Compassion not condemnation – Tuesday, second week of Advent – Is 40:1-11
While today’s reading begins with a double command to comfort, I find the season of Advent awfully un’comfort’able. It’s more like a mixed bag of comfort and discomfort. Deep down the feeling is wonderful but on the surface it almost seems to be too good to be true.
If Lent is all about us turning to God, it almost seems like the readings in Advent is all about God bending backward to make us happy. This makes me feel awfully uncomfortable for it should be the other way round. The feeling of being uncomfortable really gets to you when it dawns on you that such love is not merited but freely given.
The reading of today, sung through the season of advent in our Churches, is taken from the second book of Isaiah (chapters 40-55) this section is generally attributed to an anonymous poet who prophesied toward the end of the Babylonian exile.
In 587 BCE Jerusalem was conquered and destroyed by the Babylonian Empire. In fairness this was a well-deserved punishment from God to a people who had made idols their gods and refused to trust in Yahweh. The first book of Isaiah ends with chapter 39 and the unspoken (in this case unwritten) exile to Babylon. While the narrative is recounted in 2Kings 20:12-19, chapter 39 which precedes this text simply finds it hard to even acknowledge this painful historical reality.
Yet Chapter 40 which begins around the year 540 BCE seems to pop out of a dark tunnel of shame like as If nothing happened. It’s as if with one stroke (seventy years in reality) God has had a change of heart for his wayward people. To a people undeserving of such comfort, God insists, if not commands that His people be comforted. There is compassion not condemnation for the exiles and it almost seems like God is repentant of His decision rather than His people of their actions.
Like a grieving father over a wayward family, God demands that they be spoken to “tenderly”. He seems to acknowledge that the brutality of the exile has scarred His people, for Israel has “received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins”. She “has served her time.”
The people must return to the mountain of the Lord preparing a way for Him. The most direct route between Babylon and Judea was through the Syrian Desert. This is poetically described in verse 3 as a way in the wilderness and a highway in the desert. Even the harsh reality of the desert is presented as a welcoming highway for both the exiles and for God.
It seems like God has missed His people and longs for them to return. He now takes on the role of shepherd who “feeds his flock” (verse 11) and “carries them in His bosom” while He gently “leads the mother sheep”.
Finally, this text must be read with a word of caution. The Lord wants to comfort us, don’t mistaken this for us desiring to be comfortable or having our comforts met. It is a relationship the Lord seeks to have with us not meet the needs of our bucket list.
Fr Warner D’Souza