Grace to you and peace from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
What does comfort look like? When might we need to comfort someone else? You might think about the victims of calamity, or parents whose children have died. Your mind might dwell on people without the means to sustain themselves. Certainly those who are vulnerable to physical threat and bodily harm need comfort. There are those who have been the victims of trauma and abuse, and a comforting word might be needed a ray of hope for a dark and dreary mood. God’s message in today’s text from the prophet Isaiah is, “Comfort.” What’s surprising in our text is not that there are people who need comfort; it is that God commands that they be comforted. God wants his preachers to bring comfort to his people, to speak tenderly to his church. What is this comfort? And how does this comfort come to us?
The Comfort We Need
In order to understand the comfort to us, we need to understand the comfort to Isaiah’s original audience. In 587 BC Jerusalem was conquered and destroyed by the Babylonian Empire. The leaders and a large chunk of the people were marched off to Babylon. The prophets made it unmistakably clear that the destruction of the city and the exile to Babylon were not because of Babylon’s superior military strength. They were a well-deserved punishment from God. Chapter after chapter describes how the people of Jerusalem prospered through wickedness, oppression, lies and social injustice, refusing to heed the prophets’ calls to repent, and be reconciled to God.
The kingdom was gone. The temple, the very house of God, was in ruins. Enslaved and exiled – Israel was under the power of forces they could never hope to defeat. They did not see any possible relief from the consequences of their sin. Isaiah wrote to a wounded and broken people. God sent them a message of comfort and hope when all hope seemed lost. After he gave the bad news, he proclaimed the Good News. What is that good news?
The first point of comfort to highlight is this: What the wounded and broken people need to hear most was that God called them, “my people”. God continued to identify himself as Judah’s God, even though Isaiah has spent multiple chapters showing how their actions were incompatible with God’s desires for human community. God does not overlook or ignore their sin, but they need to know that God has not abandoned them. God intends that they will have a future together. 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. They have been release from their debt, and not because of their own efforts to pay it off either. 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.
Despite your sin, God still cares for you also. Isaiah does not promise that our suffering will magically go away. He does not deny or downplay the broken sinfulness of our human condition. He proclaims a declaration from God which we may find hard to imagine. Our God is the God of comfort. Here is a God who comes to feed the flock, to scoop up the little lambs into his arms, to lead the mother sheep. Here is a God in whom one may have hope. Here is a God who comes with might and strength. But this strength is wrapped in gentleness. He uses his strength to give us comfort. He comes as a shepherd, a good shepherd. Despite our sin, God still considers us his people. He still cares for and loves us! God blesses us with good things, even though we don’t deserve it. God is in the business of comforting his people.
A second point of comfort is this: Isaiah says that God is coming to dwell with his people again. He is returning to Jerusalem to dwell among them as their God. Israel chose their sin over the Lord, and so he left them to their enemies. The glory of God had left the city of Jerusalem on the eve of its fall to Babylon (Ezekiel 10:18). But, God has forgiven Israel and intends to return to dwell among his people. Nothing will stop God from coming back. Valleys will be filled, mountains levelled, and highways paved. Nothing can stop the Lord God himself from returning, just as Isaiah said. How do you think this happened – it happened in Jesus, whom John the Baptist pointed to. In Jesus God’s glory has been revealed, for all flesh to see together. The Glory of God, veiled in human flesh. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). This is what we will see in Jesus of Nazareth. He is the Lord, God in the flesh, returning to his temple. He came, not to throw your sins in your face and shame you. No, he came to give you comfort. “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him,” (John 3:17). In Jesus 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 flood, forgiveness that overflows even to those who have sinned against us.
The Means of Receiving It
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, “Let there 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 to 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 the mother lambs. 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 given with 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 because the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.
May the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.