Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lordâ€™s hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: â€œIn 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 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.â€
Isaiah spoke to the Israelites held captive in Babylon.Â The Babylonians had taunted the Israelite captives, exilesâ€¦Â Â
Â Â Â Â â€œBy the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.Â There on the
poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors
demanded songs of joy; they said, â€œSing us one of the songs of Zion!â€Â How can we sing
the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?â€Â (Psalm 137)
And so there was silence; seventy years of silence; a whole lifetime of silence.
UntilÂ GodÂ speaks!Â â€œComfort, comfort my people!â€Â Enough is enough!Â What they had borne, what they had sufferedâ€”because, as a nation, as a people, they had been proud and stupid and hadnâ€™t listened and hadnâ€™t obeyedâ€”â€˜actions have consequencesâ€™ and all that stuffâ€¦â€”enough is enough.Â â€œComfort, comfort my people!â€ says God.Â And once his â€œcomfortâ€ has been spoken, it must happenâ€”his Word cannot return emptyâ€”it achieves what he sends it out to doâ€”in the beginning â€˜lightâ€™ and there was lightâ€”here â€˜comfortâ€™â€”Godâ€™s comfort.Â The Hebrew sense of the word â€˜comfortâ€™ is the â€˜turning away of sufferingâ€™â€”it is not a â€œthere, thereâ€â€¦it is an active involvement in, engaging in the process of taking away what brings suffering.Â For Israel, on this occasion, it meant Godâ€™s act of deliverance; it meant forgiveness; it meant a return home; it meant restoration.
Godâ€™s action here begins with a call for preparation.Â The Israelites in exile knew well the long, lavish, imposing, purposely laid-out processional highways of the Babylonian city for the ceremonial welcoming of the king or of the gods.Â These highways had been symbols in Israelâ€™s history of its defeat and humiliation, of the might and power of those who had conquered them.Â But now a new highway was to be preparedâ€”a highway which left the towering temples of Babylon behindâ€”a highway across the emptiness of the wilderness (an emptiness that figured prominently in Israelâ€™s historyâ€”a place of learning to wait humbly for Godâ€™s provision)â€”across the wilderness and into Godâ€™s promised landâ€”a highway for â€œthe Lordâ€, for our God, to reveal his glory, to demonstrate his faithfulness to his promises.Â â€œThe Sovereign Lord is coming to rule with power,â€ Isaiah shouts, â€œbringing with him the people he has rescued.â€
When Godâ€™s prophet John (the Baptist) arrives centuries later his voice again breaks the silence.Â Another long silence.Â Israel had again, as so often before, stopped listening to Godâ€™s voice and filled their heads with their own babble.Â And when their proud plans and proclamations of self-importance were again tramped into the dust by the boots of an invading army (or two, or threeâ€¦)â€¦God waitedâ€¦and eventually they heard and knew the silence.
You may have noticed, over the years, how hard we find it, generally, to sit and waitâ€¦and listen in silence.Â Many self-nominated â€œgood listenersâ€ are actually people who simply have an awful lot of good advice to dispense!
A couple of weeks ago a person talked to me about a particular situation; started crying and cried the whole way through; told me of the things that were hurting; told me of a sense of lossâ€”didnâ€™t ask me what to do!â€”just told me of a deep sadnessâ€¦and cried some more.Â â€œYou feel really sad,â€ I said eventually.Â â€œYes,â€ was the reply.Â And silence.Â And more crying.Â And â€œthank youâ€.Â [I must say, I was very impressed by the personâ€™s own handling of the actual situationâ€”a deep love and loyalty and commitment, an amazing spirit of sensitivity and great courage; had managed the situation beautifully!; but it was one of those situations that we all know about in this world, where hurt and pain and sadness are profoundly real.]
There were no appropriate platitudes.Â No little â€œgemsâ€, â€œpearls of wisdomâ€, cute clichÃ©s that would fill the silence.Â Better to be silent.Â And listen.Â Waitâ€¦be ready to listenâ€¦.
Quite a few years ago, deep in the season of Advent, I lost my voice. Â It was no cough or cold, but a tumour on my thyroid gland.Â I didnâ€™t know it was there until it started bleeding internally and swelled up alarmingly.Â Ten doctors in the emergency ward that night each said they wanted to check with another until finally a specialist figured out what was going on.Â I lay a couple of days in hospital under observation, until they were convinced the tumour would not obstruct my breathing, and then was sent home a day or two before Christmas.Â I still had to wait a couple of weeks for surgery, and the final verdict.Â The tumour prevented me from speaking normally.Â The surgery might possibly cause permanent damage to my vocal chords.Â And the question about theâ€”you knowâ€”â€˜natureâ€™ of the tumour had to be finalized.
So I was a Christian, a pastor(!), at Christmas, with no voice.Â Silent.Â Couldnâ€™t speak.Â Couldnâ€™t sing. Â I spent a whole Christmasâ€¦justâ€¦listening.
Advent begins, in a sense, when the silence begins.Â When you and I have nothing more to say, and so we are ready to listen.Â Then, into our silence, God speaks, â€œComfort, comfort! I am coming!â€ Â Then we are able to hear one proclaiming repentance for the forgiveness of sinsâ€”clearing out the cause of our troubles and worries and making a highway for our God aloneâ€”allowing God to speak, and God to act, according to Godâ€™s planâ€”allowing God to be God!â€”â€œGod with usâ€.
In a bush, in the emptiness of the wilderness, burning but somehow not destroyed, God said to Moses, â€œIÂ am.â€Â To the prophet Elijah, wishing to die because no one would listen to him, God speaks his presence and promise not in a storm but in a whisper.Â And when the â€œmountains fall into the heart of the seaâ€, the â€œwaters roar and foamâ€, â€œthe nations rage, the kingdoms totterâ€, God says, â€œBe still, and know that I am God.â€
Like Lent, Advent is a season of repentance.Â The purple reminds us of that.Â Sometimes we think that repentance is about telling God all about our sins!Â (As if he doesnâ€™t already know!)Â Maybe true repentance is best considered as a time of silenceâ€”â€œEnough talking about meâ€¦what do you have to say, God?â€
Mark begins his Gospel rather powerfully:Â â€œThe beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.â€Â Itâ€™s not really aboutÂ meâ€”itâ€™sÂ forÂ me!â€”but itâ€™sÂ aboutÂ Jesus.Â Jesus is the good news!Â Be stillâ€¦and know Jesus.
The evangelist John announces Godâ€™s coming into the world, the Christmas event, in this way:Â â€œThe Word became flesh and dwelt among us.â€Â God speaks.Â Godâ€™s Word enters our humanity, our lives, our world.Â How do we prepare for the â€œWordâ€?
In silence.Â Ready to listen.Â A highway into our hearts and minds by silenceâ€¦for listening.
Here!Â Listen to this!Â Donâ€™t sing; donâ€™t hum along; just listen:
How silently, how silently,
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming;
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him, still
The dear Christ enters in.
Amen.Â Come Lord Jesus.