We are not at peace with others because we are not at peace with ourselves, and we are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God. ~ Thomas Merton
Expectant hope. Abiding peace. Comfort of the soul. I think that pretty much sums up what most of us seek throughout our lives. That something to settle us and let us know all is right with us. Something that anchors us when everything else around us swirls out of control.
Expectant hope is the overarching theme of Advent, the four weeks before Christmas. Last week was the first week of Advent and the theme was hope. We looked at longing of the soul as part of our human condition. This week’s theme is peace. I like to think of peace as comfort of the soul. It’s like a deep, satisfying sigh that signifies all is well.
Unfortunately, and often during the holiday season, we lose touch with ourselves. We feel disconnected from our innermost being and don’t feel at peace by any sense of the word. We might even wonder if God is present at all. Or maybe we know God is present, but we’re tired of waiting and wondering if we have what it takes to hang on.
The prophet Isaiah heard the same things from the people of Judah who were in captivity in Babylon. One question loomed large for the exiles. Since they had clearly failed to be God’s people, did they have a future? Would God again work in their midst, or would God simply abandon them? Could God act? In this crisis of faith, God speaks to the community through the messages of Isaiah.
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 for ever.
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 (Isaiah 40:1-11).
This passage from Isaiah is probably most familiar to us because of Handel’s oratorio, Messiah. For many, Messiah is the most well-known of all choral works in Western music. It might also be some people’s only knowledge of the Bible! Charles Jennens, who put the words together for Messiah, lifted large sections from the King James Bible (after all this was 1742) and the Book of Common Prayer.
The word pictures Isaiah creates is an intimate portrayal of a God who cares deeply and who is intimately involved in our lives. At Advent, we wait for the kind of comfort only God can bring. Advent reminds us that we are only at the beginning of God’s great work in our lives. The sense is that there is much yet to be told, experienced, endured, and accomplished in our lives. During Advent we listen for God’s whisper of peace … comfort for our soul.
Second Sunday in Advent bonus: Comfort Ye My People from Handel’s Messiah.