The book of Isaiah has three parts, written over a period of time. There appears to have been a prophet named Isaiah who was active in Judah prior to the Babylonian exile. The first 39 chapters in the book of Isaiah are associated with him.
The second part of the book (chapters 40-55) was written during the Babylonian exile by someone following Isaiah’s thought. Chapters 56-66 were written after the exile had ended. As you might imagine there are differences between focus and themes because of the context in which they are written. First Isaiah seems doom all around. This author recognizes that bad thing are about to happen and, following common belief at the time, that are happening as punishment for sin. The way to avoid the violence and destruction that is coming is to return to God and God’s ways. That’s the focus of First Isaiah.
Second Isaiah was written later. War was all around. Israel had fallen and only Judah was left. The Babylonian exile began. All of the wealthy and elite, the people with skills were taken forcibly into Babylon where they were captives for 60 years. During this time there are three groups of people: the ones forcibly removed, the ones who fled and became refugees, and the ones who stayed behind in Judah- in and around Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron. Second Isaiah is speaking to people living in the midst of communities that are torn apart, family members who are missing, people on the move—sometimes by force, sometimes out of desperation. We might hear Isaiah speaking to a nation in turmoil but sometimes the turmoil in our own lives can seem overwhelming.
Here, the words of Isaiah speak to the people in the midst of chaos:
Comfort, O Comfort my people
You have been led away from God into a foreign land
Into a place that is new and strange
Into a place where it is hard to worship God.
but it will not always be so.
It may seem that God is punishing you but your fortunes will change.
I am a voice crying in the wilderness
in the places no wants to go
in the places seemingly forsaken by God
in the brokenness and hurt
in the wilderness of your fear and anger
I am the voice that cries out for God.
Remove the blocks to God’s presence.
Think of a road…through the hills…up and down twist and turn… never seeing far ahead.
Make the road straight and level for God
Cut through the hills, raise the valleys, straighten the turns
When the road is straight, God is visible.
You cannot build a road alone! You can try but you won’t get far. Road building requires a whole crew!
When that road is built, everyone can see the way to God more clearly. The path will be easier and smoother when the crew builds the road.
Don’t sit idly by and wait for God to arrive and rescue you. Get ready!
Cry out! Cry out! Spread the word:
Even though human life is short in the universe
Even though grass withers.
Even though flowers shrivel.
Even though humans are so much like the grass and flowers
The spirit of God’s breath blows through them and they are gone.
Even when the grass, and flowers and humans are gone….God is still here.
In this midst of chaos, uncertainty, terror
Do not fear. Do not be afraid!
These words from Isaiah are reflected in our Gospels. When Jesus is an adult we hear John the Baptist – a voice crying in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.
Every valley shall be filled,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low,
and the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth;
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”
In the Christmas story we hear the angels, “Be not afraid. God is coming here.” We hear it in the dreams, “Be not afraid. Live fully. God is among you!” Always these words are spoken. They are spoken to people in living in the midst of turmoil, chaos and violence. These words are spoken to people with messy and complicated lives. They are spoken as words of hope. They are spoken to strengthen not just individuals but entire families and communities.
When the world becomes overwhelming, repeat the words of the angels again and again: Be not afraid. When the world becomes overwhelming, seek a community to help smooth the way for God in your life—in our lives. When the world becomes overwhelming don’t wait for God to rescue but actively prepare. God is already here. God is still coming among us. Be not afraid. Live in hope.