Sunday preaching on Isaiah 40:1-11
Is. 40:1 Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Is. 40:2 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.
Is. 40:3 A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Is. 40:4 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.
Is. 40:5 Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
Is. 40:6 A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I/ one said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
Is. 40:7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
Is. 40:8 The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.
Is. 40:9 Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
Is. 40:10 See, the Lord GOD comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
Is. 40:11 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 text is taken from the book of Isaiah that was written from the end of the 8th century to the 3rd century before Christ event. In this huge prophetic script (in the Qumran version the scroll is nearly 9 meters long) we find the VISION of Isaiah the Jerusalem prophet and the subsequent oracles of his disciples and anonymous poets and scribes. To use a metaphor: this book/ this scroll is not just a written document but it is a literal cathedral built over several centuries.
In the NT this book is next to the Book of Deuteronomy and the Psalms most often quoted – thus: it is a very important book for the Christian communities!
What is this book mostly about? The main theme is the past/ present/ and future of Jerusalem and mount Zion. That means: what is the past/ present and future history of the people of God living in Jerusalem and at the Mount Zion, the earthy abode of YHWH, the God of Israel among the nations.
Since earliest time Jerusalem is also an image for the church, for the society living according to the words of Jesus, the Jew, who opened for us – the followers of God from the nations – the way to mount Zion.
As Jerusalem in the centuries before and after Christ, also our societies here in South-Africa and all over the world, had and have to overcome many difficulties and hardships. This was especially the case for Jerusalem in the 6th century when the city was captured by Nebukadnezzar, the king of Babylon and the population was deported to Mesopotamia. Everything seemed to been have lost: temple, kingship, independence, well-being, posterity…It was the time “zero” on ground “zero”.
Many Judeans lost their faith in YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. There was apparently no way out – no future left for them.
It was exactly in this historical hour that some theologians among the deportees, most probably levitical temple-singers wrote these words of comfort!
“Comfort, comfort, my people, says your GOD”!
What does Comfort mean in the terms of the Old Testament? It does not mean some soft words of consolation but it means to open up concrete ways into the future.
Once again to use a metaphor: to comfort someone means to open a door where everything seems closed and shut off.
That´s exactly what the authors of our poem – in the name Isaiah – did. They opened the gate into the future by announcing that the time of judgment and distress had ended – that God had forgiven the sins committed in the past.
Jerusalem must believe that she paid in full for the sins of her sons and that YHWH was ready to create something new, something better than what had been before.
In order that comfort and comforting can take place you need at least two things:
First you need someone who is willing to engage his/herself in the office of comforting and second the persons spoken to must be willing to listen to these words of comfort. All of us we know how difficult it can be to accept the mission to comfort somebody after a tremendous loss or hardship – and how difficult it is to accept the consolation – this opening of new ways into the future. We might know of persons who never could accept comfort and consolation and shut them off from all efforts to start anew – they are prisoners of themselves – prisoners of the ancient, good times that will never come again!
In our passage one voice orders: Cry to the heart of Jerusalem – believe in the new time to come – prepare a royal highway for your God that salvation might be visible for all people in the city of God. That his glory will be seen by all flesh!
But another voice answers: what should one cry? There is no chance to get to the peoples heart because their constancy is like a flower of the field – today in full beauty and tomorrow already withered away!
One again the first speaker takes over and says one of the most beautiful words in the Old Testament. He says: okay – you are right: The grass withers, the flower fades! But the word of our God will stand forever! (udevar elohenu yakum le’olam).
Do we really believe that our comfort will produce fruit and that we can open for others new gates of hope? Or did we get already too tiered to start again and again to convey hope for the future in our churches and societies. Are we so disillusioned that we can’t activate anymore the force to give comfort to the children of God around us in our parish groups, in our families and in our other relationships?
This Sunday morning should bring us back to this beautiful word:
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stand forever!
You might think that these are nice words but – only for preaching on Sunday and not for our daily lives! Against this skepticism we should look at the history of biblical Israel and of our churches that always future lays at hand. If I am not mistaken it was St. Augustine who pronounced the following deep insight saying: God is always younger…!
What does that mean: YHWH as the living God gets never old or tired – He is always younger than our growing older and older bodies and minds.
This truth does stand also in the centre of our belief in the mystery of resurrection: God didn‘t abandon his beloved Son Jesus in the grave but made him the king of kings sitting at his right hand in the heavenly abode.
So what should we do, how should we act strengthened by the word of God on this Sunday? We are invited to create around us “isles of hope and comfort”. We should do what we can in order not to give up strengthening others by the consolation by which we were consoled – as St. Paul wrote to the community of Corinth.
At the end of our passage of today we hear that once Jerusalem has accepted the comfort by the comforters she herself will console the cities around her.
What does that mean for today? We can be sure that once we create “isles of hope and comfort” this will spread out in our churches and societies.
Hope shapes hope, frustration shapes failure! Our prayers and our singing in each Sunday service will push us to accept again and again the mission to comfort.
In moments of distress and weakness we should again and again remember this beautiful word in the book of Isaiah:
The grass withers, the flower fades! But the word of our God will stand forever!