(This is a post for my Sunday School Class. I am home with a sick kid, so here’s your SS material for 12/14/14. Take breaks from the reading and discuss as the opportunities arise. I love you guys and I miss you.)Isaiah 40:1-5 (NIV) Comfort, comfort my people,
These words are often associated with Christmas. We hear them delivered each year on an Advent Sunday and they’ve become synonymous with this season for us. These words had a very different first audience than you and I and countless other Christians. They were spoken first not in the sanctuary of a church but to a nation of Israel, at the time they were a people wandering in a physical and spiritual wilderness. The Babylonian empire (same one from our study last year on the book of Daniel) was on it’s way out, suffering disastrous defeat at the hands of Cyrus and the Persians and there would finally be some relief for the remnant of Israel.
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” These words to Isaiah are words meant to encourage and to lift up the broken-hearted. They are words that meet the lost where they are. They are words that know brokenness.
“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem”, He says. This is a time of whispers, not yelling. A time of speaking gently and not of being forceful. A time of condolence, not condemnation. Speak tenderly to the broken-hearted, says God. Be kind to those who suffer.
The people of Israel have not been in Jerusalem for generations when Isaiah gives them this message. But God refers to them as Jerusalem, not to the place itself. Jerusalem is known for being the dwelling place of God, but He calls them Jerusalem. Just in case we need another reminder that the church isn’t the building itself, but is the undeniable presence of God in the lives of all those who struggle and search and those who wonder and wander.
He basically says, ‘You don’t have to be in the Temple to find Me.” Yet they and we so seldom look for Him anywhere else.
“…proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin is paid for…” We must pay for our sins. When we stray from the will of God, we must come back. Coming back is hard on us. It can be brutal. It isn’t always a physical task, or even always strenuous… but it always humbles us. It always transforms us. When we stray from what God wills for us, we make the choice that we have a better plan, or that we are more capable than He is of handling it. The road back is one paved with surrender, humility and service. If you’re in a time of surrender, humility and service, perhaps you are finding your way back to God. If you’re distant from Him, perhaps you should surrender to Him and seek humility and service. That is where you will find Him.
“That she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” Because when we find Him again, we will receive double. You don’t have to search and find and say to yourself, in some sort of disbelief, “I have received double.” It is simply and basically true. Once, you knew Him. Once you knew the extent His hand has reached out to you and for you. Once you were aligned with Him and His plan. And then you rebelled, or resisted, or retreated, or resigned. The thing is, you still belong to Him. The part of you that is part of Him that He has given you longs to be restored to Him. You sense it. And so you return to Him. He is still there, eternal and intimate. His hand still reaches out to you, so far that you realize you actually stand on it. His grace is sublime. You have returned. And you realize that have received double. You have been given so much more than you ever knew. You have been lavished upon.
Because your sin doesn’t define God, it defines you. It doesn’t limit Him. It limits you.
“A voice of one calling…” So take a moment. Who is the voice calling for you? Who has God sent out into the wilderness to prepare a way for you? Whose voices have called out to you? Say a quick prayer of thanks for them. Call them. Tell them. Don’t lose them.
“In the wilderness, prepare the way for the Lord…makes straight in the desert a highway for our God.” God meets us in the wilderness. He finds us in the desert. He doesn’t need the frills or a great big production, often I think they work against Him, but that’s just me.
“Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.”
Valleys can be problematic, geographically speaking. They tend to be places that flood. They tend to be places of accumulation and stagnation. They tend to be avoidable. And they also tend to be obvious. They are places that get soggy and useless.
Mountains and hills also tend to be problematic. They are central in our vision, obvious and prominent to us. And they tend to be unreachable. They are lonely places. Cold, unfeeling and isolated places.
Rough ground is unusable. It can’t be made fertile. Desirable things can’t be planted and nurtured there. The only things that can grow there are those we do not desire. It can’t be easily travelled so it’s a place of injury and pain. It’s humbling in the worst of ways.
One step beyond rough ground is rugged ground. Full of rocks and gorges and scars in the land. Rugged ground is avoided at all costs. It’s ugly to look at. It cannot be hidden or changed. It’s where the bandits can hide without fear of being caught. It’s lifeless and grotesque. It’s the landscape of a broken past.
These are places we know well because they are places we have dwelled for a time. Maybe they are places we try to ignore, or to forget. As much as we try, we can draw the maps of our own valleys and mountains, our rough patches and our rugged spaces on the backs of our hands without even trying.
Think on the valleys of your past for a few moments. Has God raised them up? Has He cleaned out the corners and filled in the cracks? Has He lifted you out of the bog?
Think about the valleys of today. Pray for the same.
Think about the mountains and hills you have faced. Think about the times in life you have been most alone. Think about how you elevated yourself up and over everything else and how cold you felt when you were there. Has God brought you back down? Do you need Him to?
Think about the rough ground you’ve endured. Thing about the things that have grown there. Think on your injuries and pain. Think about God meeting you in those things and in those places.
What about your rugged ground? The scarred and ugly past that perhaps only you know about. Think of the enemies that hide in those dark and broken places.
God wants to take all of those places and He wants to turn them into places of life. He wants to make them places of growth and function. He wants to bring life into all the lifeless corners of our lives. And only He can bring life to the lifeless.
“And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
When life comes from lifelessness, God is revealed. His glory, His character, His purpose. He is not a God of lifeless, head-down trudgery. He is not a God of miserable pondering or aimless wandering. He is a God that loves life. He is a God that brings life. He’s a God that turns rugged and ugly pasts into a field overflowing with crops.
Pray about those places in your life. Pray about those places in the lives of your friends and family. Pray about the places He has already transformed. Pray about the places you want Him to transform. Pray about the places He needs to transform.