A reading and reflection for Monday, December 10, 2012.
The ninth day of Advent.
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Isaiah 40:1-11 NRSV
In the middle of this Advent season where we have been preaching repentance, that sacred act of turning away from destructive practices and habits, we encounter this word of comfort from the prophet Isaiah. If you're at all familiar with Handel's Messiah, you'll recognize the root of some of the more memorable movements from the oratorio: "Comfort Ye My People"; "Ev'ry Valley Shall Be Exalted"; "And the Glory of the Lord;" "O Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion" and "He Shall Feed His Flock Like a Shepherd". All of these movements from Handel are taken word for word from the King James version of Isaiah 40:1-11. Sharp-eyed readers will also recognize the text that Luke cites from yesterday's reading: "In the desert prepare the way of the Lord..." (Lk. 3:4-6)
This is a theologically rich text filled with themes of comfort, preparation, human finitude, the heralding of good news, God's shepherding relationship with his people. It's no wonder this text became the basis for so much of the early portions of Messiah; it is a text that demands a melody.
Isaiah is an interesting book in the Bible. It's sixty-six chapters are commonly divided into three sections, each section being written by a different person. First Isaiah (Isa. 1-39) came first chronologically, being written sometime before the Babylonian captivity of the people of God. It tends to employ the language of coming judgement and doom as a result of their rebellion and sin. Second Isaiah (Isa. 40-55) was probably composed at the close of the Babylonian captivity, a time when God was preparing to return the people to their city and their land. And the final portion, Third Isaiah (Isa. 56-66) is quite poetic and was likely written following the people's return from captivity.
The text assigned for today is from the first chapter of the second section of Isaiah and it is brimming with comfort. The bulk of the text is directed toward the prophet, the person who was communicating God's messages to the people. The messenger is directed to "speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that she has served her term and that her penalty is paid." For the people groaning under the weight of exile and captivity, prisoners of war following the Babylonian invasion of their lands, surely this was good news.
The phrase, "Comfort, comfort O my people" is a summary statement of all that follows. The command to "speak tenderly" seems to be explained by three different modes of speech in this passage. The prophet speaks tenderly to the people of God by calling them to repentance, self-awareness, and proclamation.
1. A voice cries out, "In the wilderness..." (vs. 3-5): Here the comfort God is providing his people demands repentance, demands that they turn away from those practices which harm their relationship with one another and with God. "Make straight in the desert a highway for our God" might seem to suggest that in Babylon ("the desert") a clear pathway for the way of God needs to be made. The road has been cluttered and needs to be swept, leveled, and straightened. This is metaphorical language for the internal and external process by which a person disciplines himself or herself by the law of God. Even in the wilderness, prepare a way for the Lord. Even when things seem to be too chaotic, too out of control, too life-threatening. Prepare a way for the Lord.
2. A voice says, "Cry out!"...(vs. 6-8): This mode of speech testifies to human finitude, especially in light of the eternal nature of God's Word (v. 8). "All people are grass...the grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever." Repentance leads to a profound self-awareness rooted in our own finality and finitude. In the grand scheme of things, we are not eternal beings, we are more like grass, the prophet says, and grass eventually will wither. The stuff of humanity is bound to wither and die, this is normal and part of the human life cycle. But in stark opposition to this talk of death and decay, the prophet reminds the people that God's word will stand forever. The Gospel of John develops this claim a bit further when he says: "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God." (John 1:1). God's word is nothing like a human word for it lasts forever. It, therefore, is trustworthy, and sure, for what human voice has lingered throughout the ages?
3. Lift up your voice... (vs. 9-10): The third rhetorical movement of this text is the final command to the prophet to "Get up to a high mountain...lift up your voice with strength...lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!" The final call to the prophet, after repentance and self-awareness, is to proclaim God's arrival. Here, as in other places, I prefer the King James: "Lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!"
Behold, your God. That phrase is powerful. In our actions and our words, we stand with the prophet as we say to those around us: "Behold, your God!" Look, there God is! Did you see God? Could you sense God's presence? As we worship together, as we celebrate our forgiveness, as we feed the hungry, as we clothe the naked, as we visit those in prison, as we reach out to the lonely members of our city, we, like the prophet are proclaiming: "Behold your God!" We are to be on the lookout for ways to lift up our voices with strength and declare: "Behold, God is here!"
In the New Testament, the irony is of course that God was presented to the people again, this time as a human person. But when we got a good look at the incarnate Deity, we sent him to a cross.
"And it was the preparation of the passover, and about the sixth hour: and he saith unto the Jews, Behold your King! But they cried out, Away with him, away with him, crucify him." (John 19:14)
This advent season, let us be sufficiently aware of God's presence in our lives, let us lift up our eyes and be on the lookout for God's activity around us. Let us be preparing ourselves to be the sentry on the mountains, to fearlessly cry out with strength in our voice: "Behold, O people, behold your God!"
And in the day of the Lord, when our Lord Christ, whom we crucified, shall return, we look forward to the comfort which lasts forever. We look forward to the day when God "will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them at his breast, and gently lead the mother sheep." (v. 11). Amen, come Lord Jesus, come!
We've discussed the fact that we are called to proclaim God's arrival. We do this through our words and our actions. On this PDF document, think of ways you can begin doing this today. What are some specific ways you can announce God's presence? Think of it this way: If God is really present in your life, in everything, with everyone, what should that mean for you in how you communicate, how you act, how you serve? What are the tangible ways you make it known that God is present? Print out the PDF file, fill it in, and put it on your fridge or in your house somewhere visible.
Click here for a PDF file.