Comfort, My People

Scriptures: Isaiah 40:1-11; Mark 1:1-8

As I noted also a couple of weeks ago, when reading from the book of Isaiah, the book of Isaiah is divided into two parts. The first 39 chapters deal with the impending judgment, and the second part deals with forgiveness and deliverance. The first 39 chapters deal with sin, but the last 27 deal with a Savior.

The first 39 chapters warned of the destruction of the nation and the deportation of the people to foreign lands. The people had abandoned their God, and He would now, seemingly, abandon them. The first part of the book is heavy and, some would say, plodding, but beginning with this chapter the language soars with majestic eloquence and wondrous hope.

I’m sure that all of you have heard Handel’s Messiah. Every time I read this I can’t help but have that recitative, “Comfort Ye,” going through my head. I wish I could still sing it, but my voice just can’t handle it anymore.

There were three things which Isaiah would have to say to the people, here in this section. First, Isaiah spoke of an everlasting comfort. What they would need as captive slaves in Babylon was comfort. They did not need Isaiah to shake the finger at this point and say, “I told you so.” They needed to hear that God still cared for them and that there was hope.

And that is the word that came from God to Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins”

Now, it is interesting that the Hebrew word Isaiah uses for comfort is also a word which can be translated “repent.” The word is nâham, and its root has the idea of breathing deeply. It can therefore mean to breathe deeply with sorrow for your sin, or to breathe deeply as you give comfort and console someone.

The idea is that God’s comfort comes as a result the people’s repentance. Because they have breathed deeply in repentance, God has breathed deeply as He consoled and comforted them. Isaiah had said to them, “in repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength.” Now they were finally ready to receive it.

In ancient times, when there were no superhighways, history tells us that months before a king’s entourage would set out on a journey, the call would go before him: “Prepare the way for the king. Make a straight way in the wilderness and a highway for the king.”

The people would run before the king to remove any obstacles and fill in the rough places in his path. They would build a road and fill in small valleys and dig through the hills so the king’s progress would be smooth and unhindered. Their reward was to see the king coming in all of his royal splendor.

This was the great comfort the people longed for. However, the idea of comfort here is not like the comfort we usually think of. But the idea of comfort comes from the two Latin words: com fortis – literally translated it means “with strength.”

God’s way of giving comfort is to give us the strength to do what needs to be done. As his strength comes, grief and sorrow go. The situation may not have changed, but we have a new ability to face it and deal with it, even as the Israelites did.

The people to whom Isaiah was speaking needed strength to face the journey home, and the rebuilding once they got there – the huge job of rebuilding the temple and the city. They were going to need a lot of strength and encouragement. Sometimes God’s comfort comes by forcing us to change and grow. Someone has said that the Spirit of God comes to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

There’s a story I read that says someone once asked a paratrooper how many times he had jumped out of the plane while he was in the military. He said, “None.” His friend said, “What do you mean, ‘none,’ I thought you were a paratrooper?” He said, “I was, but I never jumped. I was pushed several times… but I never jumped.” That is what the military calls encouragement.

Sometimes we too need a little shove. But along with the shove, God gives us renewed courage and strength to do what he is calling us to do. In the end, it hopefully becomes something we want to do.

Now, the other way that God comforted the people was by letting them know he would take care of their enemies. No one could imagine the possibility of Babylon being destroyed, at that time. But God assured them

All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fade, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fade, but the word of our God stands forever.

You see, God was saying that no matter how powerful the Babylonians appeared, they were but grass.

This is Isaiah’s second point, in this passage. Not only did Isaiah speak of an everlasting comfort, Isaiah spoke of the everlasting Word of God. When all other claims to truth have had their say, the Word of God will stand alone in the end. Everything else changes. Philosophies come and go, but God’s Word remains abiding.

This [holds up the Bible] is God’s Word. It was God’s Word yesterday; it is God’s Word today, and it will be God’s Word 5000 years from now. Kingdoms will rise and fall. Ideas will come and go. The values of the world may change, but God’s Word will remain the one constant in a world of change and confusion.

Throughout history we have seen the Church and the Word endure. The emperor Diocletian tried to revive the old pagan religions of Rome by persecuting and killing Christians. He even set up a stone pillar in his honor, inscribed with the words that he wanted to describe his legacy: “For Having Exterminated The Name Christian From the Earth.” If only he knew how far short of his goal he fell!

Another Roman leader made a coffin, symbolizing his intention to “bury the Galilean” by killing Christ’s followers. He eventually admitted that he could not put the Master in his coffin.

The Waldensians represented the history of the church with a picture of an anvil with many worn-out hammers lying all around it. At the bottom of the picture these words are inscribed: “One Anvil — Many Hammers.” The Word of God endures forever.

Isaiah spoke of an everlasting comfort, and he told of the everlasting Word of God, and thirdly he spoke of an everlasting strength.

Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.

Those who were in exile lost hope, and because of that they lost their strength and desire to go on. Even the young were beaten down, weary and defeated. But those who placed their hope and trust in God did not lose heart, and they did not lose strength — regardless of their age. Their hearts and minds soared as they thought about what God was going to do.

I think we need to take a page from that book. It seems like, right now, the Word is being overwhelmed by the world, that enemies are growing stronger all around us, with the intention of driving the Christian faith out of the world. Out of culture. Out of people’s lives.

We see decision after decision, from universities, from businesses, from the court system, seeming to go against the Christian faith. And it’s hard to watch. Sometimes, I admit even I want to say, “Forget this. You know, let the world go to hell in a handbasket. I’m just going to withdraw.”

But we can’t do that. We need to take comfort from our God and His promises that He has given us, the assurances of a future we have, His presence and power with us.

We would all like to mount up with wings like eagles, full of hope. But as someone has said, “It’s hard to soar with the eagles when you are surrounded by turkeys.” But you know, that’s a cop-out. When God shows up, it really doesn’t matter who is around you. Or it shouldn’t.

Chickens and turkeys can fly, actually, but they rarely do because they are most comfortable on the ground. Sparrows and other small birds fly, but they mostly use their wings to get from one tree to another.

But eagles, though – eagles soar. They have great power and freedom. They are destined for the skies. Like them, we have a different Spirit in us than those who are content to be ground dwellers. We have a higher calling. We are destined for the skies.

God’s Spirit is in us and he is calling to us to soar with him. By the way, just because we are Christians and we say we’re Christians does not mean we are using our wings. Sometimes it seems like we’re just as comfortable on the ground as the turkeys.

We soar by waiting on him and responding to his call. By standing firm for our faith in a hostile world. By not being afraid to share the Gospel and the good news of Jesus Christ. By being willing to reach out, to take a chance, to bring others in contact with the King of kings and Lord of lords.

We trust in God, spreading our wings and using the strength He has given us, to testify and witness to His faithfulness.

Someone once said, “There are two lasting bequests we can give to our children. One is roots; the other is wings.” We can teach our children that there is a strength that comes from God that is greater than our own.

We can teach them to wait on him and trust him, even when everything looks hopeless. We can teach them that Isaiah wrote about an everlasting strength, an everlasting hope, an everlasting comfort, an everlasting truth, an everlasting kingdom, and an everlasting God.

But the best thing we can do is to show them the reality of God’s faithfulness as we model it in our lives. We can be living examples of hope. Living sources of comfort. Living proof of the reliability of God’s Word. Living examples of a strength that comes from God.

We can mount up with wings like eagles. We can be the people whom God spoke to through Isaiah, taking comfort in Him, and celebrating the redemption that is ours through Jesus Christ, for we are His children.

Look to the child, look to the man, look to the Savior who is Christ, and look to the future; and trust in the love of God – for you. And celebrate with joy, this Advent season, the coming of the Lord.

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