Dr Di Rayson captures our collective weariness and longing as we begin our Advent journey in 2020.
On the sixth day of Advent, 2020, Rev Dr Kirk Patston explores Isaiah's message of hope in our frailty.
A hope-filled future
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.
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
A voice says, “Cry out.”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
“All people are like grass,
and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of our God endures forever.”
You who bring good news to Zion,
go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
say to the towns of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
and his recompense accompanies him.
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young.
Invasion and exile hurt. Crops are destroyed. Buildings turn to ash. Lives are erased. Hearts ache with loss. Questions about identity and future feel urgent but it seems pointless to say anything out loud. These realities of invasion and exile are never far from one’s mind across the book of Isaiah.
But then someone does speak out loud. Out of nowhere, there is an emphatic claim that it is time for proclamation: Hey you all (the command is plural), Comfort, comfort my people. And in just a few words, questions about identity and future find a hope-filled answer. The future is one of comfort. Your identity is that you are—or can be—the people of God. My people.
Isaiah 40 has a haunting, elusive quality about it. Voices speak and we don’t really know who they are. I wonder if we are beginning to hear the voice of the faithful servant? I also wonder if we are beginning to hear the voices of remnant people? Remnant people are servant-like. They live among brokenness and still choose the way of faith and obedience.
Sitting in this insistent imagery of hope, Isa 40:5 raises an honest, intriguing question. If we realise that the English punctuation is not in the original, we can read it in two ways.
A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry? All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.” In this reading, the messenger is expressing uncertainty. “I don’t know what to say. I’m just like grass. I’m fleeting. I’m faltering.”
I get it. Our family has been working on a project around community formation for people living with disability. Navigating the system of NDIS can be discouraging. And then the COVID disruption stirred for me patterns of anxiety and sleeplessness that made life tough. How can I speak a word of comfort to anyone when I am so frail and finite?
But there’s another way of reading. Cry out this: “All people are like grass. They won’t last.” The armies and empires who have invaded and deported will, one day, just disappear. The powerful forces that stand in the way of comfort and a world put right will not endure.
Luke’s Gospel recounts the story of a newborn Jesus being presented at the Temple, as was the custom in Jewish Law (Luke 2:21-38). Whilst at the temple, Jesus is recognised as the Messiah by two different devout people: Anna and Simeon. I love that this story tells us about them. They are old, so we think of the way grass fades. But they are people who have waited and waited for Isaiah 40 to come true. Their faithfulness has been more enduring than the flowers of the field. As they meet the baby Jesus they can see God will come as a shepherd (Isa 40:11). Judgement on sin will be finalised (Isa 40:2). There will be nothing to stop God’s arrival (Isa 40:4). God will be seen for the glorious, powerful one he is (Isa 40:5,10). They see the word of comfort come in the flesh.
Rev Dr Kirk Patston is married to Lisa, the father of adult sons, a lecturer at Sydney Missionary and Bible College, pastor and one of the founders of Our Place Christian Communities.