Benediction Online

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Comfort and Confidence

Preached by the Rev. Donna Ross on Sunday, May 25, 2008

“The Lord has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones.”
(Isaiah 49:13)

Isaiah was talking to us.

Yes, the prophet spoke to the people of ancient Israel, exiled in Babylon, after they were deported from their home in Jerusalem. But the first Christians, six long centuries later, believed that Isaiah’s prophecies helped them understand the meaning of Jesus’ ministry. And even today, when Isaiah’s words are read again, we can have confidence that he is speaking to us.

There are sixteen chapters in the book of Isaiah that bring us the most amazing sequence of good news to be found anywhere in the Old Testament. (Isaiah 40-55) In these chapters Isaiah was speaking to exiles in Babylon, carried away from Jerusalem almost 50 years before.

Isaiah begins his prophecy with words familiar to us from Advent (and from Handel’s Messiah), “Comfort, comfort my people.... 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... for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:1f)

Comfort: The Hebrew word Isaiah uses is related to the Hebrew word for mother-love. The God Isaiah describes – the God for whom Isaiah speaks – is a God whose tender love for his people is like a mother’s compassionate love. It is a love that comes from deep in the womb; it is a love that will never forget a child once carried there; it is a love which will never let a people go.

Today’s psalmist also speaks of mother-love: “I still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother’s breast; my soul is quieted within me.” (Psalm 131) It is God’s breast upon which we rest when we are troubled, quieted from our rages, our hungers, our fears.

In today’s gospel Jesus also speaks of the same kind of motherly love - the tender love of a heavenly Father who will not forget us, who will feed our souls, who will give us life. Jesus tells us not to worry, because God who feeds the birds of the air, the God who clothes the lilies of the field, will take care of us. (Matthew 6:24f)

Today’s reading from Isaiah 49 repeats God’s words of comfort for Israel, and God’s promise to take them home again. But the prophet’s words also include Israel’s complaint against God – for Israel, in its extremity, feels abandoned by God:

“Zion said, ‘The LORD has forsaken me, my Lord has forgotten me.’" (Isaiah 49:14)

(Didn’t Jesus also feel abandoned by God, as he was hanging on the cross? Didn’t the disciples feel abandoned by God, when Jesus was dead and his body in the tomb? Don’t we feel abandoned by God, when things are going terribly wrong, when adversities pile up upon us, when we can’t see our way forward and we are paralyzed with worry?)

Isaiah’s God then answers: “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion
for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands.” (Isaiah 49:13)

Isaiah’s God does not promise that our lives will have no pain or trouble; even God’s son suffered pain and died on a cross. But Isaiah’s God does promise that we will never be alone; Isaiah says God will always be with us, our companion through whatever life brings us.

Why does God allow suffering? I don’t know. Isaiah doesn’t tell us. Jesus doesn’t tell us. But Isaiah does tell us – and Jesus shows us – that our God is not a God who watches our suffering from afar, aware but uncaring. Rather, Isaiah’s God cares so deeply for us that he walks with us – on the painful road to Babylon, and on the joyful way back to Jerusalem. And Jesus’ God cares so deeply for us that he walks with us – on the dusty roads of Galilee, and on the painful way to Jerusalem. Christians have always believed – Christians today still experience – that the Risen Christ lives with us still.

Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Christ still walks with us, suffers with us, cares for us like a mother, and in the end leads us home to God.


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