Isaiah 40:1-11 “Comfort”
I am sure you have all wondered what the song “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlefolk” actually means. This particular song goes all the way back to the 15th century, when folks were still speaking Middle English. It is even mentioned in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Back in the day, “to rest” meant merely “to remain or stay.” It did not have the meaning we have today so much, which is to be in a lying position half asleep. This song is not about a group of groggy guys at Christmas! It is about remaining or staying happy with God. It is the original “Hakuna Mata” or “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” Christmas tune.
The song was originally titled after the chorus: “Tidings of Comfort and Joy.” It was not until three hundred years later that it became common to use the first line of the song as its official title. But, why should we, the gentlefolk, stay happy with God? Because God is giving us comfort and joy at Christmas time. Amen to that!
The idea of God providing comfort to God’s people pops up first in the Bible in this passage from Isaiah. The word “to comfort” in Hebrew is םחנ (nacham) [Nehemiah =”comfort of God”] and literally means “to be sighed over.” With this understanding of the idea of “sighing over somebody,” I get a picture of God’s Spirit flowing over the people in their time of need. When I sigh over somebody else, I am usually in thought about how I can assist that person in my relationship with him or her. It is usually just before I speak to them. In other words, somebody comes to me in an hour of need. I listen. I take it all in. I sigh to show understanding and unity of purpose in sympathy, and then I speak in order to help the other person.
I want to make a quick textual note that in some bibles today the word “comfort” has a footnote attached that reads “This means “com” or “with” in English and “fort,” “strength” in English. Yes, this is the root of the English word; however, Isaiah was written in ancient Hebrew first. And, the meaning of “comfort” in this case is well supported by the passages that follow. “God cries for Jerusalem and takes Israel into His bosom.” This really is about comfort—which indeed can give us strength.
We have so much stress in the world right now. Can you agree with that? Covid. Lockdown. Economy. Elections. And now. . . . .holiday season! It is a challenge to be resting merrily, “staying happy with the Lord.” We could certainly use some, no, a lot of comfort from God right now. It seems that we have fooled ourselves into thinking that it cannot get any worse than it already is, but then everything does get worse. It always seems to happen that we think everything is going well in our lives when—boom—the world changes for us in an instant. It seems that we are just left spinning in place.
Last week we left the Gospel of Mark with the affirmation of the “imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.” Isaiah shares this same proclamation. God’s Word does not perish. We all do eventually perish, but God’s Word does not. Isaiah picks up on an image that we find first in Psalm 90 from King David. “Surely the people is grass.” WE are here for a short while, like a blade of grass, but then we are gone. What remains is the Word of God in the End. It was the beginning, and it is all that is left in the End. As John states, “In the beginning was the Word. ..”
When I ride the lawnmower over the lawns at the parsonage, I love to watch the clippings of grass getting blown out the side of the mower deck. It just reminds me of how we all eventually get cut short in this world. Yeah, we can try to live for three hundred years, but the mower takes us down long before then and we are just more dust in the wind.
So, we need to make a straight path to God again. That is our salvation in this world. Joanne handed out some small fire ant test kits three weeks ago in church. She gave me one. I am not sure where to put my ant kit. Ants rarely make a straight path to wherever their trail is leading. Sometimes they seem to make a huge detour for no reason. The ant only knows the way that another ant has gone before. So, if a scout ant finds a good source of food, he will follow his own scent mark back to the anthill, going in every direction he went in his scouting operation. The worker ants that come out to transport the food back will follow the scout’s scent perfectly. It is very rare for a scout ant to go right directly to food; hence it is unlikely that the worker ants will have a straight trail to follow.
I share this from personal knowledge. After Halloween, someone dropped off a lot of candy here at the church. Most of it I gave away, but some of it was still left over. I ate a Snickers bar and put the wrapper in the trashcan in the church office. Sure enough the ants found it, but the trail they made from the door to the trashcan went up and around the window! We are just like ants! We never seem to find the simplest most direct route back to God.
If an ant trail is interrupted in some way and the scent is lost to the worker ants, then they will spread out trying to find the trail again. This is just like those who go out church shopping. They seem to go every direction except straight back to God. They are trying to follow other people’s trail even though those trails are not straight. They tend to go every direction but towards God sometimes.
My father used to say that the shortest distance between two points was a curved line—not a straight one. I like that idea. It takes into account that the earth, and indeed the fabric of space-time are not flat. However, when we read this passage from Isaiah, we must realize that it was written about a time in history when Israel was being held captive in Babylon. Cyrus the Great had just conquered the rulers of Babylon, and wanted to release the Israelites as new allies back into their ancestral home. In those days, the shortest route between Babylon and the Land of Israel was to go up north and around the desert that lies between. Taking that route allows the traveler to be able to graze his or her animals and to buy food.
The Israelites decide not to take the road more traveled. God tells them to risk heading straight across the desert to go home. This is not the more comfortable route home. It may be shortest, but it is the most difficult. And, the idea of making it truly flat with valleys lifted up and hills made low just tells us that it was a miracle from God because in our lives, like ants, we never really find the straightest most direct route to anywhere we go.
When dealing with most anything in one’s life, one always asks the question: “What is the easiest way to do it?” When we think about Christmas and the coming of the Son of God into this world, we have to think in a similar fashion. What would have been the easiest thing for all of us humans to understand if God were to break into history? What would be the most comfort-giving way for God to manifest himself? The answer is, of course to come straight to us.
Unlike during our pandemic today at which time we can pretty much go anywhere, to school, to church, to a restaurant, but then must keep our six-foot distance, our Scripture for today says that the shepherd will takes us to His bosom. When I picture in my mind a shepherd standing watch over the flock—as in the Christmas story from Luke—I really do not picture the shepherd taking the sheep to the bosom. Maybe only in the parable of the lost sheep from Jesus do we finally see what Isaiah is saying here. Luke 15:1-7.
Jesus brings us to him to the breast. He lifts us up. And, we approach the baby Jesus in the manger, are not keeping six feet back. We have that closeness with Christ which is the very reason he came directly to us. It is in this closeness that we find that comfort that strength that we need.
Last week I mentioned that the song “Joy to the World” was about the Second Coming of Jesus. If Jesus were to come today to the service, would we stay six feet away? No, He would draw us to the bosom once more. He would pick us up and carry us again. We would receive that comfort and joy and finally rest merrily again.