Rev. Peter J. Haugen
St. Paul Evangelical
The “Hallelujah Chorus” of Handel’s Messiah is rightly famous, with its triumphant “Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” and “For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth” and “King of kings and Lord of lords! Forever and ever! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” Much less known is how “Handel’s Messiah” begins. After the overture, a soaring tenor rises: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people. Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, says your God!” Is there any more appropriate way to begin contemplating our Saviour’s Birth than these opening verses of Isaiah 40? “‘Comfort, O comfort my people,’ says your God. ‘Speak kindly to Jerusalem; and call out to her, that her warfare has ended, that her iniquity has been removed’” (Isaiah 40:1-2).
And what comfort is the prophet to speak to Jerusalem? To us the church? In part, it is that “all flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass” (Isaiah 40:6-7). While this doesn’t sound particularly comforting to us, there is here the truth that the agony of our sorrows is not eternal. For the Christian, the glory-to-come overshadows our present. It doesn’t make it less painful now, but now is not the end. The grass does wither, and the flower does fade.
However, that is not the crux of the comfort that the prophet speaks. It is part of it, to be sure, but only part. Even more, the prophet is to comfort us with the truth that “the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together; for the mouth of the Lordhas spoken… The grass withers, the flower fades, but…” “But.” What a beautiful word that little but is – “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:5, 8). That is the comfort which the prophet is to speak. “The glory of the Lord will be revealed,” and “the Word of our God stands forever.”
And what is this “Word of our God”? It is the promise of God that He will in fact be gracious and merciful to us, that He Himself is our shepherd who walks with us in the midst of the valley of the shadow of death –and not just walks with us, but leads us through this valley of the shadow of death to life on the other side. But it is also “the glory of the Lord” revealed as He is born a babe in Bethlehem, full of grace and truth, taking upon Himself our flesh, dwelling among us in the flesh, giving Himself to be the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.
“‘Comfort, O comfort My people,’ says your God.” What shall I say? “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us” (St. John 1:1, 14). Amen.