a reflection on Isaiah 40:1-11 and the opening movements of Handel’s Messiah
The music we just heard is some of the most beautiful I know. The opening notes of “Comfort ye my people” that were just sung so tenderly bring a chill to my spine and a tear to my eye every time I hear them. The impassioned words of the prophet Isaiah that form the basis for Handel’s incredible music speak volumes today.
Our world needs comfort—comfort amidst the violence that swirls around us, comfort for the pain that so many face every day, comfort for injustice revealed when we fail to recognize the full humanity of some of those who walk this journey with us. We know all too well the pain that the prophet describes when he speaks of the city Jerusalem that has “served her term,” paid her penalty, and “received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” Some two and a half millennia after these words were first uttered, Jerusalem itself is still in need of comfort. So many other nations and cities and towns and families face similar pain and heartache. People near and far find brokenness to be the norm in their lives and in our world. Amidst the depth of pain and the harsh reality of injustice, words of comfort seem almost inappropriate, for the brokenness we face is not something that can be dealt with through simple platitudes or assurances that God will make everything okay in the end.
Maybe we, like those of Isaiah’s day, also need someone to cry out for a new way. There are plenty of voices crying out in these days:
Hands up, don’t shoot!
I can’t breathe.
All lives matter.
These voices are joining with those of so many other times and places, with the voice of even the prophet, who proclaimed, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” Before they suggest a new and different way, all these voices make the difficulty of these days clear. The wilderness of these days is thick and real. The deserts of our world are dry and thirsty. The valleys around us are deeper than ever, and the mountains that challenge us are higher than we can remember. If we are to follow the prophet’s instruction and make a highway of peace and justice for our God, we will surely need the largest highway construction project ever—even bigger than the incredible reconstruction work going on in Isaiah’s day as the people of Israel returned from exile to rebuild their homes and lives in their beloved homeland after forty years of waiting.
In these days of waiting, as we look for the glory of the Lord to be revealed, as we long for signs of justice and peace amidst all the brokenness of our world, as we watch for evidence that things are really going to change in all the deserts and wilderness and valleys and mountains of our world, there is much work to do to make things new and different. How do we listen to one another along this way so that we can truly hear the pain and hurt faced by our sisters and brothers? How do we work to transform the systems—the powers and principalities, as the apostle Paul sometimes called them—that perpetuate injustice and allow some lives to matter more than others? And how do we join the great divine construction project to prepare the way of the Lord and make things different and just and right for everyone who journeys with us along the way?
The way forward in these days is not clear. Some days I wonder what good any action will do, thinking that it might just be best to throw in the towel and just wait until Jesus comes again. Yet I am convinced more than ever that God’s comfort is real, that the way things are can and will change now, that God is working in us and through us and even in spite of us to bring hope and justice and peace.
The way forward to reveal all these things is not clear, yet God calls us to step out in faith and hope to make God’s love and justice real. May Advent open us and our world to a new way ahead, to the things that are coming and especially the One who has come and is coming to make all things new. Lord, come quickly! Amen.