08 December 2014

Sermon – “Comfort for God’s People” (Isaiah 40:1-11)

Thomas Cranmer was one of the greatest liturgical geniuses ever to walk the face of the earth. That is why his Book of Common Prayer of 1549 and 1552 continues to be the well from which liturgical scholars and worship leaders draw for wisdom and inspiration—and not just Anglican, but people from all kinds of backgrounds, from Roman Catholic to the emergent church movement. If you take a good look at our 1979 Book of Common Prayer, you will find the words and phrases of Thomas Cranmer popping up again and again.

One element of Cranmer’s Communion service that has disappeared from our contemporary forms of worship is what were called the Comfortable Words. They followed the confession and absolution and went like this:

Hear what comfortable words our Savior Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him:
Come unto me all that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.
So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.
Hear also what Saint Paul saith.
This is a true saying, and worthy of all men to be received, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
Hear also what Saint John saith.
If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins.

The Comfortable Words were a brilliant addition to the service. Coming immediately after the priest’s absolution, they assured the congregation that the forgiveness they were receiving was not just from the man dressed in robes at the front of the church, but from God himself and testified by his own word in Scripture.

My suspicion is that people in Cranmer’s day took sin and its consequences with considerably greater seriousness than the average Christian in our own. They worried about hell and damnation in a way that most of us simply do not. So it was that they needed these words of comfort—and hearing them every time they presented themselves for Holy Communion meant that they quickly became embedded in their hearts.

The same could be said to be true of the people of Isaiah’s time. They needed good news. They needed encouragement. They needed comfortable words. The previous chapter of Isaiah contains his prophecy to King Hezekiah of the complete destruction of Jerusalem:

Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord. Some of your own sons who are born to you shall be taken away; they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon. (Isaiah 39:5-7)

It was a devastating foretelling of Judah’s future. Worse still, in the end it was exactly what happened, not during Hezekiah’s reign, not during Isaiah’s lifetime, but a century later. Jerusalem would fall. Its walls would be left a heap of rubble, its beloved Temple a burned-out ruin; and many of its leading citizens would be carried off into a lonely captivity in Babylon. It is from that period that some of the Old Testament’s most poignant literature arises. Here is an example, from the pen of Jeremiah:

How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal…

The roads to Zion mourn,
for no one comes to the festivals;
all her gates are desolate,
her priests groan;
her young girls grieve,
and her lot is bitter…

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
Look and see
if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
which was brought upon me,
which the Lord inflicted
on the day of his fierce anger. (Lamentations 1:1,4,12)

The Message of Comfort

So it was that the Lord called Isaiah to speak a message of encouragement—comfortable words—to his downtrodden and disconsolate people. “ ‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says your God.” The word in Hebrew is nacham. It is exactly the same as we find in the twenty-third psalm: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me” (verse 4). At its root it has to do with breathing deeply or sighing, and so it carries with it the strong sense of sorrow and compassion.

The instruction is repeated in the second verse: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…” Literally translated, the words are, “Speak to the heart of Jerusalem…” Again, we find this expression elsewhere in the Old Testament. It comes to us in the story of Dinah in Genesis. Shechem, one of the local Canaanite princes, found himself smitten by her. The Bible tells us, “And his soul was drawn to Dinah the daughter of Jacob; he loved the girl and spoke tenderly to her,” that is, literally, “He spoke to her heart” (Genesis 34:3). What we have here in Isaiah, then, is the language of romance, the language of love. God’s desire is to woo his people, to draw them from their loneliness and fear, their sorrow and distress, back to himself.

So, as we move farther through the chapter, the cry goes out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Now the day would come when the people of Judah would return to Judah and Jerusalem would be rebuilt. Yet that is not what this prophecy is all about. When they returned to their homeland, it would not be by a straight road. To get from Babylon to Jerusalem required a long, curved route, north and west and south again, hundreds of miles, around the arid desert lands of northern Arabia. No, what this prophecy looked to was not the people returning to their beloved capital, but of God himself returning to his people. And when that happened, there would be no barrier that would stand in his way.

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.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together.

The Means of Comfort

God coming to his people: It should not surprise us then that we find Isaiah’s words being taken up at the beginning of each of the four gospels—in the ministry of John the Baptist. From the banks of the Jordan we hear him shout, “… the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’ ” Through his powerful message of repentance and baptism, John challenged people to a renewed relationship with God. Yet John’s primary emphasis was not on the people’s need to come to God (important and essential as that is) but on the stupendous truth that God was coming to them. “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

This is what makes the gospel good news. We can summon people to a greater commitment. We can call them to a deeper life of faith. We can challenge them to fuller obedience. That is all good advice. No doubt about it. But it is not good news. The real good news, the good tidings that ought to echo from the mountaintops, is that God comes to us: that he has done so in the person of his Son, that he continues to do so in the person of the Holy Spirit. This is good news.

The message of comfort that Isaiah proclaimed was not just that God looks down from heaven and says to us, “There, there.” It is that God comes to us to us, that he actually enters our human sphere. And we know that that great vision has been fulfilled in Jesus. He has shared all that it means to be human—in Paul’s words, “He emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:7,8). The Letter to the Hebrews (4:15) adds, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

God has come to us not only in Jesus. He comes to us again in the Holy Spirit. So we should not see it as a coincidence that in the New Testament Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit as “the Comforter” at the Last Supper. “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Comforter, to be with you forever” (John 14:16). “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away the Comforter will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). “The Comforter, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything” (John 14:26). The Greek word in the New Testament is the exact equivalent of the Hebrew that we find in Isaiah.

It is the Holy Spirit who comes into in our lives who mediates the love of the Father and the Son, who makes them realities for us.

The Ministry of Comfort

As we come to the third section of this morning’s passage, we find that Isaiah was given good news to announce to Jerusalem not only to bring them comfort, but also so that they could in turn pass it on to the whole of the nation. So too, God has come to us in Jesus, he has given us his Holy Spirit, not just so that we might have an unshakeable hope within us, but even more so that we might bring comfort and encouragement to others. This is what Paul was seeking to get across to the Christians in Corinth when he wrote to them in these words:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Corinthians 1:3,4)

Again and again in the course of my own Christian life, it has been those seemingly most in need of comfort who have ministered most deeply to me: a man in his thirties diagnosed with terminal leukemia, an Inter-Varsity staff worker who suffered from chronic depression, a woman confined to bed for years with back pain, and the list could go on and on.

I know that there are many in the congregation this morning who need comfort, who have endured pain, bereavement, unemployment, sickness, loneliness and depression. May Isaiah’s words speak to you this morning. May you know that Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, has shared in your suffering. May you also know the healing presence of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, on a daily basis in your life. At the same time, especially as we celebrate this Advent season and as we celebrate Jesus’ coming to us, may we never keep that comfort to ourselves, but allow the Holy Spirit use even our weakness to bring comfort and encouragement to others.

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