Words of Comfort

Reading: Isaiah 40.1-11
A number of years ago I heard the late Rev. S.Y. Potter describe a time he was in Tokyo for an international Christian Endeavour convention. On the Sunday he preached in the American Services Chapel. As the congregation left, they shook his hand and everyone - young and old alike - made comments like, "Thank you, Pastor!" " Lovely sermon, Pastor!" "Fine sermon, Pastor!" "Liked it very much, Pastor!"... He then recalled preaching in a Queensland country church where a woman came to him afterwards and said, "Mr Potter, you irritated me this morning!" "Did I?" he replied. "That's good! That is what I was wanting to do!"

Someone has said that the Christian gospel is meant to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable! Do you agree? That's fine, of course, provided the comforting is for us, and the disturbance ... ? "I hope so-and-so is listening this morning. He/she sure needs it!"

For quite some time now, many Biblical scholars have assumed that Isaiah couldn't have written all of the book of Isaiah. It has been assumed that there were at least two authors, perhaps more. The original Isaiah, they say, wrote before the Exile and warned of divine judgment. A second author - Deutero-Isaiah - wrote comfort to God's people in exile.

Personally, I have never felt the necessity of this kind of division. Indeed, it is rather presumptuous, inferring that Isaiah was sharing his own thoughts and concerns rather than a genuine "word of the Lord". Further, it separates too sharply between judgment and grace. And where there are references to a faithful remnant, not very much direct comfort is offered to them.

The real question is whether we accept the seriousness of human sin to an extent which enables us to grasp the wonder of God's redemptive love. Have we grasped the necessity of the cross? that it was "necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into his glory" - as the Stranger said to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus? Somehow we have cheapened grace to niceness, rather than recognised God's unmerited (and costly) favour towards sinners.

Human Fragility

We have a tendency to consider ourselves invincible and invest our works with permanence.

Isaiah, however, proclaims the fragility of human life and the impermanence of all we do. "Proclaim that all mankind are like grass; they last no longer than wild flowers. Grass withers and flowers fade, when the Lord sends the wind blowing over them. People are no more enduring than grass. Yes, grass withers and flowers fade, but the word of our God endures for ever" (vv.6b-8).

Turner, creator of CNN, the Cable News Network, told members of the National Newspaper Association in Atlanta that the biblical Ten Commandments do not relate to current global problems, such as overpopulation and the arms race.

"We're living with outmoded rules," Turner said. "The rules we're living under are the Ten Commandments, and I bet nobody here even pays much attention to 'em, because they are too old.

"When Moses went up on the mountain, there were no nuclear weapons, there was no poverty. Today, the commandments wouldn't go over. Nobody around likes to be commanded. Commandments are out."

Turner's words certainly reflect some of the prevailing convictions of our time. We've come of age. We can make it by ourselves. We don't need God and his rules.

Yet the further our violence-ridden civilisation goes along this track, the more relevant those ten rules seem to be to any who consider them. Our lives are fragile and impermanent. It is God's word that endures for ever.

Prepare the Way!

So we are called on to "prepare in the wilderness a road for the Lord! Clear the way in the desert for our God!" (v.3)

In contrast to the fact of our human fragility which certain periods of human history force us to recognise is the permanence, power and promised rescue of our God. The Jewish people had experienced this at a number of specific points in their history. For the Israelites in slavery in Egypt, there was a great desire for a road for them to travel through the wilderness to the Promised Land. Such a road could have taken them much more directly by a coastal route - and brought them all unprepared and uncoordinated towards certain defeat. Instead, they did not take a road for them through the wilderness, but "a road for the Lord". There was much to learn, and especially there was to be a meeting with the Lord at Mount Sinai.

For the beleaguered believing remnant, was there a hope that the Lord will rescue us from this hard place? Certainly, for the Jews in exile there was the expectation that the Lord is coming to bring us back home.

In the New Testament, the four Gospel writers all state that John the Baptist saw himself fulfilling this passage. In John's ministry it was far more than an affirmation that God is coming to the rescue. Yes, God is about to send his promised one, the Messiah of Jewish expectation. "Turn away from your sins, because the Kingdom of heaven is near!" (Mt.3.2).

In the midst of the situation where we feel our direst inadequacy, our deepest need is to repent and return to the Lord. The generation that doesn't like to be commanded has to learn repentance - to prepare a road for the Lord, to clear the way for him to come to us!

Comfort!

For the Lord is offering comfort and encouragement, if we will be open enough to receive them. The prophet's message brings comfort to the disturbed and disturbs the comfortable!

"Comfort" - to strengthen together - the Hebrew word thinking of compassion and care. In the old Bible we hear Jesus speaking of the Holy Spirit as the "Comforter" - in the Greek a word which simply means one called alongside - the "Helper" in the Good News Bible.

I read recently about a woman who telephoned a friend and asked how she was feeling. "Terrible," came the reply, "my head's splitting and my back and legs are killing me. The house is a mess, and the kids are simply driving me crazy." Very sympathetically the caller said, "Listen, go and lie down, I'll come over right away and cook lunch for you, clean up the house, and take care of the children while you get some rest. By the way, how is your husband Sam?"

"Sam?" the complaining housewife gasped. "I don't have any husband called Sam around here!"

"My heavens," exclaimed the first woman, "I must have dialled the wrong number."

There was a long pause."Are you still coming over?" the second asked hopefully.

We are weak and vulnerable! We are also wayward! We need help! We need the Lord! He is able and ready to help! We need to prepare the road for the Lord - with repentance and expectant faith!

"He will take care of his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs together and carry them in his arms; he will gently lead their mothers" (v. 11).

Jesus said he had come to seek and to rescue the one that was lost - like the one sheep out of the flock of one hundred, or the one coin out of ten, or the one wayward son... (Lk. 15).

"I am the good shepherd. As the father knows me and I know the Father, in the same way I know my sheep and they know me. And I am willing to die for them. There are other sheep which belong to me that are not in this sheepfold. I must bring them, too; they will listen to my voice, and they will become one flock with one shepherd" (Jn. 10.14-16).

Do you hear him! He comes, not just to lend a hand, but to bring life!


© Peter J. Blackburn, Buderim Uniting Church, 16 February 1997
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the Good News Bible, © American Bible Society, 1992.

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