Sunday 6 December 2020
Isaiah 40: 1-11 & Mark 1: 1-8
Reflection by Andrew
Comfort, O comfort my people. You can’t hear these words without hearing in your head that haunting aria from Handel’s Messiah, where the solo voice is almost suspended in the air “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.” Those words sung into the silence are like the cry of a herald bringing good news. It’s good news the people have been waiting for so long, they can hardly believe it. But that voice and that message pierce the darkness and it reaches its hearers like dew on parched ground, like gentle rain from heaven. This terrible time of waiting is about to be over.
For the Jews Isaiah is speaking to that means an end to fifty years of exile in Babylon. Cyrus, the king, is allowing the people to return to rebuild the ruins of Jerusalem. They’ve served their term, or as Handel’s version has it (from the King James) their warfare is accomplished, their term of conscription, of forced labour is over. After all those years in Babylon (by the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept), of “how can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” God is doing a new thing they can hardly believe in.
Strangely the people have actually prospered in Babylon, they’ve learned new things, both about themselves and about God. Most of the Old Testament was written in exile, synagogue worship began, they learned that they could worship without the land or the temple or even the holy city, that God was with them in exile and they prospered (this wasn’t like the captivity in Egypt), but God has more for them than that.
“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God endures for ever.” God’s promise to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, his Covenant with his people still stands. They’d broken their side of that Covenant with their turning to other gods, their failure to feed the hungry, care for the poor, look after the widow and the orphan, and the consequences were the inevitable result of the choices they’d made (as is often the case for us). But for them, and for us, here’s the word of hope. God never breaks his promise. In exile he’s with them, in Babylon he cares for them and teaches them and now he brings them back, like a shepherd feeding his lambs, carrying them, gently leading them. Comfort ye. Comfort, comfort my people.
The word comfort in its original derivation means to make strong, com-fort. So this, as one writer puts it, puts “steel in your backbone and an arm round your shoulders.” All of which is echoed in John the Baptist’s clarion cry to “prepare”, he even quotes Isaiah. For the people, yet again living under foreign domination (the Romans this time) here’s the promise of relief. God’s kingdom is coming and the best of shepherds, the Good Shepherd himself, will soon be here.
We haven’t done fifty years in Babylon, we’re not living under hostile occupation, but we have been and we still are living under a kind of oppression few of us have experienced before. The Coronavirus has locked us down in all kinds of ways, and although we’ve learned new things, we long for relief and we long for comfort – and that’s comfort in both senses (both to be strengthened for this time and to be consoled because it’s genuinely tough and it’s genuinely sad). But for us as Christians these herald voices, Isaiah and John, ask us to once again lift up our eyes to watch for, in Isaiah’s words, the glory of the Lord being revealed. It’s why we’re already lighting candles, it’s why I think it’s great when folks go crazy with fairy lights in their gardens cheering us all up, because already a way is being prepared in our wilderness (and you can think about what “wilderness” means for you). This is “making straight in the desert a highway for our God.” God is coming among us. Amen.