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Isaiah 40:1-11

In this second week of Advent the lectionary takes us back to an earlier passage in Isaiah, and also back in the events of Israel’s history. Last week we read from Isaiah 64, a lament written soon after the exiles had returned to Jerusalem and Judah. They had looked for a glorious return with the re-establishment of all that their forebears had known: temple, city, land. But it had been a grave disappointment. Their hopes had not been fulfilled.

In today’s reading we move back from Third Isaiah to Second-Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55). Isa 40:1-11 is the introduction to that prophet’s work. The words were spoken in the 6th century BCE, possibly around 540 BCE just before the end of exile (v. 2b). (They might be familiar to some from the beginning of Handel’s Messiah.) The prophet could see that political and military activity in the world about them meant that the Babylonian empire was about to fall to the Persians. When the latter came to power, they would surely put their policy of letting conquered people’s return to their homelands into force. So the prophet speaks words of encouragement to a dispirited people in exile in Babylon, far from the home of their ancestors. In a half century of exile many Judean families had settled in this new place, and while remaining strangers in the land, they had begun to prosper. Some no doubt had converted to the faith of their new home. Some hung on to their dream of returning to Judah and Jerusalem. But even among these, there were doubts, fear and inertia as they contemplated the long journey into the unknown. Even a journey ‘home’ which has been long hoped for can generate great anxiety

As a prologue to Second-Isaiah, Isa 40:1-11 serves as a summary of the theological themes of the chapters to follow. The scene is set in the heavenly court of Yahweh. Different voices are heard: Yahweh (vv. 1-2), various heavenly beings (vv. 3-5, 6-8), and the prophet (vv. 6b, and possibly 9-11). As Yahweh speaks to the heart of his people (v. 2; NRSV ‘speak tenderly’), and as ‘all people shall see’ the glory of the Lord (v. 5b) and the sin of the people will be removed (v. 2), so the prophetic call of First Isaiah in Isaiah 6 is reversed (see esp. Isa 6:7, 10; NRSV ‘mind’ = ‘heart’ in Hebrew). Hope for this people was inextricably bound to an ability to recognise the coming of the Lord’s presence among the people, to recognise forgiveness and hear what the Lord now says to them.
The passage addresses two important issues for this people who lack hope: the sovereignty of Yahweh and the grace of Yahweh. A dispirited people, who have suffered the hardship of exile with its subtle and not so subtle discriminations, needs to be convinced that the one who calls for their trust and hope is able to deliver. So the prophet sets out to convince them that Yahweh who calls them is sovereign over all creation and over their destiny. While we may not agree with the prophet’s interpretation that the exile has been Yahweh’s punishment for the people’s sin (40:2), he uses the point to say that the imminent end of exile would be the end of the people’s ‘warfare’. The passage calls for a processional way to be made for Yahweh back to Jerusalem, so that Yahweh’s glory will be revealed. The prophet is here mocking the grand annual processionals of the Babylonian god Marduk. Finally, he speaks of Yahweh coming with power (v. 10), with his arm (zeroa‘) ruling for him. The people’s time in exile has not been the result of a failure on Yahweh’s part. He is sovereign over all. Yahweh has, as it were, let Marduk rule over his people, for a limited time. That time is now ended. The prophet will go on later to stress the sovereignty of Yahweh through a series of mock trial scenes and polemics against the idols of the Babylonians (41:1-42:9; 43:9-44:5; 44:6-23; 45:14-25).

The second issue for those who lack hope is to emphasise the grace of Yahweh. Yahweh cries out for his heavenly messengers and the prophet to ‘comfort’ and speak to the heart of the people (vv. 1-2). At the end of this passage Yahweh is pictured as the ‘good’ shepherd feeding his flock, carrying the lambs and leading the mother sheep (v. 11). The figure of power and sovereignty becomes one of tenderness and care. This one who comes in power, also comes in mercy and compassion (cf. Isa 55:1-13). This is the precursor to the coming of God in Jesus Christ.

Finally, there are two other aspects of the prophet’s thinking that are significant for the faith of Israel as the prophet seeks to generate hope. There is the immediacy of the message of Yahweh. Yahweh is doing something new and different, and now. In the view of some Old Testament writers the people’s past disobedience led to their punishment in exile. Repentance and a return to obedience was the only way out of their predicament. Second-Isaiah emphasises Yahweh’s sovereign grace to act anew. The prophet does not ignore the people’s sin but it is a thing of the past. Yahweh works anew to come to his people in exile. Exile is not the last word, nor is past human behaviour, for good or ill, the determiner of Yahweh’s activity. Yahweh is free and active in the present to do something new (Isa 43:18-21). In this context, faith is centred on the immediate coming of Yahweh to his people. Secondly, the prophet also emphasises (40:6-8) the creative function and purpose of the word of Yahweh (cf. 55:8-11). In comparison to human frailty and fickleness, Yahweh’s word is eternal and sure. As such it becomes the word that breaks the despair of our frailty and fickleness. It addresses us in exile, speaks of the coming of our lord, and calls us into a new future.

As we move through Advent we await the coming of the Lord in the person of the baby Jesus. It is not just a period of waiting for an anniversary to come around, but it affords us time to reflect on the nature of the one who comes to us. We are called by the prophet of Isa 40:1-11 to remember the sovereignty, grace and compassion of the one who comes, that in him our sins have been forgiven, that we are called constantly to see what new thing God is doing in our midst through him. We are also called to note the surprise of his coming. The one who is sovereign comes in weakness as an infant. The one who comes in graciousness will, in due time, see the high cost of that grace. We focus on these things in Advent, not to forget them after Christmas, but to realise that our very hope is waiting for the one who in the past, present and future comes to us constantly.

Psalm 85

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