Sermon – Advent 2 – “Comfort, Comfort” – Isaiah 40:1-11 – 12/4/11

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Take a deep breath. That’s what ‘nachum’ means. ‘Nachum, nachum,’ ‘Breath deeply, breath deeply. ‘Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.’ If only it were that simple.

How do you comfort someone who has lost a child or a grandchild? How do you comfort someone who has lost a husband or a wife? How do you comfort a child whose friend told them they don’t want to be their friend anymore? How do you comfort a husband whose wife has told him she doesn’t want to be his wife anymore? How do you comfort a wife whose husband has left her for another woman?

How do you comfort father Jacob believes that his son Joseph is dead? ‘And all of Jacob’s sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him, but he refused to be comforted.’

How do you comfort Rachael at the slaughter of her children? ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.” (Jeremiah 31:15)

How do you comfort Job at the loss of his possessions, his servants, his sons and daughters, his health? ‘Now when Job’s three friends heard of all this evil that had come upon him, they came each from his own place, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. They made an appointment together to come to show him sympathy and comfort him.’ (Job 2:11) But Job would not be comforted.

How do you comfort the abused and oppressed? Solomon says, you don’t even bother with them. ‘I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them.’ (Eccles. 4:1)

How do you comfort the troubled soul? And maybe that troubled soul is you. Troubled because you sinned. And it’s not just that you sinned, but that it happened so easily. You knew better, you vowed to the Lord to walk in His ways, but when the moment of testing came, you hardly put up fight, there was hardly any resistance. The Psalmist tried to find comfort from reading the Scriptures and praying. ‘In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted.’ (Psalm 77:2)

Maybe you know how hard it is to find the right words to say to someone who is grieving or heartbroken or terribly guilty. You say, ‘lift up your heart.’ But their heart hardly moves. You’re so afraid of saying the wrong thing, that you say nothing at all. You don’t know what to do to comfort them so you do nothing at all.

Or maybe you’re the one who refuses to be comforted. Oh, you’ve learned to accept it and live with it and get on with you life, because after all, what else can you do. But comforted? How can you be comforted when someone so precious was taken from you? When someone you trusted has betrayed you? When someone so much stronger than you, richer than you, more powerful than you, did such a thing to you? Comfort? No, ‘My soul refuses to be comforted.’

Yet in spite of all of our weakness and inability to comfort those who mourn; and despite our own refusal to be comforted in our sorrow and distress, there comes a word into this room today that is powerful and effective and able to do just what it says. And that word says, ‘comfort, comfort my people, says your God.’

He calls you, ‘my people.’ You belong to Him. This is covenant language here. ‘Let MY PEOPLE go.’ ‘I brought MY PEOPLE out of Egypt.’ ‘You shall shepherd MY PEOPLE.’ ‘He was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of MY PEOPLE?

Nothing can separate ‘your God’ from ‘MY PEOPLE.’ ‘Not tribulation or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword.’ (Rom.8:35) And not your refusal to be comforted either.

‘Says YOUR GOD.’ This is all about ‘says your God.’ Not ‘says your heart,’ or ‘says your head,’ or ‘says your horoscope,’ or ‘says your TV,’ or ‘says your radio,’ but ‘says your God.’ Again, covenant language. ‘I am the Lord, YOUR GOD.’ He is binding Himself to you and you to Himself by His Word, and His Word stands forever. “I am the Lord YOUR GOD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.’ ‘You shall be MY PEOPLE and I will be YOUR GOD.’

God’s people are those who need to be comforted, because they have been wounded and broken by the power of sin and evil, both in the world and in their own heart. To every heart that is afflicted, either because of the sin that it has committed or because of the sin that has been committed against it, ‘YOUR GOD’ comes to ‘MY PEOPLE’ to give His COMFORT, comfort that this world can not give. ‘Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.’

‘Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.’ Literally, it’s ‘speak to the heart.’ Not harshly, like a master to his slaves or a supervisor to his employees, but like a lover to His beloved. His Word carries His heart to you and lays it down right next to your heart and the beat of His pure heart is a pacemaker for your troubled heart.

Take a deep breath.

He speaks tenderly, ‘your warfare is ended.’ The battle is over the victory is won. ‘It is finished’, says YOUR GOD. ‘I am your consolation.’

He speaks tenderly, ‘your iniquity is pardoned.’ The iniquity you committed, and the iniquity that was committed against you. ‘The Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.’ ‘He was crushed for our iniquities.’

He speaks tenderly, ‘you have received from the Lord’s hand double for all of your sins.’ Not double punishment, but double ‘comfort.’ Again, this covenant language. The firstborn son receives a double share of the father’s estate. Not just ‘comfort,’ but ‘comfort, comfort.’ Not fleeting and temporary like the grass and the flowers that wither and fade, but sturdy and solid and lasting and real.

Please do not mistake the ‘comfort, comfort’ that YOUR GOD speaks tenderly to your heart as though He were promising to make you ‘comfortable, comfortable.’ There is nothing comfortable about loss and betrayal and death. Nor should we think that the goal here is to become comfortable with the pain and betrayal and death. ‘God must have wanted your child in heaven.’ ‘God must have a different plan in mind for you.’ ‘You’ll get over it.’ To call what is ‘evil,’ ‘good,’ or even ‘God’s will’ is no comfort.

In fact, what the voice says is, ‘In the WILDERNESS prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the DESERT a highway for our God.’ The ‘wilderness’ is a hostile place and the conditions are harsh, and life in the wilderness is hard. And it’s not TO THE WILDERNESS that you need to go to find the Lord YOUR GOD. YOU ARE IN THE WILDERNESS. You live in a spiritual desert. Call it the condition of the culture of the day, call it the condition of your heart. It’s a barren wasteland either way. And it’s into the wilderness that the Lord, YOUR GOD comes to MY PEOPLE to comfort, comfort you.

Do we not pray that that day would come and come quickly. ‘Come Lord Jesus, and give us that comfort that only you can give.’ Isn’t this what Advent is all about? The longing for the Lord to come and come soon. Come quickly! For mercies sake, don’t wait until we make the ‘way straight, and lift up the valleys and level the mountains and smooth the rough places’ in our heart. If that’s what it takes for you to come, then that is no comfort, because that’ll never happen. You ‘stir up our hearts, O Lord, to make ready the way of Your only-begotten Son.’

But St. Peter cautions us to be patient. After all, the Israelites were the ‘people of God’ just like we are. And they were in the wilderness for 40 years before the Lord led them out. The Israel that Isaiah is prophetically writing to would be in captivity in Babylon for 40 years too. But what must have seemed like a lifetime to them was only an hour or so for the Lord. ‘Do not overlook this one fact, BELOVED, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day. The Lord is not slow in fulfilling his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that nay should perish, but that all should reach repentance.’ (2Peter 3:8-9).

So when we hear that a man named John was in the wilderness, calling people to repentance and baptizing them into the Lord’s ‘comfort, comfort,’ we know that the time has fully come. By his preaching and teaching and baptizing, John is the voice in the wilderness who ‘stirs up our hearts to make ready the way of the only-begotten Son.’

John pointed his bony finger at Jesus and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’ In Him, ‘the glory of the Lord is revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’ ‘BEHOLD YOUR GOD.’

And no sooner did John point Him out to us and baptize Him, but ‘He was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness.’ And there, in the wilderness, He confronts your demons and faces your devils and He DOES NOT whither or fade like the grass and the flowers. ‘The Word of our God stands forever.’ He is the Word of God.

And He comes to you ‘with might, and his arm rules for him. Behold, His reward is with Him and His recompense goes before Him.’ ‘Recompense’ is not a word that we use very much and might not be sure of it’s meaning. ‘Recompense’ is ‘compensation.’ He pays the ‘compensation’ for the damage done to you. And He pays the ‘compensation’ for the damage that you’ve have done to others on your behalf. He comes to you with ‘reward and ‘recompense.’

Yet for all of His might and power, He comes with gentleness and tenderness. ‘He will tend his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.’ It’s easy to miss what’s being said here because it’s a cultural thing. Middle eastern shepherds of the day would wear a robe over their clothes. And opening in the top of half of the robe was for the little lambs that were tired. He would gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in that fold of his robe, and they would lie next at His bosom. He would lay them next to His heart.

AND HE WOULD SPEAK TENDERLY TO THEM. ‘You are MY PEOPLE and I AM YOUR GOD.’ ‘Your warfare is over. Your iniquity is pardoned.’ I have taken all of your sins away from you and I have healed all of the damage done to you. ‘I give you double for all of your sins.’ Grace upon grace, peace upon peace, joy upon joy and life upon life, comfort upon comfort.

Be patient little lambs. Be patient. The day will surely come when you will ‘Behold your God!’ And the ‘glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.’ Jacob will see it and be comforted. Rachael will see and be comforted. Job will see it and be comforted. And you will see it, and you will be comforted, finally, fully, forever.
Take a deep breath.

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