Isaiah sings a very different song today, a radically different tune from the dark lamentation of last week’s text. Last week the prophet lamented the absence of God’s favor with His people. “Oh that You would rend the heavens and come down…make Your name known to Your adversaries…make the nations tremble at Your presence!” Now the prophet proclaims a dramatic reversal in the fortunes of God’s people. “Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned.” A very different tune!
With this song of Isaiah 40, hope is infused into our Advent season as well. These words are stunning in their beauty and their artistry, which even as words alone inspire and move the listener. But for many a listener, of course, we hear these words almost automatically with the music of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. That opening aria, so soothing, so tender: “Comfort ye.” And then it is followed by the rousing aria “Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low…the crooked straight and the rough places plain.” Oh, it is magical music. But even without Mr. Handel’s incredible music, Isaiah’s poetry still sings.
It is a new song, with all the Biblical meaning of the word “new.” It so filled to overflowing with hope and grace that Martin Luther once called it the 5th Gospel.
Oh…but Gospel is never without Law, nor the Law without the Gospel. Last week, in the depths of Isaiah’s lament, still, as Biblical laments do, Isaiah could point to hope. “O Lord, You are our Father. Your are the Potter, we are the clay…we are the work of Your hand…we are all Your people.” So likewise, even in the heights of Isaiah’s ecstatic joy, he includes the shadows which accent that joy all the more: “Warfare…iniquity…sin.”
In his great joy Isaiah recognizes that the human situation is finite—all flesh is grass and the grass withers. Our human lot is one of sin—we receive double for all our sins. It is one of vanity and pride—we are brought to nothing and we fall. Mountains are brought down, hills made low.
Still, despite his realistic knowledge of human nature and destiny, or, more accurately, because of this knowledge, Isaiah gives comfort and consolation and hope to all people who, as human beings, are upended by this world. Valleys are lifted up…the crooked is made straight.
So the path of Isaiah’s song rises and falls like an exhilarating musical ride. Out of the depths of sin and punishment, forgiveness and redemption lift the hearer to giddy heights. Then the ride plunges again, as the prophet recognizes that all the goodness of mortal kind is like the flower of the field, which fades because the breath of God blows upon it. Yet he does not stop. The Word of God will stand forever. There is something eternal to which we mortals may cling, lifting us as though we were flying. Our God shall come with a mighty arm. It is a ride like none other!
Thus the anonymous voice in Isaiah’s song, so filled with tidings of comfort and joy, becomes the specific voice of John the Baptist preparing the way for Him who lifts up those valleys and brings down those mountains by His cross, whose crucifixion cry announces that our warfare is accomplished, our iniquity is pardoned. And this transformation from Isaiah to John to the Word made flesh, Jesus, who stands for us forever in the resurrection…this line of singers carries the comfort and joy of this old, old song right into our own Advent season and into our lives.
There are four stanzas to Isaiah’s song of comfort. The first is a call of comfort for Jerusalem. But the voice sings to an audience in the plural. The “comfort ye” is the plural “ye!” God is calling on all His angelic host to bestow this comfort. And in a matter of days we will hear that angelic host bestowing the particular comfort: “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord…. Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” And with one Word from God the whole human experience is transformed.
The second stanza invites the hearer to relive once again the journey of the Exodus. But this time the wilderness trek will be easy, because the earth itself is transformed. It will be a return that home in which “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” A new creation, because “The mouth of the Lord has spoken.” Behold, He says, I make all things new!
The third stanza is the most direct, and it contains within it a response to the previous verses. “A voice says: ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’” The song then describes the world in terms of plain sight, of human experience and common sense. After all, the world doesn’t look like anything has been transformed. The world doesn’t look like any redemption has come, any new creation has broken forth. People still die—“all flesh is grass.” And any divine reprieve appears only temporary—“the flower fades.”
This is an echo of Isaiah’s lament which we heard last week. And the voice of the singer agrees—the grass does wither, the flower does fade. Isaiah does not deny what the world is. But… the voice concludes, our reality consists of more than what plain sight and common sense can perceive. Reality is informed and shaped by the everlasting, transforming Word of God.
For those who have ears to hear, this Word of God defines reality. Whether it was the Word that first spoke in the darkness of the beginning and everything came to be, or whether it is the Word who spoke in the darkness of Good Friday, who spoke the new creation into being…the Word says what is, and it is! Our ear has heard…even though, for now, our eyes cannot see it, nor can our minds wrap themselves around what our ears have heard.
This resounding chord lies at the heart of this song of comfort: it is the very speaking of the Word of comfort which transforms the reality. We who hear this transforming Word are invited to ponder our world on the basis of what has been proclaimed, not limiting ourselves to what our eye can see or what our mind can grasp. This Word of comfort defies our logic and marks Advent as a season in which reality itself is redefined. Now that is a potent song…rich in grace!
The fourth and last stanza calls the people of Jerusalem—we people of the New Jerusalem—to watch and wait. The Lord God is coming with might, His strong arm is ruling, His reward and recompense—all His people of faith from the Old Testament into the New—all are gathered round about Him.
And once again the vision itself is transformed. With allusions to King David, and echoes of the coming greater Son of David, warfare is ended and the mighty warrior becomes the shepherd tending his flock. The arm of power becomes the loving embrace of Him who gathers the flock to Himself. We are led gently with our young, with the generations who come after us, into a future that is secured by the Word…the Word made flesh.
Thus it is Jesus—the warrior shepherd, the crucified warrior King and resurrected shepherd King—it is Jesus, then, who in Himself embodies all the comfort of this ancient song of joy for our Advent. In Him, the creative Word which we hear today with our own ears is at work in us by this hearing. In Jesus, this creative Word is enfleshed for us to eat and to drink, that in the eating and the drinking His tender shepherding arms embrace us and bring whatever warfare our Advent season witnesses to a very different accomplishment.
In our hearing, in our eating and drinking, it is the Word who comforts us, it is the Word who pardons our iniquity, and from the Lord’s own hand we receive double…we receive Him and with Him all that He has for us.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
has come to thee, O Israel!