Sermons Proclaim
Homily: Advent 2
December 6, 2020
Reproduced with Permission
Sermons Proclaim

Summary: Having lived through the 2020 pandemic, and as we continue through Advent, we are reminded through the ancient words of Isaiah that God is bigger and stronger than anything we may face in our lifetime. Add to that the knowledge of God's desire for us to be comforted, and we find hope in new and unexpected ways.

We've just completed a difficult year. Twelve months ago, as we approached the familiar stories and scriptures of Advent and Christmas, life was "normal." We moved about as we wished; we prepared for Christmas; we went to movies; we attended concerts; kids went to school; we bought what we wanted; we went out to restaurants; we visited friends and friends visited us; we assembled in groups larger than 10; we went shopping; we went to church; we went to work and received paychecks; we did all these things and a thousand more ... all without a second thought.

A few months later, in what seemed like the blink of an eye, our lives were turned upside down. You know what happened next because it happened to all of us. The entire world was suddenly different than any of us had ever experienced. Everything about life was affected: families, school, work, shopping, health care, eating, travel for work and travel for fun, finances, exercise ... every aspect of our lives was affected in one way or another.

So today, when we hear the ancient words, "Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God," our ears might strain to hear more. We wonder, is there comfort for us?

A brief history lesson

Israel had a very mixed history up to the time of our scripture lesson. Delivered from slavery in Egypt under God's blessing and Moses' leadership, the Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness headed for the promised land. After Moses' death, Joshua led them across the Jordan River and into the land God had promised to Abraham. Once in the land, they were ruled for about 400 years by a series of judges including Deborah, Gideon and Samuel.

Eventually the Israelites petitioned God for a king. There was a unified monarchy under three kings: Saul, David and Solomon. This united nation lasted about 165 years. The nation split in about 930 BC into two nations: Israel, the northern kingdom, and Judah, the southern kingdom. Two hundred years later the northern kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians. The southern kingdom of Judah lasted until about 587 BC, when Jerusalem was destroyed. The leaders and a significant portion of the population were taken into captivity by Babylon. The prophets made it abundantly clear that the destruction of the city and the exile into Babylon were not due to Babylon's strength, but to a failure on the part of the Israelites to live according to God's covenant with them.

But God did not abandon the exiles, and our reading for today is God's commissioning of another prophet - whose name we do not know, but who is commonly referred to by Bible scholars as "Second Isaiah," to proclaim words of comfort to the Israelites and to announce God's intention to come to their aid.

A reversal of fortunes

One of the things this past year has taught us afresh is that time seems to move differently according to what we're doing. "Time flies when you're having fun," but when you're not having fun, or when you're in the midst of a pandemic and cannot leave the house for weeks or months, then time slows to a crawl. Imagine the Israelites living in captivity for some 70 years. That's a whole lifetime for most people. It's hard to keep your spirits up for a few months, but for years, that seems impossible. So, the word of the Lord that Second Isaiah brought was incredible! "Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God." The message could have been, "I hope you've learned your lesson!" Or it could have been, "It serves you right. You got what you deserved." Or other words of condemnation.

But it was not.

Instead, words of comfort were offered to a hurting people from the God who delivers. And the comfort continues. "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins." The phrase, "double for all her sins" can mean that the Lord has covered her sins over and above the deserved punishment, or, as some commentators suggest, it could mean that Jerusalem's sentence is already more than served. Either way, the comfort is that the time for punishment has come and gone.

And ... there will not be another 40 years languishing and meandering in the desert. No, a voice cries out, "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD ...." The path will become a level highway at the sound of the messenger. The return will be along a well-kept highway. "Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; ... and the rough places a plain." In the midst of this, "the glory of the LORD shall be revealed."

Can you imagine the exiles returning to the comfort and the hope that only God brings?

The God who delivers

Lest the people think all this is because of something they have done, the messenger then gives contrasting images between God and the people. They have sinned, but God has stayed true. They are fragile, but God is powerful. The human condition is like this: grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.

The recent experience of Second Isaiah's audience perhaps suggested to them that God didn't care if they lived or died. But the prophet's message declares otherwise!

"Get you up on a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, 'Here is your God!'"

The mighty warrior shepherd king

Do they need more comfort and more hope? Then hear this:

See, the Lord GOD comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.

The mighty warrior king is the shepherd king, who holds the enemy away and scoops up the lambs in his arms. Comfort indeed!

Divine compassion at Advent

In Mark's gospel reading for today we see a portion of this wonderful passage. "See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"1

Biblical commentator Corrine Carvalho says, "This poem is read in the second week of Advent in part because the gospel writers used it to convey what was in their time a similar instance of wholly unexpected, unearned and unprecedented divine compassion: the entrance of Jesus onto the world stage .... In trying to describe the indescribable, they turned to this passage from Isaiah as a way to illustrate their experience."2

Jesus would also quote from Isaiah when he said, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor ... release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."3

Divine compassion. Comfort. Hope. They all meet in Jesus.

Comfort and hope for today

2020 has been a year to remember ... or maybe it's a year we'd like to forget. But as we draw near to Christmas and the end of the year, we should remember that in God - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - we find comfort and hope. Isaiah spoke the words or today's passage to people with little hope, few resources, a bleak past and an uncertain future. Those same words come to us. We have been tested in ways we could not even imagine a year ago. But God is at work in our lives and in the world.

Soon we'll be singing some of the familiar Christmas carols again - like "Joy to the World" - and we can sing them with faith because God is with us and gives us strength.

Whether we are talking about exiles coming home from Babylon or the gospel writers proclaiming Jesus coming into the world to be the Savior of us all or people of our day in the midst of a pandemic, two things stand out: The needs of the people are greater than their collective resources, and the power of God is greater than their needs.

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Amen. Let it be so!