Second Sunday of Advent

We do not undertake the ministry of comfort alone; we do not need to be sufficient to the task

Judean wilderness
"Panorama of Judean Wilderness," Image by Ian Scott via Flickr, Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

December 10, 2023

First Reading
View Bible Text

Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11

This lection vibrates with the infectious energy of change. Brooking neither argument nor hesitation, a rapid-fire sequence of commands urges imminent action, speech, and movement. 

“Comfort, O comfort …” (40:1). “Speak … cry …” (40:2). “… prepare … make straight …” (40:3). “… Cry out!” (40:6). “… Get you up … lift up your voice … lift it up, do not fear; say …” (40:9).

While English translations effectively convey the urgency and excitement of these commands, grammatical differences between Hebrew and English mean that they also unintentionally obscure an important set of details about their addressees. Each of the imperatives in 40:1–3 has a plural subject: they are addressed to a group, not an individual. Their grammatically masculine plural form might address a group of males but can also readily address a group that is mixed with respect to gender. The subject of the imperative in verse 6, meanwhile, is masculine singular. The subject of the five commands in verse 9, namely Zion, is grammatically feminine singular. 

That is to say, the passage contains not one commission but three. Its inclusion of masculine and feminine, singular and plural subjects yields a broadly inclusive call to action and proclamation. God’s plan for salvation, restoration, and return is collaborative.

The multiple addressees don’t only span differences of gender and number. The commands range across space, addressing audiences in exile and in the homeland, separated by hundreds of miles. And they speak to an audience in the space between, whose activity will make possible the reunion of compatriots long separated from one another.

This inclusive exhortation furnishes an opportunity for the preacher and congregation alike. Each member of the community, both present and absent, receives a commission to preach and transform the very landscape to make possible the shared experience of redemption and return. But another ministry precedes and encompasses these, and it is given pride of place in the initial, emphatic, and repeated charge to comfort God’s people (40:1). 

The Hebrew word here translated “comfort,” naḥămû, has a more basic meaning: to reverse one’s mind- or feeling-state. Thus, depending on context and conjugation, the same verb might be translated “to change one’s mind,” “to have a change of heart,” “to regret,” “to be sorry or repent,” even “to mourn.” For the people who have suffered captivity, exile, and dispersion, loss of loved ones, loss of homeland and freedoms, their reversal will be one from anguish to comfort. From fear to hope, sorrow to joy, shame to self-love. From insecurity and uncertainty to the assurance of divine providence and care.

This is what the proclamation must achieve. Whatever good news is planned, it must speak first to the heart. It must see, acknowledge, and touch the very core of the people’s sufferings, confusions, and fears to prompt and make possible a set of radical reversals. It will not matter if valleys are lifted up and mountains leveled to the ground if this heart-work is not done first. None will choose to come home.

The work of comforting is a collaboration in a further way. It is not just the work of the book’s audience. Repeatedly in the latter chapters of Isaiah, it is also explicitly named as God’s work. “The LORD has comforted his people, and will have compassion on his suffering ones” (49:13). “The LORD will comfort Zion; [the LORD] will comfort all her waste places … joy and gladness will be found in her” (51:3). “I am [the one] who comforts you” (51:12). “The LORD has comforted [the LORD’s] people, [the LORD] has redeemed Jerusalem” (52:9). “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem” (Isaiah 66:13). This detail yields two key insights.

First, we do not undertake the ministry of comfort alone; we do not need to be sufficient to the task. Lack of credentials does not disqualify. The command to “comfort my people” invites us to participate in God’s work, which means that God is its guarantor and perfector. Second, the work will be iterative. The radical reversal is not once for all. God’s redemptive work of comforting manifests itself in past, present, and future.

The content of Zion’s commanded proclamation calls attention precisely to God’s presence, rule, and provident care (40:9–11). This proclamation is directed outward to all the cities of Yehud. The opening verses of Lamentations had portrayed Zion as a woman seated upon the ground, bereft and alone, weeping, forsaken, with none to comfort her (Lamentations 1:1–2). In Isaiah 40:2, it was her heart (in other words, Jerusalem’s) that was to receive tender consolation. From the reversal of her sorrow and fear follows the reversal of her status. It manifests in her agency and empowerment. She is to abandon her lowly place upon the ground and ascend “a high mountain” (40:9). Now she who received comfort becomes prophet and proclaimer. Using vivid imagery, she announces the redemptive work of a God in motion.

Just as the passage’s multiple commissions span people and places, so Zion’s proclamation encompasses multiple aspects of God’s being and activity. God is powerful and gentle, just and merciful. The climactic image portrays God as the great comforter, feeding the hungry, gathering in God’s arms the vulnerable, small, meek, and lost. If the promise of a highway in the desert brought apprehension, Zion promises that there will be nothing to fear. God will take responsibility for guiding them home, and God will carry any who need help for the journey. 

As you prepare to preach this week, consider how you might extend the commission of this passage to those in your community. Perhaps you will choose to share your pulpit, to invite into that space those who have imagined they lack the training or credentials to proclaim God’s word. Embolden and empower them to undertake the work of comforting God’s people.