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Sermon for 10 December 2017


Isa 40:1-11, Mark 1:1-8

There are passages in the bible that have shaped the imagination of the church since the very beginning. Passages that have been said and read and sung over and over again - those parts of the bible that are most evocative. Think Psalm 23, ‘The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want’; John 1:1 ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God and the word was God’.

And today, words from Isaiah chapter 40 ‘Comfort, O comfort my people’. They’re words that have captured the imagination of Christians since the earliest days - in fact all four gospel writers use this passage in their introduction to the life of Jesus Christ. We heard some of them in Mark’s gospel just now. These words are foundational to who we are.

They come at the beginning of the second part of the book of Isaiah. The first part, chapters 1 to 39 reflect the experience of Israel’s invasion by Assyria in the 8th century BC. The second part, where we are today, is written 200 years later. In the intervening years the Assyrians have been defeated by the Babylonians who have brought about even greater disaster. The Assyrians were bad, but the Babylonians were worse. They exiled the Jewish leadership and many others and destroyed the city, including the Temple. 

As our passage begins though, the super powers are on the move again and now the Babylonians are in retreat as the next great Empire sweeps in. The Persians are here. And the good news is, they are known to be much better overlords. They, it seems, will let the exiles return and Jerusalem be rebuilt. 

That’s the background. Now I’m going to have a look at the passage and I’m going to draw out three themes from it, and for each of them offer you a question to take away.

The passage is set in the heavenly council - imagine God with his angelic cabinet minsters - and a new policy is being announced. And the policy is one of  ‘Comfort’. A bit further on in the bible you’ll find the book of Lamentations.  It is written during the exile, after the destruction of Jerusalem, and it is a terrible lament about the state that Israel has been reduced to. And the refrain throughout is ‘There is no one to comfort Jerusalem’. Over and again it is said - there is no one to comfort us. It’s our experience isn’t it, in the worst losses of our life.  We are so alone and there is nothing and no one who can comfort us. That was Israel’s experience - but now, a new announcement, God speaks and says ‘Comfort’. 

Comfort is a great biblical word laden with meaning at every level. For us it probably conjures up images of soft towels, warm grandmothers or a big cake at the end of a hard day. But in the bible it’s much richer than that.

Our word comes from the Latin ‘cum-fortis’. It means ‘with strength’. Not so much the comfort of a soft towel as the comfort of a strong defender. The Israelites will not be freed from exile by fluffy towels. They need strength and might. God comes to comfort them ‘with strength’ and with a clear purpose.

In Hebrew the word means something different - it has the sense of consoling or of standing alongside someone in their sorrow. It’s the same word that’s used in Psalm 23. ‘Your rod and your staff they comfort me’. A strong staff that keeps you standing when the world around is trying to bring you down. A comfort to the lonely and to the vulnerable. 

In Greek the word is different again. ‘Parakaleo’. It has the sense of someone standing alongside and speaking up for you. An advocate, we might say. It’s the word that the New Testament uses for the Holy Spirit.  And the Holy Spirit is the one who comforts us, who speaks up for us in the heavenly court, the one who nags at us to do something, or to stop doing something. It’s a word that bristles with intention and intervention. This is a comforter who will not let a bad situation continue, but who is always at work to find a solution.

When God comforts us, all these are available. He is strong when we need action; He is present when we need support; He is at work in the struggle when we need an advocate to prompt us.

What comfort do you need from God today? Strength to defeat a major challenge, a consoling friend to lean on or an advocate who will give you the words you need? What comfort do you need from God today?

Back to the text. Verse 3. God says ‘Comfort’ and immediately this new policy is taken up and a plan is written. ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord’. And the plan is a great new road building project. God and his people have a new way home, a straight way and a safe way.

But another voice speaks up, verse 6, this one the questioning one. ‘What shall I cry?’ After all, it says, people are so fickle; they’re like grass which is here today and gone tomorrow. Why bother? They might get it right for a while, but they’ll mess up again.

And the response, verse 8 - yes, grass and flowers wither and die, but ‘the word of the Lord will stand forever’. 

And that’s a second key theme - ‘The word of  the Lord.’ ‘The word of God’. Running through this whole passage is the fact that God speaks and things happen. Just count the number of times that something to do with voices speaking or crying out appears. 

We’re pretty cynical about words these days. Whether it’s spin doctors or fake news, we don’t trust what we’re told. Words, we know, manipulate and dissemble as much as they speak truth. But God’s word is of a different order. With God’s words, what is said and the outcome it brings are one and the same. There can be no gap between the word and its impact. God always speaks truth and he is always faithful to his word.

And that is particularly important for us as we prepare to welcome ‘The Word made flesh’. Jesus is God’s word in human form. Jesus is God’s promise walking on the earth. God said ‘comfort’ and it looks like Jesus. God said ‘prepare the way of the Lord…make straight a highway….and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed’ and we see Jesus, walking towards us. The glory of God in a human being, filled with grace and truth. And Jesus is entirely faithful. Entirely trustworthy. The word of God on which we can rely. 

What reliable word do you need to hear from God this Advent?

And then in the final section, from verse 9, the announcement to the people. The policy is one of ‘Comfort’, the plan is all about the return of the Lord and now everyone needs to know.  The divine press secretary is told ‘Get up to a high mountain’, lift up your voice and shout out the good tidings. And the word for ‘good tidings’ is the same as the new testament word ‘gospel’. The message that’s to be given to everyone is the gospel, The Good News. What is the good news? ‘Here is your God!’

And that’s the final theme. What is it, in the end, that the messenger is told to say to the people? Once he’s climbed to the top of the high mountain where he can shout it out? - ‘Here is your God!’  This is the good news. God is here. Not far away. Not gone. Here. He’s here. It’s what the Jews in exile needed to hear; it’s what the Jews under Roman rule needed to hear again as a star begins to burn bright over a stable in Bethlehem; and it’s what we need to hear - we who are free from the oppression of any external super power, but burdened by the struggles of life, surrounded by voices that tell us that we’re on our own and that there is no meaning to life. Here is your God

It’s what we need to hear, and it’s what the world needs to hear. Not fake news or bad news, but The Good News - Here is your God. It’s what everyone longs for. The promise that we are not on our own. That the world is not random or meaningless. That there is purpose and truth. That God is real, and he is here. And that’s the good news coming over the horizon as we follow the rumours of glory coming from a stable in Bethlehem. Here is your God. The comforter. Immanuel, which means God with us. Here is your God.

Who do you know who needs to hear the good news this Advent? How could you show them that God is here?

These are foundational words that we are given today.

We’re told that God comes to bring comfort. That His word is trustworthy and true. That He is here.

These are words to build your life on. 

Let us pray

Thank you father for your word to us today,

For the gift of the Scriptures, which are true and effective.

Comfort us with your presence,

that we might comfort others;

Help us to trust your word, which is faithful and true,

and give us the courage to share the Good News that you are here.

May your word be alive in our hearts this Advent



Going Deeper

  1. Which passage or verse from the bible is most evocative to you?
  2. What does the word 'comfort' mean to you?
  3. Of the three kinds of comfort mentioned in the sermon, which do you most need at the moment?
  4. What reliable word do you need to hear from God at the moment
  5. How would you describe 'The Good News' to someone who asked you?
  6. Who could you share the Good News with? What would you do or say?

Posted: 10/12/2017 at 14:26
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