How do you imagine the voice of God? Booming? Disappointed? Overwhelming? “Tender” isn’t usually the first word that comes to mind. In our reading for Sunday, December 10, 2023, God tells the prophet Isaiah to comfort His people and speak tenderly to them.

Our reading was Isaiah 40:1-11 (linked). This passage has four distinct sections that lead us on a path of grace and truth.

In the first section (verses 1 & 2), God tells the prophet Isaiah to comfort His people and speak tenderly to them. Their sin is pardoned. Their warfare is over. In Hebrew, the root of the word “tenderly” is connected to the word for heart. God wants to speak comfort deep into your heart.

In the second section (verses 3-5), we are told to prepare the way for God himself to visit. In ancient times, people would go ahead of the king’s chariot/carriage to smooth out the road. They would kick the stones off the road and fill in the holes. Isaiah says that for God’s visit, mountains will be cut down and valleys will be filled in. This is the king of the universe coming!

Isaiah says that when God arrives, the glory of the Lord will be revealed. This is not a comforting phrase in its context. When the glory of the Lord was revealed to the Hebrews at the foot of Mount Sinai, they told Moses it was too scary, and that Moses should talk to God for them. If you read this section without Jesus, it is not necessarily comforting.

The third section (verses 6-8) feels even less comforting. God tells Isaiah to cry out that all people are grass, and they wither if the Lord even breathes on them. This may not sound comforting, but real comfort is based in truth. If we are going to be deeply comforted, it must be in the context of the inescapable reality of death. Death is like the background on the stage of life. We don’t pay much attention to it, but it is always looming. God would be doing us no favor by steering us away from awareness of death.

You have a limited time on Earth. Remembering that you will die can give you the motivation to do what you need to do. Make that phone call. Write that letter. Mend that relationship. Forgive that person. Speak out on the topic that is burning in your heart.

“People are grass” also restores our perspective on our proper relationship with God. We gain some power, some prestige, some ability, and we begin to think that we are all that and more. But in the end, we are but grass before God. We need to be reminded that ultimately, there is no fighting God. There is no fooling God. And there is no manipulating God.

We need to be reminded regularly that we are grass. It keeps us humble. Arrogance creates distance between us and God, but humility draws God close. Psalm 103 says, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”

So far, not much comfort, eh? But God wants us to have comfort based in truth, not just blowing sunshine in our faces.

The final section (verses 9-11) tells us how God actually arrives. The LORD comes to make things right. Isaiah tells us that His reward is with Him and His recompense goes before Him. The reward is what you get from the good you have done in this life. Even if nobody ever saw the good you did, God did. And He brings reward. The recompense is the compensation for suffering. Many people have suffered relationally and materially because of their commitment to Jesus Christ. This, too, has not gone unnoticed. God will make it right. When almighty God, for whom mountains are cut down and valleys filled in, arrives, He arrives with power to set everything right.

How will he treat people? Tenderly. He will “gather the lambs in his arms.” That’s us. :) Finally, after our journey through the power of God and the ultimate frailty of humanity, we get to the point of this passage: Comfort my people and speak tenderly to them.

Advent is a season of preparation for the birth of Christ. It is also a season of repentance. To “repent” means to change your mind. It might include being sorry for your wrongs, but it is much bigger. To repent is to have a paradigm shift. It is to reorder your thinking in alignment with the grace and truth of God. 

This is a very Adventish passage. It is good news, but it includes the re-alignment in thinking that we all need. God is the creator. We are like grass before him. There is no fooling or fighting God.

The truth is that you won’t feel forgiven without confession. God has forgiven all our sins in Christ, but until you confess your sin as sin, you won’t feel the deep comfort of forgiveness. Until you acknowledge your weakness, you will not be willing to receive God’s strength. Until you are open to your own lostness, you will not seek God’s direction. Until you embrace your need for a savior, the words Christmas cry that “Christ our Savior is born!” will be just a holiday tradition instead of a life-giving reality.

God wants to speak tenderly to you. He wants you to have comfort and peace. But your ability to receive from God rests in your willingness to receive from God.

Let this Advent season be a time of repentance for you. Let this preparation for celebrating the birth of Jesus straighten out your mind. If you let this be a time when the Holy Spirit re-orients you thinking in alignment with the grace and truth of Jesus Christ, this will be the best Christmas ever!