Download or listen to Advent Midweek II: “Comfort or Comfortable?” (Isaiah 40:1-11)
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
How do you convince people who are comfortable where they are that they need to go somewhere they’ve never been? How do you convince people who have nice jobs, adequate leisure time, a life that is more or less what they would choose, and freedom to worship the God of their choice, that where they are is not where they should be—that it is never where they were meant to be? That’s Isaiah’s task. God has given him a prophecy for those who will be in exile in Babylon; a promise that God will not forget them and that He will bring them back to the Land of Promise. If Isaiah is not speaking the Word of God, it’s an impossible task. If he is, well, I’m not sure the odds are much better. The people of Israel are going into exile in Babylon, and, by the time the exiles read or hear Isaiah’s words, most of the original exiles, their parents, will be dead. And the children of those original exiles will be comfortable. They will hear Isaiah’s words two or three hundred years after the fact, and how could they possibly be moved? He’s just a long-dead prophet, and things have changed. Sure, it might have been bad when our parents had to leave Jerusalem; it was their home. It’s not ours. Sure, the Babylonians might have done some bad things back then, but we have no problems getting along now. “Comfort”? Double comfort? Quadruple comfort? You don’t need comfort if you’re already comfortable. You don’t need the embrace of the Gospel if you’ve never felt the claws of the Law.
Many of us do go through hard times, and many of us have to deal with things that bring us to the point of physical, mental, and spiritual exhaustion. But for most of us, most of the time, we’ve got it pretty good. How many of us have a car that wasn’t made in the last ten years? How many of us don’t have a cell phone that can do more than we will ever need? A computer, heat in our homes, money to eat at restaurants, a job? In the vast majority of the world, most of that would be answered ‘no.’ I’m not saying this tonight to make you feel guilty; you already know as well as I do that we are a long way from giving until it hurts. According to my sinful flesh, I give so long as it doesn’t hurt. The point is, we’re comfortable. Our complaints would be unrecognizable by most of the world; they are complaints that only people who live in a prosperous nation could have. A prosperous nation like Babylon—or the United States. But what is it all worth? What is it worth for the grass of the field to grow lovely wild flowers? What is it worth, in the end, for the people, like grass, to gather all of this stuff to decorate their lives? “For [God] sees that even the wise die; the fool and the stupid alike must perish and leave their wealth to others” (Psalm 49:10).
When God sends a messenger to clear the way for the coming Messiah, He doesn’t mean to get rid of sin only. It’s not only about raising up the low places, the bitter, shameful moments when we’ve realized that it is our sin that has got us into this mess in the first place; it is also about the good things, the very real blessings of God that we turn into comfortable couches of certainty. And they are anything but certain. Well, one thing’s certain: they will wither and fade as surely as you can look outside now and see nothing but brown grass prepared for the death of winter. Maybe we’re not so well off as we thought. Maybe prosperity, or even simply being comfortable, has no relationship at all to the sort of comfort Isaiah is promising. Maybe Babylon, or America, is not our home. Maybe all of this is going to be blown away by the Spirit of Yahweh. And then, what?
Well, once Isaiah has dislocated us from our ideas and perceptions of comfort, he does not leave us without the promise of God Himself. The promise is that God’s comfort does not depend on us at all: it is His preparation, His Word, His fight, His victory, His reward. We are grass, and the only thing we’ve prepared for the Lord’s coming is evil and apathy and faithlessness and pride. But still He comes. Still His Word will stand. Still He will come and shepherd His own people; He will gather up the helpless lambs in His arms; He will lead them all to the place of rest and living water.
When God made good on His promise through the mouth of Isaiah, that He would return the people to their land, only a small minority returned to Jerusalem. Jerusalem was in ruins, and to all human appearances, there was nothing there to return to. Didn’t matter. God’s promise was good; and so it was that in that city, 600 years later, a man named Zechariah would receive a promise that his son would prepare the way of the Lord. In that city, the Word of Yahweh would prove good, as His Son marched forth to war, appeared to be defeated, but was finally victorious in resurrection. And from the fulfillment of that promise, Isaiah’s words still ring clear, 2000 years later: Speak tenderly, speak to the heart, of My exiled people; cry out to her that her time of warfare and slavery has been finished by My own Son, and her sin is forgiven. I give you double—not double punishment, but double comfort, more than enough—to cover all your sin. “For thus says [Yahweh]: ‘You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money’” (52:3). And still there’s more. City of God, Church, proclaim it, all the more as we wait for His coming: ‘Behold your God!’ Your God, in a manger. Your God, on a cross. Your God, coming again, bringing the spoils of His fight and the reward for His work with Him: the holy ones covered in His blood. He will not fail to lead all His own to the place He has prepared for them. “The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice; together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of [Yahweh] to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for [Yahweh] has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem. [Yahweh] has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God” (52:8-10). “O come, o come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.”
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/7/11