Thought for the Week - 6 December 2020
Old Testament reading. Isaiah 40: 1-11
This is a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry, depicting the story of what later became known as the Battle of Hastings.
William, the Duke of Normandy, was fighting King Harold of England. This scene takes place just after the Norman troops thought that William was slayed. The man on the horse with the club in the air was William’s younger half-brother, Odo, who was a Bishop. He has his club in the air and was trying to encourage the Norman troops to press forward; they didn’t want to go on because they thought William was dead. The Latin above this scene reads “Hic Odo Eps (Episcopus) Baculu(m) Tenens Confortat Pueros”, – which translates to “Here Odo the Bishop holding a club strengthens the boys,”
‘Comforting’ in this context is not so much about feeling comfortable as in feeling relaxed but rather strengthened, driven even. In another illustration, I remember and advertisement for a bed company called Myers. ‘Myers Comfortable beds’ it said, ‘Supporting you through the night.’ A saggy mattress is far from comfortable. What is needed is a firm mattress, one that does not give way too far, one that is supportive.
These two images combined go some way to explaining what Isaiah is saying in our Old Testament reading. The word Isaiah speaks in our first reading for today is spoken to people who feel the situation they’re in is hopeless. I wonder how many of you have felt as if things are hopeless?
I think about the person who gets into debt so deeply they can’t see a way of ever getting their head above water again. Or the person in an abusive relationship in which they’re being hurt over and over again, and they can see no way out. I think about the parents who realise they’re in a negative rut in their relationship with their child and can’t see any way of changing it – or the teenager who wonders if his parents will ever understand him. These people are on the verge of giving up all hope – or maybe they’ve already done so.
Sometimes this is complicated by guilt; the situation’s hopeless and it’s my fault. Think of the alcoholic or drug addict who can’t see any way out, but he also knows all the suffering he and his family have gone through is his own fault. Think of the person who struggles unsuccessfully to control her temper and can’t see any hope of change, all the time being aware of the damage she’s caused to other people’s lives. “I’ve ruined it now and there’s no way it can ever be fixed”.
That’s the kind of situation God’s people were in when our Old Testament reading was written. They’d chased after other gods made of wood or stone and worshipped them. They’d abandoned God’s ways and oppressed the poor and needy. Over hundreds of years God had tried and tried again to call them back to him; he sent a long line of prophets to try to persuade them and warn them about what would happen if they didn’t repent. A few responded, but most ignored God’s call.
Eventually God allowed foreign armies to come against the land and defeat the Israelites; the leaders and educated classes were taken away as prisoners into exile in a foreign country and their land was given over to others. The temple in Jerusalem – which they saw as a sign that God was with them – was destroyed by the Babylonians. And the people who were taken away to Babylon thought God was so angry with them that he would never again accept them as his people.
Into this hopeless situation God sent a prophet to speak a word of comfort. We call him ‘Isaiah’, but he’s probably not the same prophet that wrote the first 39 chapters of the Book of Isaiah as we now have it; those chapters were likely written many years earlier. God gave this ‘Second Isaiah’ a word of hope for people who lived in hopelessness and despair. You can find it in our first reading for today, from Isaiah chapter 40. Let’s start by looking at verses 1-2:
‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins’.
The prophet brings the people an incredible message: despite all the sins they’ve committed, despite all the suffering they’ve been through, God still cares for them. And God is coming to them now with a message of comfort and hope.
But it is not going to be easy. They have their part to play and that part will include pain and sacrifice – and risk. Isaiah is preparing his people for that new start.
Sometimes we all need that new start – and God will provide it. Perhaps we need ‘comfort’ to get us back to worship again, or to resume our prayers at home in a meaningful way. But watch out – it wont be an easy ride – look out! Here comes Odo!