Curiouser and Curiouser…
These verses from Isaiah chapter 40 are one of the assigned readings for this year’s second Sunday in Advent. On this week, when we light the candle of peace,
we read God’s pleas that Isaiah comfort God’s people,
we hear an anticipation of the apocalyptic message of John the Baptist,
we discover the assurance that God’s proclamation is eternal,
and we find the promise of a future anchored in God’s caring for us.
It is a curious passage—not because it lacks connection to the theme and season, but because of the greatly varied ways it is in fact appropriate and powerful for us, today.
Moving out of Thanksgiving and into the Advent and Christmas seasons, we tend to do more reflection than other times of the year. And some in our family of faith have had an exceptionally difficult year. Over and over, for them, everything has gone wrong. “Out of the frying pan and into the fire,” as the saying goes.
To them, and perhaps for them, God calls us to speak comfort: “Comfort [them]…speak tenderly to [them]…for [they have] received more than their fair share of suffering” (vv.1-2).
If this is you, God is working to bring your life peace.
If this is not you, then perhaps God needs you—like Isaiah—to be God’s presence of peace and comfort to others.
Death and Grief
These holidays (too) have a way of reminding us of those who have passed from this life into the next. We are keenly aware of the absences around our tables and trees, of the traditions that were most important to our relative and friend who is no longer present in this world to celebrate them with us.
Some of our families are a bit more aware this year of how “all people are like grass”: we wither and we fade and life is gone. There’s a raw and clinical detachment to comparing the life of our loved ones to a blade of grass, but it’s honest too. When we grieve, we see death all around us. Which is why it is so important as Christians to remind one another that “the word of our God will stand forever.” We must be reminded of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. Of God’s care and compassion that endures forever.
In addition, these last weeks and months have been filled with the disturbing realization that our nation and our world are even more broken than we like to admit. That there are deep divisions within and between us. That not all lives are regarded as equal. That not all persons experience the same freedom. That justice sometimes isn’t just.
In the midst of this increasing awareness of our brokenness, Isaiah’s words about the coming Day of the Lord are powerful and comforting. He anticipates in verses 3-5 a day of dramatic reversals. Using the analogy of a nearly impassible wilderness, Isaiah imagines a road made smooth and flat as glass: hills made flat, valleys and dips filled in, rough places smoothed out.
The symbols speak for themselves; they are easy to decipher.
There are mountains and hills in our culture and systems, seemingly immovable obstacles that prevent people from living the fullness of life as God desires it for them. Isaiah envisions these obstacles tore down. Jesus too, later on, will talk about how even a little faith can move mountains.
In our culture and systems, the experience of life for some is akin to flying down a pot-holed gravel road with the accelerator stuck down. Everything is out of control, and there seems to be nothing they can do, no matter how much energy they put into it.
Still others find themselves sunk in a deep, dark valley, with no hope of climbing out—they are held down by the relentlessly grasping hands of poverty, or racism, or bigotry.
God through Isaiah calls us to speak words of peace to them, reminding them of God’s promises and working within God’s desires to transform the systems of this world.
But transformation will not happen without the people of God allowing God to work through us. Psalm 146:3 reminds us not to “expect any rescue from mortal men.” Psalm 118:8-9 teaches us that “it is better to put your faith in the Lord than to trust in people. It is better to put your faith in Him than to trust in princes.”
Our hopes for peace (this day and this season) are not rooted in the powers of this world, but the next. And it is by responding to the movement of the Spirit within us that God’s hope for peace and life can be fulfilled. One person and one loving action at a time, and the revolution of Jesus advances us toward God’s Kingdom. The ultimate result will be as we read in v.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.
This look to the future (here and at the end of our reading) perhaps speaks to all of us in its own way. In my preparation, I kept finding myself drawn to verse 11 over and over again. Hear it once more from a different translation (Voice):
He will feed his fold like a shepherd:
He will gather together his lambs into his arms
He will carry them close to his bosom;
and tenderly lead like a shepherd the mother of her lambs.
Somehow, contained in this one singular verse, we might just find the answer to everything that keeps us from peace.
For those of us who struggle to have enough, God promises to feed us, to care for us. ……to bring us peace.
For those of us who feel alone, God intends to gather us together into God’s arms. ……to bring us peace.
For those of us who are too weak or broken to carry on, God swoops in to carry us and give us strength. ……to bring us peace.
For those of us who struggle to find the way, God will lead us—and gently so. ……to bring us peace.
Though we all journey together this Advent season, our paths are many. But wherever your path leads you, within these verses is found the means to peace.
Do not forget: we worship the God of peace—a God who has been proven to be trustworthy and true. Remember that Jesus (as Immanuel—”God with us”)—embodied that peace in life.
Therefore, as disciples of Jesus and the children of God, so are we to manifest God’s peace in the world.
May we be the peacemakers Jesus calls us to be, even as we seek to find peace ourselves. For as the apostle Paul reminds us in Philippians 4:7: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1Thessalonians 5:23 ESV)