This year, the Epiphany season is quite short, and now it is almost time for us to accompany Jesus on his final journey to Jerusalem. This Sunday begins to prepare us for Lent with its theme of strength as that which derived from waiting on God. We will need all the endurance we can get as we move through the 40 days of reflection and self-examination, but we must remember that it is not supposed to be an exercise in self-deprecation, but rather in appreciation of the unlimited and unmerited grace and providence that God offers to his creation. Since these themes are so well represented in today’s OT reading, I will make it our focus for today.
The reading is from the book of Isaiah, ch. 40. Isaiah is such a full book; profound, and expressive, and also really long! It is actually a compilation of writings created over 200 years. Isaiah is supposed to have lived in the 8th century Judah, and written the first portion of the book, referred to as the First Isaiah (ch. 1-39). The overarching theme there is that of God’s judgement on Israel. In contrast to that, the tone of chapters (40-66, what we call Second Isaih) is no longer condemning, but messianic: full of comfort, blessing, and the glory of God.
It was written right after the conquest of Judah by the Persian king Cyrus II the Great (539 BC), which is, in fact, predicted in the writings of the First Isaiah two centuries earlier. Thus, the author of the Second Isaiah is not Isaiah himself, of course, but the individual(s) who picked up his job as God’s messengers to their people while in Babylon. They have seen the prophecies of the First Isaiah come true, but the thrust of their message is that, one day, Israel will leave exile and return to Jerusalem because God paid “double for all her sins”. The book features so-called “Servant Songs” in portions of ch. 42, 49, 50, 52. It is not clear whether these refer to Israel collectively or to God’s chosen agent, the Messiah (whom we, Christians, identify as Jesus), but what’s important is that through this God’s servant, the entire world will be redeemed, which is a very hopeful message.
Our ch. 40, and thus the whole Second Isaiah, opens with God calling the prophet to comfort his people (v. 1-2). Whenever I read these words, I can’t help but hear in my head the very first aria of “The Messiah”, which, in fact, relies on Isaiah as the main source for the libretto. “Comfort Ye My People” sets the hopeful tone for the oratorio in anticipation of its darker sections related to the Passion of Christ. In the same way, the words of Isaiah give courage to us today, as we begin to look towards Lent and Holy Week.
The subsequent verses 3-10 of ch. 40 also give us the reasons as to why we should rely on God as the source of our comfort; and again, another famous aria from the Messiah, “Like the Shepherd”, comes to mind as we read this section. This is, in a nutshell, the material that precedes our today’s reading. The bulk of ch. 40, however, is concerned with the transcendence and sovereignty of God, and limitations of human knowledge and awareness. This theme spans verses 12-28, and today we are picking it up at about the half-way point.
One might notice a similarity with the book of Job in the content, style, and unique expressions found in this section. We don’t know which book served as the inspiration for another because the date of the book of Job is unknown, though the current consensus tends to place Job after the exile (5th-3rd BC). Therefore, the Second Isaiah may have served as a significant source for this wonderful and special book, giving us yet another reason to grow in appreciation of it.
Finally, we come to the concluding verses of ch. 40, which to me are the most memorable and poetic: “Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” I have heard people say that an eagle knows when a storm is approaching, will fly to a high spot, and rather than fighting or escaping the wind, angles its wings in such a way that the storm will do all the work of lifting it above itself. I don’t know if that is exactly what happens in nature, but I certainly do notice that quite a number of biblical verses make use of aquiline imagery: from those epitomizing the swiftness, endurance, strength, and dignity that God lends to those who put their trust in him (2 Sam. 1, Is. 40, Ps. 103), to those recalling the forces outside of our control (Rev. 8 and 12, Job 39, Ez. 17, Prov. 23), or making unflattering references to the prideful and predatory nations (Jer. 49, Ob. 1 and Deut 28, Hos. 8, Jer. 49, 48, respectfully), and finally, comparing God to an eagle as an image of a skilled parent (Ez 17, Det. 32). An eagle represents a dimension of creation (Rev. 4), and symbolizes John the Evangelist as one who is able to look straight into the sun, and not be blinded. All of these references are in line with the general prominence of eagles in the Middle Eastern and most other cultures of the world, as the symbols of the connection between heaven and earth, and resurrection.
What is the most important take-away from Isaiah 40 that will carry us through this Lent, 2021? First, let’s note that if the prophet was called to comfort his people, then it meant both that Jerusalem did hunger for comfort, and also that God was willing to comfort her. We should feel free to accept and admit that many of us may not be in a position of strength right now to embark on more fasting. The whole past year felt like a fast -- a perpetual wait for something to be over, from specifically COVID, lockdowns, online schooling, and vaccination availability, to more generally, stress, grief, and sadness. But, let us remember that the measure of God-given strength is our ability to be like an eagle: to find a resting place above the storms of our hearts and minds, and to use the winds of restlessness to fly even higher. We cannot ever fully comprehend God’s design for this world, but we may be assured that she will always find a way to comfort her children. Amen.