December 4, 2011 Mark 1:1-8 Dr. Ted H.

Sandberg

Isaiah 40:1-11

³Comfort My People´

³How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations! She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her; all her friends have dealt treacherously with her, they have become her enemies. Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, and finds no resting place; her pursuers have all overtaken her in the midst of her distress.´ So begins the book of Lamentations as the writer grieves over the defeat of Israel, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the deportation of the majority of her social, economic and political elite to the pagan Babylon. ³The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter. Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, because the LORD has made her suffer for the multitude of her transgressions; her children have gone away, captives before the foe.´ Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 BCE by Babylonia (modern day Iraq) under Nebuchadnezzar II, the greatest ruler Babylon ever had, far greater than Sadaam Husein. The prophets had been warning Israel for generations that the Lord God would punish them if they didn¶t uphold the covenant they¶d made with God, but the people, and in particular the rulers, thought they knew best. So, rather than relying upon God for protection, the kings (with priestly support) made political alliances with other nations, Egypt in particular, and they went about living pretty much as they pleased, ignoring prophets like Amos. The result was that the alliances fell through, Egypt was unable and unwilling to come to Israel¶s aid, and Nebuchadnezzar essentially destroyed Israel and marched Jerusalem¶s leading citizens into exile. What made this all the worse for the exiles was that they understood their bleak condition to be a sign of neglect by God, and eventually, many came to believe that their exile was a sign that their God, the God of Abraham and Moses, was not as powerful as they had believed. Especially after 20 or 30 years in exile, many began to believe that Marduk, the Babylonian god, was more powerful than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and their hope of rescue faltered with their faith. Interestingly, to a very large degree, the exiles in Babylon were a lot better off than their fellow citizens of Judah who remained in the home country. The exiles in Babylon did have some freedom. They could pretty much worship as they wished, though they couldn¶t offer sacrifices. They also were allowed to enter into the economic life of the country, and many of the exiles did very well financially. Those who weren¶t marched into exile faced a ruined economy, a ruined Temple, and a ruined political system. Yet the exiles in Babylon suffered greatly as the writer of Lamentations expresses so well for us, because even though they were doing ok economically, they were suffering politically and psychologically because they¶d lost their freedom, and they were suffering religiously, because they¶d come to believe their God had either deserted them, or was not as powerful as the gods of other nations. It¶s to a people who were experiencing these kinds of hopeless feelings that the prophet Isaiah spoke. After nearly 50 years of exile, God said to this prophet and to the angels around the heavenly thrown, ³Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she

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has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD¶s hand double for all her sins.´ The time of punishment is nearly finished. The era of warfare under which Israel has suffered incalculable loss and shame has come to an end. God will once again show the world that the God of Abraham is the one true God, God the most powerful. That the exiles will gain their freedom and be able to return to their homes is not attributed to luck or chance or even to the fact that Cyrus, ruler of Persia, will soon defeat Babylon. Instead, Isaiah gives the captives¶ release a specific theological grounding: peace has returned as a result of the restoration of a proper relation between Israel and her God ± ³her penalty is paid,´ her sins have been forgiven. The command is given by God, ³In 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. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.´ What wondrous news that Isaiah proclaimed to the people! Not only will they be freed from the hands of the Babylonians, but much, much more, they¶ll be freed from the burden of their sins. God, their God, forgives them, and in forgiving them, God¶s glory will be revealed for all people to see. It¶s this same message of forgiveness that¶s proclaimed in this Advent season, and yes, even a better message of forgiveness. So many today live in exile, separated from God by their sin, separated from family by violence and hate, separated from inner peace by greed and pride. Who could argue that we today don¶t also live in a wilderness? Oh, we like to pretend that everything is fine, that we¶re very civilized, that we¶re at peace, that we have security. But a few minutes spent listening to the evening news erases those pretensions. Homeless fill our streets. Drugs and gangs bring violence to our neighborhoods. Intolerance threatens anyone who is different. And even on a personal level, who of us hasn¶t experienced the wilderness of heart ache, the wilderness of death, the wilderness of loss, and the suffering that loss brings? We all live in a wilderness exile. So it is that the words of John the Baptist, ³See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: µPrepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,¶´ these words bring comfort to all who listen. The Israelites were exiled because of their sin, and God forgave that sin and returned them to their homeland of Judah. But they sinned again and again, just as we sin again and again, and so God sent His only Son to earth, to show us how God wants us to live, and to offer us grace and forgiveness when we fail to live as Jesus teaches. The words of the prophet Isaiah, ³Comfort, comfort my people,´ words that were spoken to proclaim the good news that the exiles were going to return to their homeland, these same words have taken on a new and better meaning. We¶re comforted not by returning to a place, but we¶re comforted by receiving the gift of Jesus Christ, comforted by the gift of God¶s Holy Spirit. This is the Good News that Christians are to proclaim in this Advent season, but also throughout the year. We¶re to proclaim the comfort that comes only through Christ Jesus. We¶re to proclaim the forgiveness of sin that¶s offered not by what we do, not by what we say, not by magic crystals or chanting some mantra, but offered to us by the grace of Jesus Christ alone. We¶re to proclaim comfort to a wilderness world, comfort to a grieving people, comfort to those who are lost and alone and frightened.

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³Comfort, O comfort my people,´ says our God. Speak tenderly to all people, and proclaim to them that they have served their term, that their penalty is paid.´ Jesus Christ is born! Jesus Christ offers a return from our own wilderness, the wilderness of our sin. Thanks be to God.

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