“Comfort, O comfort my people,”
The words of Isaiah are some of the most well known in the Old Testament. For those who worship they are part of our Advent inheritance, for others they resound in the music of Handel’s Messiah.
Comfort, O comfort my people.
These words were written sometime during the exile in Babylon when the hope and identity of Israel was held captive in a foreign land. They precede Christ by some 550 years. These are words of prophecy, and it is the voice of prophecy which we mark today, the second Sunday of Advent.
Comfort, O comfort my people.
The word ‘Comfort’ in Hebrew has a stronger meaning than its common usage in English. When Isaiah speaks of comfort he is saying that God is about to act, the world will change, therefore have hope for the future.
We perhaps can glimpse something more of what that means if we look to the news that vaccines are being tested to see if they are safe to be used to defeat Covid 19. This is something that will change the world for the better. When we have a vaccine we shall be able to meet with family and friends again. We shall be able to hug people we love. We shall be able to sing. Life will be restored.
Isaiah announces that God is about to act, listen, be watchful, be ready.
For many people the news this week will not have brought much comfort. Long established companies are failing and people are losing their jobs. There is concern about pensions, our town centres, about what the future holds. I sent an email to our PCC members looking at how 2021 might look, I do not think it will be a normal year. Much that we usually take for granted will still be on hold.
In that sense we have another glimpse into the voice of prophecy – Comfort, O comfort my people.
Isaiah is not promising comfort as in taking life easy, no, there is much to be done. We need to prepare. In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, in the desert a highway for our God.
These days major roadbuilding projects mean bulldozers and concrete, accompanied by protests and the inevitable traffic jams. But consider in Isaiah’s day what it meant to travel. For most people on foot, often through hilly terrain where robbers had plenty of places to hide, journeys were long with serious hardships to endure.
I remember reading an account of travelling in England before roads were built, for much of the year crossing the Pennines was impossible. We take for granted the ease with which we move around. The promise of a highway was a world changing event.
Comfort, O comfort my people – Isaiah is a long way from saying life will be easy. That is not the voice of prophecy. His message is addressed to people in a hard place, in hard times, facing bleak uncertainty. The hope he speaks of is no small thing.
The world is about to be different. And it won’t be easy, and it won’t be quick, but it can be better.
In Advent we watch and wait and listen and prepare. For God acts and our lives can always be different. Not necessarily easy, not necessarily quick, but potentially better. The question is will we be ready.
Advent brings us to a new beginning in listening to God’s good news. This year will be Year B in our lectionary, we shall be following Mark, whose Gospel begins with the message of John the Baptist.
It is not comfortable to speak of repentance. Repentance is not a word which people use a lot these days. It is nevertheless an important word. To repent is to think again. To repent is to look at things differently. To repent is to act differently. So in a way we’ve been doing a lot of repenting recently.
We’ve had to live differently. We’ve had to think differently. We’ve had to ask why it is that the people we rely on most are the people who are paid the least. We’ve had to reconsider how our society values each person’s contribution to our common good. We know we will come out of this differently. We won’t, we can’t, just go back to how things were.
Repentance suddenly got real.
John’s message was that if you want to see God’s best hope, if you want to understand Jesus, if you want to be part of what comes next, then you need to think again, see things differently, do things differently.
So our Advent task is make ourselves ready for hope that is coming. Not just in the retelling of the Christmas story, but in the expectation that the point of this is not in the past but in the future. Christmas is not remembering what has happened, but in being prepared for what is yet to happen.
This strange Advent perhaps we can understand the voice of prophecy just that little bit better. We wait, we watch, we listen, that when Christ comes we may be ready.
As the Communion prayer for today says:
Father in heaven,
who sent your Son to redeem the world
and will send him again to be our judge:
give us grace so to imitate him
in the humility and purity of his first coming
that, when he comes again,
we may be ready to greet him
with joyful love and firm faith;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
The YouTube link is https://youtu.be/DKw9WqtVRQE