The Reading from Holy Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-11 (ESV)
1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 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.
3 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 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. 5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” 6 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. 7 The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. 9 Get you 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!” 10 Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11 He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.
If you ever had to study grammar, you would have heard of the imperative. Imperative verbs give a command, like a parent saying to a child, “clean your room!”. The imperative, though, does not perform the action. A parent gives an order, but the child still has to go to his or her room and clean it!
In the Bible, there is a special category of words that actually perform the action they command. Take the frequent Scriptural command to praise the Lord.To “praise” God does not just mean telling God how good He is, though this often happens in praising. The term derives from a word for “shine”; our praising God, then, has to do with our responding to and celebrating the great light of God. As St. John writes: This is the message we have heard from [God] and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5). And what’s more, this phrase— Praise the LORD! (Psalm 106:1)—is more than an imperative exhorting other people to praise God. In saying this phrase, we are actually performing the action which is commanded. There is no delay between the command and the action being performed, which often is NOT the case when children are ordered to clean their rooms. Rather, the moment you speak or think the words Praise the LORD!, you actually are praising the Holy Triune God and acknowledging Jesus Christ, God’s Son, as the light of the world (John 8:12). And so truly, the phrase Praise the LORD! should daily be in your heart and on your tongue.
In today’s text, we have another Scriptural imperative: Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Here again, we have an action that is being performed and accomplished at the very instant the command is given. When God gives the command to comfort His people, then these words actually comfort them. And these words have no expiration date. As this holy imperative—Comfort, comfort my people, says your God—gave comfort to God’s people of long ago, so it gives comfort to you and me today. As light came into existence the very instant God said Let there be light (Genesis 1:3), so we receive God’s comfort in the very speaking and hearing of this Word of the Lord.
The comfort we receive from God is not primarily mental or emotional, although God’s comfort certainly does have a profound impact on our thoughts and feelings. That is why we rejoice in the Lord always and pray with thanksgiving. But even when our minds and hearts are weighed down by great cares and worries, we still possess God’s comfort as we trust that all God’s promises find their Yes in [Jesus] (2 Corinthians 1:20).
Thoughts and feelings come and go, but God’s comfort stands firm. And God’s comfort is not only verbal, but it also has a concrete dimension. When God says Comfort, comfort my people, He is actually acting to bring comfort by changing a situation that causes pain.
The immediate situation addressed by our text is the pain caused by the death of the nation Israel. Hundred of years before it happened, the prophet Isaiah spoke of Israel’s demise because of her unbelief and idolatry. And this demise happened in 587 BC, when the Babylonians conquered Judah and carried the people off into exile. For seventy years, they lived as captives in a foreign land. But God now speaks a word of comfort, pointing to the end of the seventy-year exile when He would raise up Israel from the dead, so to speak, and bring the people back to their homeland.
God’s word of comfort is a concrete promise that death is followed by resurrection. A dead nation is brought back to life as God brings His people back home from captivity. But this word of comfort also points to a greater death and a greater resurrection. A great death has occurred—I am speaking of the universal human condition of death caused by sin. And of course, the greater resurrection is the new life, the salvation we have in Christ Jesus.
When God says Comfort, comfort my people, He is actually acting to bring comfort by changing a situation that causes pain. Remember that, as you suffer life’s afflictions. As long as we live in this fallen world we will suffer. We each have our own personal mix of troubles that worry and perplex us. And then, we all suffer distress as we see the world’s sense of order and stability unraveling at a frightening speed and the Church coming under greater oppression and persecution. As Scripture says: in [these] last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be…arrogant,…ungrateful,…heartless,… without self-control, …[and] lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God (2 Timothy 3:1-4). But through all our suffering, we are sustained by our Lord’s great promise that the one who endures to the end will be saved (Matthew 24:13).
What does it mean to be saved? It means that we have been set free from sin’s captivity and we are now on our way home. That is the deep reality that sustains us through all our suffering. And that promise of going home is at the root of God’s word of comfort.
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God—these are not just God’s words but also God’s action to bring comfort by changing a situation that causes pain. As the Israelites were taken captive and scattered through the foreign kingdom of Babylon, so we were displaced from Paradise when Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden. It is this pain—the pain of being exiled from God’s presence—which causes us the greatest grief. And it is this cosmic pain-causing situation which God changes for us in Christ Jesus, in whom we have received the greatest comfort of all—the comfort of being made the people of the one true God.
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God—note the double comfort, that God claims us as His people and Himself as our God. It is just as we pray in the Venite, Psalm 95: Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker! For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand (vv. 6 and 7).
God, our God, brings comfort to us tormented sinners through His own dear Son, who became a Suffering Servant in order to bring us out of captivity and to bring us to our eternal home. Again, God’s comfort is a Word, but more than a Word; God’s comfort is an action, a divine drama, in which we participate as recipients of God’s grace through our Lord Jesus’ suffering on our behalf.
To set us free and to bring us home, Jesus, God’s Son, became Man in order to be God’s Suffering Servant. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous (Isaiah 53:3-6, 11).
This passage from Isaiah 53 points to the twofold comfort we receive in Jesus. First, God the Father laid on Jesus the iniquity of us all. And second, through Jesus, we are accounted righteous in God’s sight. This is the same twofold comfort of which Isaiah speaks when he says in today’s text: 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.
You have received from the Lord’s hand double for all your sins. Here, we have what Martin Luther calls “the happy exchange” whereby God imputes our sin to Christ and in exchange imputes the righteousness of Christ to us who were unrighteous. As St. Paul proclaims: For our sake [God] made Him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). Behold, God’s great comfort, which comes to us not just as a Word, though that indeed is a tremendous gift, but also as a concrete action—a double action by which Jesus became our sin and we became the righteousness of God.
And the great news is that this double measure of God’s grace in Christ Jesus is far more than enough to atone for our sins. For again, as St. Paul proclaims: where sin increased, grace abounded all the more (Romans 5:20). Yes, where sin abounds, God’s grace superabounds because of the suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God’s Son.
Your hurt, your pain is deep, for every part of your being is scarred by sin. But God’s comfort is deeper, and He has performed a concrete action in order to save you. While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.…[Yes,] God shows His love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:6, 8). Oh, you will have sorrows, struggles, and sufferings until you die. But you also live in the joy of God’s deep and double comfort of Jesus becoming your sin and you becoming God’s righteousness.
You entered this world as an outcast from the Garden of Eden, but in Holy Baptism God has made you His holy people and He Himself is your God. And throughout your life, He speaks to your heart: Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Live, then, and even die in the comfort that in Jesus Christ, God has taken a concrete act to save you, to bring you home to a far greater Garden where God Himself will wipe away every tear from [your] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away (Revelation 21:4). Praise the LORD!