Amy Gingerich lives in Hudson, Ohio, and is a member at Friendship Mennonite Church in Bedford Heights, Ohio. She and her husband, Ryan Claassen, are the parents of two young children who define “comfort” as “warm hugs” and “Christmas cookies.” Amy is editor at Herald Press books and editorial director at MennoMedia.
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.
A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy 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. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep.
—Isaiah 40:1-11 (NRSV)
Two shooters, 14 people killed, 21 wounded by hundreds of bullets. A midday staff holiday party filled with good cheer shifted suddenly into a surreal rampage.
“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God” (Isaiah 40:1).
The tragedy of last week’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., sounded surreal—dystopian even—as I sat reading in suburban Ohio, tucked into a cozy chair listening to Christmas carols and sipping my tea. I simply cannot fathom such unbridled violence and hatred. Yet all too often we hear about mass shootings, and their rising frequency makes my heart ache.
I love the joy and confidence of Isaiah 40:1-11, the safety in Isaiah’s words. There are no wishy-washy promises. We are not told “you may perhaps find comfort at some future point.” Rather, it’s in the form of a direct command: Comfort, comfort. And where are we to find comfort? Neither in guns nor people, flowers nor grass. For those will wither and fade away. But God, “will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms” (v. 11).
We all need more comfort in our lives. We need comfort in the form of healing words, gentle touches, and the unfailing support of others. These are the good feelings that I often associate with the classic hymn “Comfort, Comfort, O My People.” Isaiah’s vision for comfort, though, touches us more deeply than a healing balm. It spurs us toward action and toward revealing God’s glory (v. 5).
Isaiah 40:3 commands us to “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” And the command becomes more focused by verse 9: “lift up your voice with strength . . . lift it up, do not fear . . . ‘Here is your God!’”
Isaiah 40:1-11 serves as a prologue to a larger section. Just as it opens in verses 1-2 with words of comfort and God speaking tenderly to Jerusalem, so too it ends in verse 11 with an image of God’s tenderness and care, comparing God to a shepherd who cares tenderly for the flock. But in the midst of it all, God’s gentleness never contradicts his might, “sovereignty, and power as Creator and sustainer of the earth,” writes Ivan D. Friesen in the Believers Church Bible Commentary on Isaiah.
Dec. 1 was the 60th anniversary of the day civil rights activist Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on an Alabama bus. What gave Parks, a black woman granted less power under the law than whites, the inner courage to refuse to give up her seat to a white man?
“I had the strength of God and my ancestors,” Parks said later in the book, The Thunder of Angels: The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the People Who Broke the Back of Jim Crow, by Donnie Williams and Wayne Greenhaw. “I felt a determination cover my body like a quilt on a winter night.”
That’s the perfect image of God’s comfort, I think: a warm quilt of determination on a cold winter’s night. It’s not a quilt that allows us to remain comfortable. It’s not a quilt that allows us to stand by idly when we see injustice or hear about the latest mass shooting. It’s a quilt of determination, with a strong, resilient core that spurs us to stand up and speak truth to power; a shawl of courage to wear as we cry out in prayer and actively engage the world’s turmoil.