Scripture: Isaiah 42:1–9
It was Finley Peter Dunne in 1902 who first published the aphorism: “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” He meant it in the context of journalism, but many a preacher or religious leader has followed suit since. And for that matter, plenty did so way before 1902.
It seems to be the unofficial motto of the book of Isaiah. A few weeks ago, we read words from the heart of Isaiah, son of Amoz. His clear message, from the beginning, was to afflict the comfortable:
- “I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips!”
- “For the Lord is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all their hordes; he has doomed them, has given them over for slaughter.”
- “The time is coming when everything in your house will be carried off to Babylon!”
The passage that we read last month was not an oracle from the prophet, but a story of the impending doom that was at their doorstep. It was clear that this was a prophet preaching and writing in the 8th Century, watching the Assyrians and Babylonians fight it out for who was going to wipe them off the planet. For 39 chapters, it is clear that the prophet is in the afflicting business!
But then, out of the blue, comes Chapter 40: “Comfort, comfort, ye my people! Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and tell her that she has served her term.” Wait, what? For the last couple hundred years, scholars have scratched their heads. They have wondered where the afflicting prophet went. Why are all his examples no longer from the Assyrian conquest, but now from the end of the Babylonian Exile, some 200 years later? Why is he talking to these people who had spent their whole lives in Exile, and were now wondering if there was anything left to go home to? And the conclusion that most of those scholars have come to is that, beginning in Isaiah 40, we are no longer listening to Isaiah son of Amoz. Maybe it is someone in the prophetic tradition of Isaiah. Or some other guy named Isaiah. Or someone came along later and found value in putting these two very different contextual and theological messages back to back like this. But the bottom line here is that this “Second Isaiah” has a very different message for a very different people. All of a sudden, this prophet was comforting the afflicted.
So this morning, let’s put Hezekiah and the Assyrians on the shelf for a moment, and listen from a people who had only known the hopelessness of Exile. What might this prophet tell the people? And what might he tell us?
1Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
2 He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
3 a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
4 He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
5 Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
6 I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
7 to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
8 I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
9 See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.
There is a time and a place for us to be afflicted from our comfort. To be shaken from our privilege. To be shocked from injustice toward justice.
And then there is a time when we need to be comforted in our affliction.
Today, I wonder what your affliction looks like? What does your Exile look like? How have you felt like a broken reed? How have you felt like a wick, barely burning, at the end of its length, about to disappear into a wisp of nothing? How are you surviving Exile today?
- Maybe you hate your job. But in this economy, you have to suffer on, because something has to pay the bills and you don’t have any better options.
- Or maybe you love your job, but in this economy, you know that layoffs are simply a reality, and any day might mean a call from HR to come into their office.
- Maybe you are grieving this season. It is the first holiday without your loved one. Or the tenth, but you know how much it hurts the most this time of year.
- Maybe you are grieving the absence of a relationship: the child you desperately want to have, the spouse you desperately want to meet, the divorce you didn’t want in the first place, a relationship that drifted apart over the last few years, an estrangement that hurts whenever you think about the way things used to be.
- Maybe your Exile feels cultural and societal, as you watch the never-ending news cycle, or doomscroll on your phone, and feeling the hopelessness creep in day after day.
- Maybe your Exile is physical. An Exile from what your body used to be, replaced by limitations and pain and challenges that make you angry and afraid and miserable.
- Maybe you feel the cold weather coming, and you know what it does to you physically and emotionally and psychologically, and feel a dread coming that you cannot shake.
What does your Exile look like today? What does your affliction look like this season? I want you to hold that Exile in your hand today. Make it real. Be honest about it. Name that affliction here and now in your heart and mind. Set it down right here, because honestly, it is already there anyway.
I want you to set it right here, because I need you to pick up something else for a minute. In Isaiah 42, the passage I read a few minutes ago, the prophet has a very different message, of comfort, and encouragement, and hope. The passage is filled with these visions, these word pictures that help the people to know that the Exile that they are experiencing is not the end of the story. It is real, but it is not the only thing that is real.
This morning, I want you to pick up one or two or three of these images and hold onto them. Next to that big, angry ball of Exile over here, I want you to hold onto these other images. I want you to pick up this other thing. This Second Isaiah thing. This Comfort Comfort Ye My People Thing. This thing that doesn’t pretend like the affliction is gone or not real. But a thing that remembers that sometimes the afflicted are comforted.
The first image that Isaiah gives us is A Servant Who Leads. Throughout this section of Isaiah, there are these sections that talk about a Servant, sometimes called the “Suffering Servant,” who is good and kind, and will lead the people with grace. And if you want to get Biblical scholars in an argument, ask them the identity of this Servant. There is no end to disagreement about who Isaiah is talking about. And it has always been this way; the first scholars to read this passage argued about who Isaiah was talking about! Some thought it was a Persian king named Cyrus, who took over after the Babylonians and let Israel return to their land. Some thought it was the prophet himself, showing the people the way. Some thought it was a figure they named Messiah, or “Anointed One,” who would come and bring political freedom to the people. And some interpreted it as a call to ALL of the people of God, suggesting that they ought to live like this Servant: comforting; sacrificing; gentle.
Personally, I think it all fits. The point isn’t the precise identity, but the reminder that there is a different way to live. The natural reaction to Exile is usually anger. Resentment. The clinched jaw of revenge. If those who have lived in Exile get an ounce of power back, they pounce on it and react violently to the one who created Exile in the first place. The one who feels like their back is against the wall often wants to bury somebody underneath it.
But the Servant Who Leads suggests that there is a better way to live. A way that is gentle, even to those who have hurt us in the past. A way that is abundant, even if we feel like resources are scarce. A way that is hopeful, even if we feel like there is no hope. New Testament authors point to these passages and suggest that they foreshadow the message and life of Jesus. Perhaps we can see Jesus as an amazing example of this better way. To not bruise or extinguish another because we feel bruised and at the end of our wick. To not respond in kind, but to live in gentleness and peace. Today, I want you to envision the leader who serves.
Isaiah gives us a second vision to lift up today: A hand to hold. For those living in Exile, there was likely this deep-down fear that God had abandoned them. The First Message of Isaiah proved as much. You failed to live by justice. It destroyed your community and dismantled the covenant. And the unspoken next line was this: “and God is done with you forever.” And perhaps those of us who feel Exiled today, who feel afflicted this season, wonder if God is done with us forever.
The text says that God puts out a hand to guide the people, and I imagine a grandparent or parent reaching down to hold the hand of a grandchild. Please understand this: God never stops reaching out the hand of grace. God will always forgive. God will always redeem. God is a God of the open hand. Like a grandmother who wished that you had made better decisions, because she knows how much they hurt you, but cannot stay mad for long. God always reaches out a hand of grace. There is always a hand to hold.
And finally, a third vision from the prophet: A New Creation. Did you notice throughout the passage how often there is language from Genesis One and Two? God creating the heavens. A light appearing in the void. A new thing springing forth like a spring or river or tree or flower. God’s creation receiving breath. It is like God is reminding the people, “I created this thing once, don’t you think I could create again if I wanted?” And all of a sudden, the hopelessness of Exile is replaced by something new. Something fresh and verdant and exploding with potential.
That’s the image that I want you to hold in this other hand this morning. I want you to know that as limited and angry and afraid and hurt as you feel in your Exile, God is ready to remake something new! Something restorative and beautiful and hopeful and peaceful. Like a remade Eden, God is ready to take the bruised reed that you feel like, and turn you into a mighty oak. God is ready to take that nearly-extinguished wick and turn it into a roaring flame. I don’t know what it looks like, but I am excited to watch it happen with you!
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