With the beginning of the Advent season on the church calendar, and the beginning of the Christmas season according to our cultural calendar, concerts abound. The music of the season prepares our hearts for remembering the first coming of Christ and for anticipating the second coming. One of the perennial staples of the season is Georg Friedrich Handel’s oratorio, Messiah. Often this season the focus is on the first part, covering Advent and Christmas, with the Hallelujah chorus thrown in for good measure. While “flash mobs” no longer seem to be the “thing” they were a decade ago, they still make the occasional appearance, and it is fun to see, or even be a part of such a mob, seemingly appearing out of nowhere singing the Hallelujah Chorus to shoppers in a local mall, and just as suddenly disappearing afterwards. It serves also as a reminder that when our Lord returns it will be unexpectedly, surrounded by choirs of angels.
One of the great things I find about this season is that when we read the readings, particularly the Old Testament readings, for the season, we often find passages that Handel’s librettist, Charles Jennens, chose for this oratorio, taken from the King James version of the Bible. Today’s reading is filled with them. Jennens started out with Isaiah 40, and there are actually five different places from Isaiah 40:1-11 that Handel then set to music. Indeed, the very first words sung in the oratorio are those words that begin the reading, “Comfort, Comfort, Ye my people.” These are followed by settings of “Every valley shall be exalted,” “And the Glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” “Thou that tellest glad tidings to Zion,” and “He shall feed His flock like a shepherd.” And never forget that, though these words were first spoken to a people being prepared to receive their God and to head back to Jerusalem after a generation in exile, these words are for you, too.
God tells the prophet to comfort His people. Such a word is a word of grace to a people who deserve no grace. (But then, if they deserved it, it wouldn’t be grace, would it?) Though disciplined, and disciplined severely, for their rebellion, God tells them that they still are His people. He has not abandoned them. Instead, the prophet is told to speak tenderly to them because their affliction is at an end. Where they had received chastisement for their sins, God will give them a double portion of grace in exchange for their sins. The word to the prophet is “Comfort my people.” The word to us who hear the word of the prophet is “Be comforted.”
Now there is a shift of scene. A voice was crying that God’s way was to be prepared in the wilderness. The nation of Israel spent forty years wandering in the wilderness in penance for their rebellion, for their lack of trust that God would give them the promised land. They were punished for their doubt. About nine hundred years later were sent into a seventy-year exile, this time into Babylon, for their lack of faith, for trusting the surrounding nations rather than trusting God to deliver them from their enemies. Isaiah spoke of an end to this exile, and promised those who mourned in lonely exile that God would come to them and lead them back to Jerusalem. It is to those in the wilderness, those suffering the ravages of life that sin (both ours individually and that of all humanity) has brought into the world, that God, through the prophet, calls upon to prepare the way for the coming King. The cry was to let the people know, not that they should prepare to go to the king, but prepare the way so that the King could come to them.
Five hundred years after the return from Babylon, another voice cried out, a voice sent by God to prepare for His coming in the flesh. The cry is one which heralds that Good News, a cry that brings glad tidings to Zion, a cry that says, “Behold, Your God!” Specifically, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” John, in the wilderness, follows the instruction put forth by the prophet Isaiah, as he relays God’s word to a people who have been waiting for God to come to them, calling them to come to the wilderness to prepare the way for the Lord through repentance and faith in the Good News. When John was born, his father Zechariah praised God for visiting His people redeeming them, bringing them freedom from the fear of their enemies. In just a few minutes we will be singing his words, which the church has taken to be her own words as well. We join the chorus of those down through the ages who praise and thank God for visiting and redeeming His people – that is, for visiting and redeeming us. Zechariah concluded his song by looking at his infant son, and by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit declared him to be the prophet of the Most High, going before Him to prepare His way by bringing them the knowledge of salvation by means of the forgiveness of their sins. It is that knowledge which brings light to those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death and will put them on the road to peace.
Of course, the promise of light to those dwelling in darkness means that there is in fact darkness before the dawn. There cannot be a respite from affliction unless there is real affliction. In Psalm 90, which we used last Wednesday night, Moses includes the words, “Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil.” It does sound strange, doesn’t it, that we ask to be made glad in the days in which we are afflicted, and acknowledging that it is God who has afflicted us. But what else can we pray? Affliction does come upon us in this life. It is the price we pay for living in a world in which sin and evil run rampant, and in which death is the lot of all people, whether it be sooner or whether it be later. It is precisely to a human race that lives in affliction that God calls his messenger to speak tenderly.
God’s prophet is commanded to “speak tenderly” to a people who have been broken by their sinfulness and seek comfort from God. Only those who are afflicted can find comfort. Luther notes that comfort means nothing unless there is a malady. Those who rage against God in the end do not want comfort. They simply want their own way. In spite of their sin, which led to their affliction, God did not abandon His covenant promises to them. Though they did not deserve tender words, God spoke such words to them. It is only to the afflicted and to those who acknowledge their affliction that the Glory of the Lord will be revealed.
When God’s messenger is called upon to “cry out,” his first question, naturally, is to ask, “What shall I cry?” And the answer points to the fragility and the transitory nature of life in this world: “All flesh is grass, and the grass withers and the flower fades.” This theme runs like a black thread of despair through all of Scripture. Again, Psalm 90 compares our return to the dust like grass that is renewed in the morning and withers and fades in the evening. David in Psalm 102 takes this personally, when he says, “My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like grass.” Job, in the midst of his own suffering, says, “Man who is born of a woman is few of days and full of trouble. He comes out like a flower and withers; he flees like a shadow and continues not.” This happens when “the breath of the Lord” blows on it. Yet, finally, we are told that though the grass withers and the flower fades, the word of the Lord endures forever. In preparing his readers for the coming persecution, Peter quotes Isaiah, and reminds his readers that the word which endures forever is the word which has been preached to them. In the midst of their affliction, a voice comes from Zion, that is, from the mountain on which the temple of Israel had sat, and this voice calls out good news: “Behold, your God!” Looking into the distance, this herald tells us, Watch! He is coming!” There He is! He comes with might, and brings His reward with Him.
We see the promise of a king coming, one with power and strength, one who is coming to bring His enemies to defeat. But we see something else, too. This king who strikes terror into the hearts of His enemies is also the one who feeds his flock like a shepherd. The picture Isaiah puts forth is the same one that Jesus uses in His parable of the lost sheep and in His discourse declaring Himself to be the Good Shepherd. The shepherd who tenderly cares for His flock is the one who goes so far as to lay down His life for His sheep. And as we sang just a few minutes ago, from the words of Psalm 95, we are the people of His pasture and the sheep of His hand.
So here we are, about 2700 years after God commanded Isaiah to announce these words, we are still reading them, singing them, and hearing them sung. Why? Because these words speak to us as well. We may not have rebelled in precisely the same way that ancient Israel did, but when we examine our own lives, even we who have trusted Christ our whole lives, we know that we are living in days of affliction. I don’t need to tell you what form that might take. You can see and feel that for yourselves. What I can do is tell you that in the midst of that affliction, in the midst of whatever existential crisis or fleshly crisis you may be undergoing, the word of the Lord does endure forever, and that word is for you. The spirit of God continually intercedes for you, even in those groanings to deep to be uttered, assuring you that the sufferings of this present time can in no way be compared to the glory that will be revealed to you, a glory that we will indeed all see together. One old spiritual expresses how amazing this is: I wonder as I wander out under the sky, How Jesus my Savior did come for to die, For poor orn’ry people like you and like I; I wonder as I wander out under the sky.
May God continually speak tenderly to you and grant you His peace. Amen.