God has assembled the divine council with words to speak to God’s people.[1]  “Comfort, comfort my people” God says.  We don’t normally think about God having a divine council, but in Isaiah’s time their conception of God was often formed by their images of a king, and kings hold court.  This happens in various places throughout the Hebrew Scriptures.  In fact, it happens much earlier in Isaiah.  Back in Isaiah 6, we remember Isaiah’s call story.  In Isaiah we encounter a vision of what this environment looked like to Isaiah:

I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’
The pivotson the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.

God asks “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and it is Isaiah who responds to the question.  Isaiah thus received his first commission from God:

Go and say to this people:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
1Make the mind of this people dull,
and stop their ears,
and shut their eyes,
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds,
and turn and be healed.’

Isaiah is to speak judgment on Israel for their idolatry, for not caring for the orphan and the widow, for the many ways they have turned away from God.  Isaiah asks, “How long, O Lord?”  The Lord responds:

Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remains in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump.

God is speaking here of the exile that Israel will soon experience.  The prophets understood even the Assyrians as actors in God’s interaction with them, in this case as instruments of judgment.

In Isaiah 40, Isaiah seems to be receiving another glimpse of the meeting of the council.  Yet, here God says to those assembled, “Comfort, comfort my people.”  It is clear that God is not just speaking to Isaiah because the imperative for “comfort” here is plural in Hebrew.  Something is happening here.  Something has changed.  Suddenly, the call is to:

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

Isaiah, it appears is receiving a “reapplication” of his call. His first commission is finished because Babylon did indeed destroy Jerusalem in 587.[2]  Isaiah is to speak a new word.  A word of consolation.  A word of hope.  It’s over.  Something new is happening.

Then, we hear a voice, presumably one of the members of God’s divine council.  This voice delivers Isaiah’s charge:

A voice cries out:
‘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.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’

Something new is happening.  The people have been in exile.  They have been far from home.  Yet, now a highway is opening up.  The very earth is being reshaped, valleys lifted up, hills made low, ground leveling out, and rough places smoothed out in order to prepare the way of the Lord, which will lead them back to their land![3]  What a word!

Another voice speaks, and tells Isaiah to “cry out!”  Isaiah knows the commission, now he needs to know what to say, so he asks, “What shall I cry?”  Well, perhaps that is what he asks…When I was looking into this scripture for this week, I ran into a fascinating suggestion.  What if the translation in most of the versions we use end the quotation marks too early?[4]  There are no quotation marks in Hebrew, so the ending of the sentence is really at the discretion of the translators.  If you have a bible in front of you, I encourage you to keep them open and look with me at verse 6.  What if, instead of Isaiah just asking what to say, he is actually objecting to this new commission?  This would not be unusual.  After all, he does this in his original commission, noting his guilt as one who has unclean lips and is a from a people of unclean lips.  What if Isaiah is saying,

What shall I cry?
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.

Isaiah has been speaking judgment for a long time.  He has seen that judgment carried out by the Assyrians.  He has seen exile, brokenness and hopelessness.  It isn’t a stretch to think that perhaps the idea of speaking about the dawning of a new day of salvation might feel far-fetched to Isaiah.  He has seen that that people truly are like grass that withers and flowers that fades.  The breath of the Lord has blown on the people in an unfavorable way.  Essentially, Isaiah asks, “Seriously?  You want me to say this now after all the devastation I have seen?”

This is, I think, how we feel when we truly lament.  When we take a real look at the world around us, at the brokenness, the injustice, and the manifold ways that we have turned our back on God and one another, it washes over us and we feel so powerless.  Even though lament is the beginning of hope, we feel hopeless when we are honest about the world in which we live.  I think extending the quotation marks for Isaiah makes more sense not just because it works better contextually, but also because it honors what seems to more likely be Isaiah’s and our own experience.  To speak tenderly, to announce something new, into such brokenness seems to feel just a bit naïve.  The grass withers, the flower fades.  Violence continues.  Hunger continues.  Oppression continues.  Death continues.  The grass withers, the flower fades. (pause)

Isaiah, receives an answer to his question.  “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”  In the midst of temporariness, in the midst of ephemerality, in the midst of upheaval and change, it is God’s word that is constant.  Isaiah is likely being reminded that even in the midst of the judgment he spoke, he also always spoke of a remnant and a coming day of salvation.[5]  The word he spoke still stand, and now is the time for the salvation he pointed towards to come to a reality.  Isaiah may not even believe it, but the time has come to speak a new word!  In reality, though we say we do, we may not believe it either.

I will confess that as much as I hem and haw about the need for us to proclaim Good News in the midst of a world of bad news, sometimes it is a difficult on which to follow through.  There is so much bad news, and there is so much to complain about, and I am really good at complaining.  It is important for me to be honest in saying that when I say that, I am preaching to myself as much as anyone else.  Yet, as Peter Bohler told John Wesley when Wesley was concerned that he did not truly have faith, “Preach faith till you have it.  And then, because you have it, you will preach faith.”[6]

This is why we need Advent.  We need Advent because we need to keep reminding ourselves not only about how deep our lament must be, but also because we need to remind ourselves how incredible the good news is that we have been given to share.  We pick up the discipline of waiting during Advent because it means taking the time to focus ourselves on the hope we are anticipating.  People want to use Christmas for a lot of things, and we are likely to get co-opted by those alternative agendas unless we regain that focus.  We are easily pulled back into the bad news of the world unless we regain our focus.

Isaiah has a hard time speaking this new word, and I think we have a hard time speaking this good news in the midst of a world so full of bad news.  In our deepest darkest places we may have some doubts about whether it’s real.  That’s okay.  Advent is a time to be honest about that, and to be strengthened by the Holy Spirit as we anticipate the coming of Jesus.  It is true that we are like grass that withers.  It is true that we are like flowers that fade.  Yet, the word of our God stands forever.  We know this because the Word of our God took on flesh and became like us.  That is what we are anticipating in Advent.  The new day of salvation that dawned on that Holy night.

And Mark, when he began his Gospel, when he thought about John in the wilderness, when he reflected one who Jesus was, he looked back on that Isaiah passage about this voice in the wilderness, and he said, “That’s it!  Isaiah was talking about the exile, but the new day of salvation is really decisively present in Jesus Christ!”  I think that is why Mark begins his Gospel with the verbless sentence, “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”[7]  God’s Word stands forever.  God’s Word that we hear proclaimed.  God’s Word that we ingest at the table.  God’s Word that we are baptized into because we are baptized into the body of the Word of God who assumed flesh.

To be honest about that and to say that out loud is scary because it seems naïve, something that is too good to be true, like some kind of fairy tales to many of the ears listening.  It is scary.  Notice in the text that as this glory is being revealed to all people, as they are asked to go the top of a mountain and to proclaim this good news, there is the injunction, “Do not fear.”  Why is good news so scary?  I think it feels scary to say good things into the midst of an environment that feels so bad.[8]  It seems like naiveté.

I think it could have been scary for John to say those things and for Mark to say them as well.  The world Jesus came into was a mess.  The Jews were occupied by Rome.  In fact, they had just lost a war of revolt against the Romans.  Everything seemed hopeless, yet that Gospel begins with “The Good News.”  John the Baptist looked like a fool to many who wanted to be “real” about the way the world worked.

Yet, God tells Isaiah to say, “Do not fear.”  And then we return to that intimate language about God as the shepherd who will feed his flock, gather the lambs in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.  It is true that as we lament, as we are honest about the world.  It feels hopeless, but we are assured that the word of our God stands forever.


[1] My interpretation of this passage is heavily dependent on Brevard Childs, The Old Testament Library Commentary on Isaiah, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), pp. 293-303.

[2] Childs, Isaiah, p. 295.

[3] Ibid., p. 299.

[4] Ibid., p. 300.

[5] Child’s example is Isaiah 28:5-6, On that day the Lord of hosts will be a garland of glory,/and a diadem of beauty, to the remnant of his people;/and a spirit of justice to the one who sits in judgement,/and strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate.” Ibid.

[6] John Wesley, Journal and Diaries, ed. By Reginald Ward and Richard P. Heitzenrater, vol. 18 in The Bicentennial Edition of the Works of John Wesley (Nashville:  Abingdon, 1988-), p. 226.

[7] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Go Ahead, Judge a Book by its Title,” The Hardest Question, http://thehardestquestion.org/yearb/advent2gospel-2/, cited Dec. 4, 2011.

[8] Kathleen M. O’Connor, “Exegetical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 1, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2011) p. 31.

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