January 10, 2016
First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
Life has a way of bruising us. The bad news, the challenges, the conflicts can cause us to lose heart, to get discouraged, even to give up. In those moments we need something that is harder to find these days—a word of encouragement, a moment of consolation. Jadedness and skepticism have their own self-absorbed, inauthentic attraction. To be aloof is to feel powerful. Yet real encouragement can only come with a genuine enthusiasm, an optimistic outlook, a hope for the future. It is this turn from misery to hope that we find in Isaiah’s prophecy for our first reading this Sunday.
If you had the patience to read through all of Isaiah 1–39 (the Book of Judgment) before coming to this reading, you’ll know why God’s people might feel discouraged by this point. The prophet has berated the people with all of their sins and shortcomings, pronounced the judgment of God, and left them with little hope for the future. The idolatry, violence, and law-breaking of the people has brought God’s wrath upon them in the form of exile from their own land. Their future now looks bleak, without hope, as they contemplate going off to Babylon for their sins. Sometimes we can feel just like them—throwing up our hands at our own weaknesses, our own sins. It can feel as if we will never overcome, never conquer our sinful habits, never be truly surrendered to God. Looking inside ourselves can be astonishingly humbling, when we see how we don’t measure up in so many ways. We can find ourselves in a place of true discouragement, standing apart from hope, turning inward in a spiral of self-pity, guilt, and even despair.
Usually it takes another person speaking a word of encouragement to dredge us out of our despair. St. Paul bids us to encourage one another frequently: “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (1 Thess 5:11 RSV). Isaiah is that voice to God’s people, speaking “Comfort!” The kind of consolation he brings is not the empty, mere words without significance, but Isaiah heralds the return of the people from exile, the end of their punishment and the return of the Lord to their land. The comfort he offers has teeth. This passage in Isaiah launches the so-called “Book of Consolation,” which constitutes chapters 40-66 of the book. Finally, the Lord will bring relief to his beleaguered people and set them free from the exile that their sins have brought upon them.
A Word of Encouragement
I suppose it is hard to figure out what to say to a discouraged person. Oftentimes our words fall flat, as a despairing person clings to his negative outlook and rejects our attempts to help as ingenuine or untruthful. It seems to me that the most effective encouraging words are those that speak the truth about a person in a way that opens a door to his or her future. That is, if a friend fails a test, gets turned down for a job, or otherwise hits a wall, it is easy for his or her mind to become fixated on the failure, but we can affirm the talents, gifts and spirit that we see in them that will lead them to their next success. Merely saying, “it’s o.k.” does nothing to help. We have to go deeper and speak more directly to their soul, offering the kind of comfort the prophet brings.
Return from Exile
Isaiah’s word of encouragement focuses on the return of the people to the Holy Land from exile in Babylon. The New Testament identifies the voice, which announces the end of the exile, as that of John the Baptist (Matt 3:3). While Isaiah was speaking of a return from a physical land of political bondage, John speaks of a far greater release from the exile of sin, from imprisonment under the slavemaster of sin. Jesus comes to free us from the bondage of sin and death and lead us into the promised land of eternal life. At the time of the return, Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians, but now it becomes the herald, proclaiming the good news of return:
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, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” (Isa 40:9 RSV)
The icon of destruction—the desolate city of Jerusalem—is now made God’s mouthpiece of salvation.
God With Us
Not only will God bring his people back to the land, but he will go with them. In fact, he will lead them in a triumphal procession from Babylon back to the Holy Land. Isaiah paints a beautiful picture of mountains being torn down and valleys being raised up to make a broad, smooth, fast road for the Lord to lead his people on the way back home (Isa 40:4). On the one hand, God will come as a powerful judge to govern his people and squash their opponents (40:10), but on the other hand, he will be like a gentle shepherd, tending his sheep with loving care (40:11). He is both the God of fierce justice and the God of abundant mercy. The important thing is that he with us, with his people. He does not abandon us to despair, but accompanies us on the journey out of sin and into eternity.
The bruises and the hardships of life might pile up, but we can’t allow ourselves to fall into discouragement. Instead, we should let Isaiah’s word jolt us out of despair and give us heart. The comfort he proclaimed so long ago to God’s people is available to us today. We can possess the encouragement he prophesied. “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Phil 4:13 RSV). God’s powerful love and lavish mercy can vanquish even the darkest of days and set us free from the deepest despair. Courage should be our way of life.