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  • Rev. Sara Ofner-Seals

Startling Comfort


Isaiah 40:1-11

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.

A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 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. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

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. 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 for ever. 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!’ See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 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.

At the dawning of the 8th century BCE, Israel was at the height of it’s glory.As a nation, it was still basking in the afterglow of the accomplishments of it’s most successful Kings—revered leaders such as King David and King Solomon— who had built Israel into a great and prosperous nation. Jerusalem was enjoying an expansion in it’s population, growing from a small, humble city to a large, metropolitan center. Israel controlled some of the most fertile and desirable land in the region, and they made no secret of the profit to be gained by such holdings. Relative to the standards of it’s time, the once humble tribe of Moses and Aaron had evolved into a full on economic and military superpower.

By the end of the 8th century, however, things were starting to change. Other powers were rising on the world stage, and the future of Israel’s prominence and dominance was in doubt. The Assyrians were coveting Israel’s prime real estate. The Babylonians were growing in strength. Israel, feeling threatened from all directions, began to succumb to internal strife, becoming fractured and weak from the inside out. Corrupt kings sought alliances with foreign powers in an attempt to preserve their own wealth and security. Some religious leaders balked at the way in which the temple authorities seemed to cave to the demands of empire over the commands of God, but it was not enough to stop the inevitable, and in 587 BCE, the city of Jerusalem fell. The Babylonian army razed the once mighty city to the ground, destroying Solomon’s beloved temple, and sending most of Israel’s political and religious leaders into exile. Those left behind would be scattered and powerless. Many of them would give up their Jewish identity simply in order to survive in the new political reality. Some would hold secretly to the old ways, not knowing if they would live to see the day when they would once again be able to live and worship freely, without fear.

It is in this context that the prophet Isaiah proclaimed the words of comfort and encouragement that we heard in our scripture reading this morning— “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, and that her penalty is paid.”

After decades of captivity and exile, these were words of startling comfort and hope. Startling, in part, because this is hardly what Israel was used to hearing coming out of the mouths of it’s prophets. Leading up to the fall of Jerusalem, prophets mostly served to be the lone voices of uncomfortable truths— offering up scathing critiques of those in power, and warning that if Israel continued to defy God’s commands there would be a price to pay. Mostly, the prophets were concerned about rising levels of pride and greed amongst Israel’s elite, which was coupled with a growing disregard for the poor. “They have grown fat and sleek…” wrote the prophet Jeremiah, “they know no limits in deeds of wickedness; they do not judge with justice the cause of the orphan, and they do not defend the right of the needy.” According to the prophets, such greed was evidence of the fact that Israel had broken the covenant they made with God, and therefore God’s justice would be swift and merciless. “God will bring upon you a nation from far away…” Jeremiah continues, “they shall eat up your sons and your daughters; they shall destroy with the sword your fortified cities in which you trust.” Grief, anger, judgment, and dismay. That’s what Israel was used to hearing from it’s prophets. Even after Israel’s fall from power, they didn’t necessarily change their tune much. Mostly, it was variations on the theme of, “we told you so, and now everything will be awful forever. Thanks a lot.”

Well, maybe that last part isn’t a literal quote, but the point is, to hear an Israelite prophet say that God desired the people of Israel to be comforted, or that there was indeed hope for the future, would have been, at the very least, unexpected. But that’s not really the most startling thing about this text. Most startling of all would have been the final words of the prophet’s message. “He will feed his flock like a shepherd,” Isaiah says in verse 11, “he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.” If the words of comfort were surprising, this description of the coming Messiah would have been downright shocking.

Now to understand why this would have been, it’s important to remember that throughout the history of Israel’s rise to power, there had been bold revolutionaries, powerful judges, brave warriors, and mighty Kings. They were used to strong leaders who would lead Israel to power through the prevailing means of the time— military battle. Sure, David was a shepherd boy once, but that was before he killed Goliath and chopped off his head. A gentle, humble shepherd is not likely to have been what the people of Israel would have had in mind when it came to what their future savior and liberator would look like. This was an unexpected message in every sense of the word.

I like to imagine, however, that for a people so heavy with despair and disillusionment, this kind of imagery may have been exactly what was needed to reawaken their imaginations and help them believe that another future was possible for them. All the usual platitudes would likely have fallen on deaf ears. Images of a future, liberating warrior had become almost cliche— the people had become too desensitized by centuries of war (sound familiar?). These people needed to hear a new message. These people needed to be startled into hope.

And so it is here, in the words of this ancient prophet, where we begin to see something new arising within the spiritual imagination of God’s people. Or maybe it’s not really anything new at all, but rather, something incredibly old— a truth that had been known once— long, long ago— but had been gradually forgotten, slowly fading from people’s memory amidst the shiny allure of empire, power, and prosperity. Forgotten— but according to the prophet— not forever lost.

The hope of God’s promised salvation remained. And one day, Isaiah said, all people will see it together.

Skipping ahead a few thousand centuries, is it possible, as we settle into the rhythm of the current Advent season, that passages like this one might point us in the direction of where we may find some comfort and hope in the midst of our own weariness, disillusionment, or despair? Is there something we’ve forgotten—living in what is arguably one of the world’s greatest superpowers of all time— something that dwells so far down in the depth of our spiritual subconscious that we can only be startled into seeing it properly?

As I thought about this question over the course of the past week, I thought of the kinds of images that often startle us out of our daily complacency— those images that stir our hearts and our imaginations, restoring our faith in humanity, and helping us to believe again that a better world is possible. For example, I thought of an image from a Black Lives Matter protest— maybe a year or so ago— in which a young black boy is hugging a white police officer with tears in his eyes. I thought of an image from the Arab spring uprisings of 2011, in which young Egyptian Christians are standing in a circle with their hands clasped, protecting those inside the circle— who just so happen to be Muslims, kneeling in prayer in the street. In the midst of the constant barrage of bad news that we are subjected to on a daily basis— in the midst of the daily reminders of how terrible we humans can be to one another—it’s images like these, and so many others, which have the potential to wake us up out of the slumber of our despair. It’s images like these that startle us into hope and remind us that when it comes to the status quo, it doesn’t have to be this way. There is another way.

There are probably other images we could name, but of course none of them really holds a candle to the most startling image of all. An image that has captivated people of faith for over two thousand years. The image of an infant lying in a manger, surrounded by a young mother and father who are startled by their strange circumstance, shepherds startled by angels, and wise men startled by a star. It is the image of a weary world startled into joy.

So I guess the final question this morning is— what exactly is the ancient truth that this startling image stirs within us? What comfort might we find there—what hope, what joy, what wisdom for the future?

It’s such a big truth, really, that words can hardly do it justice. One sermon can’t capture it. I doubt even a lifetime can totally grasp it. It’s a truth that reflects light in a million different directions— reminding us that we don’t need to strive so hard for earthly power, because the power of God’s love lives within us and can never be taken away from us. It’s a truth that reminds us that our status as citizens of a particular country is not nearly as valuable as our status as citizens of the kingdom of God. This truth reveals that God’s spirit hovers on the margins and whispers love to the marginalized. This truth offers belonging to those whom the world has rejected and it embraces and acknowledges those whom the world has ignored. This truth has the power to startle even the most disillusioned, disgruntled, and disappointed among us—startling us into hope despite our stubborn cynicism, startling us into a peace that passes all understanding, startling us into compassion for our neighbor, and startling us into a joy that runs deeper than our despair. It’s a truth that reminds us that suffering and death are never, ever the end of the story. God is always doing a new thing. Love is always being born. This coming Christmas, brothers and sisters, may it be born in us once more. In God’s mercy, may it ever be so. Amen.


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