The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
(Preached on Sunday, December 10, 2017)
It is hard to believe that anyone could listen to this passage and not be moved. This poem ranks with the finest literature ever composed. Handel thought this passage so beautiful and so important to Advent that he opens his great Oratorio, Messiah, with a tenor singing the opening words, Comfort, comfort my people.
And yet, beautiful as these words are, do they speak to us today? As tensions in the Middle East grow more fraught and the threat of new violence rises up in response to actions announced by our President. As more and more of our neighbors are labeled “unacceptable” or “illegal” and are forced to live in the shadows. As more and more environmentally important land is handed over to developers to be mined, drilled, surveyed, explored, bulldozed, and built upon. As people continue to fight for the right to discriminate against those they do not agree with, like, or value. As the world continues to grow more divided, more spiteful and hateful, less unified and compassionate; as the world grows increasingly calloused and cold; in such a world can we hear these words and find comfort, peace and hope this Advent?
These words were spoken by the prophet to the people of Israel who were living in exiled in a distant land. They are people who had been conquered, humiliated, and subjected to war crimes. They were people driven away from their homeland to live in exile in a far away, distant land. At the time of these words it has been 40-50 years since the pillage and destruction of Jerusalem. An entire generation had been born and raised in exile, and yet, undoubtedly there are those among them who still remember; those who lived through the devastation of Jerusalem; who saw their city sacked, burned, destroyed, including the Temple; those who felt that God had turned away from them.
As distressing and filled with anxiety as our lives are today, many of us do not know that level of despair with which the Israelites lived in exile. Some among us do; those who have had to flee homes and immigrate to escape oppression or persecution. There are still among us survivors of attempts to exterminate: Jews from Europe, survivors from Rwanda or the Sudan, refugees from Cuba, Syria or Venezuela. There are those among us whose heritage is that of being torn from your homeland and forcibly transported to a distant land as a slave and the resultant sense of rootlessness, being cut-off from one’s family past.
Put yourself in their shoes and you will move closer to the situation of the people to whom this prophet speaks. It makes his words all the more amazing. IN exile, when most Jews felt nothing but despair, Isaiah offered them a golden chalice of hope. When others stopped playing music, and hung their unused harps on braches of the willow trees by the canals of Babylon and while they moaned How can we sing the Lord’s song in an alien land?” this remarkable prophet was given a glorious song of faith and hope.
This vision did not come easily to Isaiah. He is given this glorious vision of the court of heaven where he hears God commanding the angels to speak words of comfort to God’s people Israel. They are to encourage God’s people by proclaiming that their time of exiled is about to end. The prophet then hears the angels calling out for the preparations to be made, “every valley raised up, every mount brought low … In the wilderness prepare the way for God!” In other words, God is on the move. God is not just going to sit in heaven on a throne and pass out beautiful words of comfort, while observing earth’s difficulties. No, God is coming to the people in person – into their exiled, in their misery, their hopelessness and despair, to bring comfort directly into their hearts and lives.
Even with this beautiful vision, the prophet struggles with his own despair. He, himself, is commanded to “shout” but he responds, “What shall I shout? These people are nothing but grass, their love fragile as wildflowers. Grass withers and wildflowers fade.” The weight of centuries of faithless living by the people of Israel – the weight of two generations of exile – all weighs heavily on the prophet. There can be no comfort – there can be no celebration – given the desperate and seemingly hopeless state of the human condition. As much as we strive for permanence, we are extremely transient creatures. As much as we strive to change, to grow, to transform our behavior, our lives, we continue to be extremely undependable. Treaties and alliances are made only to be broken; promises made only to be forgotten; vows spoken and then cast aside; contracts signed only to be contested in court. Nothing with us is certain, nothing is sure, all people are grass.
But one thing the prophet remembers and knows is sure. One thing in this transient world, one thing is permanent. One thing never fades or passes away: GOD’S WORD STANDS FIRM AND FOREVER! God keeps promises. God never takes back what God has vowed. God speaks and reality is made. That is the basis for hope. Our hope is grounded in the faithfulness of God. While some look for temporary respite and comfort in the pleasures of the world, the prophet offers the ultimate comfort that comes when we place our full trust in God.
For the people to whom the prophet spoke, they had their history to recall. Just as God had led their ancestor Abraham to a new land; just as God led their ancestor Jacob and his sons into Egypt at a time of famine, preparing the way for them by sending Joseph ahead to preserve the family; just as God led Moses to free the people from slavery in Egypt and then, through 40 years in the wilderness, until they reached the promised land; just as God led Joshua and the Israelites into the land to establish a home there – over and over again they saw God’s faithfulness to be their God, to make a way when there appeared to be no way, to care for them as a shepherd cares for the sheep.
It is really not so different today. In a culture captured by deep fears and anxiety, God breaks the silence and speaks of faith and grace. In a culture captured by power and possessions, God breaks the silence and speaks of generosity, of public good. In a culture captured by war and exclusion, God breads the silence and speaks of reconciliation and peace. New possibilities still abound with God’s transforming actions among us. God still penetrates exile with amazing, comforting Good News!
Around the world people are seeking comfort, seeking something that will take away the pain, seeking a solid reason for hope. In Puerto Rico, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, people are trying to get their lives back to some sense of normal. In Southern California, people are looking at the complete loss of property and it feels like the end of the world!
As followers of Jesus, we can’t magically take away the pain of those hurting. But we can be bearers of comfort. In this world where there are mass shootings and category five hurricanes and devastating wildfires, we believe that even if the world ends, God is there. God does not end. We believe that God in Jesus will bring hope in a land filled with despair. Because GOD’S WORD STANDS FIRM AND FOREVER!
When Helmut Thielicke, a German pastor and scholar was asked during World War II why he celebrated Christmas, he replied, “God is not merely the mute and voiceless ground of the universe; he comes to us, down in the depths, down into the world of pain, into the world of homeless and refugees, a world where there are lepers, lost sons, poor ladies, in which people die and are killed.”
That is certainly the world in which we live, and yes, God is here. Even though it may not always be evident to me in the midst of the chaos and the darkness, I am going to hold onto the promise that it is most often in bleak circumstances that God’s presence is most powerfully experienced. Advent is a time for looking forward with hope. No deep valley or ravine in our journey is so dark that the guiding star of God cannot penetrate. No obstacle can be so mountainous that faith cannot shift or level it. No evil can be so entrenched that redemption is impossible. No suffering or sorrow is too heavy for the Divine Comforter to ease the weight from our shoulders. No threat can be so deadly that God cannot offer the promise of new birth. God’s word, God’s promise, never fails. That is a solid reason for hope.