The prophet Isaiah speaks a word of comfort to people who had lost hope. I believe God is still speaking words of comfort and hope, sometimes to quote Isaiah through the “word of our God that stands forever”, ancient words that still speak to us, and sometimes that message of comfort and hope comes through the words and actions of those around us.
I came across a story recently about a man who wanted to bring comfort to someone without hope. The man worked for the Post Office. His job was to process all the mail with illegible addresses that that computer scanning system could not decipher. One day, a letter came to his desk addressed in shaky handwriting to God. He thought he should open it to see what it was about. He opened it and read these words:
Dear God, I am a 91-year-old widow, living on a very small pension. Yesterday someone stole my purse. It had $100 in it, which was all the money I had until my next pension check. Next Sunday is Christmas, and I had invited two of my friends over for dinner. Without that money, I have nothing to buy food with. I have no family to turn to, and you are my only hope. Can you please help me? Sincerely, Edna.
The postal worker was touched. He showed the letter to his fellow workers. Each of them dug into their pockets and came up with a few dollars. By the time he made the rounds, he had collected $96, which was put into an envelope and sent to the woman. The rest of the day, all the workers felt a warm glow for the kind thing that they done.
Christmas came and went. A few days later another letter came from the old lady addressed to God. All the workers gathered around while the letter was opened. It read:
“Dear God, How can I ever thank you enough for what you did for me? Because of your gift of love, I was able to fix a glorious dinner for my friends. We had a very nice day and I told my friends of your wonderful gift. By the way, there was $4 missing. I think it must have been those thieves at the Post Office. Sincerely, Edna.
How do we hear God speaking or experience God’s comfort today? And how do we offer God’s word of comfort to others? One of the challenges of biblical faith lies in translation, communication across the ages. It can require effort to find relevance and application for today in ancient texts. Isaiah’s original audience had been held captive, they lived as strangers in a foreign land, Babylon. They called out to God for relief from their imprisonment, and God spoke through the prophet Isaiah.
I love this section of the bible, chapters 40-55 of Isaiah. It’s where I turn when I’m longing for words of comfort. For me these words speak across the gap of time with inspired power and lasting clarity. Knowing the context in which they were first written helps them speak to me. 2700 years ago, in 587 BC, the city of Jerusalem fell after a long and bitter siege to the army of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. King Zedekiah was forced to watch as own his children were murdered. Then he was blinded and thrown into the dungeons of Babylon, never to be heard from again. His people were taken to Babylon where they were allowed, even encouraged, to assimilate, to blend in and become good Chaldeans. As far as captivity goes it wasn’t the worst experience of history. They were not made slaves, and they were allowed to live as they chose and to do pretty much anything they wanted, …except go home.
The captivity lasted about 70 years. We can imagine that during those years they prayed constantly to God for relief, or at least for some word of comfort and reassurance. Certainly, back then, there would have been a variety of perspectives. Some would have wailed about the injustice done to them, others would have been resigned, but all would have longed for comfort, hope, restoration, and justice. The prophet Isaiah preached words of assurance to God’s people.
When we think of the “prophetic voice” we tend to think of the prophets in the Bible who ranted and railed against the injustices of their time. We think of Joel, Amos, Micah. Or Jeremiah warning King Zedekiah, or Nathan rebuking David, or John the Baptist calling for repentance, calling people a brood of vipers, or later John accusing Herod. There’s a time for that—for harsh words calling for change.
But there is a softer, gentler prophetic voice to be heard in the scriptures as well. It is a voice of comfort in times of grief, pain, and struggle. It is a voice of reassurance, like the voice of a mother comforting a fearful child. Listen to the words in our text: “Comfort, speak tenderly, do not fear, bring good news, God will gather the little lambs, carry them gently, leading the mother sheep.” Those are soft and tender images, like the kind of comfort we get in a mother’s hug or the embrace of a friend or sister, rocking, humming, listening, holding, shushing, recognizing both our weakness and our strength. They are words like: “I’ll go with you. I’m on my way. I can fix it. Here, let me help.”
I remember a particularly dark and difficult time in my life when I needed a word of comfort. I was getting divorced. It was terrible as many of you know first-hand. My hopes and expectations were smashed. I felt like a failure. My then soon-to-be ex husband had come over as pre-arranged to remove the rest of his things. I knew it was happening. But when I opened the door to what had been our shared closet, there on the high bar, where his clothes had hung for all the years we had lived in that house, were just a few empty metal hangers and some odds and ends that he evidently didn’t want. It’s an image that burned into my heart—an image of loss and broken bits. I remember crying inconsolably, curled up in a ball on the bed. Finally, I called a friend, a mentor from Seminary. She listened and offered me words of hope and strength.
A few days later I got a surprise package from her in the mail. It was a box about 8 inches square. I opened it up and on top was a handwritten note saying, “I wish I could put my arms around you and hold you. But, since I can’t I’m sending you my robe. Put it on and feel my love surrounding you. You are strong, God is stronger. You will get through this.” And sure enough, there was her robe, a message of God’s comfort in soft grey cotton jersey. The living word of God isn’t just words in a text that speaks across the centuries, across different contexts and world views. The living word of God is embodied, shared person to person.
Last Monday, Steve and I went with Rich and Wendy Gregerson and their guests from Minnesota on a field trip of sorts. First, we traveled in our van up the highway to the archeological site, Las Labradas. We bounced down the dirt road to the ocean and then walked out to the coast where we clambered around on the volcanic rocks along the shore. Over 600 carvings depict human characters, animals, plants, and natural forces like the waves and the sun. It’s estimated that the carvings date between the years 1000 BC and 300 AD. What were those ancient people trying to communicate? Were they celebrating the movement of the sun and the resources of the earth?
We might say that those carvings will endure forever, but their real meaning is lost to us. What a treasure we have in the enduring Word of God. Isaiah’s message came from roughly the same time period, but it’s message still speaks to us in a universal way. We know our mortality. We know we are like grass or a fading flower. Our time is limited and fragile. There are times when we feel captive, when we feel our lives are nothing but punishment and loss, when we need a word of comfort. Mark, the gospel writer, drew on that text in describing the preparatory work of John the Baptist in our gospel today, adding another layer of context and meaning, again speaking to us across the centuries.
You may have heard the saying, be patient with me, God’s not finished with me yet. Oh, how true that is! God’s not finished with me, or you, or the church, or the world. God is still speaking, letting us know about the way of compassion, justice, hope, truth, and love. I believe that if we are open, we can learn what God is saying to this generation, now. There is more good news to be heard!
God was revealed in the past, but also in the present and in the future too. In the Bible God was known through covenants with people and nations, through prophets like Isaiah and John the Baptist, through conflicts and commandments, through the followers of Jesus like Mark and Paul. God acted profoundly in the life and even the death of Christ. On Easter God declared in the resurrection of Christ, “I’ll never stop speaking!” And throughout history, in moments of justice, compassion, and peace, in worship and sacraments and prayer, in action and silence God speaks.
The book of Hebrews begins this way, “In many and various ways, God spoke to the people of old through the prophets. Now in these days God has spoken to us through the Son.” Even so, the Word of God doesn’t stop there. In chapter 4 of Hebrews it says, “Indeed the word of God is living and active.”
On Monday, after we left Las Labradas, we finished our field trip at the Salvation Army Children’s Home. Peter Gebraad met us and gave us a tour of the place. I’d never been there before. What a place! It’s home to 31 children and though it’s referred to as an orphanage, 25 of the children there have some other family connection but for a variety of reasons are not able to live with and be supported by those family members. The Salvation Army Children’s Home is truly their home. Through the work of many volunteers, over the past years the site has truly been transformed and upgraded. When we were there in the afternoon a group was practicing their musical instruments, others were doing their chores. Two little boys were doing amazing things with a skateboard. By the time we left it had shifted to homework time and the children were seated at tables studying.
Peter answered our questions about funding and programming and facilities. At one point during our tour, as he was showing us what had recently been just an overgrown vacant area, I realized that God can speak with comfort and blessing even through something as secular as a lighted soccer field. A group of volunteers had painstakingly created a soccer field there. Donations were made for nets and balls. At first the children played. But it was soon discovered that it was too hot to play during daylight hours. So, lights were added. The rains would come and wash out the field. So, a trench was dug around the field to protect it.
About the time this was happening the children were coming home from school, downhearted, sad. Well, you know how kids can be. After some questioning they learned that the children were being taunted and ridiculed at school because they were orphans. The staff worked the best they could to comfort the children and help them cope with the bullying. Later, the other school children learned that the orphanage had a great soccer field, the best in the area, in fact. The Home was approached by some parents and coaches to see if they would be willing to host community practices. And now, after the other children and their families have been able to see the site, the bullying has stopped.
Comfort, Comfort, O my People. Tell of peace, so says our God. Comfort—in the word of our God that stands forever; in $96 from the thieves at the Post Office; Comfort— in a boxed-up robe sent through the mail; or in soccer balls and a lighted field. God feeds the flock like a shepherd, God gathers the lambs and carries them in gentle arms. Praise be to our God, forever.