Isaiah 40: 1-11, page 667
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 on it; surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God stands forever.
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 your cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”
See, the Lord God comes with might, and God’s arm rules for him; God’s reward is with him, and God’s 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.
“Now don’t make me come down there.”
You all know what that means, and the feeling these words gave you in the pit of your stomach isn’t something that you’ve left behind in childhood – you’re reminded of it when the boss calls you into her office, a letter comes in the mail from the IRS and it doesn’t come with a check, or the police officer walks towards your car.
It’s a short distance, but it takes him forever to get there. You compose yourself and get ready to plead your case.
“I’m so sorry officer, I didn’t realize how fast I was going, my mind was on things at home – the baby’s sick, I can’t sleep and I was just trying to get to the drug store as fast as I could. I’m sure you understand.”
Once or twice that may actually work. I met a police officer once who told me the excuse that worked on him back in 1987 was, “Miami Vice is about to start and I don’t want to miss the opening scene.”
More often though, it doesn’t pay to be a police officer who is too understanding or overly compassionate. Therefore, on those unfortunate times when I’ve been pulled over I don’t plead my case, I just wait for my punishment.
I don’t assume that the officer who sits in his car for far too long, walks to my car way too slow, and then looks down on me while I’m sitting in my car brings with him anything less. That would be as foolish as expecting a delivery of hot chocolate on a tray after hearing your mother yell, “Now don’t make me come down there.”
You hear those words and you want to lock the door, but you know that would make things even worse. You see the police officer coming and you pray for an earthquake to hit and divide the earth so that the police officer would be stopped in his tracks.
The last thing you’d want to do is make his paths straight.
However, this is what John the Baptist is charged with doing, but for a higher authority than even your mother. In our first scripture lesson the prophet John the Baptist was sent by God to “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” and so in preparation for the one to come he proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Repentance isn’t normally a word used during the month of December, but that’s what John was telling everyone to do – he’s coming soon, so get your house in order, because “he’s making a list and checking it twice, he’s going to find out who’s naughty and nice.”
Or, in other words – the one who’s been yelling, “Don’t make me come down there” is on the way.
The question is, hearing this message out of John’s mouth, what did the people do?
Did they rejoice?
Or did their stomachs sink?
Did they begin preparing their excuses?
Or did they even bother, assuming that the Messiah would be like any other earthly authoriety, not wanting to hear it, not in the business of compassion or understanding, but in punishment?
A lot of people feel that way about God. They hear God described as a father and assume that God must be like the one they grew up with – distant, uncaring, unconcerned.
Some hear Jesus described as a bridegroom and assume that God must be like the one they were once married to – harsh, violent, cold.
And some hear God described as a judge and assume that God must be like the ones they have stood before in court – not wanting to hear their excuses and ready to deliver the verdict.
All three are used in scripture, but in our 2nd scripture lesson there’s another option. Isaiah says that the Messiah is coming – but not as a father, a bridegroom, or a judge – as a shepherd.
I don’t know much about livestock – I might even go so far as to say that I know nothing about livestock. John Satterwhite who happens to raise beef cattle was once driving me around Maury County and pointed out a herd of cows grazing on a hillside. “You see those cows Joe. They’ve been eating grass on that hillside so long that the legs on their right side grew shorter than the legs on their left side.”
Somebody who believes something like that really doesn’t know anything about livestock and that’s me. The author of Isaiah however, he knew more about it, and so describes God as a shepherd, but not just any shepherd, the kind of shepherd who knows how to deal with sheep:
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 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.”
That’s how shepherds do it. He takes a lamb in his arms, the lamb’s mother follows right behind, and every sheep follows her.
It’s just like a joke Murray Miles told us last Wednesday night at Bible study: a young boy’s teacher asked him, “if you have 10 sheep and you take one away, how many do you have left?”
“Well none,” he answered. The teacher said, “You don’t know much about arithmetic.” The young boy responded, “You don’t know much about sheep.”
So much of the time that’s the world we live in. The powers that govern our world understand us about as well as that teacher understood her pupil. There were the parents who just didn’t understand, the IRS who is without compassion, and the police officers who don’t want to hear it. Why should we expect anything less from the God of heaven and earth?
Why should we not fear the day of his coming?
Why should we make his paths straight?
Why should we not fear the day of his birth?
It’s because, in him we find something different.
Not judgment, but compassion.
Not punishment, but forgiveness.
Not misunderstanding, selfishness, greed, or brutality – for the one who is coming is not like the authorities of this world who work you until you have nothing else to give, who attempt to control you through fear, who hold on to you as long as you have something that they want.
The one who is coming is like a shepherd, and he will hold you in his arms.
“Comfort, O comfort my people,” the prophet Isaiah cries, for the day is coming, and may the day come soon, that the Lord comes down from heaven to make all things right.
“Comfort, O comfort my people,” the prophet Isaiah cries, for the day is surely coming, when the guilt that you’ve been carrying will be lifted and replaced by the one who says, “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.”
“Comfort, O comfort my people,” the prophet Isaiah cries, and John used those same words to tell the world, that Christ is coming, not to exact payment for sins, not to beat you down lower than you already are, and not to make you feel the righteous wrath of God, but to hold you in his arms, and to take you home.