The Rev’d Stephen E. Stults
St. Paul’s Anglican Church
April 30, 2017
“Comfort ye my people…”
Isaiah 40:1-2: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. 2 Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’S hand double for all her sins.”
Comfort. What a wonderful word. What a warm, soft, beautiful word in all that it conveys. I picture a snowy day in Illinois with a warm fire, a soft blanket and a cup of delicious coffee at hand. Here in Texas, I picture comfort as a nice cool bedroom at night, with the air conditioning going when it is hot and sultry outside.
Yet, comfort may be an unappreciated word in our all-too-comfortable society. We really don’t tolerate discomfort very well, which is both a glory of our modern society as well as its curse. Perhaps we are too comfortable. Most modern Americans will tolerate nothing else. Let me also issue a disclaimer here. The very fact that we Americans have such manifold comfort available to us is a great blessing from Almighty God; one for which we should be very thankful. At the same time, we should keep in mind and pray for those who live without daily comfort.
In today’s O.T. Reading, Isaiah, the great prophet of the coming Messiah, speaks to the people of Israel. This was the Northern Kingdom, who after many years of repeated warnings had been conquered by the Assyrians and carried away captive. Some commentators tell us that this particular passage occurs during the exile in Babylon.1 In their misery, Isaiah speaks “comfort” to them, telling them that they have received double recompense at the Lord’s Hand for all their sins.
Recall that the majority of Isaiah’s ministry dealt with the apostasy of Israel. Consider these lines from the very first verses of his prophecy, Isaiah 1:3-4: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider. 4Ah sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the LORD, they have provoked the Holy One of Israel unto anger, they are gone away backward.”
In verse after verse, Isaiah rightly complains of the idol worship, the lax morals, and the corrupt lifestyle of the Israelites. When God saw there was no repentance, judgment occurred in the form of foreign invasion and enslavement. Their punishment was so severe that even Isaiah comments that they received “double” punishment for their sins. Wesley terms it as this: “Double — Not twice as much as her sins deserved, but abundantly enough to answer God’s design in this chastisement, which was to humble and reform them, and to warn others by their example.”2
Yet now, according to the prophecy, Israel was to receive comfort from her vexations and punishments. She was to be assured that her “warfare”or tribulation in the world, was completed and that her iniquity was forgiven. The Hebrew word “ratsah” actually means to be favorably disposed towards or kindly towards one. If one could perceive God’s “mood” so to speak, it may be one of kindliness or good favor. Even though God’s wrath had been kindled towards His People, their punishment had expiated this.
How then, does God visit retribution on His People, seeing that He Himself is beyond emotion and thus beyond the feelings of anger, jealousy, and rage? How can we even say, “the Wrath of God?” While that topic is beyond the scope of this brief address, suffice it to say that God’s absolute Holiness and absolute justice demand that some recompense must occur to atone for sins against Him. Yet, being the font of eternal love, God Himself paid the price for these offenses in the person of Jesus Christ.
This is exactly what Isaiah speaks about when he tells us that a Voice is crying:”The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:”3 This voice is God, telling us to prepare the way for His Son. In language used later by John the Baptizer, it is a voice crying in the wilderness.
Typical with Isaiah is his ability to project his prophetic voice both near and far. By that, we mean that he speaks both to the near-term easing of Israel’s distress, which would eventually happen, and to the long-term prophecy of the coming Christ. We see both in this passage as the people receive a comfortable word in the present, while at the same time Isaiah speaks prophetically of the Christ to come. Although the presence of man fades, for we are but grass, the word of God lasts forever.
Thus, we clamber into the mountains and proclaim to the world, “Behold your God!” He will come with a strong hand and a strong arm to do his work.
What work will this be? It is pastoral, natural and beautiful: He shall feed his flock like a shepherd; he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.”4
At once we are propelled into the Gospel era as St. John relates how Christ said, 11 I am the good shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep.”5 In fulfillment of the words of Isaiah, Christ proclaims Himself to be what he is, the Bishop and Captain of our souls.
Note what the Voice was crying in the wilderness: Jesus is the Good Shepherd, who gives his life for the sheep. Not as a hired worker, who sees the danger and flees, but rather as a courageous shepherd who knows his sheep and is known by them. Interestingly, although sheep are easily led, they do not follow just anybody. They know their shepherd’s voice and follow only him. Conversely, the shepherd knows his sheep and does everything he can to protect them, up to and including giving his own life to protect them.
Thus, to quote the old gospel hymn, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear!”6 What a Friend indeed.
There is only One who will save you from an uncertain eternal afterlife: Jesus. There is only One who saves your soul from the piercing, totally accurate justice of God and replaces it with mercy: Jesus. There is only one Good Shepherd who is able to fill your soul with the holy love and grace it so desperately wants: Jesus.
Jesus reaffirms his relationship with God the Father as He tells us that in the way that His sheep know Him, He is known of the Father. This is a special relationship made perfect by perfect love in the community of the Holy Trinity.
In one last affirmation of hope and unity, Christ tells us that he has other sheep that must join his flock. Although not of this fold, they too must and will be brought along with Christ. This is most glorious, for it foretells the wonderful day when all Christian divisions will cease “and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.”7 With our limited human vision, we can’t see any way that the gaping divisions in the Church can be healed. Denominations tend to divide; once divided, they tend to keep dividing. Some of the reasons for our divisions are valid, others not so much. Yet, in the mystery of God’s perfect vision, there will occur a day when all Christians will worship the Holy Trinity in one church. What a glorious day that will be! Imagine a church where unity of vision and unity of purpose is the focus, rather than the disagreements that divide us. It will be a miracle indeed. It will be one that only the Good Shepherd can bring about.
One last question remains to be asked: are you under the care of the Good Shepherd?
Have you entrusted your life, both here and forever, into the Hands of the One who can see it safely to eternal pasture? If there is any area of your soul where some “hold back” occurs, or where you are less than enthusiastic about the Good Shepherd’s directions? If so, let it go. Let it go and experience both the freedom from self and the wonderful peace of God.
After all, this is what Good Shepherd Sunday is all about. It is about giving your soul what it so desperately needs, the sacred pasture of Christ.
3 Isaiah 40:3-4
4 Op. cit. 40:11
5 John 10:11
6 Hymn #422, The Hymnal, 1940
7 Op.cit. 10:16