December 7, 2014
Isaiah 40: 1-5
“Help for God’s People”
Listen to the news on the radio, read it on the internet or watch it on TV, we are confronted by bad news on every side. Backlash in Ferguson and now New York City from police shootings, Ebola continues to rage in West Africa, and even the President’s kids aren’t immune from criticism. We live in a world torn by war, disease and injustice. The people of Israel weren’t any different from us. If there were newspapers back in Isaiah’s day, they would have looked much like ours.
The first 39 chapters of Isaiah contain repeated warnings that judgment was imminent and that the Jewish people would be taken captive because of their continued disobedience against the Lord. They were a stubborn people, resolute in following a destructive path and being disobedient to God’s way. They would suffer captivity at the hands of Babylonian invaders as God foretold.
Their problem is ours today as well. People turn away from fellowship with God and the truth of God’s word. Like the people of Israel in the days of Isaiah, they ignore God, the very ground of our being and maker of everything we see. Like those who went before us, we have no excuse for saying we do not know God, or for failing to honor God and give God thanks. Paul writes in the first chapter of Romans: “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made.”
Like the Israelites of old, we are held captive by misguided attitudes and wrongful actions. We are chained by past wrongs either that we committed or were committed against us. I think about Ray Rice, the former Baltimore Ravens running back. He is looking for another NFL team, but the bad publicity about abusing his wife may be deemed too great for another team to risk hiring him. We are limited by our own self-imposed definition of what life can be. I’m no good at this. I’ll never achieve this. I’m stuck in this rut and I can’t get out. I am hopeless and helpless. Any of this sound familiar to you?
Like the people of Israel, we need the comfort God would give. Without God how will good ever triumph over evil? Without God where is there hope for the future? Without God how can we cope with growing old and the inevitable deterioration of mind and body? People who are empty inside will seek relief from other sources, some that are damaging or downright destructive.
Isaiah calls us to a new purpose in life, one that comes not from cultivating a self-serving agenda, or getting our own way. In our scripture lesson for this morning God is saying, “Comfort, comfort my people.” It’s not surprising that people need comfort, but it is amazing that God is commanding them to be comforted. God gives us the gift of comfort when we are despairing, through the coming of our savior Jesus Christ.
Hear God when he calls us, “my people.” God commands comfort first because God has a relationship with you and cares about you. You belong to God; God claims you as his own. Be comforted, find strength in that you are blessed to have a special relationship with God. Secondly, God says, “speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” because God’s character is one of compassion. God wants your physical needs addressed, but even more, God wants to heal your souls. God doesn’t want you to be estranged and cut off from hope.
Thirdly, be comforted, because God states that Israel’s punishment has been served, her sin has been paid for, and she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. Just imagine with me for a moment, if I can put this in contemporary terms. A man jimmies a back door into a local Walmart store and makes off with a large screen TV worth around $1,000. He’s about to load it into his van when the police arrive, tipped off by a silent security system.
The man is booked and thrown in jail, but the new CEO of Walmart sends down an executive order that this man should be freed. He returns to the thief not only the TV he stole, but gives him another one just like it for good measure. Wait, what? On what planet does that happen?
Put Isaiah’s words in that context, and it sounds utterly crazy, but that’s what God has done. We have received double for all our sins through the person and work of Jesus Christ. We are forgiven of our past, we are transformed in our present, and promised eternal life for our future. Wait – that’s triple!
Why it was necessary for God to come down in the person of Jesus? I need a savior. I need Jesus Christ. God didn’t need to come down; God chose to enter human history out of love. What this says is that God is all about compassion and comfort, rather than judgment and punishment. Yes, there will be a time when justice will be served, but God would rather we turn our hearts to God rather than our back sides.
God said, “A voice of one calling: ‘in the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.’” When the people of Israel heard these words, they remembered what it was like when God led the people out of slavery in Egypt. God did not want them to be in exile then, and God did not wish us to remain in captivity now. The Jewish people longed for deliverance from captivity in Babylon, and we too long to be delivered of all that weighs us down today. God rescued his people when they were enslaved in Egypt, and led them through the wilderness to the land God promised them. God rescued them again when they were held captive in Babylon, but what is promised here is our ultimate freedom, led by our savior, Jesus Christ.
This is our message of comfort, hope and promise spoken through the prophet Isaiah. This message is for us who are here, to receive or reclaim with joy. But it is also a message that needs to be shared with anyone who is despairing, who has lost hope, or who needs to be delivered from captivity in whatever form or shape it has taken for them. If you remember what it was like before you knew Christ, before you were set free from whatever chains bound you, do you see how our task is to also proclaim Christ’s promise of comfort and hope to those around us? We cannot sit in some self-righteous vacuum as if only we are God’s people.
I read a wonderful story this week, about a father in France whose son with Down’s Syndrome was turning 30. The father put out an appeal through his Facebook friends, totally around 25 people, asking them to send his son a birthday card postcard, since his son really enjoyed getting postcards. One thing led to another and the son received 42,000 postcards, wishing him a happy birthday! That is the kind of extravagant love God sends us, and we are to share with others.
You have been freed by the grace of our savior Jesus Christ. You have been freed to become the person God created you to be, to live in peace and joy and daily use the character attributes given you by the Holy Spirit. God wants you to be a vehicle of hope to others wherever or however you meet them, because God’s command is also to you, “Comfort, comfort my people.” The comfort you have received is the help you are to give.
We receive again the gift of Christ’s presence and encouragement as we share the bread and cup in Holy Communion.