6th December 2020 - Advent
Isaiah 40: 1-11
Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries out:
‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’
6 A voice says, ‘Cry out!’
And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.
9 Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;[a]
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,[b]
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
‘Here is your God!’
10 See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
This morning I want to speak about our reading from Isaiah 40. Such familiar words:
Comfort my people, speak tenderly to Jerusalem.
The time of suffering is over. Whatever wrong you have done, you did not deserve half of what has befallen you. Now is a new time of rebuilding. God will provide for all people and take care of them, like a shepherd with his flock.
Isaiah is really 3 books stitched together. This is the start of book 2, a new voice, described as “the prophet of consolation.”
Book 2 was written in Babylon during the exile. Jewish people had been conquered by the Babylonians – an attempt to erase the Jewish nation. Jerusalem was reduced to rubble. People were carted off to Bablyon. 2nd Isaiah speaks to these exiles, suggesting to them a new hope.
But it was far from clear at that stage that new hope was justified. Are we really at a turning point? Who says so? We are still captives, still far from home. And if we can rebuild, we want it exactly as before.
Us today. 2020 has been horrible. In health, in isolation, in economics – especially for the young. Are we at a turning point? Caution suggests maybe not. What do you think?
It takes a certain vulnerability to call it too early? Hope risks being made a fool of.
There is a spiritual as well as a physical message in Isaiah’s words, a message of spiritual suffering. In pre-exilic Judaism Yahweh was local, seen as almost physically connected to them as a people and also to the land, the fields, the towns and especially, in a unique way, to the temple in Jerusalem. Before synagogues.
Other peoples, other countries had their own Gods. But when they were conquered by the Babylonians, it was as if Yahweh had been defeated, that he had literally been shattered into pieces, left behind under the rubble. And here they are in Babylon, in a place where the Babylonian Gods are in charge.
Into this Isaiah comes with a new vision. That Yahweh, after all, is not the god of one country, but of all countries, everywhere; that he is not the God of one people, but of all peoples, all languages and cultures, that in a sense he is above the old local gods. It is around this time that Genesis 1 was written.
Every valley shall be exalted and “all people” shall see God’s glory. For me the levelling is a kind of opening out, a breaching of barriers that separate the nations, bringing them together as one human family?
This new vision also seems to possess a new gentleness – as if, through disaster and suffering, the people’s understanding of God has been purified of tribalism and aggression. This new gentleness seems to point forward to Jesus, and finds its fulfilment on the cross.
Do we also need a new spiritual vision? It would be daring to even hope so. That we would emerge from this year with a larger vision of who God is, that he transcends all our partisan conflict, a vision of God’s concern for the whole world, and one world, responding to his love, as one. A vision where we might yet join him, as one people, in caring for each other and for our planet.
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Richard Young (Rector)