Advent 4 – Comfort my people

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…
Say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”
Isaiah 40:1

We are almost at the high feast of Christmas – it is one week away.  We’ve celebrated Christmas before, so we know what it is like, so there is some expectation of joy as we approach it and, we’re making ourselves ready for the feast – turkey ordered, invitations sent – yet we are held back a bit from the joy until the day itself.

This is a just a small example of the state that Christians find themselves in generally in living between Christ’s first coming and His coming again in glory.  What do I mean?  Some of us will be experiencing a kind of joy even now, a clear sense of God’s presence with us, and are comforted continually and full of expectation of his coming again in glory.  And some of us may be wondering why do I not have joy right now – we’re here by faith, but we would like to experience His presence more now, so that we might be strengthened while we wait and also long even more for His coming again in glory. (e.g. in pastoral visits I see people in great suffering, they do not have joy now and they wonder if they can bear their current circumstances.)

For all of us there is a kind of agony in a way – like the agony of lovers, who have met and rejoiced in each other’s company, and then are separated – they know and remember the goodness of being together, so they both know joy now but also know a type of suffering, an incompleteness.  Hope of reunion ties them over, they live with a kind of joyful expectation and with a certain pain.

Whatever is your experience in your life in Christ, our readings this morning speak to us all.


In the reading from Isaiah [40:1-9] over 700 years before Christ’s first coming, God speaks through the prophet to describe people in both situations:

There are three voices in this short passage, the first two are anonymous, they speak from the point of view of expectation of future relief, of not yet knowing:

A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway … And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

This is the voice of John the Baptist – it is about the future coming of the Lord and the preparation for Him by repentance and faith.  Here’s the second anonymous voice,

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.

This also is a preparatory voice about the temporal world, the world of change, of impermanence, and recalling us to the higher things, to refocus our thoughts on the eternal, on God’s Word, because it is unchanging, at rest, and because of that, in His Word, in Him, we find rest.   So, if we find ourselves tossed about right now, not knowing joy, but forgetting, we’re reminded to look up.

But the third voice is different, it is about having seen the Lord:

Go on 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!”

From The Story of the Exodus, Marc Chagall, 1966

This voice is not anonymous – this is the voice of Zion, of the Jerusalem which is above, it is the voice of the Church.  In the original Hebrew, the prophet shifts language for this third voice, using a feminine singular participle, it is the voice of one who has already received her Lord, who knows salvation has come.  One commentator says, it is like the voice of Miriam, who rejoices, dancing on the other side of the Red Sea, having experienced the salvation of Israel from her enemies who were drowned in the waters (Alec Moyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, p. 301).  As Christians, we know an even greater Exodus than Israel from Egypt, it is an Exodus from sin and death, to a life of rest in the Lord, of peace with our Maker [Jer 23:5-8].  This is not the voice of preparation for His coming, but of proclaiming to others what has happened – it is the voice of Mary in response to Gabriel [the Magnificat], it is the voice of the Church proclaiming that her Lord has come.


I expect that every Christian has the experience of both these moments in their lives, times when we have forgotten our Lord and forgotten who we are in Christ and need to be reminded, and times when we do know that joy and are called to share it with others.

How do I know that we all experience this as Christians?  Because I have experienced it personally, and in my encounters with people in the congregations in which I serve it is an ever present reality.  St Paul, in today’s Epistle [Philippians 4:4-7], is speaking to Christians who are anxious.  He says, don’t be anxious, because he knows they are anxious.  He’s explaining how they might have peace, because they don’t have peace.  So we needn’t worry if at the moment we have neither peace nor a sense of God’s closeness.

We are living on earth in the in-between time – between Jesus’ first coming and His coming again in glory – between Jesus’ first coming to our own soul and the beatific vision we long for.

Can we bear to live with this tension?!

God is not cruel, but provides us the means to survive until that great day.  He gives us sound advice this morning from three biblical witnesses – it summarizes really, all the advice of this Advent season of preparation:

First, the advice from Isaiah which is later taken up by John the Baptist.

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…

Put away from our lives outwardly the side paths, the distracting ways, of doing everything except the way directly towards God – this is the call to the moral life, the commandments which are all about loving of our neighbour [Rom 13:8-end; 2 John 5-6].  Return to that (asking His help) and, as soon as we fail, be quick to repent, and God will run towards us and meet us and embrace us, like the Father met the prodigal son [St Luke 15].

Second, the advice is from St Paul if we are experiencing anxiety [Philippians 4:4-7]:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.  And the peace of God… will guard your heart and mind…

Yes, back to prayer, it is the means given us to stay close moment by moment, of returning not just outwardly, but in our very hearts and minds, in our inner life, away from all the endless distracting thoughts, to look straight towards God.  And in expectation of a response.  Prayer is not easy…let’s learn from one another about it (as we did, for example, in our recent Bible study), and do not be afraid to ask others if you need help.

Third, the advice of John the Baptist is to know ourselves [St John 1:19-28]:

“Who are you?”  He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.”

How much grief we would save ourselves if we would continually remember this simple fact, we are not the Christ, we cannot save ourselves, we are not our own saviour, we must look up towards the One who does save, who is the Saviour, only the Lord Jesus Christ.


Finally, returning to the advice of God through Isaiah, these are most beautiful words, words that a preacher is given to repeat Sunday by Sunday, they are our reason for hope and for joy even in the present.

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.

White Crucifixion, Marc Chagall, 1938

This is the Gospel – we have become God’s people through baptism and faith – we are his people, we have become the new Jerusalem.  In the midst of all the turmoil of our lives, we have comfort in knowing we are pardoned through the Cross.  The weight of sin and guilt on our souls is relieved, is lifted, as we come before God trusting in Jesus’ offering even this morning.  There is the opportunity to start afresh.  And God does not just relieve the suffering from our sins and guilt, that would be to receive what we hoped for, a pardon, but we receive more, double, perfect forgiveness and a lifting of ourselves into the kingdom of heaven, a sharing, even a partaking in the divine nature.

Comfort my people, says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…

We can we live with this tension between His first coming and His coming again in glory.  Are you anticipating, are you even anxious this morning that we move closer towards Him?  God’s Word and our liturgy is leading us to prepare ourselves even this morning to know more of God’s love inwardly, to be more certain of His promises, to hold in our hands and to taste His Body given for us, to take the cup into our hands and drink His Blood shed for us.

Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice…
The Lord is at hand!