“That’s a pie crust promise, easily made, easily broken.” So says the always-wise Mary Poppins. We may debate the question of how easy it is to make pie crust, but the principle is sound—it is often way too easy to make promises and then neglect to keep them.
When we examine how likely it is that a promise will be kept, one place to start is the speaker. Who is making this promise? What are their qualifications? How is their character? Are they someone who tends to stay true to their word?
Many of the biblical prophets provided their qualifications for the reader to assess the reliability of their words. They shared stories of their callings and their background.
In Isaiah 40, however, the prophet is invisible. There is no first-person experience of hearing God speak and relaying a message, no story of wrestling with how or what to relay to God’s people. The reliability of the promises to follow are not based on the character of the one who is speaking. It may be tempting to appeal to the call narrative in Isaiah 6, but chapter 40 seems to be the beginning of a new era in Israel’s history, one that is post-exilic and much later than the earlier words of warning in Isaiah 1-39. So, who is speaking? Can they be trusted?
Instead of relying on the character of the speaker, Isaiah 40 points to a different source of reliability: God. And more specifically, God’s word.
The warnings of Isaiah 1-39 regarding the impending threats of both Assyria and Babylon came to fruition. Now, according to verse 2, the sin of Jerusalem has been paid for, her hard service completed. Israel can attest to the inevitability of God’s warning coming to fruition.
But hope is generally more elusive than doom. God’s people knew the threats of their neighbors as well as the consequences of their own sin, but now can they turn their hearts towards hope? Can they trust God to bring their hope to fruition, just as God brought the warnings against them into being?
This is the question that the author invites God’s people to consider in the opening of this second half of Isaiah.
He starts with very literal words of comfort: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Your hard service has been completed. You heard the words of warning and paid the consequences for your failure to listen—now hear these new words.
A voice responds with promises that though the listener may look around and see an impassable landscape, the future will bring a way through. Verses 3-5 end with an assurance that this hope can be trusted, “for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” It is not because of the character of the prophet that we can trust in this promise but because of the power of God’s words.
Again, “a voice” asks, “what shall I cry?” Verses 6-7 remind the listener that although both the lives and the faithfulness of people are as fleeting as the grass and the flowers, “the word of our God endures forever.”
Because of this confidence in the enduring power of the words of God, the one who brings good news to Zion can proclaim boldly without fear. The imagery suggests one who is on high ground and can see further into the distance. What those at the base of the mountain cannot see, the one standing on top of the mountain can see clearly.
The Sovereign Lord comes with power and rules with a mighty arm.
Verse 11 brings a tender shift from power and rule to the imagery of God as shepherd , who cares for his flock tenderly and leads gently.
In times of difficulty, we are always tempted to despair, to give up hope. We may find ourselves on shifting ground, struggling to find a solid foundation.
Isaiah 40 offers us a solid foundation. It is not based on the faithfulness of humanity or even our most beloved leaders. It is not based on a clear path laid out before us. Rather, it is based on the enduring power of the words of our God.
During the season of Advent, we are invited to proclaim what is not, to see light in darkness, and to see hope in despair.
Our Gospel reading takes us to John the Baptist, proclaiming these words from Isaiah, specifically verse 3. John, with Isaiah, looks to the most desolate places and there sees not only hope, but the source of our salvation. Out of desolation comes the promise of a savior.
In Isaiah and in the mouth of John, this promise comes in the form of words: a voice calling.
This is what endures. Not the desolation around us. Not the faithlessness of humanity. Not the punishment for our sin. Not despair or hopelessness. Not the darkness of winter or the darkness of our world.
What endures is the voice of hope. Because promises of hope are the words of our God.
Our God, who with a word spoke the world into being. Our savior, who with a word calmed the raging seas.
During Advent we proclaim these words of light in the darkness, of hope into despair.
We may look at ourselves as leaders or at the leaders before us and wonder what authority this claim can possibly have. But it is not the authority of the prophet that guarantees the fulfillment of these words. It is the enduring power of the words of God.
And so this Advent season, when we stand up to address a group of people longing for hope, we need not mine the depths of our own souls to see what hope lies there. We need not put our energy into seeking out maps of the terrain before us, telling us how to navigate from our current location to a future hope. Instead, we can proclaim, as one standing on a mountain, “I see the coming of the Sovereign Lord.” Isaiah has given us the vision, described the landscape. We don’t need our own vision. We need only share the words that endure forever: “See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”