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 forever.
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.
Isaiah 40: 1-11
Reflection – This is a most familiar and beloved passage for the Advent season, coming up in hymns and such in various ways. Well, we all like the idea of being consoled, don’t we? It’s hard to see a downside to that!
And God knows every human being needs consolation in some measure, to some greater or lesser degree. Someone said to me just yesterday, ‘Well, there were some saints who didn’t really suffer.’ I thought (but didn’t say), ‘Really?’ Not because it is in the nature of sainthood to suffer much (saints are not people who suffer greatly, but who love greatly), but because it is in the nature of human beings to suffer. It enters every human life, even if some people indisputably have much heavier crosses to carry than others. But it comes to everyone. And so, we all like a nice consoling word, don’t we?
And what is the consolation that God offers in Isaiah 40? The people at this point have been living in exile, in Babylon, for a very long time now. In fact, none of the original exiles from Judah are still alive – these are their children and grandchildren. They know full well, since every other prophet has been telling them this unceasingly, that they are in Babylon as punishment for their sins of idolatry and injustice. And of course the consolation is that this is coming to an end and God is going to bring them back to the land, going to bring them home.
God is not consoling them by telling them He’s going to make them rich, or destroy all their enemies, or establish them in a kingdom. In fact, the life of the returnees would prove to be difficult in the extreme, would involve quite a bit of hardship, and they never regained the political independence and security they knew under David and Solomon.
What God is consoling them with is the simple declaration of His own absolute fidelity to them, and His action on their behalf to bring them where they need to be. And isn’t that where this ancient prophecy intersects neatly with our own lives?
I don’t know about you, but I’m not living in exile. I’m a Canadian, living in Canada. If I got into a car right now and drove, I could be at the house I grew up in by lunch time, which would be a considerable surprise to my brother Rob whose house it is now. Meanwhile I live where I have lived most of the past 24 years of my life, in the beautiful woods of the Madawaska Valley, in my beloved Madonna House community. I am not an exile.
But… I need consolation nonetheless. My life is not everything it should be. I, and people I care deeply about, have problems, travails, difficulties. The world I live in has problems, travails, difficulties. And this promise of God comes to me and to you and to the world, bringing the consolation God offers, the only one He offers.