By Paul Koch –
What an insane week. Here in Ventura, we began the week with a certain sense of control and predictability regarding how this week was going to unfold. We had some sort of schedule in our minds about what we were going to accomplish, what tasks were going to get checked off the list, what things we wanted to make sure we had a chance to experience. And then it all changed. Fire and smoke and destruction and great sadness was all mixed in with a sense of helplessness, and all we could do was react to external forces. The fires that tore through our county changed our plans in the blink of an eye as collectively our prayers went up before our God for relief and strength and restoration.
Isaiah 40:1-11 seems to be to be a fitting text for a week like this. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Comfort: that is exactly what we need in times like these. And comfort, of course, is what Israel needed when Isaiah first penned these words. They were a people who faced war and invasion, who were threatened to be taken from their homes, exiled into a foreign land. They struggled to hold fast to the promises of God for everything seemed to be spiraling out of control. These were the chosen people of God, inheritors of his great gifts, blessed to be a blessing to all the earth. But they had wandered from His Word. They turned to other sources of security and identity in this world and now they face destruction and they began to cry out to God for restoration.
Yet our longing for restoration goes beyond fires that burn homes or invading armies that threaten our liberty. See, there is a terror that plagues each and every one of you. Every child of God is plagued by a guilty conscience and the fear of being cut off from God. When the good and righteous law of God shines its piercing light into your lives, what does it find? Does it find houses that are in order? Faithfulness and selfless acts at every turn? I think not. No, more than likely the law of God reveals your selfish desires your unwillingness to cease to do what is wrong and to do what you know is right. Which of you does what is good right and salutary, not just when you are here among your church friends but when you are at home or work? Which of you seeks after God, not just when its convenient but when it means you might have to change your daily tasks? Who among us is faithful in loving one another as God first loved them? Do husbands sacrifice for their wives like our Lord sacrificed for the church? Do wives honor and obey their husbands? Do children respect and honor their father and mother?
See, before the law of God it is evident that you have not done what you should have done. You have not lived as you ought to have lived and the law declares that you are guilty. You are sinners, and sinners are not worthy of life and salvation and restoration before a pure and holy God. And when you try, then you really try to buckle down and get your life straightened out you don’t seem to actually follow through. Not all the way, not nearly enough. See, even as God’s children you find that there is a war being waged within. The longing to live as the children God has declared you to be and the inability to actually get that done. And in the midst of this war you must wonder; are you saved? Are you secure in your hope of eternal life? How do you know? How can you ever be sure?
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned…”
Then another voice is heard over the commotion. Another voice over the fears and doubts of our lives. It is the voice of John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord. The crooked are made straight, the valleys are lifted up the hills are brought low. This voice proclaims the arrival of the Comfort not through the bent and crooked efforts of fallen men but in the powerful working of God’s Word. The obstacles are taken away, the limits of our effort or understanding do not keep you from the coming Comfort of your God. When John the Baptist arrives on the scene he is the one pointing to our Lord and declaring, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” Behold the one who delivers comfort, the one who delivers you from the torment of your sin, the one who breaths into you hope and the promise of life everlasting.
So there is hope for you, hope that comes from outside of yourself. Outside of your effort or ability or knowledge. And this arrival of comfort for you is the arrival of your assurance, it is the source by which you can be confident in your salvation.
A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”
See your effort may be fleeting, you good works may fade within the moment that they are born but not the Word of God. No, that Word endures forever. That Word made flesh, which was highlighted by the ministry of John the Baptist is the source for your eternal hope and confidence. We have been brutally reminded this past week how fleeting this life can be. The things we amass in our lives the physical blessing of God, they all fade like the grass on the hillside. Only one thing endures forever, and that is the Word of God.
And that Word has spoken its comfort to you. Comfort not to try harder or to step it up and next time and you might actually obtain the perfection God demands. No, that Word has declared to you that perfection is already accomplished for you. Accomplished in Christ your Lord. He came, he lived, he suffered and died and rose again on the third day to give to you what you could not accomplish. The Word became flesh gives to you this day true and lasting comfort. Though everything else may p-ass away the Word will not fade, and he calls you brothers and sisters, he declares you to be the children of God and heirs of eternal life.
And so, Isaiah calls for the herald of good news to get up to a high spot to make the bold proclamation of the advent of God’s Comfort. And listen to what he says. He says, “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those what are with young.” The picture of the arrival of God’s gift of life and salvation, the arrival of the eternal Word is the arrival of your good shepherd. A shepherd who gathers you as lambs in his arms. Do you see what this mans for you? God has come to shepherd you, to lead you, to deliver you into eternal salvation. This is why in the face of fires and destruction and terror and sin and confusion and weakness you still have hope and assurance and confidence.
Remember the final stanza of Luther’s great hymn a Mighty Fortress is our God? It speaks to this confidence that you have as the children of God. It is, I think, a worthy reminder for days and weeks like this. For there the church sings these words, “God’s Word forever shall abide, No thanks to foes, who fear it; For God himself fights by our side With weapons of the Spirit. Where they to take our house, Goods, honor, child, or spouse, Though life be wretched away, They cannot win the day. The Kingdom’s ours forever!”
And so, there is comfort for you, comfort that fills your hearts. Comfort then that you are given to speak to others. To proclaim what you’ve been given, to hand on the blessings of your God. To declare a Word that will abide for all eternity.