be worried that we mightn’t be able to survive the journey, because God is with us, leading us and supporting us.
The question is, where do you derive your comfort in all the difficulties of life. Do you resort to chocolate, or alcohol? Do tell yourself to just keep trying harder? Do you say to yourself “all will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well,” in the hope that just saying it will make it happen? Or do you look to God’s word, to God’s promises, to see that God is in control of all our circumstances. To see that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. To see that all things are well, because he promises they will be. Can you see God at work here in Burwood? At home? In the place where you work? In your dealings with other people? By ourselves we’re nothing. We’re mere grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. That’s the only place worth looking for comfort. In the word of God which will stand forever.
Finally, look at the end of the chapter. There were still those in Israel who doubted that God was looking after them and so God gives them this extra bit of reassurance that they don’t have to rely on their own strength because God knows the frailty of our human nature. Rather he’ll provide what we need to persevere to the end. He says: “27Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, "My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God"? 28Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. 30Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 31but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” (Is 40:29-31) This is the God to whom we turn if we want true comfort in the midst of all the struggles of life.