Monday, December 08, 2008

December 7, 2008; The Second Sunday of Advent; Isaiah 40:1-11

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries: “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. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” Behold, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. (Isaiah 40:1-11, ESV)

Grace and Peace to you from Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

3000 years ago, the prophet Isaiah took pen in hand and scratched out those words on a piece of dried calfskin. As he wrote, tears may have welled up in his eyes, because he knew what his beloved people would soon endure. He knew they would be defeated, tortured, beaten, and hauled off into exile by a brutal Babylonian Army. He knew their beloved city, Jerusalem, the center of their national identity, would be leveled and the temple, the very place where God came to be with His people, destroyed. There they were sitting in that city, blissfully rejecting the future. And worst of all, he knew that the destruction was all the result of their own rejection of the one true God. They had rejected their True King, the God who had brought them out of Egypt, and the God who had promised them the land they lived in and the land they loved. They would pay a terrible price for their arrogance. The death and carnage would be devastating. The people would be scattered across the whole world. Families would be divided and uprooted, never to be completely whole again. There would be great suffering…

In the face of that suffering, Isaiah wrote unforgettable words of comfort. He wrote words that from then on would be carved onto the hearts of God’s people; words for exiles to cling to, words to remember that God longs to forgive; not to punish; words to remember that God gives undeserved love to undeserving people; words that show that where there is sin; His grace appears in double, (Rom 5:20) overwhelming sin and pushing it aside forever; words that give comfort to fragile people, ones who’s lives wither away too soon; words that reach out with the loving hands of a shepherd caring for His straying sheep, and comforting them in his strong and protecting arms.

From 3000 years ago the words of comfort reach down from Isaiah’s pen. It is because of Jesus Christ that those words have voice in our lives. It is because of Him that they carry meaning for us. His death on the cross paid for our sins and brings us grace, God’s undeserved love, in double. Jesus Christ is the comfort we all need in a world full of sin, trouble, pain and death.

Ruth placed her hands back in the soapy water. It was not a happy task. Her mind was scrambled with the thoughts of the argument. It was another foolish fight. Like so many before, it drove a wedge between her and Jim. “After ten years of marriage,” she though, “you think we wouldn’t have those stupid arguments any more!” She tried to remember how it started, something about dinner, peas or carrots. It was typical; the subject of the argument wasn’t what the argument was really about. She tried to discover it by analyzing the words, but nothing that was said seemed to shed light on the real trouble. She looked down at the dirty water, scraps of leftover food floated next to her fingers. It was fitting, she thought, my hands belong in this dirty water. “It is just like my life,” she reflected, “dirty, and full of junk. I can’t even live with this man I love without causing pain and trouble.” She splashed the water as a tear slipped from her eye. Her mind returned to the fight. It had begun right after the prayer. “Come Lord Jesus…” If only they had allowed Him to come! “Come Lord Jesus now. Forgive me Lord,” she begged, “Forgive my foolish pride. Forgive my stubbornness.” “Ruth,” came a voice behind her as she was suddenly embraced, “I’m really sorry. Sometimes I’m such a jerk! It’s my fault. Can you forgive me?” She turned, “Oh, Jim, It’s not just you. I was in such a bad mood today… can you forgive me?” The answer came in a long embrace.

Comfort, Comfort my people, says your God. Take comfort in the forgiveness won by my beloved Son. Be comforted knowing there is forgiveness for all your brokenness, forgiveness for all your hurtful pride, forgiveness for all the things that separate you. There is comfort, my people, because your sins are paid for, and grace abounds.

The grass was getting tall. Bud didn’t really want to get out that lawn mower again. He had other things on his mind. But, already it was too tall. The neighbors might not complain, this time, but… it really needed to be cut. Slowly resigned to the task he walked to the garage. He tugged up on the door. It seemed heavier than normal, not really wanting to be lifted. There was a scraping noise that emphasized the resistance. But finally it rose to his knees; he grasped underneath and forced the door, against its will, to the ceiling of the garage. He scanned the clutter; a dozen unfinished projects littered the floors and walls. It was funny, he thought, how the garage was supposed to be for the car, yet it had been relegated to the driveway, in favor of cardboard boxes, the Christmas tree and a pile of lumber wishing it was a new kitchen table. “The mower…” Bud interrupted himself. His eyes moved to the corner where it was kept. If Bud had known the bicycle was there he would have avoided the lawn project altogether. If he had only let the grass grow or listened to the garage door’s protest, he would have been spared the pain. He would not have experienced the re-opening of the wound. But now, it was too late. The bicycle was in view and so too where scenes of a little boy who used to ride it up and down the street. “God!” Bud cried. “Why did he have to die?” The question floated in the darkness of the garage as the memories flooded his brain. The chemotherapy that was supposed to be the cure only drained the boy of life. Bud remembered the helpless feelings, clenching his calloused hands in a vain attempt to do something . . . anything. “What were the words at the funeral?” He pleaded with his memory. What were the words of comfort there? The words that told him his Savior was with him even in that dark hour. Even when the pain was so great he didn’t think he would ever laugh, or smile again. In an instant the words appeared in his mind. “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me . . .”

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but word of God’s promise lasts forever. Be comforted my people, when you are faced with the frailness of human existence, when death comes too soon. Take comfort in knowing that I am with you always. Take comfort knowing that your separation will not last forever. You will be together again. Shout the good news, that Jesus Christ has destroyed death’s hold forever.

“Baa, Baa” the bleating went on. Growing louder each passing moment as the little lamb struggled. But, with each pull, push or kick the thorns increased their bite upon the poor little animal. Each place where one of the long thorns stuck into the lamb’s skin there was now a spot of matted blood. The pain was becoming unbearable. All around the lamb could hear the rustling of some hungry predator in the brush. There was no way for the lamb to be calm, danger was everywhere, and death was stalking a helpless victim. Yet, it had come to this difficult place by its own actions. Ever straying from the flock in search of greener grass. Hiding around rocks and ridges, playfully ignoring the danger of being separated from the flock. Many times before the shepherd had chased him back to the fold. He had been struck many times with the shepherd’s rod. Still he would stray. Now, this time he strayed farther than ever before. He had wandered until the sound of the flock was far away. It was exhilarating, running and jumping along as he felt the boundless freedom of his straying. He ate wherever he pleased and moved with complete freedom. As the afternoon ran on, he began to wonder why the shepherd had not come to retrieve him. He shrugged it off and frolicked a little more. The entanglement happened when he was trying to get an extra bite of a small clump of tender grass. He had to stretch between two rocks to reach it. As he did, he didn’t notice the thorny branches beside him. It was only a small tumble, but he found himself square in the middle of the brambles. After several hours of struggle, he began to realize there was no escape from the thorns. The more he struggled the more entangled he became. The more entangled he became the greater the pain. The greater the pain the more he panicked. The more he panicked the more he struggled. And the deadly branches slowly tightened their grip. Like a curious predator exhaustion crept up on him. Engulfing his body in the darkness of sure death. Soon the sun set and darkness closed in on the lamb. Exhausted, it drifted in and out of consciousness. Then it heard the sound, “Snap” like someone, or something stepping on a twig. Then light footsteps. A sudden coldness came over it and the fear reached a climax. Hoping for one last bit of luck it jerked violently in the thorns, hoping to finally be free and away from the fearful approaching animal. But, the plant refused to release it. The lamb opened its eyes in terror gazing in the direction of the approaching danger. But, when it arrived, instead of bloody fangs, the smiling face of the shepherd appeared. “There you are,” said the shepherd. “I’ve been looking for you all night. What a mess you have gotten yourself into.” The shepherd’s voice was quiet and full of comfort. He reached down and began snapping off branches of the bush and untangling legs and wool embraced by thorns. The Shepherd himself began to bleed. Thorns dug into his hands piercing them. Still he persisted. It was a painful job, but necessary. The Shepherd gladly shed his own blood to release the lamb. Finally it was free and the Shepherd folded it into his arms. The lamb could hear the shepherd’s heart beating in his chest and feel his warm breath on him. It was safe, finally. The shepherd had found him. Nothing could hurt him while he was in his savior’s arms. The shepherd spoke comforting words to him, “Quiet, be still. You are with me now, there is nothing to harm you. I have saved you, you are mine… “

Comfort, comfort my little sheep. Says your Shepherd. When you stray, I will find you and bring you home. When you doubt I will assure you. Look for me and I will be there to untangle the trouble you’ve made in your lives. I will take you up and no one can snatch you out of my strong and comforting arms.

We are the exiles. Our own sinfulness is the army that has dragged human beings from their God into painful exile. It has brought with it its own carnage: sickness, separation and death. Thank God, Isaiah wrote words of comfort for exiles. He wrote words of comfort for us! Comfort, Comfort my people… Our God reminds us, through Isaiah’s beautiful words… our exile is over, sin and its power, its carnage, is wiped away forever. Jesus Christ brings comfort, and salvation. The Shepherd has come to untangle and remove the thorns that pierce us. He has laid down his very life for his sheep. Jesus is the comforting Shepherd, folding us in his strong and comforting arms. Forgiving us because of what he has done; because of his great love.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak straight to their hearts. Say to them “I have done everything necessary; I have paid the price for your sin. I have shed my own blood for you. I have gathered you in my arms. I am your Shepherd. I love you.” Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

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