Our goal for these mid-week Advent services will be the same as it is for every other worship service we come here for – “we want to see Jesus.” That’s the goal of worship when we gather here on Sunday mornings or for mid-week Lenten services or for funeral and wedding services.
The path that we plan to follow in these three Advent services is to hold up Jesus Christ before our ears by weaving together selected readings from the Scriptures and selected hymns that are based on those readings.
We tend to be pretty familiar with the Christmas hymns in our hymnal. We even hear them sometimes in the stores where we do our Christmas shopping. But I can’t say that I’ve ever heard an Advent hymn while shopping. And yet, the Advent hymns in our hymnal are real treasures worth taking hold of.
In reviewing the Advent section in our hymnal, I noticed that there was a nice, neat package of three hymns written by Johann Olearius. And those are the three that we will consider together during these services.
So let’s begin with just a bit of background on him.
First, Johann Olearius was a Lutheran pastor in Germany, as was his father and grandfather and great-grandfather. He had five sons, and at least one of them we know for sure became a Lutheran pastor.
The one thing that I think is safe to say about the Olearius’ is that they didn’t have much imagination when it came to picking names for their children. So, Johann Olearius’ father was named Johann Olearius. And Johann the son of Johann had five sons. And guess what he named all five of them? Johann. Thankfully, he gave each of them different middle names. Now, this makes it a little tricky to be sure we’re connecting the right Johann Olearius to the right hymn, especially since one of his sons, Johann Gottfried Olearius also was a hymn writer. We’ll come back to this next week.
The best way to keep all of the Johann’s separate is by their date of birth. The Johann Olearius that wrote the hymn we’re going to consider today was born in 1611. Although there are some who think that his son, Johann Gottfried, born in 1635 was really the author. But we’re going to go with the Johann Olearius of 1611.
One of his greatest contributions that Johann Olearius made to the church was that he compiled the largest and most influential hymnal of the 17th century. It contained 1,200 entries, (compare that to ours that has 966 entries.)
Johann Olearius wrote the hymn “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People” for the “Festival of the Birth of John the Baptist.”
Our approach is going to be consider the text of the hymn along with the Scripture text that it is drawn from. Most hymns are based on several Scripture texts that are woven together into one hymn. But with this one, Olearius was clearly focused on Isaiah 40:1-8.
I. Stanza 1
“Comfort, comfort, ye my people, speak of peace,” thus saith our God;
“Comfort those who sit in darkness, morning ‘neath their sorrows’ load.
Speak ye to Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them;
Tell her that her sins I cover and her warfare now is over.”
A. Translation – Catherine Winkworth
First of all, we notice that we’re reading this in English. It was originally written in German. The translator is one of the most prolific translators of German hymns into English – Catherine Winkworth. There are 46 hymns in our hymnal that were translated by her. And as you can see, she liked the language of ‘King James.’ And our hymnal has chosen to preserve most of that language just as she translated it.
One of the things that happens ‘in translation’ is that sometimes it doesn’t come out exactly the way the author wrote it. And sometimes, the translator adds some thoughts of her own. That we’ll see some of that in this hymn.
B. The direction of the text
The first thing that we want to try to do with every hymn and each stanza is to determine the ‘direction’ of the text. Who is speaking to whom?
• Is this a prayer from man to God?
• Is it a reflection of man speaking to his own heart?
• Is it a word that is being preached to people?
• Or is it a word from God that is being spoken to people,
• and what people in particular?
Establishing the direction of the speaking helps us to understand the hymn. And the direction can change during the course of the hymn.
The direction of this 1st stanza is of God speaking to people. But not ‘people’ in general. Here God is telling His messenger, His preacher, what he wants him to preach to His people.
The preacher is to preach a message of ‘comfort.’
In the Hebrew of the Old Testament, the word is “nachum.” Literally, it means, ‘BREATH DEEPLY.’ ‘TAKE A DEEP BREATH.’ Sometimes it’s translated as ‘comfort,’ and sometimes as ‘consolation.’
In the Greek of the New Testament, the word is ‘paraklaysis.’ That’s the word that we heard Paul repeat over and over to the Corinthians. “…the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all or affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort that we ourselves are comforted by God.”
Interestingly, the verb ‘paraklaysis’ is connected to the noun ‘paraklete.’ Jesus tells His disciples that He will send the “Paraclete” who, in many translations is called “the Comforter.”
So, God is telling His messenger to preach a message of “comfort” or “consolation” to His people. Here is one of those cases that we’ve talked about before where a word gets repeated two times for emphasis. “Don’t just ‘comfort’ them. Don’t just ‘console’ them. But ‘comfort, comfort’ them. ‘Make sure they are comforted.’ Make sure they’re consoled.
So, the prophet Isaiah is the preacher. He’s the messenger. And for Isaiah, this is a real change. Up to this point, Isaiah was told to preach “judgment and woe” to God’s people. Isaiah was to call the people of God to account for their unfaithfulness. He is to warn them that unless they repent, God is going to punish them through the Babylonians.
In other words, up to this point, Isaiah has been commissioned to preach a strong dose of LAW. And Isaiah was one of the best in the business at it – and he still is. The LAW shows us what God demands AND how far short we have all fallen. It reminds us that God sees it. Nothing escapes Him. So, the preaching of the LAW is meant to create the opposite of ‘Comfort, comfort’ in us. Its job is to create fear and terror and anxiety in the heart.
When done properly, the LAW gives the sinner no hope that he can save himself. The LAW never offers some 5 part plan or special offerings or penance that we can do to make things right with God. The only hope of the sinner is that God might be merciful JUST BECAUSE HE IS MERCIFUL.
Luther wrote that “God’s people are those who need comfort because they have been wounded and terrified by the Law and they are an empty vessel capable of receiving comfort. Only those who have been afflicted have comfort and are capable of it, because comfort means nothing unless there is a malady.” (LW 17:3).
The ‘afflicted’ people of God are all primed and ready for the preaching of the GOSPEL. They long for God to speak His mercy into their troubled and terrified heart through His preacher. “Comfort, comfort, ye my people.” The Gospel preaches a merciful God who loves to save sinners just because He loves to save sinners.
“Speak ye peace,” thus saith our God.”
The PEACE that the preacher speaks into the troubled heart is all wrapped up the way that He speaks about sinners. “Comfort, Comfort Ye, MY PEOPLE.” “Saith OUR GOD.” Or as the Scripture text has it, “Says YOUR GOD.”
That’s COVENANT language. God made a promise to Israel. “You shall be MY PEOPLE, and I shall be YOUR GOD.” Maybe they were worried that that their sin would cause God to nullify His covenant with them. And maybe you have been worried about that a time or two yourself.
What COMFORT to hear God address this unfaithful people, no matter how far they have fallen or how despicable their sin, as MY PEOPLE and YOUR GOD.
“Saith YOUR GOD.” Not, ‘saith your heart,’ or ‘saith your horoscope,’ or ‘saith your circumstances.’ But “saith YOUR GOD.” Every other word or sign may lie or deceive you. But God’s Word cannot fail or lie, because it is God’s Word and with Him there is only TRUTH.
II. Stanza 2
“Yea, her sins our God will pardon, blotting out each dark misdeed;
All that well deserved His anger He no more will see or heed.
She that suffered many a day, now her griefs have passed away;
God will change her pining sadness into ever-springing gladness.”
Olearius takes the hymn writers prerogative and preaches the gospel based on the Scripture text but in the actual words of the text. Here’s what God does:
• He pardons our sins.
• He blots out our dark misdeeds.
• He sets aside His well-deserved right to be angry with us.
Which doesn’t mean that we suffer no consequences for our sins. This is no connection between the word ‘comfort’ and ‘comfortable’ in the Scriptures. In fact, usually they contradict each other. Our sins cause us to ‘SUFFER’ and ‘GRIEVE.’ We FEEL the consequences of our idolatry and murder and lying and covetousness.
But our ‘suffering’ and ‘grieving’ serve a holy purpose. It turns us to OUR GOD and we cry out “we are YOUR PEOPLE. Show us your MERCY.” This is why Paul insists that the LAW IS GOOD.
Therefore, “we do not grieve as those who have no hope.” We believe that “God will change our PINING SADNESS INTO EVER-SPRINGING GLADNESS.’
This ‘PARDON OF SIN,’ this ‘BLOTTING OUT OF EACH DARK MISDEED,’ this ‘ANGER OF GOD TURNED ASIDE,’ none of this ever happens apart from justice done.
Sin must be punished, misdeeds must be made right before God’s anger can be turned aside. And that is what happens. But it is justice that is done to a ‘substitute,’ a ‘sinless One’ whom God put forward to stand in the place of ‘sinful ones.’
He is “conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary” and therefore without sin. He “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified and was buried – A TOTAL TRAVESTY OF JUSTICE BY MAN. A TOTAL TRIUMPH OF JUSTICE AND MERCY BY GOD.
You are PARDONED because God refused to PARDON His own Son. Each dark misdeed is blotted out in HIS BLOOD SHED FOR YOU. You will not feel His WELL DESERVED ANGER because He vented it all on Jesus Christ crucified.
“Comfort, comfort, ye My people, saith Your God.”
III. Stanza 3
Hark, the herald’s voice is crying in the desert far and near;
Calling sinners to repentance, since the Kingdom now is here.
O that warning cry obey! (Winkworth addition) Now prepare for God a way;
Let the valleys rise to meet Him and the hills bow down to greet Him.
Now, the direction of the text changes. So far, the direction has been from God to His messenger Isaiah who was commissioned to ‘cry to her,’ as a ‘town-crier’ proclaims an important message from the king. Now Isaiah is ‘crying’ to the people to be alert for another ‘crier,’ ‘crying in the wilderness.’ And that messenger is John the Baptist.
“PREPARE FOR GOD A WAY,” he will cry. He comes by ‘way’ of Holy Repentance and Absolution and Holy Baptism and Holy Communion and Holy Preaching. We ‘prepare for God a way’ when we let these ‘means of grace’ prepare us as only they can.
I like the way that Olearius has interpreted Isaiah’s ‘every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain shall be made low.” He personifies them so that that sin in us which must put to death, ‘RISE TO MEET HIM,’ as if it is anxious to be put to death. And the pride in us that must be cut down, ‘BOW DOWN TO GREET HIM’ as if it is anxious to be made low.
Make ye straight what long was crooked. Make the rougher places plain.
Let your hearts be true and humble, as befits His holy reign.
For the glory of the Lord now o’er earth is shed abroad,
And all flesh shall see the token that His Word is never broken.
In Moses’ day, Israel saw the GLORY OF THE LORD in the ‘PILLAR OF CLOUD BY DAY,’ AND THE ‘PILLAR OF FIRE BY NIGHT.’ How comforting that must have been. No doubt that the Lord is with us.
But the Israel of Isaiah’s day would be exiled to a foreign land, far removed from the Temple of the Lord where God’s presence was located over the ‘ark of the covenant’ behind the curtain in the holy of holies. How they would long to see the ‘glory of the Lord’ that they may be sure of His presence with them.
Maybe you’ve longed for the same kind of assurance of God’s presence with you too.
The prophet writes, “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” Isaiah is pointing us to the LAST DAY, when the same Jesus Christ who was crucified by men according to the will of God FOR YOU, comes again – in a way reminiscent of the former days – in all His glory, in the clouds.
Isaiah writes, “For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” And Olearius beautifully interprets, “ALL FLESH SHALL SEE THE TOKEN THAT HIS WORD IS NEVER BROKEN.” Jesus Christ is the ‘token’ of God’s faithfulness. “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight” (O Little Town of Bethlehem)
“Comfort, comfort, ye my people. Speak ye peace, thus saith your God.”