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ADVENT: Comfort   Isaiah 40:1-11                                            (1st Service)

Turn with me to Isaiah 40.  We’re journeying with the prophet Isaiah as he points us to the coming Christ, in this Advent season.  We’re using lectionary passages, passages the church universal has decided on, in a given year, to lead us to the birth of Christ.  This Sunday’s passage is Isaiah 40:1-11.

As I was reviewing it on the plane back this week, I had an experience come back to mind.  I was a backpacking guide throughout my college years.  One night we were in the wilderness outside of Crested Butte.  There were high schoolers packed in next to me in our fly.  There was a sound out in the field.  It was a sound that could only be described as heinous and death!  If you’ve been in the wilderness at all, you know you hear everything.  There’s some things you don’t want to hear and that was one of those things.  I was lying there, packed in like a sardine and I hear a mauling going on in the field near me.  I snuck deeper in my sleeping bag, trying to give the aura of confidence to the high schoolers who were with me.  As I slid my feet down to the bottom of my bag, I encountered a little plastic bag that I had slid in there, and it had beef jerky in it.  I’m like, “I’m about to be the beef jerky!”  I said to everyone in my tent, “Hey, guys, good news-bad news.  Good news is you’re going to get a snack.  Bad news is you might be a snack if you don’t eat it quickly.  Hurry!”  I gave out the beef jerky because I did not want to get mauled by whatever I heard earlier.

Wilderness can be a scary place, can’t it?  If you spend much time out there, you know that you’re at the mercy of the weather, you’re at the mercy of the wild, you’re at the mercy of the animals, and that can be a nerve-wracking place.  The Israelites knew a little about wilderness themselves.  They knew about the wilderness of being slaves in Egypt.  They did that wilderness for 400 years.  After they got out of that wilderness, they crossed through the Red Sea and wandered around in the wilderness for another 40 years.  It was during that season of wandering that the Israelites were solidified as a nation.  It was in that wilderness wandering that they grew to trust God, they grew to know God, and they were given the commands of God, solidifying them as a people and a nation.

God gave them two primary commandments.  He gave them a lot of commandments, but you could summarize them in two categories.  One was that they would be a people epitomized by love.  That they would love God and that they would love others.  The second was that they would be a people of justice.  All throughout the Old Testament, they are reminded you came out of slavery, remember what it’s like to be on the bottom.  And they didn’t.  They didn’t remember.  So, even in the season of judges and the season of kings, there’s this slow drift that starts to happen to the nation of Israel until God finally says, “This isn’t what I had in mind for you.”  You were suppose to be a people of love and justice, and you’re a people of idolatry and injustice and I just can’t have it anymore.  So God sends the Babylonians in 586 to completely destroy Israel.  They’re taken off into exile…another wilderness.  It’s in that exile that Isaiah looks forward to.

There’s a lot of debate about the book of Isaiah — when it was written and whether it’s Isaiah standing in exile or Isaiah looking forward to exile.  Isaiah 40 is a passage written to people in a wilderness.  In order to really understand what Isaiah 40 is saying, you need to understand the heart of a wilderness wanderer.  Maybe the best place we see that is in the book of Lamentations.  The prophet Jeremiah says in Lamentations 1:2, looking at Israel in ruins, personifying Jerusalem to have a voice for herself — She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her.  (Verse 16) For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me……Zion stretches out her hands, but there is none to comfort her.  You sort of get the sense that the wilderness stirs up in Israel this longing for comfort.  It’s like a picture of a child throwing a temper tantrum or just having an absolute breakdown.  If you’re a parent, you’ve seen that — DAILY — where it almost feels like your kids are unconsolable, thrashing about.  This is Israel.  Is there anyone to comfort?  Is there anyone who hears?  Is there anyone coming to our aid?

Comfort could be defined as relational, coming alongside of to fortify.  To strengthen.  To build up.  To point to a better day and to put an arm around someone.  As kids, we found comfort in all sorts of things, didn’t we?  Comfort in a blanket maybe.  Comfort in a parent’s embrace.  As adults, we find comfort in different things.  We have terms like ‘comfort food.’  We have comfy pants.  We have comfortable scenes that just seem to create a certain sense of aahhhh!  But then there’s also moments where we can relate to the Israelites lament.  Is there anyone to comfort?  Is there anything that could be a healing balm over this pain?

We experience the wilderness in all sorts of situations.  Maybe it’s a circumstance that you’re walking through right now.  You’re going, “I don’t know how this situation is ever going to work itself out.”  Is there any comforter for this abuse that I’ve walked through?  Is there any comfort for this job that I’m looking for that just seems so illusive?  Maybe it’s a relational comfort that we’re crying out for?  Let’s be honest, Christmas is a time where families get together.  For some of you that’s really exciting.  For some of you, you’re going, “My eyes weep! My eyes overflow with tears for comfort is far from me!”  Right?  Maybe it’s relational and there’s a seed of bitterness you just can’t seem to stamp out.  Is there any comfort?  Maybe it’s spiritually.  You’re just in a wilderness and you feel like you’re wandering, and God seems distant and he seems like his ears are plugged. He feels far away. The Bible seems dry and your prayer life is parched and you’re going, “God, I don’t get it.  Where are you?”  I love reading Jeremiah’s cry in Lamentations — Is there any comfort?  It’s a common lament of humanity.  You’ve cried it and I’ve cried it.  It’s part of our universal language because we live in a world that’s broken.  Is there any comfort?

It’s in THAT situation that Isaiah begins to write in Isaiah 40.  Isaiah could be termed a ‘mini Bible,’ of sorts.  There are 66 books in the Bible and 66 chapters in Isaiah.  There are 39 books in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament.  If you were to look at the entire book of Isaiah, here’s the way you could divide it.  You could divide it between chapters 39 and 40.  One through thirty-nine is Isaiah talking about exile, saying, “We got to repent, you guys, we’ve got to turn back to God.  We’ve wandered away and God is going to come and he’s going to lead us back to him and it’s not going to be pretty, so let’s just go ourselves.”  Chapters 40-66 is Isaiah envisioning not only their place in exile, but the God who shows up in exile.

If we could read the Lamentations passage together and then read right into Isaiah 40, I think you get the picture of what Isaiah’s saying.  Lamentations 1:16-17 read like this:  For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my spirit; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.  Zion stretches out her hands, but there is none to comfort her; the Lord has commanded against Jacob that his neighbors should be his foes; Jerusalem has become a filthy thing among them.   There’s none to comfort her.  Isaiah 40:1-4 — Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.  A voice cries:  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.  And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.   Is there any comfort?  Comfort, comfort my people says your God.

In 1741, one of the greatest Christmas pieces ever written, George Frideric Handel begins his oratorio Messiah with these words, “Comfort.  Comfort is coming.”  Comfort is on the way.  Your God is coming.  Your God is on the move.  Can you imagine for Israel standing in exile how hard that would have been to believe?  Oftentimes we read the Bible, but we don’t put ourselves in the place of the people receiving it.   We do ourselves a disservice because we start to think that this is just some pie-in-the-sky type of comfort.  No, this is a wilderness wandering type of a comfort.  This is the comfort that says to the people of Israel, “You don’t need to leave the wilderness to encounter comfort.”  You don’t need to leave the wilderness to meet your God.  Your God is making a highway that’s coming to you, not to just take you out of the wilderness, but to meet you in it.  That’s the power of this passage.  Comfort is coming and it’s coming IN your wilderness.  It’s not just taking you out of it, it’s meeting you in it.

So, the voice says, “Prepare the way.”  Flip over to Mark 1:1-3.  Mark’s the very first gospel, chronologically, that was written.  Mark begins his gospel account by saying this:  The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.  As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”    Does that sound familiar to anyone?  It should, because what Mark is doing—-this is probably Peter who’s writing through Mark—is saying “Something new is going on.”  There’s a new promise that’s being fulfilled and it’s happening in our midst.

If you’ve ever watched a movie about Jesus, it probably had John the Baptist in it.  My guess is he’s one of your favorite characters, right?  Because he’s got this crazy hair, a coat made of camel skin, he’s eating bugs and honey.  Right?  They get John the Baptizer right in the movies because you go, “Oh, he’s a lunatic!”  And he was!  He’s doing what the prophets often did….he’s acting out what he’s saying.  He doesn’t go to the civic center of Jerusalem and say that God’s coming.  No, no, no.  He goes out to the wilderness.  Outside of the city, where the land is barren, where the water is sparse, and where the ground is dry, and he says, “Prepare!  Get ready!”  You don’t have to leave the wilderness to encounter your God.  He builds a highway to meet you there.  In all the dryness.  In all the desolation.  In the barrenness, and the pain, and the failure, and the regret…..God comes!  Here’s what Advent reminds us of:  God uses the barren wilderness to birth beautiful life.

Please look up at me.  We need to get this this Christmas season.  You don’t need to leave the wilderness to encounter God.  It might be the very place that he’s put you so that you can actually hear his voice.  So Isaiah says, not, “Leave Babylonian/Persian exile so that you can meet God.”  He says no, no, no, no, no, there’s a highway being built and God is coming to meet you there!  Everybody’s going to see it and every valley shall be raised up and every mountain will be made low.  But if we don’t expect and we don’t prepare to meet God in the barren wilderness, we might miss him.  So the prophet says, “Prepare!”  Stir your heart, anticipate.  Like kids on Christmas Eve night.  Putting out milk and cookies to welcome Santa to their house.  Prepare.  Get ready!  Get ready in your dryness, get ready in your despair, get ready in your barrenness, in the wilderness.  Get ready to encounter your God.  In Littleton, prepare.  In Denver, prepare.  They’re preparing in Cote d’Ivoire because God is coming.

If you read through the prophet-poet Isaiah’s voice here, you don’t see God saying listen, just endure it.  Quit your whining.  This is what you deserve.  May I remind you that you are here because of your covenantal unfaithfulness and disobedience, so get over it!  Would that have been true if he would have said that?  Yes!  But it would not have been gospel.  He comes and he preaches gospel.  Isaiah 40:9 — Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news.  {In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint, this is the first place we read the word ‘euangelion,’ which is Greek for ‘gospel.’}  …lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!   Behold, your God is coming and He’s meeting you in the wilderness.  Friends, if we avoid the wilderness, we avoid one of God’s greatest workshops in our life.

Over the course of this week, over plane flights and down time, I had a chance to read a book entitled Where Breath Becomes Air.   Great book.  It’s about this neurosurgeon who has as many accolades as you could possibly acquire.  Stanford trained.  At the top of his game and at the top of his profession.  His name is Paul Kalanithi.  He was diagnosed with a lung cancer that moved into his brain.  After a number of attempts of staving off the cancer, it eventually took his life.   He knew the end was coming and started to write this book.  He started to search for meaning, because when you’re in the wilderness some of the old ways of walking just don’t work anymore.  {Anybody want to say amen?}  He started to think that there had to be more to this life.  In this real poignant part of this book, he writes a letter to his young daughter named Lucy.  He wants to give her a message:  “The message is simple:  When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied.  In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.”  For a man who was at the top of his class and the top of, what many of us would say is, the human ascent, he goes, “It doesn’t matter.”  Here’s what matters:  Love.  Relationships.  Family.  That’s what matters.  He gets the picture of the reality.  You know this, and I’ve seen it to, that God often births beautiful life in barren wilderness.  He did it there and my prayer is that he’d do it in us.

For the next few moments, I’d like to preach good news into your spiritual deserts, into your wilderness wanderings, because my conviction is that your next breakthrough, spiritually, will not come on a mountain top but will come in a dark valley.  That will be the catalyst for what God does next in your life, moving your forward.  That it will be the word of comfort that comes in the barren, darkness that actually propels you forward.  You may ask, “How does that happen?”  That’s what the prophet Isaiah talks about in Isaiah 40:6-7 — A voice says, “Cry!”  And I said, “What shall I cry?”  {Don’t you love this banter?  It’s like we get this insight into what Isaiah and God’s relationship is like.}  All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass.  It says it a little bit different in the NET translation:  All people are like grass and all their promises are like the flowers in the field.  Isaiah is writing that one of the things the wilderness reminds us of is that we’re inconsistent.  That we come up short.  That we’re often unfaithful in our word.  A pastor friend of mine tweeted out this week that advent reminds us not that we are faithful in our waiting, but that God is faithful in his coming.  That’s what Isaiah’s remembering.  Oh man, I’ve messed this up more times than I can remember and so have my friends. Here’s what happens in the wilderness:  We’re stripped of our sufficiency and forced into dependency.  You can circle the word ‘forced,’ because oftentimes, if you’re anything like me, we need to be forced into dependency, we don’t go there on our own.

I would argue that this is the point, and the power, of the wilderness.  As if we throw our hands up in the air and go, “I don’t know what else I can do here.”  I’ve tried everything I can for the Israelites…..Jerusalem, our crown city, lies in ruins and we’re under the thumb of the Babylonians.  We’ve got nothing left to offer.  God goes, “Aahhh!  Perfect!  I’ve got you exactly where I want you.”  The wilderness pushes back against our rugged, Western individualism and reminds us that we cannot do this on our own.  Self-sufficiency dies in the wilderness.  That’s the power of the wilderness.   I love the way the prophet Hosea writes it, recording the words of God and why God takes his people into exile.  Therefore, behold, I will allure her,  {This is ironic language because the way He does this is through the hands of the Babylonians.  Not exactly with tenderness, but listen to what his goal is.}  …and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. (Hosea 2:14)    As if to say, maybe, just maybe, in the wilderness the voices will be quieted, the pride will be softened, and the ears opened.  Maybe, just maybe, we’ll be able to hear differently in the wilderness than we could in the loud, boisterous, sufficient city that they used to live in.

It may be the very reason that from a very early stage in the Christian tradition, the first few centuries, there would be a monastic movement of what we would call the Desert Fathers and Desert Mothers.  They would journey into the wilderness in order to hear the voice of God.  Aaron and I had the opportunity, on a long layover in Paris, to stand in Notre Dame.  This great gothic cathedral in Paris.  Then we ran over to this church at Sacred Heart and had a similar experience of looking up at the vast ceiling.  The architecture and the art.  Sensing this holy awe that it stirs in you.  Before there was ever a Notre Dame or Sacred Heart, there were people who said we want to hear the voice of God, so we’re going to the desert.  To the middle of nowhere.  Here’s the power of the wilderness wandering for you and for me.  It’s that the sufficiency that we have in ourselves doesn’t work anymore.  It falls flat.  We need to lean on the journey of others.

If you’re in the wilderness, can I give you encouragement this morning?  There are wells that other people have drilled and walked through the same road that you’re walking through that are available to you.  It’s part of the beautiful tradition of being followers of Christ.  You can grab a Common Book of Prayer and read through some of these liturgies.  They’re wells that you didn’t dig, but there’s water that’s available for you.  We get the chance to lean on people who have walked this road before us going, “Listen, we can’t do this on our own, and actually, God, we need you to show up.”  In the wilderness in Egypt in ancient times, there were people that would wander all around on trade routes and they would mark the wells by putting little cairns along the way, stacks of rocks to encourage you to keep going, there’s water coming up. I just want to say to you, if you’re in the wilderness today, keep going!  Lean on the journey that others have taken before you.  Trust the words of the Apostle Paul that when we’re weak, we’re strong.  Even if you don’t feel faith, you can choose it.  Sometimes you have to in the wilderness.  {Anybody want to say amen?}

Isaiah and his people are being stripped down and ironically, they’re being put in the place that they have the most power.  Dependent.  Dependent on God.  Here’s the way the passage continues.  Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”  {Or, hey, look up at me!}  Behold, the Lord God comes with might…(Isaiah 40:9-10)  He’s coming in the wilderness!  Behold, behold, behold…   Here’s what the prophet’s reminding us of:  The wilderness has power to transform because it’s often in the wilderness that we reach out for a comforter because nothing is comfortable.  There’s something about being human where we won’t reach out for a comforter if everything’s comfortable.  We’ll settle for the temporary trinket-type of comfort. But when all that’s stripped away, that’s when we start to reach out, that’s when we start to connect with God.  I love the way the great pastor, Eugene Peterson, put it when he said:  “We all need comfort because we are separated from our origins in God and our future in Christ.”   We need comfort because sin separates us from the Author of Life, so Isaiah writes reach out, behold your God!  Take him in.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, is a great example of this.  Luke 2:18-19 records this about Mary.   The angels declare the greatness and the goodness of God.  Peace to him on whom his favor rests.  And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.  {They were amazed and thrown off a little bit.  What’s happening?}  But Mary… {The conjunction ‘but’ separates Mary’s response from everybody else’s.  Everybody wonders, everybody marvels, everybody goes, “That’s crazy, amazing, but good!”  But Mary….}  ….treasured…  It literally means to gather up all the pieces of the story.  She treasured it and pondered them in her heart.  She gathered them up and then she intentionally dwelled on them.  She beheld her God.

The wilderness causes us to reach out for a comforter because nothing is comfortable.  I just want to encourage you this Christmas season…..Behold your God!  Don’t just marvel.  It is marvelous.  It’s glorious.  It’s shockingly beautiful!  But don’t leave it there.  Treasure it.  Pull it together and ponder it.  Look on it intently.  Whatever we behold we eventually become.  It’s no coincidence that Isaiah says ‘behold your God,’ and ‘herald good news’ all in the same passage.  Because whatever we behold we tweet about.  We talk about.  You don’t need to be around each other too long to know what we behold, because it naturally comes out of us.  Whatever we behold we eventually become, and whatever we behold we eventually proclaim.  It was true of Mary.  It’s true of Isaiah, and it will be true of you.  {Look up at me for a moment.}   Please, please, please, please, please, don’t let Advent pass you by without reaching out and beholding your Comforter.  He’s coming!  Will you take the time to behold?

A number of the elders have been inspired this season.  In light of the way Advent started…..a group of monks journeying out to the wilderness to fast for the forty days leading up to Christmas, a number of the elders are going to take one day a week during the Advent season and fast and ask God to show His face in a different way.  Would you want to join us?  Pick a day and intentionally say, “I just want to behold.”  Maybe it’s every day during this Advent season that you go on a walk around your neighborhood and you behold the beauty that’s around you and you just say, “God, in every step I take, I want to remember the story that you clothed yourself in humanity and stepped into your story to redeem an obstinate people.  Remind me of it again, Lord.”  Or maybe you grab one of the devotions we have and you journey with us in this Advent season.  Whatever you do, would you intentionally behold?  Because your God is coming.

Isaiah finally says here’s the power of the wilderness and here’s what we start to see (verses10-11) — Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.  {It’s this picture of God as a general of an army, who’s just going in, powerful, strong, and ready to take names.}  He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.  We’re suppose to read that and go…..well, these two pictures don’t usually go together.  Certainly, in an ancient world, they did not.  Rulers ruled with an iron fist and there’s a practical reason they did this.  They got killed if they didn’t.  If you’re a weak ruler, you got run over or run through, or maybe both.  Isaiah says no, no, no, when our God comes, when he comes with comfort, when he comes with that healing balm, when he comes, he comes with both might and he comes gently, he comes with mercy.  As the prophet Micah, when foretelling the coming of the Christ, said:  He’s both the ruler and the shepherd. (Micah 5:2)

I think it’s when we’re in the wilderness that we start to see this sort of dual dimension of God.  That he’s strong….and that he’s tender.  He’s the ruler and he’s the shepherd.  In the wilderness we need him to be both, don’t we?  Because if he’s just strong and not good, it doesn’t do us any good, and if he’s just good and not strong, it doesn’t do anybody any good.  But in the wilderness, we see the dual dimension of God.  He comes alongside of us, like a shepherd, to tenderly care for us, AND he’s strong and he transforms us.  That’s the power and that’s the reason that barren wilderness often births beautiful life.  We encounter a God of both mercy and might.

There’s this verse that we haven’t read yet.  It’s Isaiah 40:8 – The grass {Isaiah has already defined it in verse 6 as us, as humanity, as flesh.} …withers, the flower fades,  {It’s this picture of humanity being unfaithful, inconsistent, and unwilling to journey with God, oftentimes.  It’s the reason that in the wilderness the grass withers and the flower fades.}  …but the word of our God will stand forever.   Flesh is inconsistent, but our God is faithful.  Flesh is mortal, but our God is immortal.  What might happen if we were able to combine these two things?  What if the word became flesh?  What if all of the faithfulness of God was embodied in fleshly humanity?  What if God could step in, in all of his perfection and immortality, and clothe himself in mortality and, in the failure of the first Adam, step into life as the second Adam and become a flesh that’s faithful??  Well, here’s what we’d have……Christmas!  We’d have incarnation!  We would have hope.  We would have peace.  We would have joy.  We would have love.  We would have the Comforter.  Because as John 1:14 says:  And the Word became flesh and moved into the neighborhood.   Therefore, it’s safe to cry out because at Christmas comfort became incarnate.  His name is Jesus.  In all of your wilderness wanderings, in all of your shortcomings, in all of your failure, He loves to meet you there at Christmas.  It’s the virgin’s wilderness womb that gives birth to eternal life.

Friends, this is the gospel.  This is good news.  This is the reason it’s safe to cry out.  Our hope is rooted in the assurance that God pays personal, tender, and powerful attention to us.  What wilderness do you need him to meet you in?  What comfort are you crying out for?  I have a word for you.  Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  He’s speaking tenderly to you and inviting you to reach out, behold, rely on your strong, tender God.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.  Hope has an arm around us.  Comfort has a name and his name is Jesus.  Let’s pray.

God, I pray over my friends in this room today who are in a season of wilderness, or who are headed for one.  It seems like that’s the thing about wilderness, Father, is that we don’t need to look for it, it seems to find us.  Lord, you have a way of finding us there as well, and I pray that you would.  I pray that there would be people today who would cry out and say, “I’m dry.  I’m desperate.  I’m at my end.”  And that you would make a highway to meet them in that desert, in that wilderness, and that in the barren wilderness, you would birth beautiful life.  Praise you that your solid, faithful, eternal word took on mortal flesh in order to redeem people who are like grass and fading flowers.  Thank you.  We celebrate you this Christmas season, Jesus, giver of Life.  It’s in your name that we pray.  And all God’s people said……Amen.