Comfort, O comfort my people,
Says your God.
Speak tenderly to the city, and cry to her
That she has served her prison term,
That her debt has been settled,
For she has received from the Lord’s hand
Double for all her wrongs.
Three vaccines have been developed, and there is an end in sight of the grip that Covid 19 has on cities around the world.
I deliberately adapted that passage from Isaiah just to underline part of its appeal. It is universal in its application. For the individual recovering from a great personal trial, such as a long life-threatening illness. Or for a city at the end of a siege or a war.
Reminding ourselves that this is a Jewish text, it is impossible to imagine what it would have meant for people who survived the concentration camps.
It is one of the great Advent texts and, as such, for Christians throughout the centuries,it has become deeply embedded in our minds as pointing towards Bethlehem and the life of Christ. But it is vital, I believe, that we pay regard to the layers of meaning it holds.
Firstly, there is the original context: the return of the people of Judaea from actual captivity in Babylon, after almost sixty years. Most of the population had remained in Judaea, but the king, the leading citizens, and the religious leadership had been carted off. So Judaea, between the end of the sixth century BC and the middle of the following century was a region, rather than a nation. As was common practice in ancient warfare, Jerusalem, as the focus of independence and religious authority had been demolished – including its Temple. So the prophet Isaiah is speaking powerfully about a new beginning, in which God and his people come home.
Secondly, it is full of metaphorical language, which has a way of sticking in the mind. It was a text that Jesus clearly knew very well, if not off by heart, and therefore its imagery spilt over into his teaching, and then into the community he inspired. And it echoes down the centuries.
Jesus brought words of comfort to the sick. He spoke tenderly to those who often only heard curses. He taught about the boundless nature of God’s forgiveness, and told his followers to practice forgiveness – it is in the heart of the prayer he taught.
St Mark’s Gospel, of which we heard the very beginning, directly draws on the same passage to drive home its message that, in Christ, God is indeed returning to Jerusalem. A path is being made for him through the wilderness. One prepared by John the Baptist.
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.’
But looking at Isaiah 40, verses 1- 11, I found myself pulled in by the last verse. I am using Robert Alter’s translation here, because I think it is better than the one we usually use.
Like a shepherd He minds His flock.
In his arm he gathers lambs,
And in his lap He bears them, leads the ewes.
There is a tenderness in this image. Up until this point in the reading there has been a lot of power imagery. God is one who can flatten mountains and acts with might. Now he is compared by the prophet to a gentle shepherd.
You will remember that Jesus himself did make livestock and pastoral references frequently – for example in the parable of the lost sheep; talking about himself as one called to seek out those who were lost.
And we should not forget that in the earliest centuries of the church, long before the cross became the favoured symbol, the good shepherd was the one that people turned to. It is a design that can be found in the Roman catacombs. What an image that is! One of comfort, love and protection. I wonder what difference it might make to how we understand our faith, if we always contemplate it and keep it in our minds?