“Comfort ye! … Every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain made low.”
What heart-lifting words we hear from our God shouted across the millennia into our very own day. Isaiah offers us images in just 11 verses that have become the focus of artists and musicians who have turned the words into pictures and music that channel our thoughts deep into the heart of God. We lay grasped by God’s arms and held tightly – our fears and concerns known by this immanent God who wants us to share those worries, and trust they are as important to God as they are to us.
A tenor opens Handel’s “Messiah” with a delicate, yet brilliant “Comfort ye!” When you listen to it, does your hear not soar with the beauty? This is our God calling out to us in our world – this world torn by evil, war and debilitating poverty.
Can there be any comfort for us? Maybe, for those of us who live in a relatively safe country, for those of us who have more than we need – a roof over our heads, food, clothing, safety. We can become comfortable, which is different from finding comfort. And we can feel that being comfortable is enough, perhaps until life takes a disastrous turn.
We can take God’s presence in our hearts for granted. But this isn’t the comfort Isaiah is talking about. His comfort is an overwhelming truth that surpasses the feeling of having “enough,” his comfort is the comfort of our God, who lives deep in our lives, even when we don’t think about it, even if we may not believe it, even if our fear blinds us to that presence.
The prophet goes on to explain what the truth of God will do for us. Valleys will be raised up, mountains will be laid low! No, Isaiah is not talking about a disastrous environmental exercise, he’s, of course, using an image to explain how the coming of the Lord will level the way for all people to see God’s glory and share in God’s goodness.
What a wonderful image! Instead of struggling over the rocky wilderness paths up into the mountains and down across arid deserts, the people will have a safe highway, broad and smooth. Even in life’s most difficult moments, God leads the soul along that safe, broad highway.
“But,” we may want to argue, “look at our world. See the things happening to people that would make a rocky path and an arid desert walk look like a picnic in the park. This image doesn’t work.”
And that’s true. Life does seem to throw ever more obstacles into our paths. Where is this highway?
And so, we continue reading the prophet’s words and find that, yes, we are all grass, and grass withers and fades; we are mortal, and life is often difficult. So, to make this highway image work at all in our world, we are told we must work together. We must want this world to change, we must also see beyond this mortal life and trust in God’s promise of eternal life.
“All people shall see it together,” says Isaiah. One way to think about this image is that we won’t see it if we harbor exclusion in our hearts. When we choose to separate ourselves from any of our neighbors, we begin to see only ourselves. We may not be aware of it, but doing that makes us stumble along the rocky path of injustice and sadness – a path that causes us to circle only inward, blindly into the darkness of self.
Another way to think about it is to look at what happens when groups join forces out of hatred for others, or ignorance or fear. The Israelites sometimes found themselves carried off to foreign lands because of their unfaithfulness. Some then took on the practices and idolatry of the pagan nations, to their downfall. They lost everything. We see the same thing happening today. Children get caught up in bullying, out of fear or a need to be accepted. Young people join gangs. People are drawn into terrorist organizations, to the horror of their families and friends. Sadly, we can be lured off the highway of our God by temptation and the false, bright promises of evil.
But all is certainly not lost. If we keep reading, we come to the final image of our passage and can’t help but hear again Handel’s “Messiah,” when the soprano’s beautiful voice sings, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd and he shall gather the lambs with his arm … with his arm.”
On our worst days, the Shepherd is with us. We need only to turn back and allow him to offer comfort and forgiveness. The sheep of his flock are a community – a community like us. Together, a community can offer healing and love to those who have been excluded. A community can begin dealing with their issues of poverty and helplessness.
We don’t have to build that level highway; God does that for us if we open our eyes and hearts to the gifts God has placed in our midst. We can begin demolishing the lure of evil, the temptation of ill-gotten power and greed if we work together with our children, being unafraid to teach about the power and graciousness of our God – if we ourselves are unafraid to trust that God is our shepherd, that God is our comfort.
In just a few weeks, the Incarnation of our God will descend over us like a blanket of stars, and we will be filled with the song of angels, the gentle amazement of shepherds, and the humility of the kings. If the image and the songs of Bethlehem can fill us that day, we might pray during these last few weeks of waiting that our hearts will be filled with the comfort of God and strengthened to bring that Good News to all.