Some people don’t like to read the prophets much because what they often find are a lot of thundering threats and uncompromising calls to repent—now! Well, since this too is the word of God we must take it seriously, but there are many things that God has to say to us, and they aren’t all threatening. So perhaps for at least a portion of our Advent Scripture reading we ought to look to what is sometimes called the “Book of Consolation,” which comprises chapters 40-55 of the book of the Prophet Isaiah (a scholar would call this section “Deutero-Isaiah,” but that’s a scholar for you). In this section we find some classic passages that are used in Advent liturgies, like: “A voice cries: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (40:3). And: “Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open that salvation may sprout forth” (45:8).
Perhaps this section is called “Consolation” because of the very first words of it: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned…” (40:1-2). These words are spoken to those who were in exile in Babylon, and the Lord was promising their return to their homeland, and hence a return to true worship as well. They had been sufficiently punished for their sins and now the Lord would show abundant mercy to them, for they would always be his chosen and beloved people.
There are still some extended warnings against idolatry in this section, so it’s not all sweet blessing, but even these warnings are somewhat humorous, in that they ridicule the idolaters who, from the same chunk of wood, light a fire and cook a meal over it and then carve the rest of it into an idol and fall down and worship it!
The Lord is almost wooing his people back into loving relationship with Him: “The Lord has called you like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit… For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer” (54:6-8).
Repeatedly the Lord urges them not to fear, because He is with them. He goes out of his way to assure them of his forgiveness and love. “Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters I will be with you, and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you… Because you are precious in my eyes, and I love you, I give men in return for you, peoples in exchange for your life. Fear not, for I am with you…” (43:1-5). For profound tenderness, such a passage hardly has an equal, even in the New Testament.
Another consolation from the Book of Consolation: “O afflicted one, storm-tossed, and not comforted, behold, I will set your stones in antimony, and lay your foundations with sapphires… In righteousness you shall be established; you shall be far from oppression, for you shall not fear… If anyone stirs up strife, it is not from me… no weapon that is fashioned against you shall prosper, and you shall confute every tongue that rises against you in judgment. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord and their vindication from me, says the Lord” (54:11-17).
There’s a strong emphasis on the fact that the Lord is the only God. This is partly for the sake of combating idolatry, but I think its greater value is in simply affirming the awesome majesty and power of God, who alone is Lord of the universe and hence of human affairs. “I am the Lord and there is no other; besides me there is no God… I form light and create darkness… I made the earth and created man upon it; it was my hands that stretched out the heavens, and I commanded all their host… I the Lord speak the truth, I declare what is right… Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, from my mouth has gone forth in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear.’ Only in the Lord, it shall be said of me, are righteousness and strength…” (45:5-7, 12, 19, 22-24).
Just these few passages I’ve quoted can go a long way in our Advent meditations. We’re waiting for God to renew his presence among us this Christmas, but first we need to know Him better. It’s not enough merely to contemplate the Baby in the manger. We have to realize whence He comes, who He is, what his eternal glory, majesty, power, tender compassion, and love mean to us. We live in dark times and they promise to get darker still. We need to know that God is with us, telling us to fear not, for He is the Savior and Redeemer and Holy One. His word is truth and his love is everlasting, and his right arm is strong to save.
When we know all this we can go forth in peace and with courage. We first need the courage, however, to make an honest self-examination, for we have to be wholly with the Lord if we want to be able to rely on his promises, “for he is the Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful” (Rev. 17:14). Then we can be consoled in the midst of our afflictions, and strengthened to do God’s will even in the face of opposition, for the Lord has promised to be with us, to comfort and to save us, and He will do it.