God's Story, Our Story: Coming Comfort
Preaching: Stacey Duensing
Text: Isaiah 40:1-11
Once again we come to God’s word, the great, living story that is also our story. So I invited you to enter the story where it finds us today, and to listen also for your story there.
Setting up the Story
So where are we in the story?
We enter the story today when the people of Israel are in exile. But let’s take a moment to remember how they got there.
Israel, God’s covenantal people have turned away from God to worship other things. Prophets have warned and pleaded with them to turn back to God. But the people of God have covered their ears and have closed their eyes. They turned from God and eventually they were overtaken by other powers. Their beloved city of Jerusalem is held up like a piece of paper above a match. All is burned: the city, its walls of protection, and even the temple itself. There, in the ashes, the remaining people of Israel are made to march into exile. They cannot carry with them their homes, their possessions, or even their dignity. They are refugees. All they carry with them is the memory of Jerusalem burning, for the memory has burned itself also into their minds.
Where does the message find us?
Where we find Israel in the story is a contrast to the message we just heard from Isaiah 40 of comfort and of God’s coming.
But perhaps that’s precisely the point.
How we hear and receive a message depends on where we are when the message reaches us. The circumstances we are in effects how we hear the message: Where are we physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually? These things effect how we receive the message AND how we respond to it.
It is in the context of exile, that Israel hears these words from Isaiah 40: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 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.”
Israel hears these words from the place of exile. And Israel’s exile is not just from their land; it is an exile of the heart. Exile causes them to question their relationship with God. They have been forced to leave the Promised Land, and in doing so they wonder if they have also left God’s promise. As they move out of the boundaries of the Promised Land, they ask themselves if have they also moved out the boundaries of God’s love for them.
Has God abandoned them? Has God’s favor and love departed from them? They are refugees of their homeland, but they also feel like refugees from their God.
“Comfort, O comfort my people…” These words do not fall on deaf ears. They are given to a people who desperately need to be comforted. Who have longed and waited, and desperately hoped for such a word from their God.
There are so many of us who are looking for comfort: Kristi was frustrated. For years she had been living with chronic pain in her feet, And as the years went on instead of the pain going away, it continued to get worse. Planterfaciitis. That’s the words the doctors had used. She’d been to so many doctors. She even had surgery. But instead of making the pain better, the surgery just seemed to increase the pain. She quit her job because her feet no longer allowed her to stand for long periods of time or walk long distances. And although she found a new job, the transition was still hard. She was frustrated her physical discomfort was keeping her from doing the things she loved like chasing after her grandchildren or hiking on family vacations. Her discomfort was physical, but her physical pain affected her emotional and spiritual sense of comfort. She prayed for healing. Her family and friends prayed for healing. She was waiting, and longing for comfort.
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
In what place do we receive these words of hope and comfort from the prophet Isaiah? In the season of Advent, we are reminded of our deep need of a Savior to come. The pain in the world and the pain in ourselves cries out with intensity for God to come and comfort us.
We see the pain in the world: Unrest in the Middle East, refugees displaced from their homes, poverty, and hunger. We see pain closer to home: in mass shootings, in acts of violence against groups of people who look differently from one another. We see pain in our families: the loss of loved ones, sickness, anger. And we see pain in our own hearts: loneliness and turning from God.
God’s Word is Sure
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” We deeply need these words of comfort, and we want to embrace them. But, at times, our pain can be so deep that we doubt the truth in God’s words. Will God comfort us? Can God’s comfort match the depth of our pain and our need? Will God turn away from us as we have often turned from God?
It’s easy for us not to trust that God will comfort us. The message of comfort we receive from God seems too good to be true. And experience tells us that words of comfort are often untrustworthy…. people are untrustworthy. We know all too well the expressions, “Actions speak louder than words” and “Talk is cheap.” We can remember the pain that came from a loved one breaking their promise. We take our experiences of hurt with the people around us and assume that they apply also to God.
But, God’s words are not cheap niceties. They are different than any word of comfort people will give us. God’s words of comfort are part of God’s everlasting covenant with us. A covenant is not like the pinky promises made by children in elementary school. A covenant is a binding promise, a promise that cannot be easily broken. We can see how serious God is about keeping his covenant by seeing it pass the test of time. We’ve witnessed this as we have been walking through God’s story together.
Way back in Genesis chapter 17, God came to Abraham and made this covenant with him:
God says: “I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.”
Later on, when the people of Israel were enslaved to the Egyptians, God still keeping his covenant: Exodus 2:24 says:
“God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”
But God’s faithfulness to his covenant with his people doesn’t end there! When God gave the ten commandments to God’s people at Mount Sinai, they were also a sign of God’s covenant. God’s covenant continued in the stories of Elijah, Ruth, David, and Hosea…..
God’s covenant continued when God’s people did wrong. God’s covenant continued even when God’s people turned away from him and went into exile. God’s word of comfort is covenantal: It is a living word that lives alongside God’s people and extends even to into our lives today.
God’s Word Stands
God’s comfort, God’s covenantal love stands… forever. Even when we are unfaithful, God is faithful. The prophet Isaiah cries out the truth of God’s word standing forever with this picture:
“A voice say, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.”
God’s word stands forever. God’s word is alive. God’s covenant, God’s comfort is alive. But let’s not make the mistake of comparing the lifespan of God’s covenant to that of a blade of grass. A blade of grass withers and dies after the first taste of bad weather. “The people are like grass” they also wither and fade over time or, they fade when they are faced with bad weather. God’s living word is different than the grass of the field, AND God’s word is different than the promises of people. God’s covenant with us continues the darkest weather and the loneliest exile. This is our comfort.
The Heidelberg catechism puts it this way in question and answer #1:
Q: What is your only comfort in life and death?
A: “That I am not my own, but belong body and soul, both in life and death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ.”
The lifespan of God’s covenant goes beyond even our own lives. The day will come when each one of us will wither and fade. Just like the grass and flowers of the field, we will one be laid to rest in the dust of the earth. We live and we die. But God’s covenant and comfort extends beyond even our earthly existence.
How we hear and receive a message depends on where we are when the message reaches us.
The context of our lives matters. For us to understand or accept a word of comfort, it needs to come to us in our context. It needs to meet us in our lives. If a word of comfort cannot come alongside us in our pain, we understand it to be irrelevant.
This is the comfort we need.
I have two adorable nephews. I’ll take any chance I have to brag about them, even if it’s in a sermon. My nephews, Jase & Kade are twins. They are just over two years old. I had the chance to go see them about 2 weeks ago when I went back to Nebraska over thanksgiving break to where my family lives. Of course I spent as much time with them as I could, playing and wrestling and tickling and chasing up until the last moment when my sister said they had to go to bed.
We did the normal bedtime routine: diapers changed, jamies changes, books read, kisses given. Finally, we lifted Jase and Kade into their cribs for the night. I turned out the lights and walked to the door, but I could tell my sister wasn’t following me. I turned to see her swinging her leg up over the side of Kade’s crib. Then her other leg. She laid down with her sweet little boy and cuddled him. I asked her in a whisper, “What are you doing?” She responded, “Kade sleeps better if I just cuddle him for a while.” I realized that no words of “good night” or “I love you” or “see you in the morning, sweet pea” could have the same comfort for Kade as the arms of his mother wrapped around him as he was falling asleep.
We need a message of comfort that meets us, that touches us, and wraps us in its embrace. Where can we get such living, embodied words of comfort? Isaiah 40:3 says
“A voice cries out: “in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God …
This proclamation to “prepare the way of the Lord” means that the Lord is coming. God is coming, to us! The true comfort God speaks to us in “Comfort, O Comfort my people” is that God is coming himself to us.. Even when we feel as if we have moved away from God, God responds by moving toward us. God comes to sit with us, even in our exile.
These words of “prepare the way of the Lord “were also proclaimed by another prophet besides Isaiah. John the Baptist used these words to proclaim the coming of Christ.
Jesus, the Christ, is the fullness of God coming to live among God’s people. The Word of God that stands forever is the very Christ that comes to us in Christmas. John’s Gospel begins with these words :
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And then…. ”And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. “
God’s covenant is alive in the Living Word, Jesus Christ, who comes to live among us. God doesn’t give us his covenant just through words, God gives us the covenant through a person. Jesus – Immanuel- God with us. In the person of Jesus, the world received God in the form they could see, touch, and smell. It was by touching Jesus, God in the flesh, that Thomas could declare his belief in God’s promise.
When Christ ascended into heaven after his resurrection, Christ did not leave us. God gave us the Holy Spirit. Oddly enough, the Spirit is referred to in scripture as the comforter. “Comfort, O Comfort my people” is God living within us through the power of the Holy Spirit. We carry God, our covenantal comforter within our souls.
Is this not good news? The prophet Isaiah certainly thought so. Isaiah 40:9 says, “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift 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!”
When we experience God’s comfort through Christ’s coming, we cannot help but exclaim the truth “Here is your God!” We are witnesses to God’s comfort in the world, for God dwells within us.
The message of comfort is a gift too great not to share. Kristi spent years in discomfort and pain. Doctor after doctor promised her healing and comfort but their words did not deliver what they promised. It was years into her journey with planterfaciitis that Kristi finally found a doctor who knew how to heal her feet. Kristi literally walked her way on the journey to wholeness. She experienced a new world where she could say yes to everyday possibilities. She could go on walks with her daughter, stand behind the line at the church bake sale, and chase after her grandsons all day. The physical comfort Kristi felt in her feet changed the way she lived her life. Do you think in the face of such life change that Kristi kept quiet about her healing and comfort? Of course not! Her healing, her comfort was a gift too great not to share. She told all her friends with planterfaciitis or foot pain about the doctor that brought her healing.
Proclaiming God’s Comfort
God’s comfort, God’s living word is a gift to great not to share. When we have experienced it, we cannot help but let it spill out of us to others. We want to share the living word that was given to us.
This season of advent is all about expecting and waiting for Christ to come. As we look towards Christ’s coming, we are also to proclaim his coming to others. This role of proclaiming the “good news” is part of the Christmas story, do you remember? When the angels came to the shepherds bearing “good news for all people” the shepherds went to see the manger. They left the Messiah, glorifying and praising God, telling others about what they had experienced. We are to be proclaimers and bearers of God’s comfort to the world.
So, this advent, let us join our voices with the angels of Christmas eve who sang the good news of God’s coming comfort to the shepherds. And like the shepherds, let us trust God’s proclaimed word enough to follow it to the manger. And in seeing Christ, the living word, let us move out as messengers of God’s comfort in the world.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.