Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and 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. A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken." A voice says, "Cry out!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your God!" See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
I must have been about five years old when my father first took me to a performance of Handel’s Messiah. I felt unimaginably grown-up as I filed into the local concert hall, and I’m sure my eyes were out on stalks as I watched my first real orchestra tune up and begin the overture. For a while, all was activity, as the strings chased each other in restless counterpoint. Then the mode changed to one of calm expectancy…and it was into this that a tenor dropped his notes of liquid hope
“Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people”.
A long time has elapsed since that first experience, but it’s still almost impossible for me to divorce these words from Handel's inspired music. I think I should try, though, because what is going on in this passage is anything but tranquil for much of the time.
A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
Of course there is reassurance, that God will surely come along the royal road prepared for him, but before he does so there will need to be something very much like an earthquake.
Nothing will ever be the same again, - this is more than a little gentle landscaping, for roads aren’t built without a dramatic effect on the countryside. Every time a new highway is proposed here, the U.K. press is full of stories of protestors anxious not to see valleys and hills levelled, and the natural contours altered beyond recognition. No matter that a greater good may be evident, - perhaps an historic market town will be freed from the impact of streams of heavy goods vehicles, threatening the foundations of houses that have stood for centuries. Despite this, we’re reluctant to opt for change, and this passage speaks of some pretty dramatic changes, including that which makes us most uneasy, - our own changed state from earthly life to death.
“All flesh is as grass”
Now the soundtrack in my head has changed, and I’m carried along by Brahms’ German Requiem, the drumbeats heavy with anticipation of the inevitable.
There will have to be many small deaths as we prepare for the coming of God. The levelling of mountains and hills, the smoothing out of rough places in ourselves and in our community, will never be without cost for us, for we are the people who wish not to be disturbed, unless on our own terms.
So often Advent becomes a time of frenzied accumulation, as we hunt the length and breadth of town for the perfect gift for people with no material needs whatsoever. Rather than smoothing out valleys and hills, we make mountains out of molehills as the days fly past, until Christmas shopping becomes a chore, and we are simply desperate to ensure that there is something, anything, to wrap and put under the tree by December 25th. Maybe this year economics will give our Advent a different shape, one more in keeping with Isaiah. The message here reminds us of the transience of all those things which seem, for a while, so supremely important. Even their recipients are here but for a limited span.
So, instead of our seasonal round of accumulation, Isaiah speaks of simplification, stripping away the inessentials, levelling the landscape so that you can see far into the distance…and then, - oh then the glory of the Lord will be revealed!
What’s more, after the images of earthquake and reminders of mortality, the God who comes in might meets us in gentleness. He recognises the scars that our own inner landscapes bear after so much upheaval, and scoops us up tenderly, as a shepherd a young lamb. We have no need to struggle, but can relax safe in those loving, protective arms.
This Advent, many are struggling because their familiar settings have been changed irrevocably, the reliable landmarks by which they defined themselves and their lives swept away by the economic crisis. Just this week, the shape of the British High Street has been changed dramatically as 800 Woolworth’s stores close. They have been part of the fabric of our nation for 99 years but suddenly, overnight, they are gone – and with them 25,000 jobs.
An earthquake indeed.
The things we have taken for granted simply aren’t there any more, and like the people of Israel for whom Isaiah wrote, we find ourselves strangers in a strange land…
So these words are for us, too.
“Do not fear…. Here is your God”
Whatever happens to the ephemera around us, that is something we can rely on.
May we keep God as the focus as we prepare the way for his coming to each of us at Christmas.
You might like to consider where and why you protest about building a highway for God.
Which hills need to become valleys...or which mountains are really molehills?
Listen again to the reassurance "Do not fear...Here is your God."
God is speaking into the situation of your greatest anxiety. Where your fear is most deeply seated, there God is already waiting.
Loving God, in a world whose landscapes are often distorted, help us to clear a pathway for you. Enable us to recognise that your presence with us is all the good news that we need to carry us safely through Advent, and through life, until you welcome us in your loving arms, through Jesus Christ our Saviour.
We hope the reflections on this retreat day will enrich your Advent experience. You may write your thoughts here in the comments, or if you write something on your own blog, leave a comment (with a link if you can) inviting us to visit you. Or, if it suits you better, keep these words in your heart, and we will trust that God works in many ways in all of us.