Isaiah 40: 1-11, Mark 1: 1-8
Today’s reading from Isaiah starts with the words that are the first you hear in Handel’s Messiah:
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God”.
Of all the things our world needs for Christmas, maybe “Comfort” should be top of the list. The weather finally feels wintry, so I’m sure I’m not the only one who has turned to comfort food, comfy warm clothes & seeking the warmth and comfort of home after a hard day.
And if this week, in your warm home at the end of a cold day, you have turned on the radio or the TV, or read a newspaper, you may be more in need of comfort than ever.
Tragedies – for families, for whole countries, for the most vulnerable, abound: the terrible story of the death of Charlotte Bevan and her baby daughter in the Avon Gorge; continued suffering in Syria, talk of financial cuts that will take social services down to the lowest level since the 1930s.
It seems our world is in a terrible state.
We need comfort – but where can we find it?
Isaiah should know about the need for comfort. What we have just heard comes from a part of the book written at a time when the people of God were in exile. The Babylonian army had invaded Jerusalem and taken away many of the people and all of the leaders into Babylon. The people were in a terrible state – either left at home with no leaders, or living in a strange land among a strange people.
This was the time when (In Psalm 137) the psalmist writes ‘by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion’.
To these people in the misery of their predicament, the prophet speaks the word of God : ‘Comfort’.
I wonder whether the word comfort is too soft for what the prophet believes God has in mind.
We use ‘comfort’ as the name for a fabric softener, we speak of comfort blankets and comfort zones. If you were to comfort someone you might imagine something soothing, full of platitudes – but the prophet is certainly not wanting to just say ‘there, there’ to God’s people!
Isaiah’s comfort has much more of a sense of purpose – almost force. The prophet is told to cry out to the people and assure them that although it might feel as if God has abandoned them, God is still with them, and will give Jerusalem ‘double for all her sins’. The pain and suffering is very real, but God will give them enough to sort out all their problems and more.
When the prophet speaks of the valleys being lifted up and the mountains and hills being made low, he may be speaking of the lengths people will go to, to prepare the way for God to come. But he might also be talking about the effect on the lives of people when God does come.
We all know about the peaks and troughs of life. We may never have experienced being held against our will in a foreign land, but none of our lives are immune from the holes into which we sometimes find we’ve sunk – illness, depression, financial worries, concerns about family or friends. There are times when we feel we have sunk into a pit.
The prophet says, more than that he declares, he cries out - that God will come and the valleys – and everyone in them – will be lifted up. God’s word of comfort is a promise that he will not leave us to languish – he will rescue us.
The prophet is realistic about our human lives ‘surely the people are like grass…the grass withers, the flower fades’ - we know the uncertainty of life – the only certain thing is that it will come to an end.
But by contrast, the word of the Lord will stand forever – God’s presence and God’s rescue is a certainty in our uncertain world.
However bad life feels, however deep the pit, however shaky our foundations, the prophet Isaiah declares to God’s people then and now “Here is your God!”.
This is not a promise of comfort at some undefined point of the future – this is a promise that God is here, now, with us.
And God has come to act, not to offer platitudes or to sprinkle fairy dust.
He will feed his flock, gather the lambs, carry them, and gently lead the mother sheep.
This is the God who saves his people from their pit.
Real comfort is to be found not in words which make us feel better, but in a properly worked out escape plan!
You might wonder whether Isaiah’s phrase ‘for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it’ is focussed too much on words and not on action, but the great thing about the gift of God’s word is that it is an active force.
When God speaks – things happen. Remember way back in the beginning of the account of creation – each thing is brought into existence by the word of God – God says ‘let there be light’ and there is light.
So when God says ‘The glory of the Lord shall be revealed’ – that glory is already here. The word of God is timeless – it is for the past, present and future – and promises us the comfort of God’s presence with us for all time.
So the beginning of Mark’s gospel sees the fulfilment in that time of Isaiah’s prophecy of a messenger preparing the way of the Lord with the coming of John the Baptist.
John declares that the glory of the Lord is to be revealed in the one who comes after him, Jesus – the one who will call himself Good Shepherd, who will come to save all God’s people.
So as Advent continues and Christmas draws closer, receive the gift of real comfort - the promise of God’s presence with us forever. Receive the gift, live in the knowledge of the comfort and salvation God offers, and be ready to share that gift with all who need to hear it this Christmas.
In the name of Jesus – the one who comes to us. Amen.