The Old Testament Scripture yesterday morning came from Isaiah 40. This beautiful psalm, which you can read here, has long been one of my favorites. Handel was so struck with the following verses that he chose them for the opening recitative and aria of his famous oratorio, the Messiah.
Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.
The Israelites are in exile, far from home, living out the consequence of ignoring the ways of God. This exile is never meant to be a permanent condition; it is rather a holy "time-out" of sorts, offering a restart for a nation that has gone astray. Now that time is coming to an end and God is letting the exiles know a change is coming. Finally, there is good news, an announcement that is mean to bring comfort to the hearers.
Which of us doesn't find ourselves from time to time in need of comfort? We feel burdened, depressed, weary or overwhelmed. Perhaps it is a result of our own foolishness, or poor choices, but perhaps it is not our "fault," simply a result of being human, part and parcel with the brokenness we share with our fellow-travelers. When we're in need of comfort, the last thing we want is someone to poke a finger, to attach blame, to sneer and say "I told you so." What we need is compassion and help.
Each Sunday, the Anglican liturgy begins with this prayer:
Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord.
To have our hearts laid bare can be a very scary thing - all our desires known, all our secrets out in the open. Unless the one who is doing the looking is full of compassion. Isaiah tells us a few chapters later that when the Messiah arrives, he will come gently, "not snuffing out a smoldering wick, nor breaking a bruised reed." (Isaiah 42) And so it is with Jesus. He does not come to condemn, he tells his disciples. Mankind is already suffering the consequences of brokenness. One Sabbath morning, given the platform in a local synagogue, He offers these verses from Isaish 61 to describe his calling:
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me,
for the Lord has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to comfort the brokenhearted
and to proclaim that captives will be released
and prisoners will be freed.
The Advent of Jesus is characterized by compassion. But Jesus doesn't only bring comfort, he also learns what it means to need comfort. By taking on flesh, Jesus embraces the suffering of humanity. He can empathize with us now, because He became one of us then. God no longer offers compassion only from a parental viewpoint, but also as one who has lived in the trenches, experienced the hurt, betrayal, disappointment and grief that are part of the human condition. The comforter is able to comfort from within the system, which means that we can trust in an even deeper way the God to whom we come.
The healing and rest, the restoration that God envisions, continues with the advent of Spirit. And so the prayer above includes the phrase: "Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so that we may perfectly love thee and worthily magnify thy name." As we wait for the Spirit to work in our lives, opening ourselves in vulnerability to the gentle touch of infinite love, we know we will receive new breath, new life. We hope and anticipate being made whole, having our worth restored so that we may live out our vocations to the glory of God.
Mankind healed and empowered to live fully in love is the eternal hope and inifinite desire of God. It was this incomprehensible yearning that set the Advent of the Christ into motion. "For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven" we affirm as we recite the Nicene creed. And so this advent season we wait, with God, for God to get what God wants: ourselves, healed, filled, complete, seen to be of inestimable worth. And we join in hope as we sing with the angels, "Glory to God in the highest."