Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-11
Rev. Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
November 29, 2020
For many, thanksgiving was…different. Was that the case this year for you?
Goodness – it was for us. And it was especially different the moment I reached for my phone to FaceTime my brothers and their families on Thanksgiving, I opened to my “favorites” – the spot where those frequently used phone numbers are stored – and there, a year after her death, my mom is still listed. And on Thanksgiving Day 2020, how I wanted to call my mom.
The fact that I could not do that opened that familiar space of grief. It’s that space where I continue to recognize that a fundamental part of what I have always called ‘home’ in this world – She is no longer here. Do you know about this?
There are people in our lives who are so foundational and formational that they constitute part of what makes for ‘home’ in this world, and if you have known their loss then you know the chasm of this particular void.
And then add 2020 to whatever void of that sort we may know.
2020 has been a year in which so much of what we have understood as “home” has either been taken, broken, significantly altered or at the very least, challenged.
- The way we share life as a church home.
- The way we share life as a nation.
- The way we share life with loved ones near and far.
- The ways we get our food.
- The places and ways we work.
For some all the disruption has been a good thing, a renewing thing, even a way out. But for many – for most, I think – there is a kind of ‘home’ in the favorites of our soul. And as we near the end of 2020, there are parts of that ‘home’ we recognize we can no longer dial-up and have in the same way.
And that’s hard.
It is to a people who have lost their home that the prophet Isaiah writes here in chapter 40. The Israelites have been taken from their home by the great Babylonian Empire. Their Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed and all but the very poorest were made to leave Jerusalem and find new homes in exile.
The book of Lamentations summarizes the scene this way: “Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she now lives among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.” (1:3)
And it’s not just that they have lost their home…they understand they have lost their home because of their own failings, their choices, their arrogance – it was their sin that brought about this judgment.
And so what they are experiencing at the outset of Isaiah chapter 40 is both:
The loss of home…and shame.
The loss of home…and regret.
The loss of home…and despair.
In Psalm 137 the people of God put the experience this way:”By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion, our home.”
As we now lean into this season always fragrant with memories – are there any parts of ‘home’ over which we weep? Parts of home we wish we could dial up once more?
It may be a person or a people…it may be a place…it may be a church or a certain way of doing church…it may be the nation or a certain era of our nation…so many are the ingredients that make for ‘home.’
Are there any parts of ‘home’ that are now lost or broken or altered…and, at least in part, we blame ourselves or perhaps have fault in the matter?
“Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for….”
To people who have lost part or all of their home, to people even whose fault it is that home is lost…the Word of God of this: “Comfort, comfort – the sins are paid for.”
These first two verses of Isaiah 40 in many ways they anticipate one of the most famous teachings in all of Jesus’ ministry – the parable of the two sons.
You recall the prodigal son… how he dishonored his father and took his inheritance money early, how he chose to go far away from home, how he chose to squander the money on dissolute living. The fact that he eventually is miserable, without money, and starving amid a famine… is his fault.
And you recall as that prodigal is just turning toward his home again to see if maybe his father would have him as a lowly servant…
What does the father do? We reenacted this scene during our confirmation class earlier this fall. Reece Cowan played the father and he runs toward Charles Brainard who plays the wayward prodigal. And they knew the story, they knew the father runs toward the son and hugs him but they also knew we are living a time of COVID and so Reece stops the fun six feet short of Charles and they air hug.
And the father not only hugs his wayward son, he kisses him. And calls for his finest robe to be given to the son. And new sandals for those worn feet. And the fatted calf to be killed so a party can commence. And what was that other gift given?
The father gave his son a ring – a symbol that he is family. No. Matter. What.
In Isaiah 40, God speaks a word of comfort not once but twice; In Luke 15, God not only runs and embraces…but kisses and adorns with a robe, sandals, ring.
Eventually, God in Christ Jesus would go the cross itself to make it as clear as possible that there is no length God will not go to ensure we understand that the sins are paid for and the embrace of God is now and eternal.
In fact, if for one moment we doubt God’s word to the sinner if for one moment we think surely the sin and evil is so great or continual that God’s word must be vengeance… the cross is meant to make it abundantly clear: “comfort, comfort…your sins are paid for. Here’s a ring.”
The truth is I think one of the central reasons I want to speed dial my mother is not only because she was a central part of who ‘home’ was for me, but because she was the kind
of ‘home’ whose words and actions (no matter I did or did not do) they declared ‘comfort, comfort.’
Have you known such persons?
If we are having a difficult time placing some of those ‘comfort, comfort’ people and church communities and what that looks like, know that this word “comfort” here is used in a few prominent places throughout the Old Testament – and in many ways, the double use of it here in Isaiah 40 is meant to evoke the memory of those other instances.
- Job loses all of what constitutes his ‘home’ – and it is his friends who offer ‘comfort’ through a week of silent companionship.
- The foreigner, Ruth, is ‘comforted’ by Boaz the landowner when he gives her protection from harm and access to water in her time of need.
- “Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me…” The Psalmist famously recognizes the great comfort given in the valley of the shadow of death when given protection.
What we see from Scripture that “comfort” is made known to us in a wide variety of ways. It is through those who sit with us in our grief. It is through those who treat us as one of the family though we are foreigners or outsiders or different. It is through those who meet our basic need for food and water. It is through those who protect us when we feel vulnerable before any number of challenges great or small we face. It is through those who do any of these or more…and all without regard it whether we deserve it or not.
Have you known the gift of these people whose lives communicate the heart of God?
Have we also been these people?
Because…those words ‘Comfort, comfort’ are in the imperative form such that they are both to be received as ‘comfort’ but also the recipients are to go and declare with our words and our lives ‘comfort, comfort,’ particularly to any and all who have lost some or all of home.
I walked into Home Depot with Leo at one point in early October and very suddenly Leo begins tugging at my hand yelling “Christmas! Christmas! Christmas!”
I turn to my left, and there are rows of artificial Christmas trees and wreaths, lights and yard displays.
I know Christmas seems to come earlier every year, but I have noticed that this year in particular there has been almost a society-wide desire to get to Christmas even earlier and with renewed enthusiasm.
I have read news articles from all around the country reporting on people getting up their Christmas decor even earlier usually, playing Christmas music even earlier than usual, and stores running out of popular Christmas decor more quickly than ever.
And it is my sense that so many of us want to get to Christmas all-the-more quickly and fully on this particular year of all years because so much of this year has been really hard. And we are searching for comfort.
I don’t know that many would put it quite this way, but it seems to me so many of us have had some version of home taken, changed, or challenged over the course of this last year – and the inexplicable desire to embrace the beautiful Christmas traditions and carols and treats all the more fervently is a visible way in which we are giving expression to the ache we have to be comforted.
I share this because this acute Christmas-longing makes me mindful that in 2020 most especially, there really is no one who is without some measure of grief. Who has not known the loss of home at some level? Some much more than others – but still, everyone at some level now knows a version of family, of nation, of church, of job, of income…a version of home they can no longer just dial up.
Which means we need not over-think in which direction God might be calling us to declare ‘comfort, comfort.’ In fact, our passage in Isaiah seems to underscore this point when right there in the middle there is this section that talks about how people are like grass and their faithfulness is like a flower…briefly in season and then suddenly withering and falling.
The point of this part of the declaration seems to be that God recognizes that the people to whom God gives comfort – they are grass. They will wither again in their ways. They will fall again in their faithfulness.
We could sit around and debate who really deserves to be comforted and who doesn’t:
Who has brought their failings upon themselves…
Who is just going to go back to their habits…
Who is just going to abuse the comfort we give…
Who voted that way and deserves no favors from me…
Who is not even showing gratitude for the comfort we give…
Who never change their ways…
We can debate all that but the truth is: God is clear-eyed about all of us as grass and flowers.
And God’s word remains: “comfort, comfort.” That is the word that endures forever regardless of what people do or do not do.
I am not sure there is a more needful gift this Christmas than that declaration.
For plentiful this season are the fields of grass and flowers who can no longer dial-up a certain version of home…and yet what if the comfort we receive and we offer this season turns out to be part of how God is bringing us to a new home we would never have thought to ask for or imagine?