The Strong Arm of Comfort
Perhaps you’ve heard of the phrase, “the strong arm of the law.” This idiom comes from an older time when an arresting law enforcement officer would place a hand upon the shoulder of the subject and state the reason for the arrest. Apparently it was also later a custom to “caution” a subject, that is to tell them of their right not to incriminate themselves, again with a hand upon the shoulder. The hand of the policeman felt heavy even if not applied with particular force. This was very literally the strong arm of the law. In addition, that act itself meant something, it was performative which means that in placing a hand on the suspected criminal they were identifying that particular person and subjecting them to the law.
We hear something about a different strong arm in the Old Testament reading for this Second Sunday in Advent, for the prophet Isaiah speaks of the arm of God who comes with might. That strong arm, which clearly and frightfully is displayed in his wrath, is also the power of God for you. The strong arm of God is also a gathering arm of comfort. In this way our reading from the prophet Isaiah summarizes not only the theme of this day, but the entirety of this season in the church year, and then moves us to respond. In fact this remarkable passage is so complete that we can say that it summarizes the entire narrative of the Holy Scriptures, and the entire message of the Christian church. Let’s take a look.
In the words “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God”1 Luther writes that the prophet is the most joyful of anytime throughout this book, that he is “fairly dancing with promises.”2 What is the comfort that God speaks of and offers? What is the basis for this consolation? Isaiah, called and commissioned as God’s prophet, knows the situation of those who will read these words. They are people in the future who will be suffering under the weight of exile in a far away land, having been driven out of Judah and Jerusalem by conquering armies of Babylon. It didn’t stop there though, did it? We all, from that time until now, live in the same circumstance of needing that same comfort, the comfort of a merciful and gracious God, even though we are not exiled to a far away land. Ours sins matter just as much. So God’s Word is brought to bear. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended”3 Repentance is like that warfare, when the “scepter of the Law, of death, and of hell” is made known by the Holy Spirit through God’s Word. A person “must experience a confounding of his conscience. Such people truly conduct warfare under the Law. To them properly belongs the comfort of the Gospel which says, ‘Do not fight any longer. Your warfare is finished and ended through Christ, the Redeemer.’”4 So “speak tenderly to Jerusalem…that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”5 Here is the power of the comfort of God, the forgiveness of sins, the repeal of the condemnation of the Law. Double gifts! Sin no longer weighs down, the fight is won, the battle is ended.
How does this happen? How is it possible for people who are in bondage, then and now, to receive this double portion of mercy? “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’”6 God Himself is coming. He is the One who brings the comfort which Isaiah prophecies. We know that voice crying out, for “John appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”7 The Lord’s presence reveals His glory. The glory of the Lord comes to us in the Son of God, whom John foretells and the shepherds will praise on that night in Bethlehem. We behold the glory in Christ only because God chooses to share it. So then God’s people snap into action: “prepare the way of the Lord”8 in this world of sin. Christ has Baptized us with the Holy Spirit, who puts us into action. To prepare the way of the Lord means to prepare ourselves for the Lord’s activity in us, sot hat God may help us and our life may be the life of Christ. It means to clear out those things which are obstructing the way, so that “the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.”9 This is what we focus on in this season, prayerful, penitential preparation for the coming of the glory of the Lord. On that day “all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”10
The voice again comes, but this time it is the word of command, “Cry!” Go out, tell people about what God is doing! But now there is a stark contrast, for the first voice cried out to prepare for the coming of the Lord in repentance, for His glory is unstoppable, His coming is full of grace and truth. Now the command is to shift away from preaching about God and instead focus on humanity in its present condition. The difference is shocking. We move from coming glory to withering grass and fading flowers, images of powerlessness and insignificance. What better picture than grass? Certainly we have a love/hate relationship with grass, at least I do. Sure it looks nice when it’s all green and nicely watered and fertilized. But that takes lots of work. And I hate mowing the lawn. I could think of a hundred things that would be time better spent than riding around on my tractor for an hour. But it needs to done. Otherwise the grass will just keep growing up, eventually turning brown and withering away in the wind of summer and autumn, just like the grass clippings on my driveway that need to be blown off every time I cut the grass. So it is, says the prophet, of humanity. Physically, morally, humankind is like grass, or like flowers that look nice in the vase but soon fade and are tossed away. But there is more to withering and fading than mere human failure. The prophet says, “The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass.”11 Sure enough there is also an element of God’s judgement in the withering and fading. We know this to be true. We can see it right now. Sure enough there is an element of God’s judgement at work today in this pandemic. God never stops calling people to put an end to their pretensions of grandeur, because he is a God “not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”12
But against the frailty of humanity and the judgement against sin and evil stands the word of God. It will stand forever. The Spirit of God which speaks the Law which condemns and kills also speaks the word of life which sets aside all our withering and fading. Isaiah knows that whatever lies ahead for the people of Israel and Judah, even war, siege, and exile, the Word of God is for them. And the same message is for you this morning. No matter what this life may bring you in the coming weeks, months, and years, the Word of God is for you, God is for you, and He is coming in glory. This is what Advent brings us. Christ comes in great grace in order to equip His people for everything that only He knows. He who receives the word in the good days and hides it in his faithful heart shall have a good supply for the evil days. Jesus Christ knows all that shall happen to you: temptations and sorrows, disappointments and pain, even unto death. He does not want you to lose that which He has won with such great cost. Therefore He prepares you with His word, and He sustains you with His very Body and Blood, He gives you His Spirit that you will need, come what may.
Isaiah writes of a third command to speak. Speak of what? The advent of our Lord. Go up on a high mountain, shout it out, lift up your voice. For the word which stands forever is a “herald of good news.” That’s what “Gospel” means, good news, a message of deliverance and victory. The prophet proclaims, “lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’”13 The returning Lord is in sight. With his strong arm he will win the day. The strong arm of our God is for you. The kingdom of God rejects no one but receives all who hear and believe. The same arm that is raised in triumph is also lowered in compassion, and our Lord gathers His own to Himself as a shepherd cares for a flock. Jesus Christ is of course our Shepherd, and his arm reaches out to us in His church. Still he cares for His people, still he gives them His Word and Sacraments and He leads them, and we follow.
In our day we anticipate the coming of Christ already having heard the Gospel, already having received Him, already having been made His through His atoning blood. Here we are between the now and the not yet. In this season may we hear these words of assurance from Isaiah anew, so that we too will tell others, that we too will be the herald of good news in a world that is withered and faded with sin and disappointment. For the strong arm of God is a God of comfort. His word does what it says. He comes in glory because He intends our good, and now our warfare is ended. Receive the word faithfully now, throughout this season, and looking forward into the coming church year. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but the word that our Lord speaks shall never pass away; the “ the word of our God will stand forever.”14 Thanks be to God that we have this strong arm of comfort in times such as these, unto the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.