Monday, November 28, 2011

Isaiah 40:1 - 11 Comfort

Grace and Peace to you from Him who is and who was and who is to come,
            Let’s imagine that a Christian brought a friend to church one Sunday and that while they are driving back home after worship and coffee hour they talk over the passage from Isaiah that we read a few minutes ago.
            The first friend says: “I’m glad I came with you today.  I feel refreshed, as you said I would.  I especially felt uplifted during the music and the prayers.  I know that I’ll go again even though there were a few things I didn’t understand.  I’ve been thinking about the Old Testament reading.  I kept the printed copy and read it over three times while you were talking with your friends.  I thought I knew what the word “comfort” means, for example, but Isaiah used it in a way I can’t grasp.  I don’t know how to connect it with my life right now.”
            “I’ve learned that we rarely get the answers to our questions all at once,” the second friend replies.  “The truth sometimes comes slowly.”
            “You mean those words from Isaiah make sense to you?” the first friend asks.  “About receiving double for sins and hard service being completed and preparing for the Lord.  And do you know who the voice is that’s mentioned three times?”
            “I’ve thought about that passage myself,” the first friend replies.  “It makes sense to me if I keep in mind what I believe about Jesus when I read it.  We heard the pastor say that Christ came to earth to free us from the power of sin and to reopen the lines of communication between us and God that our sin broke down.  Jesus releases us from the grip of death and sin.  He brings us from death to life.  When Isaiah wrote about comfort, he didn’t mean a plush life but rather the forgiveness of sin. The law presses down on us.  It shows us our weaknesses and our sins.  Our consciences are sometime burdened.  The Heavenly Father has compassion on us and invites us to focus on Jesus.  When Isaiah wrote that God’s people received double from his hand for all their sins, he meant that penitent sinners receive, first, forgiveness and restoration to God’s favor and secondly the promise that we will live happily with him in eternity.  God blesses us doubly in Christ.  He casts our sins away and opens for us the gates of heaven.”
            The first friend asks if that’s true for everyone who believes in Christ.
            “He reaches out to us in friendship,” the second says.  “He eases our consciences.  He frees us from the fear of death.”
            “I hope that’s true,” the first friend says, “because that’s what I need right now.  But I’d like to know what Isaiah meant by hard service.  It seems to me that most people live fairly well right now.”
            “In external things, yes,” the second friend agrees.  “But inside – it can be a different story.  Most of us are shocked when we discover our sinfulness.  We try to hide from it.  We can make things hard for ourselves by saying that we’ll do better and aim for perfect lives.  We become like the little engine that could.  The more we recognize our sinfulness, the more we fear it and the harder we work to make it go away.  This is what Isaiah meant by hard service.  We make trouble for ourselves by taking on a task that’s beyond us.  Jesus removes this source of frustration.  He commands us to stop trying to remake ourselves and to take comfort in him.  He forgives and he renews.  A double blessing.  He accomplishes for us what we can’t do for ourselves, but that we know must be done or else we are lost.  We don’t have to strive any longer.  Our hard service has been completed.”
            A profound message, one that we should take to heart. The first person pauses a moment  to think, then says that some people might understand this offer as an excuse to be lazy.
            “They shouldn’t,” the second person says.  “It’s an invitation to walk humbly before God and to receive heavenly comfort.”  They stop at a red light.  “That’s a lot to absorb,” the second person goes on. “Would you like me to put some music on – or maybe catch the news?”
            “Not yet.  I was hoping you’d say something about how this comfort works.”
            “I’d love to,” the second person says. “Isaiah describes comfort in three different ways.  You may have noticed an interesting word picture – raising up and bringing down.  God raises up the meek, the frightened, those of us who know our sinfulness, while he lowers the proud.  He brings down folks who strive to build up their own righteousness.  Everyone is equal before God.  He doesn’t listen to anyone’s claims to moral superiority, but he does smooth the way for folks who live by the gospel.  He evens things out.  He makes the way bearable.  A great Christian once said that there are two very difficult ways to live.  One is to put the law in first place.  The other is to put our minds first, or to live only according to what we can see or touch.  It’s the natural human way, but God gets left out and troubles usually follow.  By contrast, the Heavenly Father invites us to live by the gospel and under his grace, which means to believe in Christ and to serve our neighbors.  The same Christian says that this is the direct and straight way to heaven.
            “That’s one kind of comfort,” the first friend says.  “The Father removes obstacles and he smooths our way to him.  What are the other two?”
            “God instructs us.  He teaches us the difference between his kingdom and the world that we see.  The visible world can be very impressive.  It can inspire and thrill us.  It can intimidate us, too, and hurt us very deeply.  But this visible world is fleeting; it changes, like beautiful flowers that fade, while God’s kingdom is eternal.  God’s promises last forever; the gospel will never fade.  I feel comforted whenever I let go of the world and stop my striving and turn my concerns over to the loving Lord.”                                                 
            “Yes, I see,” the first person says.  “I have too many worries right now.  Maybe it’s because I’ve been trying to do everything on my own.  I did feel better, you know, when the whole congregation was praying together.  I believed that God’s goodness would never perish and that he alone was worth seeking.”
            “Good,” said the second person, “but we won’t put the radio on yet, because you’ll want to know about the third aspect of comfort.  The readings we had today emphasized God’s revelation of himself to the world.  He comes with power, and even the strongest nations are under his control.  But when he comes to his people, his children, his sheep, he comes in gentleness and kindness.  He gathers us up the way a shepherd rounds up his flock; he carries us in his arms; he holds us very close to his heart.  He reveals himself to us as goodness and loving-kindness.  It’s a wonderful mystery that God comes in both power and love.  I feel comforted to know that one day all evil will be wiped away and that the Heavenly Father is now helping me safe for life in his eternal kingdom.”
            “A very special kind of comfort,” the first person says, “to know that God wraps me up in his love and promises to keep me safe.  He gives me the rest I’ve been looking for.  But what about on Thursday when I’m tired from work and out of sorts and feeling very far away from heaven?  Where is his comfort then?”
            “We hear many different voices in the course of a week,” the second friend answers – in school, if we’re a student, on TV, at work, while shopping, in the newspapers.  Wherever we go,  Most of the voices speak the law in one way or another.  They change their tune.  They conflict with one another, and they’re not always reliable.  This contributes to the stress everyone experiences.  But we hear another voice – one that we can count on – a voice from God.  We find it in the Bible.  It never fails us.  It works for us on Thursday just the way it works on Sunday.  I try to spend some time every day listening to God’s voice in Scripture.  This means I have a reservoir of comfort to call on when stress closes in on me.  I feel protected and secure, one of the safe lambs in Jesus’ flock.  It will work out for you, too.  I promise.”             
            The two friends turn a corner.  They aren’t far from their street.  Again, the first friend stops the second from turning on the radio.  “I can answer my last question on my own, I think – about what we should do to prepare for the Lord when he comes.”
            “He’s already come,” the second friend says.
            “We should clear away obstacles, with the help of God.  We should keep the comforts of the world in their rightful place, while we find lasting comfort from God’s Word, the word that never changes or shuts down.  Now, I guess we can put the radio on.  I’m ready to find out what’s been going on in the world.  I know I can look to God’s Word for comfort.”
            So we leave the two friends, hoping to take into our hearts the same lesson they learned – that comfort from God is available in every situation to everyone who trusts him.  The weeks before Christmas always bring a mixture of earthly joys and earthly stress.  Heaven offers better than either – comfort from the God whose birthday we’ll be celebrating soon, comfort, as the two friends said, that will never run out.  In Jesus’ Name we give thanks.  AMEN.
The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge Christ Jesus.  AMEN.             

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