This year, we were going to encourage our congregation to fast in some way during Advent. As things turned out, I think I got in all my fasting before Advent even began. Two weeks of diarrhea because of a C. difficile infection forced me to live on the “BRAT” diet, bananas, rice, applesauce and toast, plus some jello. No Thanksgiving dinner for me. If I never see another banana, it will be too soon.
The first medication I was given did not help, and relief and comfort finally began to arrive in the form of a second antibiotic that slowly began to turn the tide. I am very grateful now to be returning to a normal diet and finding my gut behaving itself.
As I turn to our text for this Sunday, Isaiah 40:1-11, it occurs to me that my forced “fast” and even our voluntary acts of fasting and renunciation enact for us in miniature the kind of experience reflected for Israel in Isaiah’s prophecies. They endured a long period of suffering followed by God’s provision for their relief and comfort.
The focus of Isaiah’s prophecies is Israel’s exile in Babylon. Chapters 1 to 39 are written from a perspective leading up to that awful event, warnings that it is coming interspersed with a few words of hope and promise of return and renewal. With chapter 40 the perspective changes to the exile already in progress and almost over. God calls for His people to be comforted in verse 1 and then in verse 2 declares “cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
Verse 3 goes on to announce the deliverance out of Babylon, a highway in the wilderness on which God’s people will return to their own land. Their comfort will take the tangible form of an actual return to their rightful place in the world.
Though we may bemoan current states of affairs, we in North America continue to live lives where discomfort is often relatively swiftly alleviated. There was a remedy for my infection and I could hope for a not-too-distant recovery. So it is good to have seasons like Advent and Lent, where we step back and willingly allow ourselves some sacrifice or discomfort. In those times, we can more deeply appreciate God’s plans to bring lasting comfort to all His people.
The middle of our text, verses 6 to 8, is a reflection on our true condition, that human life is like grass, springing up but quickly fading away and dying. What could possibly comfort us in the face of that reality? The answer appears in the final verses of the passage in the promise of the arrival of God in our midst. It is His coming that will put all suffering to flight and grant us eternal and lasting comfort.
In the last image of the text we see our Lord as the Good Shepherd, carrying His lambs. Our ultimate comfort is in the arms of Jesus.