Comfort Ye My People

CALL TO WORSHIP: Listen! Clear the way through the wilderness for the Lord! Make a straight highway through the wasteland for our God!

Gracious God, in this Advent countdown to Christmas, we are so excited, as we look forward to the coming of Jesus.

As the time of His coming draws near, give us real excitement in our hearts, for the one we are to welcome, the one we are to worship is our Lord, our King and our Saviour. Amen

HYMN 177: LO, HE COMES WITH CLOUDS DESCENDING-StF.

PRAYER OF ADORATION

Let us pray!

Listen to the voice crying in the wilderness.

Friends, take comfort; we have a God who cares about us. He forgives the wrong things that we do; He is gentle and kind as a loving shepherd, who carries the lambs, and leads the mother sheep.

The voice has more to say.

Friends, have confidence; we have a God who is mighty and powerful. Grasses and flowers are soon gone; even people’s lives are short; but God’s word stands for ever.  He is Lord of all, and He remembers those who obey Him.

The voice has not yet finished.

Friends, be ready; we have a God who is coming. We need to make ready for Him. His coming is good news; it is news worth shouting from the housetops. Our glorious God is coming to meet us.

God's bright glory will shine and everyone will see it, just as God has said. Amen

TALK FOR ALL: BRING COMFORT (Isaiah 40:1-11)

Today I’d like to tell you a story about a little girl named Rosemary. She is four years old and was riding in the family car with her parents when she saw some people living in a tent under a bridge. It was wintertime and the day was very cold and icy.

She said to her parents that she wanted to go home, get the blankets from her bed and bring them back to these people because they looked so uncomfortable. Then she thought of all the other homeless people who live in the city and decided that she would like to collect blankets for them too.

She told her teachers about her plans and the teachers at the pre-school she attended set out containers and gave students and parents an opportunity to donate blankets for the homeless.

Then a marvellous thing happened. A television station heard about Juliet’s project and they told the story of this little girl who was collecting blankets for the homeless. Soon people from other communities began to donate blankets and send donations of money so Juliet could buy more blankets. Juliet and her parents were able to visit many, many homeless people and give them blankets to wrap up in during the cold winter nights.

Isaiah, a prophet we read about in the Old Testament, brings us this message: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” (40:1).

We are reminded that when we see people who are in need we have an opportunity to bring comfort to them as Juliet did with her gifts of blankets.

It doesn’t matter, what age we are or what our circumstances are––we can all find ways to bring comfort to those who need our help. AMEN

HYMN 168: COME, LORD JESUS COME – StF

PRAYER OF CONFESSION AND THANKSGIVING

Gracious God, the scriptures tell us that we should make ready for the coming of Jesus, but we know that all too easily, we fail to do this. We become so busy preparing for Christmas that we forget whose birthday we celebrate.

We wrap parcels and make special food, but we do not live in a way that pleases You. We fill our diaries with carol services and festivals, but we do not make room in our hearts for the child in the manger.

Forgive us Lord, for all the ways in which we have left You out of our Christmas preparations.

We thank You that Jesus grew to be the man who died on the cross, so that we might know we are forgiven.

Help us right now, to make a new start, giving Jesus the central place, so that Christmas may be as You intend, a time to celebrate Your love, and to offer it to those we meet. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen

READINGS: ISAIAH 40: 1-11

HYMN 340: YE SERVANTS OF GOD– StF

SERMON: COMFORT YE MY PEOPLE (ISAIAH 40: 1-11)

The first words of the passage from Isaiah riveted my attention: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” That word “comfort” – it’s hard to describe my reaction. It was a deep, gut, internal response of “YES, that is exactly what I needed to hear.” Comfort – like comfort food – meat loaf and macaroni and cheese.

I guess I really didn’t realize the depth of my discomfort. I read this passage and found myself breathing more deeply. The people to whom Isaiah was speaking and writing were a people in exile in Babylon. In 586 B.C.E. the Temple of Solomon had been destroyed and the children of the promise (well, all but the poorest) were led away from Jerusalem. But now, “Comfort, O comfort my people… speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” After so much harsh language, judgmental language, critical language – tender words, comforting words.

The whole passage is a kind of embrace, beginning with the word of comfort and ending with the image of a “mighty God.” But the image is not one of a warrior, not one of a returning hero, but rather, that of a shepherd, feeding and leading his flock, gathering lambs and carrying them on his bosom, gently leading the mother sheep.

When you are down, feeling pressed upon, feeling judged – what better image is there then a God who embraces you, takes you up and holds you close, whispers in your ear that you are loved, “it’s going to be ok”? “Come to me all who are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” The very arms of God pulling her children close, pulling you close too.

Oh my dear friend, there is so much discomfort in our hearts these days – individual and collectively. The stabbings, shootings and killings of young people, the death of loved ones and can’t attend or say good byes’ all because of COVID 19.

The news that my friend’s house may not be worth what they paid for it 18 years ago – that is discomforting, it fills them with disease. The grandparents who can’t visit the newly born grandchild, etc. The uncertainty political situation of Brexit.

So many voices, so many needs, so much pain – so much death, sickness – and sometimes we just need to be hugged. We don’t need too many words -just a presence, a touch.

Sometimes we just need to be told, “Comfort ye my people, it will be all right.” So for those of you who need an embrace – because things are just too much, right now – a comforting word from God, tender words, a loving embrace – if you would allow yourself a moment when nobody is looking, a quiet moment and picture yourself being taken up to God’s bosom and resting there. It could be your mum, father, husband, wife, child or a good friend.  

I think for many THAT is a discomforting thought – and that is too bad. Because we know the facts. Children who have never been hugged grow up twisted. Children who have never been comforted get hard. Children who have never been spoken to with tenderness don’t develop well, children who are always criticized don’t have good relationships.

So we are going to receive that word of heavenly comfort, and allow ourselves to be embraced by our shepherd God, who comforts the afflicted. But in the middle of the embrace between comfort and tenderness and being carried on the bosom of God…are things to do and to be about.

Right in the middle of this most beautiful of passages come the words that frankly are thrilling to me: “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.”

I am comforted, you are comforted, and we are spoken tenderly to so we can be about the business of comforting others – of levelling the playing field and creating access for every beloved child of God who yearns to be safe, who yearns to make a living, who yearns to be educated, who yearns for a job, who is struggling with the disease of economic blight, who has to wake up every day with the discomfort of poverty, and dead ends and mountains too high to climb.

Inspirational speakers are always telling kids: anything you want to become you can become, if you work hard enough. Now I am all for individual responsibility and hard work, and there are stories of remarkable triumphs out of the depth of despair and depravity – but generally speaking, this inspirational encouragement is patently false – because the decks are stacked against so many, the valleys are far too deep, the mountains far too high, the ghettos far too rough, the playing field so unevenly tipped towards those who have money, influence, connections, the right gender and race. You know that is true … the magnificent exceptions only prove the rule.

And Isaiah’s voice comes resounding through the ages – YOU – the so-called beloved community – “Prepare the way of the Lord!” And it is of profound importance that we understand the syntax of these verses. For only after the highway is made straight, and the valleys are lifted up, and the mountains are made low, and the uneven ground is levelled and the rough places are made a plain… only after the way is prepared will the glory of the Lord be revealed, and the people will see.

Isaiah’s words are not proclaimed to make us wait passively for God to do something – although that is my typical default mode. I think this was what Isaiah was thinking when he pondered: “We are grass, we wither and fade…is it even worth sharing this news to this fickle people?” Perhaps our discomfort and disease are caused in part because of passive waiting instead of active participation in God’s word, God’s call to change lives and culture, to make all things new – it is in our power.

Isaiah proclaims: “Lift it up, don’t fear – say to the cities of Judah – Here is your God!” You and I need to proclaim to the cities of Leicestershire – and to the nation – the cities, where people languish and both rich folks and poor folks feel the blight, the discomfort and disease. We have to get active, level that playing field, yes share the abundance, go in and occupy the rough places with words and acts of hope, of equity, and fairness, and justice.

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.

The Isaiah passage continues, because Isaiah wants God to tell him what he should say to the people:

A voice says, "Cry out!" And I said, "What shall I cry?" The answer is that he's to tell the people that even though everything on earth eventually fades and dies, including human beings, God always remains steadfast and strong. God will never fade and will never fail. And the final verse is a wonderful description of how God views his people and how he will deal with his people: 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.

Perhaps if we look at our own lives we can see a similar pattern to the pattern of Israelite society. Like the Israelites of old, we too have bad times, but during those bad times God tenderly carries us and cares for us. And these bad times are invariably followed by good times. The danger is that like the Ancient Israelites, we tend to forget God during the good times and look for him only when we desperately need him because there is nowhere else to turn.

Our non-churchgoing society has a noticeable spiritual hunger, a hunger which it tries to satisfy through all kinds of pick-and-mix alternatives to organised religion. Just as God called Isaiah, perhaps God is calling people now to go out from the Church into society, to tell people about our Suffering Servant Jesus, about how Jesus can still impact on our lives today and to tell people about God's steadfastness and deep love for them.

Are you one of those people? Is God calling you? Have you asked him what you should say?

HYMN 188: THERE’S A LIGHT UPON THE MOUNTAIN – StF

PRAYERS OF INTERCESSION

In the reading from Isaiah today, we hear these words: “Clear the way through the wilderness for the Lord! Make a straight highway through the wasteland for our God! Fill in the valleys, and level the mountains and hills. Straighten the curves, and smooth out the rough places.

In our prayers we will think about the church and how the way of the Lord can be prepared by His people.

Let us pray

Almighty God, Christmas will soon be here, and You call us as Your people to make the way ready for Jesus. We pray for Your church everywhere as it seeks to fulfill its mission.

Lord, You come to us in Jesus. Show us how to prepare a way for You.

We pray for those making decisions that affect the whole church. May they not become so involved with matters of business that they forget that Jesus should be at the centre.

We pray too for different kinds of churches, worshipping and organising themselves in many different ways. Help them to work together in love, so that those outside the church may see the love that comes from Jesus.

Lord, You come to us in Jesus. Show us how to prepare a way for You.

We pray for the church struggling to serve You in places where it is difficult or dangerous. We pray for churches trying to spread the good news of Jesus in countries where the law makes this difficult. We pray for churches who are the targets of vandalism. Give them courage, and show them how to move forward in Your name.

Lord, You come to us in Jesus. Show us how to prepare a way for You.

We pray for other churches in our own community. We thank You for the times when we have been able to work together, showing people in the community how we respect one another.

Help us not to put stumbling blocks in the way of people’s belief, by treating other Christians with contempt or indifference.

Lord, You come to us in Jesus. Show us how to prepare a way for You.

Finally, we pray for ourselves. We thank You for our church here, and for our place in it. As Christmas draws nearer, show us how to make our church a place where people feel welcome.

Help us not to hinder their understanding by the things that we say or do, but to give everyone a chance to come in and to meet with Jesus.

Lord, You come to us in Jesus. Show us how to prepare a way for You. Amen

HYMN 637: 706 LONGING FOR LIGHT WE WAIT IN DARKNESS -StF

BLESSINGS: Gracious God, You have come to us in Jesus, and You promise never to leave us. As we look towards Christmas, help us to be confident in your presence and in Your promise. And may the Blessings of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit continue to be upon us and remain with us always. Amen