December 16, 2007

Recipients of Peace
Isaiah 40:1-11

The prophet Isaiah, as we’ve seen in recent weeks, was quite a dreamer. He dreamt dreams in which the nations of the earth flock to God’s holy mountain for guidance and instruction. Dreams in which swords and rifles are transformed into plows and shovels. Dreams in which a new, living shoot grows out of the stump of Jesse and offers hope to the entire world. Now, here in 40:1-11, Isaiah invites us into, of all places, the capital building of heaven. There, the divine council—Yahweh and all of his angels and messengers—is in session. Readers of the Old Testament might recall other glimpses into such divine council meetings, although the proceedings here are noticeably different. In 1 Kings 22:19-22, the council met to discuss how to deal with ornery King Ahab. “How should we proceed?” the Lord asked, and members of the council offered their suggestions. In Job 1:6, a similar meeting took place in which members of the council brought to Yahweh reports from various areas of his kingdom. Even Isaiah himself used similar imagery back in chapter 6, where Yahweh’s angels and messengers sang his praises like a choir performing before the President at a major White House celebration.

Here in 40:1-11, we find neither discussion nor debate. God does not solicit input from the members of his council, nor does he make any attempt to work for an Anabaptist-like consensus. Instead, he addresses the various members of his council and says, “Comfort my people” “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem”—literally, “Speak to her heart” as one would speak to a person grieving the death of a loved one (Gen. 24:67; 2 Sam. 10:2; Jer. 16:7). “Cry to her” as would a young man wooing the girl of his dreams (Gen. 34:3). Like a state official who pulls his assistants off of other jobs in order to concentrate all department attention on one top-priority issue, so Yahweh instructs every member of the divine council, “Go now and bring peace to my people.”

What prompts Yahweh, however, to offer such straight-forward instructions? Why does he place all of his workers on this single case? The Lord loves his people, Isaiah assures us elsewhere (43:4)—“they are precious in his (my) sight”—and they are now in desperate need of help.

His people are, for one thing, struggling under the weight of their own sin. In 587/86 B.C., a date inscribed forever in the Israelite subconscious, Jerusalem and Judah were ransacked and captured by the mighty Babylonian army. At the same time, many of the city’s inhabitants were stuffed in box cars and taken off to a distant land. “How could such a thing happen?” the writer of Lamentations asks. The prophet Isaiah offers his explanation in 39:5-8:
Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: Days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your ancestors have stored up until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the Lord.
“How could such a thing happen?” some observers asked. The people of Jerusalem and Judah had sinned again and again and again against the Lord, violating his commandments and worshiping other gods. Finally, their sins caught up with them, leaving them defeated and conquered.

Sin can do that, of course. And if we stop to think about it, we, like the people here, bring many of our own troubles upon ourselves. We often dig our own holes. And the consequences can be devastating. While the wages of sin is death, Paul assures us (Rom. 6:23), the weight of sin in the meantime can be virtually overwhelming. The guilt that comes with disobedience. The shame. You can often see it on a person’s face or sense it in a person’s countenance. So many episodes flash through my mind. I met a man several years ago who had misappropriated funds from the company he worked for, and the weight of that sin had been eating at him ever since. I spoke with a woman who had been unfaithful to her husband, and although he had forgiven her, she found it nearly impossible to forgive herself. I sat just this semester with a student who was caught in the trap of pornography, and the guilt and sense of hopelessness reduced him to absolute despair. The weight of sin—unless our consciences have been so completely eroded that we can now do and say most anything without feeling guilt or shame—can nearly overwhelm us. It keeps us awake at night, robs us of our joy and confidence, and reduces us to a shell of our true selves—sneaking around and hiding so that no one ever learns our darkest secrets. The people of Judah and the citizens of Jerusalem are living under the collective weight of their sins. They are beating themselves up. “Comfort those overwhelmed by their sins,” Yahweh instructs the divine council. “Tell them that their sins are forgiven. Tell them that their penalty is paid.”

His people are, furthermore, living under foreign forces and influences outside of their control. They now reside in Babylon, after all, captives rather than captors. Displaced. Marginalized. Powerless. Subject to the whims and wishes, not to mention rules and regulations, of their conquerors. Slaves to worldly systems and structures. Long gone are the days of the exodus. Little has changed but the names of the leading characters—the Egyptian overlords have given way to their Babylonian counterparts.

And so it seems at times for the people of God in our day and age. Many, as we all know, live literally under oppressive and ungodly governments and are subject to their evil ways. The Jews in Babylon are today the believers in China, Afghanistan, Peru, North Korea and Algeria, to name just a few. For such people we regularly pray and, in various ways, intervene.

But the number of God’s people living today under the pressures and influences of forces outside of their control can hardly be described in geo-political terms alone. People living under oppressive social and economic structures that effectively prevent them from moving beyond their dismal position in life, for example, know something about life in Babylon. People who by virtue of their race, gender or upbringing are denied a meaningful voice in the system know something about life in Babylon. And does my fear of market forces and excessive technology, which we occasionally joke about around here, result solely from my ignorance and advancing age? Does anyone else here today feel as though our very lives, homes and churches are at times invaded by outside intruders who gain access through one means or another? Have any other parents here felt like they are fighting constantly against almost insurmountable cultural and technological foes? Have our children and young people ever faced a more daunting array of pressures and demands? Is it of any concern that the lives of God’s people are often influenced more today by the devices and strategies of our culture–even during the Christmas season–than by our sacred texts? The people of Judah and Jerusalem sat down on the ground in Babylon, their lives under the control of foreign forces. Their circumstances appear to be insurmountable, their fate assured. “Comfort them,” Yahweh announced to his divine council. “Speak tenderly to them. Tell them that I am greater than all of the opposing forces in this world combined. Let them know that, if they stay true to me, I will bring them out of this seemingly endless period of isolation.”

And his people are, finally, caught between their fading memories of life back in Jerusalem and the dreams announced by such prophets as Isaiah of a glorious new kingdom somewhere off in the future. They find themselves, so to speak, in a sort of hinterland between the past and the hoped-for future, and they aren’t quite sure how to live in the uncertainty of the present. They are, in effect, homeless, caught in an unfamiliar and uncomfortable time-zone.

I feel like that a great deal of the time, don’t you? We as followers of Jesus have our stories and traditions, many of which we celebrate in a special way during this Advent and Christmas season. Stories and traditions of Christ coming to earth, walking among and talking with people like you and me—feeding the multitudes, healing the sick, and even raising the dead. Stories of the Kingdom of Heaven bursting into time and space in Jesus of Nazareth.

We have, at the same time, visions and dreams of a new heaven and a new earth. Visions such as those recounted in Isaiah 2:1-5, 11:1-9 and endless other texts in which we are assured that good wins out over evil, light over darkness, life over death. We have a collective sense of anticipation that our wandering will one day come to an end and we will live forever in a redeemed world free of sin, sickness and violence. A world free of tyrants, poverty, rigged elections, hatred, disease and unfulfilled promises. A world in which Jesus will truly rule and reign.

But we are not there yet. We are living between the memories preserved in our stories and traditions and the hope expressed in our visions and dreams. And it can be, I think you will agree, an uncomfrotable place to be. In this sometimes anxious present, we worry at times about finding ourselves feeling too much at home here. Too comfortable. Too earthly-minded. Too attached to our surroundings and belongings. At other times, we become aware that our longings for the world to come might themselves be excessive and prevent us from living redemptively in the moment. We are here, trapped in a broken world between the memories of what was and the visions of what we hope will be, and anxiously aware that we are not really citizens of this present world. And what an unsettling place that can be. So it was for the people of Jerusalem and Judah. “Comfort my people,” Yahweh instructs his council. “Forget about your other responsibilities and speak tenderly to them. Let them know that they are not alone in this uncomfortable and even mysterious place between the past and future. Give my people peace.”

“Comfort my people,” Yahweh instructs the divine council. But look. Yahweh, though undoubtedly confident in the abilities of his council, feels so strongly about his desire to comfort his people that, having given these instructions, he decides to go and do it himself. What a remarkable picture of God’s intervention is preserved for us here in vv. 3-5. A highway is under construction! A highway, not principally for those in exile to return home, but for the Lord himself to come to his lonely and displaced people. What we find in these verses is not an updated version of Israel’s exodus from Egypt and subsequent wandering along the highway through the wilderness and on to the promised land. The picture here instead reflects earlier stories in which God himself made his way from distant places in order to care for his people. “The Lord came from Sinai,” we read in Deuteronomy 33:2,
and dawned from Seir upon us;
he shone forth from Mount Paran.
With him were myriads of holy ones;
at his right, a host of his own.
And in Psalm 68:7, the people of Israel themselves worship God for his arrival and intervention:
O God, when you went out before your people,
when you marched through the wilderness,
the earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain
at the presence of God, the God of Sinai.
Yahweh, verses 3-5 assure us, is getting out all of his heavy-duty equipment. He is coming himself to comfort his people, and nothing can stop him—not mountains or valleys, forests or wasteland, flat plains or rocky ridges. Yahweh is coming!

And he did. In spite of their frailty and instability, so eloquently expressed in vv. 6-8, God built the highway through the wilderness and came to his people—his sinful, guilt-ridden, displaced and troubled people. He came with might, as v. 10 promised, and freed his people from their Babylonian oppressors some 50-75 years after their fall. And he came with compassion, as v. 11 anticipated, wrapping his arms around his people—wiping their tears and dressing their wounds—and carrying them back home to Jerusalem.

God came to his people way back when,?these are historically verifiable events?and he continues to do so to this very day. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” John the Baptist announced (Mt. 3:3). Jesus is coming into the world with power and compassion, and nothing can stop him. He is coming to restore this fallen world in its entirety—make no mistake about it. But he is coming to bring comfort—peace—to those of us who are burdened down by guilt and shame, overwhelmed by the forces of an often unfriendly world, and caught between our memories of the past and our hopes for the future. “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” the Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, “the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4a).