HOW TO FIND COMFORT
TEXT: ISAIAH 40:1-11
OLD TESTAMENT READING FOR THE THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
“Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God.” In the coming weeks, these words will be sung throughout the world to large crowds of people. Why? Because our Old Testament reading was used with stunning effect by George Fredrich Handel as the opening three parts of his famous oratorio, “The Messiah”. I’m sure many here have heard Handel’s Messiah. I had the privilege of hearing it live with Laurin for the first time ever a few years ago. Blew my socks off! “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God.” Yes, comfort. God wants his preachers to bring comfort to his people, to speak tenderly to his church. But why do we need comfort? What is this comfort? And how does this comfort come to us?
The Need for Comfort
Isaiah prophesied a time when God would send Babylonian invaders to strip the temple and take Jerusalem’s people into exile. The leadership oppressed the weak and vulnerable. They sought the counsel of false prophets and led the people into idolatry. Their greed, injustice, and unfaithfulness led to disaster. The people refused to listen to the warnings of the prophets.
So, Isaiah is told to proclaim this message: “All flesh is grass.” That’s them, and that’s us also. Think about how the grass looked back in April. It was all green and lush and alive. Now think about how the grass looks in August after months of heat and no water. It’s all brown and withered and dead. That’s a picture of Judah. That’s a picture of us and our lives, what is happening and will happen to us. We wither and fade and die. Do you know this? Do you feel it?
This mortality that we share, it’s a worldwide thing. No exceptions. We’re dying out here. At the root of this dead-and-dying-grass thing is sin. The reason we die is because we sin. This is something we all share. God is the source of life, and our sin separates us from Him. And the thing is, we all go along with this rebellion. We grow up–and grow into–sinning. We enjoy it. We do it. We can’t wait to do it again. Just like Judah we don’t want to listen to God or his messengers, we’d rather go it on our own. We replace the Lord God with gods of our own invention – God’s like sex, money, and power. And that’s a recipe for disaster.
Isaiah wrote to a wounded and broken people. Their kingdom was gone. Their temple, the very house of God, was in ruins. They were enslaved and exiled – under the power of forces they could never hope to defeat. They did not see any possible relief from the consequences of their sin. Yet, God sent them a message of comfort and hope when all hope seemed lost.
We are in slavery too. Did you know that? We are in slavery to Satan, sin and death. Don’t believe me? Try not dinings or not dying. We are weak. Just like there was no hope that those exiles would be able to free themselves, so too, we cannot free ourselves. In God’s Law we get a glimpse of God’s towering moral perfection. We face the accumulated record of our crimes against Him. And just when we think we’ve got one sin beat, ten more pop up in its place. So, that message of comfort for Israel is also for you.
The Source of Comfort
God follows up this message of judgment with a message of comfort. After he gave the bad news, he proclaimed the Good News. What is that good news? God called Judah, “my people”. Despite their sin, he still considers them his people. He still cares for and loves them. So, God comforts them by announcing the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness means that Israel’s sin is pardoned, that is, they have been atoned for. The penalty of Israel’s sin was paid for even though she could do nothing to make amends for the debt she incurred. Seventy years in exile was not enough to pay for almost a thousand years of false worship Instead of receiving what their sins deserve, they receive a double portion of good things.
What this means is that God is returning to Jerusalem. The forgiveness of Israel means that God will return to be with his people, because it is sin that separates us from God. The glory of God had left the city of Jerusalem on the eve of its fall to Babylon. (Ezekiel 10:18) Israel chose their sin over the Lord, and so he left them to their enemies. But now God has forgiven Israel. He intends to return to the city. The levelling of mountains and filling of valleys means that every conceivable obstacle which could impede God’s return is removed.
Despite your sin, God still cares for you also. You are still God’s people. God himself does comes to us! He comes with might and strength. But this strength is wrapped in gentleness. He comes as a shepherd, a good shepherd. The Lord God himself is returning, just as Isaiah said. And we know who this is – it is Jesus, whom John the Baptist pointed to, he is God’s glory has been revealed, for all flesh to see together. The Glory of God, veiled in human flesh this is what we will see in Jesus of Nazareth. He is the Lord, God in the flesh, returning to his temple. In Him the message of comfort takes shape for you.
You can be comforted because Christ went through the greatest discomfort for you! He was led bound, so you might be set free. Christ our King gave up his life on the cross, in order to save our lives. His sacrificial death on our behalf marked the death of death itself. The power of sin lies broken. Death is vanquished. Our hard service to sin is over, our debt to God has been paid for, and our obligation satisfied. And this is nothing we have deserved. We haven’t done anything. We still deserve God’s present and eternal punishment. But instead we have been freed. Released. Forgiven. All debts paid. And on top of all of that, we get not just enough forgiveness, but double forgiveness, forgiveness overflowing like a baptismal flood, forgiveness that overflows even to those who have sinned against us.
The Means of Comfort
But how does this comfort come to us? “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” Ah, there’s the answer! “The word of our God.” God speaks and it is so. The Word is the event itself. God said, “Be light” and light there is. That’s how the Word works. And he reveals his word to us, through the prophets and apostles in Holy Scripture, preached and taught to us today. This is a word you can count on. God’s Word is sure and certain. And this word speaks to us today and tells us of the comfort that God has for us.
As you hear God’s Word read and proclaimed to you, that is God coming near. That comforting message resounds throughout Scripture. Jesus is the one promised in Eden who would crush the head of the serpent. He is Abraham’s Seed through whom all nations will be blessed. He is the Saviour who was born “of the house and lineage of David” (Lk 2:4) as foretold. He is Isaiah’s Suffering Servant who was bruised for our iniquities and by whose stripes we are healed. God comes comforts us. Your sins are atoned for by the death of Christ. Your slavery to sin is over. Christ has set you free. God has returned! He came by virgin mother, crib and cross. He comes by Word and water and Supper. He is coming in glory to raise the dead, to bring life and a new creation. He is making all things new. He comes as a shepherd to tend His flock, to carry the lambs in His arms, to lead those with young. He comes as the Good Shepherd with goodness and mercy that we may dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
This message of comfort, of forgiveness and liberation from Satan, sin, and death, is preached today from every pulpit still faithful to Christ. God gives comfort to his people through every baptismal font and from this very communion rail. The Glory of the Lord is here. The very body and blood of the Lamb of God is hidden in with and under the bread and the wine, for us to eat and drink, a highway by which God comes to comfort us in Christ today. It is sure; it is certain; it will happen. The mouth of the Lord has spoken it. Amen.
And may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.