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Comfort and Joy

December 15, 2019
By Rev. Peter Heckert

+ Grace to you, and peace, from God our heavenly Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. + Amen.

The text for our meditation for this, the third weekend of Advent, comes from our Old Testament text, where Isaiah records YHWH’s words, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.” Here ends our text; dear Christian friends …

If you’ve never looked at the immediate context of these very familiar and comforting words in Isaiah’s prophecy, you may find the narrative to be rather … jarring. King Hezekiah of Jerusalem had been sick; more than that, he had been dying. Isaiah had come to him with a word from YHWH saying that the illness with which he was afflicted was going to kill him; that he wouldn’t recover. Understandably, Hezekiah breaks down, begging with God for more time. Please, O Lord, remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight. And Hezekiah wept bitterly. God relents, saying He’s heard the king’s prayer and seen his tears, and will thus add 15 years to his life, defending the city and delivering it from the hand of the king of Assyria.

News of Hezekiah’s recovery is remarkable enough to garner the attention of Merodach-baladan, son of the king of Babylon. This guy sends an envoy to Hezekiah in Jerusalem. You’d think a king would practice discretion, but we’re told the king welcomed them gladly. And he showed them his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his whole armory, all that was found in his storehouses. There was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them. As you may expect, Isaiah is pretty upset about this. He comes before the king, demanding to know what these envoys had said, from where they had come, and what they had seen. Hezekiah discloses everything, probably with a gleeful naïveté, only for Isaiah to declare this word from YHWH: “Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the Lord. And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”

Ghastly, terrible news, right? But you wouldn’t know it from Hezekiah’s response. The king appears to be whistling past the graveyard, telling Isaiah, “The word of YHWH that you have spoken is good,” and thinking to himself, “There will be peace and security in my days.” Setting aside the abject, nearly unbelievable selfishness of the king in that moment, after he died, things in Judah only got worse. King after king was faithless, abusive, and tyrannical. The rich abused the poor. Virtually all the people had abandoned the worship of YHWH, or at least abandoned Him as the only God. No one in Judah lived as God’s people, and nearly 200 years after Isaiah issued this dire warning, God made good on His promise by visiting death and destruction upon Judah at the hands of Babylon. Most who escaped the slaughter were marched to that far-away land to live in exile, squalor, and humiliation.

Their exile in that pagan country was anything but pleasant. Enslaved, stripped of their Judahite identities and given Babylonian names, forbidden from worshipping YHWH their God or following any of their native religious observances, the people felt hopeless. And they only had themselves to blame. God had sent prophet after prophet, warning them to repent and turn back to Him, and instead of turning, they dove headlong into iniquity and transgression so heinous that it wasn’t even known in the surrounding pagan nations. They deserved all that they got and more, and I think they knew it. No doubt, many wept and lamented, crying, “God, be merciful to us sinners!”

THAT … THAT is where our text comes in. Written 200 years before those suffering Judahites were languishing in Babylon, God spoke to them through Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.” Incredible! But this isn’t God whistling past the graveyard; He’s actually got cause and reason to declare “Comfort!” to those suffering in Babylon. No, He’s not promising to take away their present suffering right then and there. He’s not promising immediate rescue. What He is promising … is salvation, and ultimately, restoration.

He continues through Isaiah, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” God’s glory will be revealed, and all of creation will see it. God’s Word stands forever, and thus since He promised it, He will do it. And He did. He pardoned her iniquity, covered over her former sins, declared that she had received double punishment for her sins from God’s own hand. She was forgiven, restored, and in God’s timing, she was also saved from the barbaric Babylonians. God sent Persia in to wipe that wicked nation from the map and to free all those who were enslaved. The comfort of God’s promise, which had sustained them through their trials, turned to joy when they saw for themselves the fulfillment of His Word of promise. The jubilation on that desert highway, as the Judahites returned to Jerusalem after decades of humiliation, was no doubt incomparable – not only because they were free, but because YHWH their God had kept His promise in spite of their faithlessness.

What about us? We’re not enslaved in a foreign, enemy nation, but make no mistake, we are strangers in a strange land. We may not be forced to give up our names, but Lord knows there are aspects of our identity as Christians that are defamed and castigated. We’re not threatened with death for exercising our faith, but we are certainly discouraged from and chastised for the public exercise of our beliefs. Is God’s word of comfort to His people, His promise of restoration and salvation for you? Without a doubt!

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. “Speak tenderly to My world, and cry to that her sins are atoned for, that her iniquity is pardoned, her sins are forgiven, that My Son was punished on her behalf. He took your sin upon Himself, bearing the just penalty that you deserved. Because of that, there is peace between you and Me, and because He was raised from the dead, you also will be raised to life when He returns! That is My promise to you, to all who believe Me, for My Word does remain forever!” Those promises are not just for languishing Judahites, they are for you! Regardless of your life circumstances, your sins are forgiven, completely atoned for, because Jesus received from the Lord’s hand, on our behalf, infinitely more punishment than we could ever bear.

God doesn’t promise that the trials won’t come. He doesn’t promise that you won’t suffer. He doesn’t promise that life will be perfect for you. We live in a broken world filled with broken people. But, He does promise that your sins are forgiven, that you are His, that He will not leave you nor forsake you. He promises you a restoration yet to be fully realized, begun in in the waters of Holy Baptism and to be fulfilled at the restoration of all creation on the Last Day when our risen and ascended Lord Jesus returns! For this life, He promises the comfort of His abiding presence, and in the life of the world to come, He promises eternal joy with Him. That’s His Word to you, and it does endure forever.

+ In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. + Amen.