Thursday, April 02, 2009

God Comes to Comfort[1]

Isa 40:1-11

The central theme of Advent is the promise that God is coming. For some of us, that’s very good news; for others, not so much. Some people these days are positively terrified of the prospect of God coming! They are obsessed with end-times speculations, fixated on images of the sun darkened and the moon turned to blood.[2] In their minds, God’s coming can only mean one thing: God comes with fire and brimstone to destroy everything and to severely punish all who don’t “measure up.” From this point of view, God’s coming means weeping and gnashing of teeth, being cast into outer darkness; it means being tormented in unquenchable flame.

While those images can be found in scripture, I submit that they are not the heart of the Bible’s message. What the Bible says to us about God’s coming is that God comes to save, God comes to restore and renew, God comes to comfort.[3] This was Isaiah’s message of hope. Isaiah promised peace to those who are near and peace to those who are far away. But Isaiah was not like the false prophets of an earlier day who promised peace to a disobedient people who had not yet experienced God’s “severe mercy.”[4] What made Isaiah’s message different was the context in which it was delivered: He was speaking to a people who had lost pretty much everything that defined their lives—homes and land, family and identity, even to some extent their religion.[5] After they had been forced into exile in Babylon, I think many of those whom Isaiah addressed could very well believe that all hope was gone, that their life was like dried up grass or withered flowers—it was gone for good, never to return.[6]

At the outset of this encounter with God, it would seem that Isaiah shares this hopeless opinion: the grass withers and the flower fades. What good news could he possibly proclaim to a people who were dried up like grass? But the “word of the Lord” that came to Isaiah was this: the “word of our God will stand forever” (Isa. 40:8). It might seem like a strange comfort—what “word” could possibly make a difference to a people enduring complete and total ruin? It would seem the point is that the message of judgment that Isaiah had delivered to a people complacent in their self-made comforts was not the only “word” that came from the Lord. In the midst of warnings of judgment, there were also promises of restoration—a promise of the end of violence and warfare (Isa. 2:4), of the end of suffering and oppression (Isa. 25:8); a promise of a rich feast set for all peoples (Isa. 25:6), of God coming to set right everything that has gone wrong (Isa. 28:5-6) and to restore and heal those who are weak and injured (Isa. 35:3-6).[7]

The “Good News According to the Prophet Isaiah” is that God comes not to destroy and punish, but to restore creation to the way it was meant to be. God comes to renew humankind, along with all nature. God comes to set right everything that is wrong. That’s why Isaiah could speak of God’s coming like a shepherd who gently carries the lambs who are either too weak to make it back to safety or who perhaps have been injured (Isa. 40:11).

And throughout Isaiah’s message, one of the central themes is that “the word of our God will stand forever.” Some may use this to bolster faith in a book or to give a stamp of finality to whatever agenda they happen to be promoting this year. But in the context of Isaiah’s prophetic preaching, the affirmation that “the word of our God will stand forever” is a declaration that God will not leave the promises of salvation, restoration, and renewal unfulfilled.[8] In another passage, Isaiah puts it this way: “as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace” (Isa. 55:10-12). The prophet declared in the name of the Lord that “the word of God” does not return empty, but accomplishes what it was intended for—to bring joy and peace.

That’s why Jesus proclaimed that God’s coming was “good news” (Mark 1:14-15). Jesus also believed that God’s coming didn’t mean destruction and punishment, but rather restoration and healing and renewal (Matt. 11:5). Jesus believed that God’s coming would bring “rest” to those who are “weary and carrying heavy burdens” (Matt. 11:28-29). Jesus believed that God was coming to bring joy and peace to all people—that “all people” would see the “glory of the Lord” (Isa. 40:5), they would experience God’s saving presence and merciful restoration, and everlasting love.[9]

The promise that God comes is not one that we should fear. Rather, like our Savior we can trust that our God comes to bring comfort, that our God comes to fulfill the promises that stand forever, promises of peace and joy and life and love.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/7/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] Joel 2:20, 31; Acts 2:20; Rev. 6:12; cf. Isa. 13:10; Mark 13:24.

[3] Paul Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 6.

[4] Hanson, 19-20.

[5] Hanson, 13-14; cf. also James Limburg, “An Exposition of Isaiah 40:1-11,” Interpretation 29 (October, 1975): 406-411.

[6] Hanson, 23; cf. Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 41.

[7] Brevard Childs, Isaiah, 298-301.

[8] Hanson, 10; cf. Westermann, 36-37, 42-43.

[9] Hanson, 8, 22; cf. Westermann, 39; Childs, 299.

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