Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 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. A voice cries out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 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, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ 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. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever. 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!’ See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 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.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Isaiah 40, our scripture today, is the beginning of what scholars call Second Isaiah. The book of Isaiah is actually believed to have been written by three different authors at three different time periods. First Isaiah which consists of chapters one through thirty-nine is a book of judgment. Dealing with the sin of Israel’s arrogance and greed that led to massive disparities between the rich and poor, and how God is going to judge their sin and bring them into a time of wilderness and exile. Isaiah 40 kicks off Second Isaiah which brings a softer tone to the people of Israel now that they are in exile. Third Isaiah, starting in chapter 55, comes after they return to Israel from exile and are rebuilding their lives. However for our text today, the people of Israel are in Babylon as slaves and a conquered people. After a long night of judgment, Isaiah 40 starts off with a word of comfort and hope.
The people of Israel are in exile. They have been removed from everything they have held dear. They have been separated from their religious system centered around worship at the Temple. They have lost their system of government with their God-ordained kings. They have been ripped apart from their families and sold into slavery of the conquering Babylon. Everything that they had been holding onto for safety and security has been stripped away.
And while this world of slavery and invasion seems very distant from our church life in America in 2020, I actually think there are many similarities that can help us glean a word of comfort and call. Since March and the lockdowns, so much of our normal life has been stripped away. In the face of duel pandemics of disease and racism our world has been exposed. And while it seems that we are getting closer and closer to a vaccine, I wonder what progress is being made to end systems of oppression and injustice for our siblings of color in this country. Our country is being laid bare. Its sins are being exposed and our complicities as well. Our religious systems are not protecting us from disease or racism. Our government structure is not moving quickly to provide relief or support. Our economic system has allowed a few to profit off of these pandemics while leaving millions unemployed. In this season of wilderness and exile and quarantine, we are laid bare. But we are also made ready for repentance. Because it is not until we have been exposed that we can begin to move toward repentance and healing.
This Advent season and the texts associated with it, move us on the path towards an honest and real reckoning with sin. Yes, I said it, sin. Sin is a word and concept that has often been abused by the powerful against the vulnerable but that is not what I mean. When I say sin, I mean the things that distort and damage our very soul, as well as distort and damage our neighbors and our world. The God of Isaiah comforts and judges, forgives and convicts. Not because God is cruel but because God sees that sin is destroying us. Sin is a living death filled with estrangement, disconnection, and disharmony. It is in the wilderness, in exile, when we are stripped bare and ready for repentance that we can finally move away from sin and into the love and life of the God of comfort and resurrection.
If you are anything like me, this is the perfect time for Isaiah 40 to step in and offer a word of comfort and call. Have you had moments this year where you turn on the news or read the paper or scroll through your news feed and it seems like just when you couldn’t handle anymore, one more terrible thing happens? I feel like that every week and it can be exhausting. I feel like I have been laid bare and exposed this year. From the difficulty of isolation and missing my family at major holidays and birthdays to my growing awareness of the deep roots of injustice in our world, I know my need for God. I long to be comforted by our God, I long to know God’s presence again, I long for the justice of God’s love to break through into our world.
“Comfort, O comfort my people.” “I have not abandoned you even if it feels that way. I will pull up valleys and flatten mountains to make a straight path towards you.”
There are two takeaways I think we should receive from this text this morning. First, God is preparing the way. The mountains that blocked our view of God are being made low. The valleys that made us feel trapped are being raised up. All are being given a level playing field so that all people shall see the glory of the Lord. Take comfort and know that God is preparing the way to come to you and to all people. That is what we celebrate in Advent.
And second, we are also called to prepare the way with God. A voice cries out to tell us “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” During this season of advent, this year of advent, we are called to prepare the way of the Lord. Advent is a season of preparation, preparing for the arrival of God! Make straight a way in the desert! Where do we see greed and power amassing upon the mountain tops? Let us help to bring them level. Where do we see injustice and oppression filling the valleys? Let us raise them up to a level playing field.
And in this way we prepare the way of the Lord. Preparing our hearts and minds and world for the coming of the Christ-child. To that Christmas morn when the soul feels its worth. That morn when the hope of the world is found. That morn when the dawn breaks on the long night of the soul. And we finally know that God has arrived. Amen.