“Comfort, comfort my people says your God” (Is 40:1). These words from the 40th chapter of Isaiah mark the beginning of a major shift in Isaiah’s message. In the previous chapter, Isaiah had proclaimed the judgment of the LORD against sin. Because of idolatry, Jerusalem, the holy city, would fall. The temple of Solomon would be destroyed. And God’s people, whom he had redeemed from bondage in Egypt, would become captives once again in a foreign land. Isaiah prophesies: “Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the LORD. And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon” (Is 39:6). Yet immediately after this prophecy of utter destruction, Isaiah writes: “Comfort, comfort my people says your God.” These words come without warning, without transition. The shift in Isaiah’s message is so abrupt, that many scholars believe a new author has taken up the pen. They’re wrong. The message has changed, not because of a new author, but because it’s a new word from God. A word of hope and redemption. A word of comfort.
The trouble with this word, comfort, is that it doesn’t mean much to us. Human comfort is at best shallow and often trite – especially when expressed by a Hallmark card. Our attempts to show comfort only highlight our powerlessness. We say, “I’m sorry for your loss. I wish there was something I could do to help.” This is perhaps a good thing to say. But we know the truth. There is nothing we can do. We can’t make things better. We can’t end suffering. We certainly can’t raise the dead. Our words may be meant well, but they fall far short. The world knows this. And so, the best it can offer for comfort is a moment of silence. Our fallen world is so spiritually bankrupt, that in place of comfort, it offers an empty moment of nothingness. But our God is the God who speaks. He is the God of words. And when God speaks, things happen. God spoke to the nothingness in Genesis 1, and with his words created the universe. His promises are not void, like human promises so often are. His words are not empty. His comfort has substance because his words are guaranteed by his saving action upon the cross.
And so this passage that speaks of comfort can only be understood in the context of the advent of the Christ. John the Baptist is sent to announce his coming: “A voice cries: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Is 40:3). Yet though John is the herald of good tidings of comfort and joy, his message begins with a call to repentance: Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand! There is no word of comfort for impenitent sinners – there is only judgment. For every mountain will be brought low. Behold, the axe is even now laid at the root of the tree. And every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut off and thrown into the fire” (Mt 3:10). Therefore, repent!
This is not the message your sinful flesh wants to hear. Flesh finds no comfort in the proclamation of Christ’s coming. For his coming marks the end of all other kingdoms. It announces that he is your God and you are his people. “Comfort my people” says your God. Yet sinful man has no desire to belong to Christ, to live under him, in his kingdom. Our fallen will seeks only its own kingdom, its own rule. Of course no one here is actually plotting, as king Herod did, to murder Jesus in order to protect a physical throne. Our ambitions are generally smaller, less obvious, but just as sinful. We may seek to silence the voice of Jesus simply by neglecting to come to church where his word is preached. Our kingdom may be no bigger than the 60” TV in our living room, to which we look to find escape and comfort. You don’t have an army of soldiers that will murder on command, but you can wound your spouse or parents just as deeply by selfish words and actions. You can make an idol of furthering your career and reputation, or of accumulating bigger and better stuff. You can pin all your hopes for the future on getting a degree, or a spouse, on having kids, on getting rid of the kids, on retirement… And so, the word of the Lord comes to you: Repent for seeking to build your own kingdom. Repent for hoping to find comfort in anything or anyone other than Christ. All other hopes are false. Possessions cannot satisfy. That new car will rust and fall apart. The new job will lose its appeal. That wonderful person will let you down. Beauty fades and is gone. All flesh is grass, which springs up one day, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire. The world promises much, but its words are empty. Its pleasure is fleeting and its comfort is false.
The prophet Zechariah writes, “For the household gods utter nonsense, and the diviners see lies; they tell false dreams and give empty consolation. Therefore the people wander like sheep; they are afflicted for lack of a shepherd” (Zec 10:2). This is the state of all men until the coming of Christ. But there is comfort to be found within the fold of Christ. He alone is the Good Shepherd. He will tend his flock; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young (Is 40:11).
Do not look for another shepherd, for you will find comfort only in his voice. All other voices are those of thieves and robbers. The world has nothing to offer. And you, especially, have nothing to offer. Will you be your own shepherd? Are you so rich in spirit that you need not cling to the promises of Christ? Will you make your own way back to God? Jesus says, “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Lk 6:24). Those who are rich have already received their reward – yet they have no share in Christ. Those who trust in their good works, even in their Christian piety, will never find comfort – in this life or the next.
There is no road by which you could travel back to God. Your best efforts are like a flower that is beautiful for but a day, and then shrivels and dies. Your God must come to you. Prepare his way! Every mountain shall be humbled. Every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of Christ shall be brought low (2 Cor 10:5). And, every valley shall be lifted up. And so, to you, a lost and condemned creature, deserving nothing but temporal and eternal punishment, to you, who were dead in trespasses and sins but now are made alive through baptism into Christ, to you, a penitent sinner, your Shepherd says: Your striving is over. Your warfare is ended. All self-justification has been rendered pointless because your iniquity has been pardoned. You have received double from the hand of the Lord. For from Christ’s hand you receive his own body and his blood. From his side flows the unquenchable river by which you were drowned in baptism. His salvation is without limit. His forgiveness overflows. It is double, it is more than enough to cover all of your sin. Your warfare ended at the cross with Jesus’ words: “It is finished.”
Isaiah writes: “Behold your God! He comes with might and his arm rules for him” (Is 40:10). Look to the cross and behold your mighty king, crowned with thorns – clothed in majesty, naked upon a cross. Your salvation is found in the mangled body of your Savior, whom you brutally murdered, yet who still gives himself for you. Your comfort is found in his empty tomb, where death’s power over you was destroyed forever. And your hope is grounded in the promise of Christ’s Second Advent: “Lo, I am coming soon” (Rev 3:11). Be comforted in this promise, for his word is sure and certain. “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Is 40:8). Amen.