If it is raining outside, then it is highly likely we are having spaghetti for dinner. It’s an unintentional tradition that started in my family when I was growing up, but I just can’t help continuing it. For me, it seems that the solution to a rainy, dreary day is a comforting plate of pasta. Comfort foods are not a novel concept, of course. They tend to have a nostalgic factor or sentimental value to us, and are often characterized by a high calorie count, lots of carbs, or easy prep. Whether it’s fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, or warm chocolate fudge brownies, most of us tend to have those “go-to” favorites after a long day. Of course, in the South, we are known for these comfort delicacies. They are so deeply engrained in us that we may not even notice. For example, it took me a while to realize that my first response when a friend or my husband has had a bad day was to offer them something to eat. In southern culture, if someone is having a tough time, you show up with a casserole, right? It didn’t dawn on me that they weren’t necessarily hungry.
Food, of course, is among the many things that can bring us comfort. As children we have comfort objects – special blankets or stuffed animals. As adults we graduate a bit sometimes to a favorite pillow. Mister Rogers would change his shoes and sweater when he got home as a sign of settling into a comfortable place. The list of what brings us comfort can get quite lengthy.
“Comfort, comfort” are the words from Isaiah. This is a familiar text, and many of us hear it in musical form thanks to Handel’s Messiah. It strikes in us those same warm fuzzy feelings as our other ways of comforting ourselves. We hear it in the context of the holiday season, eagerly anticipating the cries of “Hallelujah!” that will come in just two weeks with the birth of Christ. However, these words are meant to convey a far greater understanding of comfort than a favorite meal or fuzzy robe and slippers. If we aren’t careful, we will gloss over them as lovely Christmas card sentiments and platitudes, and lose the rich context in which they were originally spoken. These are meant to be words of restoration and hope to the people of Israel. To capture the depth of their meaning, we need to hear them aware of the context in which they were originally shared.
Most scholars agree that the lengthy 66 chapters of Isaiah are actually a compilation of several writers, given their structure and literary profiles and thematic approaches. Chapter 40 begins what is known as “Second Isaiah,” or Deutero-Isaiah, believed to have been written around the start of the sixth century. Extending through chapter 55, this section was likely written during the exile in Babylon, earning this author the title of “Prophet of Exile.” He is also known as the “prophet of consolation,” which recognizes the heart of the message these chapters contain. Isaiah is writing in the midst of a people who have lost everything and have been separated from all they knew. Lamentations 1:3 describes their situation:
“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”.
The people of Israel were in the throes of crisis, wondering if God was with them or not. As Paul Hanson notes:
This was the Judah addressed by Second Isaiah, a community that saw added to its physical suffering the anguish of being caught in a crossfire of conflicting messages: Israel is a people chosen by a loving God who will care for all its needs. God’s love has turned to wrath. Israel’s God lacks the power to withstand the assaults to Babylon and its pantheon. God is punishing Israel for its sin. God no longer loves Israel. God does not care. What sort of response did this moment of crisis require?[i]
Isaiah’s response was to return the people to a familiar, central concept of their faith. He was providing a sort of theological comfort food, if you will, meant to nourish God’s people during this time of separation. Isaiah reminds those in exile of God’s steadfast commitment to the covenant. Earlier in the Old Testament, such points of clarity have been portrayed in similar ways (see 1 Kings 22:19-24 and the first two chapters of the book of Job): a divine council deliberating about the ultimate meaning and cause of some situation. God gathers a heavenly host together with a simple message to deliver: Comfort! This proclamation reveals the very character of God and intention for God’s relationship with God’s people.
Kathleen O’Connor observes that:
The God proclaimed by Second Isaiah comes in strength with arms stretched out in triumph. But this strength itself is paradoxical, because it is not the strength of a bloody avenger, a violent brute, or a demanding judge. No, this God’s strength appears in a barely thinkable power of gentleness, in tender and caring presence, in intimacy such as a shepherd expresses when gathering the wounded, scattered flock.[ii]
Put another way, this text describes the wonder and glory of God in accessible, relational ways. Through Isaiah, God gives a glimpse of what restoration looks like; one with God at the center; a God who is loving even in the midst of passing judgment and righting the injustices in the world, whether that is lifting up those in valleys or leveling those who sit upon pompous mountains. This is no cheap grace being offered, but rather is the reconciling work of a mighty God. This is what we anticipate in Advent; the arrival of God’s love. Isaiah presents one vision of that for us today.
For God’s people in exile, it was particularly important for them to cling to this image and understanding of God. They were:
in a chaotic situation in which people were tempted either to throw out all forms of the past or to cling mindlessly to tradition out of fear of change, [and so] it was terribly important to maintain a comprehensive vision of reality ordered around one life-giving Center[iii].
Second Isaiah’s words needed to be powerful and persuasive in order to generate the kind of hope and faith that could return them to a relationship with God that would lead them back to Jerusalem. It seems that the promise of God’s love would do just that.
“Comfort, Comfort”; these are words of assurance, and one response to the cries of “how long?!” lifted here last week. They are tender words of promise that can calm and quiet the chaos we experience in our lives, from the gut-wrenching difficult moments of loss to the drama and busyness of a holiday season. Their words can wrap us in a heavenly hug and again focus our attention on the meaning of this time of waiting and anticipation – the Advent of God’s love here on earth. The Advent that came long ago with Jesus’ birth, and the Advent that is to come as we anticipate Christ’s return.
In describing this second Advent, 2 Peter also gives hint to this nature of God. The verses we read today, often misinterpreted and used as fear-tactic texts for the second coming, are rich with an understanding of God’s nature to forgive and love. The people of God are impatient, wondering when Christ will return as promised. Like those in exile, they are questioning if God has abandoned them. To them, the writer of 2 Peter reminds them of their center, just as Isaiah did. He writes that God is “not slow about his promise,” but rather, is patiently waiting so that all come to repent before the day of the Lord. The implication here is that God wants to respond to the world in ways that are loving and gracious, but the world isn’t there yet. While we may argue some with the implications, the writer here seeks to present God in ways that are consistent with the descriptions in Isaiah and others in Scripture, as a God whose steadfast love endures forever. And here, 2 Peter intimates, God has forever to wait.
It’s important, I think, to know the posture with which God waits. Poet Steve Collins describes it this way:
God waits for us,
not like a lion ready to pound
if we let our guard down,
not like an interfering in-law
but like an old friend who’s seen it all before
and likes us anyway,
with whom we can spend time
without having to pretend or explain[iv].
This is Advent waiting; more than the love of a spouse holding a loved one’s purse outside of a dressing room; more than a parent waiting what feels like forever for a toddler to put on his shoes and coat all by himself. This is a waiting marked by LOVE.
“The grass withers and the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” God’s presence and God’s love can and will endure anything. That is the heart of the gospel. Words that bring firm ground on which we can stand, and yes, find comfort.
“Comfort, Comfort”; these are also words of calling. They are in the imperative form in the Hebrew text, meaning they are commands and instructions. As Richard Ward writes:
These words are not just for us to savor like food at a holiday feast. We are in the situation of the celestial ones and the prophets in the text, trying to find a way to speak them to others that God loves[v].
Isaiah’s words are meant to be proclaimed from the high mountaintops. The prophet is given a new message, declaring the glory of the Lord! “Here is your God!” This is the message we are called to shout with our voices and proclaim with our actions.
Advent is a perfect time to live into this calling. It happens when neighbors lend a hand shoveling snow, or offer warmth and comfort to those without power. It happens when we send messages of love through Christmas cards or phone calls. It happens when we let someone in to traffic or greet stork clerks with a patient smile and appreciation for their work. It happens when we show compassion to our neighbors. Through Santa’s Caravan, we provide gifts of toys and clothing and food for 175 children, most of whom live in a 5 mile radius from our church. The work has been happening for months, and now is at full force. Yesterday many volunteers prepared the gym; this morning cheerful souls packed food boxes and our children stuffed stockings, and the work will continue into next weekend. This mission of our congregation provides a witness of comfort and a demonstration of God’s love. In all of these and more, we proclaim the good news of God, a God of HOPE and LOVE, in eager anticipation of Christ’s coming.
~Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford
December 10, 2017
[i] Paul D. Hanson, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Isaiah 40-66, (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1995).
[ii] Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Exegetical Perspective: Isaiah 40:1-11,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).
[iii] Paul D. Hanson
[iv] Steve Collins, “God Waits.” Alternative Worship: Resources from and for the Emerging Church, compiled by Jonny Baker & Doug Gay with Jenny Brown (Grand Rapids, MI:Baker Books, 2003) 36.
[v] Richard F. Ward, “Homiletical Perspective: Isaiah 40:1-11,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).