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Let us pray. Eternal God, in the familiar word of the prophet we hear the echo of your purposes for the world and for us. May the word preached today be indeed a word of heavenly comfort that calls us back into your presence and to the work of serving your kingdom. In Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.
One of the reasons why I wish I could sing a whole lot better than I do is that George Fredrick Handel gave this part to the tenor.
In just about every instance I bow to the superior wisdom of my colleague Adolfo in matters musical. I suspect as a fan of J. S. Bach, Adolfo might hold up the Mass in b-minor or the St. Matthew Passion as the greatest choral work ever composed, but on this matter alone I will not be swayed—Handel’s Messiah is the top of the charts. Following the overture it is the tenor who begins with “Comfort ye” and then continues with “Every valley shall be exalted.” It is the music of heaven to be sure.
The background for our text is the sort of stuff that keeps scholars busy for lifetimes and will not be sorted out by me in the next couple of minutes. Scholars on one side of the argument hold that the book of Isaiah has a single author who spoke God’s Word to God’s people for both the time before the exile and during the years when the majority of God’s people were living in Babylon. Those on the other side of the argument are convinced that there is such a break in the style and in the message between Isaiah 39 and 40 that there must have been a second or even a third author involved in delivering God’s Word to his people in this troubled time. Which ever is the case, there is no doubt that beginning with Isaiah 40 the Word being spoken is for those in exile anticipating a time when they will return to Jerusalem and the land around the holy city. This is a call for those who are coming back to God.
The prophet speaks for God. Comfort, O comfort my people. This word is telling the exiles that something new is about to happen. Listen to the phrases: she has served her term, her penalty is paid, she has received double for all her sins. God is letting his people know that it is now possible to take the sin that has stood in the middle of their relationship and set it aside. The beginning of comfort for the people of God is the end of their punishment and the forgiveness of sin. What is announced is a new relationship.
This is what God has done for us through Jesus. The exile of humanity in the country of selfish pride
and alienation is over. It’s over because God’s demand for justice has been met through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It is no longer necessary for any human to look longingly across a barren spiritual landscape wishing that God could be reached. It’s been done. Sin does separate us from a God whose very being is holiness. But our term has been served, our penalty paid by Jesus. That which we most need and which we cannot do for ourselves has been done. We have been given the comfort of God.
It is necessary, I think, to spend some time here. This is one of those places where, not being part of the world in which the text is spoken, we miss some of the sharpness of God’s Word. We deal with it quickly: yes a word of comfort is given to people in exile, they are going to come home. Isn’t that lovely? Honestly, maybe, maybe not.
One scholar provides this commentary. “Spiritual alienation did not necessarily imply economic hardship, however. The exiles, on balance, enjoyed better chances of prospering in commerce and trade than their kinsfolk who had remained on native soil. Whereas the Babylonians granted their captive guests considerable freedom to enter into business relationships, the people dwelling in Judah occupied a land that had been left in ruins both by the original Babylonian destruction and by successive waves of marauders, such as the Edomites, who swept over crippled Judah in search of plunder” (Hanson, Isaiah 40–66, Proclamation Commentaries, p. 1).
In the Advent and Christmas season there is a sense of folks being called or called back to the life of faith. St. Patrick’s Church on Highway 7 in Markham has a sign that expresses the sentiment of this season: Come home, you’re always welcome! Of course it is true that the welcome mat is out perhaps in more obvious ways at this time of year. Yet I think we may need a more honest assessment of what sort of life and faith and commitment it is to which folks are being called back. Is exile worse or better than coming home?
I am reminded of the story I read a few years ago of two women, shopping on a cold December morning, their arms filled with bundles and their coat collars raised against the wind, who walked past the window of a large store. In the window was a scene of the Nativity—the Christ Child in the manger, Mary and Joseph, the kneeling shepherds, and the cattle standing nearby.
“Can you beat that!” one of the women was
overheard to say. “The churches are even barging in on Christmas!”
What is it that we have to say at this time of year? Or more to the point, what is it that God has to say? The reality, friends, is that our celebration of this season is a mix of the biblical story, the legend of Santa Claus, parties, gift-giving and eating followed by a January of dread as we pay off VISA and commit to yet another diet. The true message of God in this season can sound more like Bah! Humbug! than true good news. I think the church in the western world must face the fact that many people, having gone to Babylon and prospered, are quite happy in the land of their exile. We must continue to urge them to return to their true spiritual home within the plan and purposes of God, but I think it’s time for us to stop beating ourselves up over the fact that so many seem so glad to stay where they are.
Another voice is heard in our text. “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” When first spoken, of course, this was a message for the exiles. God had acted once in the life of his people and in the exodus from Egypt led them through the wilderness to the promised land. There would now be another exodus, this time through the dessert from Babylon back to the same land of promise.
Scholars of the ancient world tell us the image is likely taken from the religion of Babylon. Highways were built along which images of their gods were carried in annual processions. Note the difference here. The glory of the Lord is to be revealed, not in the parading of a representation of divinity but in a people responding to the work of God in their lives and traveling across the dessert to the place this God had prepared for them.
Have you heard the story of the machinist working in Detroit, Michigan in the early days of the Ford Motor Company? Over a period of several years this man had managed to, shall we say, “borrow” a sizable collection of tools and auto parts and taken them home. It was against company policy, of course, but the man excused his behaviour by rationalizing that “everybody did it.”
One day a friend of this man shared with him the story of God’s love made known in Jesus and his life changed in some remarkable ways. He made a decision to follow Jesus, he was baptized and became committed to spiritual growth.
Thinking that this new start in this spiritual life ought to mean a new start in other areas, on the
Monday after his baptism, he gathered up all the tools and parts that he had smuggled out of the plant over the years, took them into work, presented them to his foreman with his confession and a plea for forgiveness.
The foreman was so overwhelmed with this change in the life of this man and his desire to become an honest person that he got in touch with Henry Ford himself, who was away from Detroit visiting one of his other plants. After explaining the entire story in some detail, Henry Ford—as legend has it—responded almost immediately, “Let’s damn up the Detroit River and baptize the entire plant.” There’s a picture of what it means to prepare the way of the Lord.
There is a third voice. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” One of the things that has been part of the Advent season in this church over the years is a renewal of the call to find your way into a more intentional time of reading and contemplation of the Bible.
In some ways it sounds silly to call anyone in North America to a renewed commitment to making the scriptures a part of our lives. There are enough version of the Bible available to North American Christians to fill the bookshelves of most of our homes. The Bible, however, is not a talisman, it has no magical properties sitting on the shelf. It must be read. (One survey conducted in the U. S. indicated that 10% of Americans thought Joan of Arc was the wife of Noah.) In the reading of scripture, in giving attention to its story, there is truth and strength and power and grace and comfort and the realization that the God who stands behind the Word brings his promises to fulfillment.
Again, some honesty is needed. To those who think that happiness can be found in the land of exile, there is no desire to hear that it is the Word of God that stands forever. We want to hear it is the TSX and the Dow index that are worthy of faith. We want someone to tell us that in the spending of money that we do not have for consumer goods that we do not need our nation will continue to be blessed. And all of us know there’s nothing of such promises in the Word of God.
As we do on the first Sunday of every month, we will conclude worship today with the Lord’s Supper. Here is our comfort—that we are not our own, but belong body and soul, both in life and in death, to our faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all our sins with his precious blood, and has set us free from all the power of evil. You are invited to come from the land of exile to the promised land of God’s presence.