Beautiful, isn't it? For those of you who haven't heard it before, that was part of Handel's Messiah. Handel set about half of our reading from Isaiah to music, and he did a wonderful job. It took me a few goes to get those settings of this reading out of my head before I could read it properly, but I'm very glad I did. Lovely as they are, even those movements from the Messiah don't actually do justice to the beauty of this reading. Over the last week or so it's become one of my favourite Bible passages. In this reading are compassion, power, glory, majesty, constancy, and love, and above all, comfort. "Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God."
Just to put some context to the reading, this is actually the first chapter of "Deutero-Isaiah", despite being chapter 40 of Isaiah itself. Until the 18th century, it was assumed that one person wrote the whole of the book of Isaiah. Ideas were then put forward that it was written by two people, and then by three - and that's what most Bible scholars believe today. The first Isaiah's ministry was in the second half of the 8th century BC, while the Jews were still in Jerusalem. The second - Deutero-Isaiah, the writer of this passage - preached in roughly the middle of the 6th century BC, after Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians, and the Jews were exiled to Babylon. The third, or Trito-Isaiah, followed late in the 6th century or early in the 5th, after the Persians had overtaken the Babylonians and allowed the Jews back to Jerusalem.
So, when we read this reading from the very start of Deutero-Isaiah, we need to picture the people he was comforting. They are the same people whose feelings are described in Psalm 137: "By the rivers of Babylon - there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion."
Here are the first few verses again: "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."
Isaiah - I hope you won't mind if I call him Isaiah for short. Deutero-Isaiah is a bit of a mouthful - is giving good news to the people of Israel: things will be all right again! Be comforted!
Then he goes on: "A voice cries out: 'In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.'"
This verse was the one I probably found most interesting when I first read through it. At first, I thought my Bible had a mistake in it. After all, what we're used to from Handel's Messiah and indeed from Mark and John, is "A voice cries out in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of the Lord!'" But here, we have, "A voice cries out: 'In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord!'" Do you see the difference? It's not the voice that is specified as being in the wilderness - it's the way that should be prepared. As I was informed by a learned friend just last night, the idea of a straight highway through the desert was a fairly common image - it was something that would only be done for a King. Isaiah uses this to emphasise both that the Lord is coming, and that he is our King.
I think there's another angle to be considered though, in the context of the Jews being in Babylon. They were away from their homes and their beloved Jerusalem. Whatever Babylon was like at the time, it must have felt like a wilderness to them. But Isaiah is saying that even in the wilderness, God will come, and that the Jews need to prepare for his coming wherever they are.
Skip forward two and half thousand years or so, to us, now. How often do we feel that we're in a wilderness, now? Not through physically being in exile, but just looking at the sorry state of the world? Now don't get me wrong - I'm not all doom and gloom about the world today, and I think we tend to hear a lot more about the bad news of what's going on than the good, but there's a lot going wrong nonetheless. In particular, with more and more people against organised religion of any form, as Christians we face growing hostility to our church and faith. Isn't that a wilderness and exile of sorts? But I believe Isaiah's message rings just as true today for us. Comfort, O comfort my people, says our God. He will come with might, and will gather us in his arms like lambs. And just as Isaiah speaks of going up to a high mountain to cry out "Here is your God!" to the cities of Judah, so we need to proclaim our God as well, as we prepare his way.
In the "wilderness" of the world, we should still prepare the way of the Lord. So, how do we prepare the way of the Lord, and Christ's second coming? I think a crucial part of it is revealed by what Isaiah said about the straight highway in the desert: "Every valley shall by 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."
I know it's quite a modern slant on it, but to me that is a strong message of equality and compassion. The mighty shall humble themselves, and lift up those who have fallen. Those who stumble through life on uneven ground shall be steadied. When our differences have been removed, then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together. Now, we can interpret these as actions of God, or we can interpret them as directions for us to act on God's behalf, bringing about a fairer world. I'm very much in favour of God's kingdom being brought closer by our own hands - waiting around for God to do everything through miracles is not what Christ was about.
In Advent, of course, we particularly think about Christ's First Coming. But Christ's human life on earth itself was a preparation for things yet to come. Consider this: what would the use of Christ's human life on earth be without a second coming? Without a second coming of some form, there is no judgement - and without judgement, what need is there of Christ's sacrifice? Christ gave his life so that when we stand before him on that day in the future, we can do so with wonder and not fear, for our sins can be forgiven. That, I believe, is the central point of Christ's life and ministry. There have been lots of good men and women, both in terms of people doing good deeds themselves and people inspiring others to do good as well. If Christ had just been one of those people, we wouldn't be here today. Christ was special because he was the Son of God, a sacrifice given at enormous cost, in order that we might all be clean in the eyes of God when we come before him.
That is what we prepare for, and Christ's enormous part in that preparation is why we celebrate his birth and consider its meaning during Advent.
Even though Isaiah doesn't specifically predict Christ's coming in the passage we read, the message of comfort he gives is made real for us by Christ. Isaiah says, "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid." It is through Christ's death and resurrection that our penalties are paid for us. Our reading ends with, "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." Christ, the Lamb of God, is also the shepherd of the world, and the one who gives comfort to God's people. So let's prepare to celebrate his birth and first coming, while also preparing the world to be reborn at his second.