Comfort, comfort my people!
says your God.
2 Speak compassionately to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended,
that her penalty has been paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins!
3 A voice is crying out:
“Clear the Lord’s way in the desert!
Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God!
4 Every valley will be raised up,
and every mountain and hill will be flattened.
Uneven ground will become level,
and rough terrain a valley plain.
5 The Lord’s glory will appear,
and all humanity will see it together;
the Lord’s mouth has commanded it.”
6 A voice was saying:
And another said,
“What should I call out?”
All flesh is grass;
all its loyalty is like the flowers of the field.
7 The grass dries up
and the flower withers
when the Lord’s breath blows on it.
Surely the people are grass.
8 The grass dries up;
the flower withers,
but our God’s word will exist forever.
9 Go up on a high mountain,
Raise your voice and shout,
Raise it; don’t be afraid;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
10 Here is the Lord God,
coming with strength,
with a triumphant arm,
bringing his reward with him
and his payment before him.
11 Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock;
he will gather lambs in his arms
and lift them onto his lap.
He will gently guide the nursing ewes.
Isaiah 40: 1-11 (CEB)
Having grown up in what was essentially a non-musical household, I am amazed that the transmission of certain biblical stories and passages came through music—the singing of beloved hymns by my mother from The Hymnbook, and, notably, from her playing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s rendition of Handel’s “Messiah” at Christmas, Easter, and just about every other month when the mood struck her. I remember her believing that the only decent version of the “Messiah” was provided by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which I found ironic since she enjoyed giving young Mormon missionaries a “run for their theological money” when they came knocking on our door—the neighborhood Presbyterian manse.
I recall the oratorio’s opening tenor solo on our oft’ played scratchy vinyl record, “Comfort ye… Comfort ye… Comfort ye….my people…” and so the voice seemed to rise ever so softly out of our 1960’s era Zenith record console. “…thus saith the Lord…” the tenor would sing the King James Version, with gentle alteration between human voice and the voices of violins
For me the words of the prophet seem to rise up off the page and out of the past as softly as the tenor’s voice rises in song—a solid but gentle reminder that God will forgive and restore the covenant people. Yes, both tenor and the liturgist may sing or read of the “crying voice”, but even that voice in Israel’s distant past—a past full of heartache, exile, and captivity—comes to me, not as a loud or intrusive cry, but a persistent and quiet cry that remembers a promise and provides a word that endures.
At the onset of Advent, endurance may be the word of choice. Indeed, for so many Advent has become “pre-Christmas”—a dizzying combination of preparation for family time, shopping, partying, eating, decorating, and wrapping. Even in our churches we often run the risk of “over-programming” Advent with pageants, caroling, staff parties, hanging of the greens, and, even, days of service to the community. So, we find ourselves enduring a holiday stress that is—dare I say—manufactured by us. Meanwhile somewhere in our communities for some endurance means surviving a cold night outside while perhaps seeing the holiday lights of the city, knowing that others are warm inside. Endure, indeed!
The prophet, though, reminds us that endurance is not of our own making. A voice cries out, “Clear the Lord’s way in the desert!” and call out that “our God’s word will exist forever!” (CEB) The enduring Word of God shall come with strength and will gather the lambs of God into the fold. The voice crying in the wilderness reminds us that God and God’s Word are our endurance.
For those of us who have come to experience Advent as “pre-Christmas” and not the stand alone season of expectancy and hope that it is, the voice crying in the wilderness can come to us starkly and loudly, reminding us that all our efforts at creating joy in the season even in our communities of faith is as grass that withers and fades. That voice, too, can rise softly to us out of the past, just as softly as the tenor’s voice rises in the opening to the “Messiah”. I rather prefer the soft and faint cry in the wilderness that says be comforted for God’s Word endures and shall bring us strength and bring us into God’s fold once again. The comforting hope and expectancy of Advent is that these gifts of endurance, comfort, strength, and inclusion in God’s fold are being given to us for the first time again.
A prayer for this day:
O, God, of the voice that cries in the wilderness, bring us the comfort of your enduring Word. Help us to anticipate all over again for the first time the expectancy and hope for a light that is not quenched by darkness, and for a word that stands forever. Amen.
Rev. Jonathan Sherrod (M. Div., 1992)
Westminster Presbyterian Church