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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

God Speaks Comfort In Darkness - 12/06/2020

I think it’s worth noting that this reading from Isaiah is much more than simply a logical pairing with John the Baptist’s proclamation across the land we hear in our gospel reading from Mark this morning.

John has the words of the prophet inscribed on his heart and they are an inseparable part of his own theology and preaching.

“A voice cries out:
‘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.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
   and all people shall see it together,
   for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’” (Isa 40.3-5)

I think it’s worth noting because these people the prophet Isaiah is talking to were in a time of great darkness and uncertainty. And darkness, it’s mystery, it’s gift, it’s unsettling way of bringing about justice, wellness and peace for the whole creation is what we said we would keep in mind when hearing our Advent texts.

Isaiah 40 is curious for us students of the bible. It isn’t so obvious, but there has been a significant shift between it and the chapters before. You see, Isaiah is written by more than one person and over the course of a couple of centuries. The way this important and holy scripture developed through God’s people over time and experience is a fascinating study.

Let’s consider how the setting has changed between these two Isaiah voices.

Isaiah 39 ends with the mighty King Hezekiah putting a disappointing finale on his rather impressive and mighty legacy. Over the course of his life, Hezekiah grew to have a deep and abundant alliance with the only being who can be a steadfast ally without fail – God.

Hezekiah and all of Israel under his strong and righteous leadership prospered. As so often happens with people, the more power and wealth and ease they have, the more likely that power and wealth and ease become the gods of their hearts.

And so just listen to how this great king’s story ends in Ch. 39.

Sometime later, (the king) of Babylon sent messengers with greetings and a gift to Hezekiah. He had heard that Hezekiah had been sick and was now well.

Hezekiah received the messengers warmly. He took them on a tour of his royal precincts, proudly showing them all his treasures: silver, gold, spices, expensive oils, all his weapons—everything out on display. There was nothing in his house or kingdom that Hezekiah didn’t show them.

Later the prophet Isaiah showed up. He asked Hezekiah, “What were these men up to? What did they say? And where did they come from?”

Hezekiah said, “They came from a long way off, from Babylon.”

“And what did they see in your palace?”

“Everything,” said Hezekiah. “I showed them the works, opened all the doors and impressed them with it all.”

5-7 Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Now listen to this Message from God…:I have to warn you, the time is coming when everything in this palace, along with everything your ancestors accumulated before you, will be hauled off to Babylon. God says that there will be nothing left. Nothing. And not only your things but your sons. Some of your sons will be taken into exile, ending up as eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”

Hezekiah replied to Isaiah, “Good. If God says so, it’s good.” Within himself he was thinking, “But surely nothing bad will happen in my lifetime. I’ll enjoy peace and stability as long as I live.” (Isa 39, Message Trans)

That’s the reality check that directly precedes our reading today. “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God …” (Is 40.1)

In chapter 40, it is a different prophetic voice writing under the name of Isaiah about 200 years later. The kingdom of Israel ended up surrendering to the Babylonians and were forced into exile. It’s sister kingdom of Judah fell too. The temple was destroyed – for the first time. And this prophet Isaiah is writing to the people as their 70-year exile was ending.

It was a dark and awful time and so this Second Isaiah picks up the baton and speaks the word of God to the people who are living through that darkness – “Comfort, o comfort my people, says your God …”

God’s first words to them, notice, are not stern words of “see what you and your ancestors have brought upon yourselves with your unhealthy love of power and wealth and ease? I warned you.” Although God’s Word through the prophets is at times scolding, it is not where God starts.

God starts with comfort and tenderness and acknowledgement that God sees all that is going on in that darkness … all of it, and that God is at work to address it.

“Get you up to 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!’
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.” (Isa 40:9-11)

I wonder if the people Isaiah is talking to, and us, for that matter … I wonder if any of us can easily detect that comfort and care and assurance God brings unless we are there in the darkness with God?

I mean sometimes we are just plunged into it, right?  – like at the loss of someone you love, or when your income is not keeping up with your out-go, like in a long pandemic where so little seems in your control, or in something as catastrophic as the Babylonian Exile.

I pray that we all can hear God lead with comfort and tenderness and assurance when we are in those times, on this day and any of our days.

Those aren’t really the kind of dark times I’m thinking of though. What I’m thinking about here are experiences like what King Hezekiah had at the end of Chapter 39. God told him through the prophet that all these riches and symbols of power he’d boasted about with his new Babylonian friends were quite temporarily. They were like the grass and flower of the field. They would wither and fade under the breath of God.

Instead of leading the people in the face of that darkness, as he had done before ( see Isaiah 36-37), Hezekiah let himself be distracted by all his things, and how impressive he was, how he was pretty sure none of what Isaiah said would come to pass in his lifetime anyway. He was right there. The people Second Isaiah is speaking to are bearing the painful brunt of that choice.

He should have leaned into that darkness God was warning him about. He should have maintained God as his true and trustworthy ally, not the Babylonians. At least he could have done something for prepare future generations for this possibility.

But alas, “should haves” cannot serve the past, only the present. It is not up to good King Hezekiah anymore, only us.

King Hezekiah had what it takes to meet the dark and uncertain times Isaiah was prophesying. He had what it takes, just as we do.

Isaiah said it – “Here is your God.” Right there in that darkness, accompanying us, going ahead of us, keeping an eye on those bringing up the rear and making sure no one falls behind.

It was important for those people to hear these words from Isaiah as they pushed through the final months of their exile. And enough of them did push through, apparently. Because they would soon be free from the Babylonians. They would rebuild the temple and the walls of Jerusalem. They would produce new prophets like Obadiah, Joel, Malachi and even a Third Isaiah!

They would continue the line of David that brings the Christ Child into the world, the baby Messiah for whom John the Baptist is clearing the way.

That future was awfully hard, if not impossible to see in those final months of exile. It was too dark.

But it was okay. Because God was there.

And God is there for us too, in all the dark places we are now and will travel through at other times.

I want you to do me a favor.

+ your forehead. “Here is your God!”

+ your lips. “Here is your God!”

+ your heart. “Here is your God!”

Bring your hands up into the Orans posture. “Here is our God, friends. Our comforter. Our tender Prince of Peace. The One who sees all and does not forget us ever.

Believe it. Even in darkness. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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