While preparing for this Sundays sermon and reflecting on the text in Isaiah 40 there were two phrases that jumped out to me this time.
The "Comfort, O comfort my people" and the "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord".
The first probably because in my line of work I meet a lot of people that need comfort and I often feel that what I can give is often insufficient and inadequate.
The second probably because preparing the way of the Lord is an important aspect of living the faith for me. I believe preparing the way for the Lord is what we should be doing as Christian people. With the wilderness that place of confusion and heartache we see all around us every day, world wide in war and suffering, but also closer to home where we struggle with brokenness in our lives and relationships.
A lot of us need comforting and many of us know all too well how difficult it is to provide that comfort in an adequate and helpful way. We also are all well aware there is a lot of wilderness around us in the world and how desperately the road needs smoothing for justice, peace and light to enter into the world to change it.
Isaiah starts with (and this is after they have had a long time of suffering, grieving and heartache) the comfort of forgiveness. The declaration that what is past is past, the penalty paid, punishment suffered in sufficient degree. That is important I think. When we suffer and grieve and are in need of comfort invariably feelings of guilt and failure are part of the equation. Haunting questions as to what we did to deserve the trouble we are in, what we could have done to avoid it, what we are failing to do to make things better.
Israel, in exile, hears the prophet say: You can stop beating yourself up about what you did and didnt do in the past. God says it is enough, youve suffered more than enough, it is time to move on.
Then, out of that space of forgiveness, emerges a voice crying in the wilderness inviting them to move on to something different:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of our God,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God,
every mountain and hill made low
uneven ground shall become level
the rough places plain
and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed."
They are called to work!
We are called to work!
To make low mountains and level uneven ground in the wilderness and the deserts of life for the glory of the Lord to be revealed.
Comfort not only about sitting down, handing over tissues and making cups of tea.
The people of Israel, before Isaiah comes to them with declaration of forgiveness and invitation to start preparing the way of the Lord in the wilderness, have done a lot of that. Years and years and years of it in fact. Suffering, weeping, wringing of hands, singing the Lords song in a strange land, all of it. But now the time has come to move on. After the time of grieving and suffering, of feeling punished and frail and failing now the time has come where enough has been enough and God offers forgiveness and a voice can be heard crying in the wilderness, calling his people out of their misery.
Prepare the way of the Lord, make plain the rough places.
Do something about it!
I think it is an important to realise, that comfort in this text of Isaiahs emerges as something that consists of several different components: First there is the time of suffering, the feelings of despair, grief, remorse, and the awareness of failure and shortcoming for people to battle with.
Then there is the voice of forgiveness and liberation: Enough! Time to move on, to let go.
And then there is the invitation to get to work and do something to actively change the wilderness, one has found oneself in, the world wide desert of suffering we are part off.
Last but not least then there is faith and hope that will fuel the action that is called for. Faith that God himself is actively involved in this process of making straight and plain whatever may be in the way of peace and justice reigning on earth. Trust that God is right in the middle of that process tending his people like a shepherd tends his flock, feeding, carrying and gently leading.
Every Sunday morning, in worship we practice that process: We will come as we are, with the burdens we carry, we will confess our sins and bring before God what we find difficult to carry in our lives, the wilderness of the world we live in, the fragility and frailty of our existence. We will hear about his forgiveness for us and be helped to find ways to forgive ourselves and others where we have failed to live righteously and with love. We remember the promises of God, the history of his steadfast love. We find ourselves called to action, to make the path for his coming smooth and straighten what is crooked in the wilderness around us. When we celebrate communion we practice another way of life in our worship. We share with each other as we are called to share with the world.
And while we are doing that, comfort is offered. For some when they can bring their sadness and difficulty before God in prayer. For others when they hear the words of forgiveness spoken where they feel they failed and acted inadequately. For others space will open up enabling them to move on, to leave what is past behind and move into positive action for their own well being and that of others. Some will find themselves fed and carried, some will be encouraged to move, in that dynamic, the body of Christ grows strong and capable of making a difference in the world. Enable some of the wilderness to be changed, make plain some of the rough places around, reveal some of the light of the Lord in the world. Amen.