Saturday, December 13, 2014

Looking for Peace

Looking For Peace
Isaiah 40:1-11[1]
For some of us, the search for peace takes us no farther than our own family, our friends, our community of faith, and our home. For some of us peace is as close to us as our hearts. But there are many who have a much more difficult time finding peace--true peace, lasting peace. Whether due to a significant loss, deep-seated problems that just won’t go away, or a major disappointment, there are those among us who have a very difficult time finding any peace. Especially at this time of year. All the hustle and bustle going on around people whose lives have seemed to come to a standstill can leave them feeling left out and alone. Anything but joyful. Anything but peaceful. It’s a time of year not to celebrate, but to survive.
And yet the offer of a true and lasting peace is just what the prophet of our lesson for this morning is talking about. The cry “Comfort, O comfort my people” introduces a major shift in the book of Isaiah.[2] Prior to this, the message of Isaiah mostly concerns a rebuke of the people’s sins and a call to repentance.[3] But now, there is something new at work. The God who finally gave the people over to the consequences of their sins and allowed them to go into exile now announces that he will comfort those who have suffered for so long.
Ironically, again the prophet gives voice to the doubts and fears of a people who have struggled to endure the long years of their exile. He calls out, “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” (Isa. 40:6-7). In other words, they think they have about as much chance surviving the exile as the grass does surviving a severe drought. For a people who have lost everything, and have had to put forth every ounce of effort just to survive in exile, the promise that God was coming to comfort them seemed an empty one.[4] During their exile there were many false prophets who had gotten their hopes up for a speedy release. Now, when this prophet announces in the name of the Lord that the time for their restoration has finally come, it would seem that some of them had no more faith to give to promises.[5]
And yet, one of the themes of this section of Isaiah is that God’s word does not fail. Here, the answer to the cry of despair, “surely the people are grass” is that, while grass may wither, “the word of our God will stand forever” (40:8).[6] While some might apply this to Scripture in general, in this setting it is a promise that God will not leave his promises of salvation, restoration, and renewal unfulfilled. 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 comfort and peace to a weary people.[7]
In the book of the prophet Isaiah, the good news of Advent is that God comes to reconcile and to heal and to restore all people, along with all creation.  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 the prophet’s message of restoration fills the whole book of Isaiah—with promises 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).
As we discussed last week, the season of Advent is a time for examining our hearts and lives. But the season of Advent is also a time to lift up our hearts and our faces and look for the peace that God has promised to bring to his people. In our lesson for today, “preparing the way for the Lord” means that “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” (40:4) In other words, the return journey to Jerusalem will be much easier for them than their forced march into Babylon.[8] And the prophet promises that at that time “the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together” (40:5). The heart of that glorious display would be God’s restoration for his people, bringing them comfort and peace at last.[9]
Advent is a season when we’re called to look to God in faith. And part of that involves taking a hard look at ourselves. But the season of Advent also calls us to trust in the promises of our God, promises of salvation, restoration, and renewal. Promises that, like a shepherd gently and tenderly cares for sheep who have been injured (Isa. 40:11), God will bring comfort and peace to all those who are suffering.[10] And when God promises to bring comfort and peace, we can trust in those promises because what God promises, God accomplishes.

[1] ©2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 12/7/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. K. Baltzer, Deutero-Isaiah: A commentary on Isaiah 40–55, 49: “This sentence sums up everything that DtIsa has to proclaim. It means a real turn of events—a new beginning and yet, at the same time, continuity. God’s fundamental decision in favor of his people has been made.”
[3] Even in the message of judgment, however, there was a promise of restoring justice for those who had been oppressed by the “powers that be.” Commenting on the series of woes in Isa. 5:11-23, Otto Kaiser, Isaiah 1-12, 66, observes that Isaiah “sees a time coming when all ownership will be accumulated in the hands of a few. The result of this development was bound to be that the inner coherence and legal security of the people of the covenant would collapse. A deep gulf would be opened between the poor and the rich, into which the poor were in danger of sinking.” He says (p. 68), “The divine woe is pronounced over every nation which sets pleasure and profit above the common interest and law.” He concludes (p. 71), “The woes Isaiah pronounces “proclaim with compelling force that all material well-being obtained at the expense of the people as a whole and in defiance of the law is precarious, because God loves what is right.”
[4] Cf. Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 41. Others take this cry in a different way, but he suggests that the prophet’s counter-cry that “all flesh is like grass” reflects the exiles’ “greatest temptation ... to be resigned to thinking of themselves as caught up in the general transience of things, to believing that nothing could be done to halt the extinction of their national existence.”
[5] Cf. Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 14: “many of the prophet’s contemporaries were asking whether there was any source of comfort left for a people stripped of self-defense, vulnerable before their captors, bitter of soul as they mourned in a foreign land.”
[6] Cf. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 10: “What directs all of world history is captured succinctly in the divine word in 46:10, ‘My purpose shall stand, and I will fulfill my intention.’”
[7] Cf. Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 37: “Once Yahweh cried, ‘Comfort my people,’ something was bound to happen. The cry could not return to him empty.” Cf. also Christopher Seitz “The Book of Isaiah 40-66,” New Interpreters Bible VI:338.
[8] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.4:56, where he says, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness—a phrase quoted from Is. 40:3–5 in all four Gospels—is the voice of a messenger of salvation rather than catastrophe.”
[9] Cf. Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 34: “The messenger’s word that turns lamentation into joy has as its counterpart the intervention in history of the God who is lord of history, who exalts the humble and casts down the mighty.” Cf. also Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 10: “Second Isaiah’s message consistently describes how God was about to heal a torn creation and restore a broken community.”
[10] Cf. J├╝rgen Moltmann, A Broad Place: An Autobiography, 99-100, where he compares this “promise of the coming kingdom of God and his righteousness and justice for all” with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963.

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