As a child I was always sad when our summer holiday came to an end and we were leaving behind all the fun and excitement of being on the beach or visiting new and different places, but as we were going home there was the rising excitement of meeting up with my friends and making the new Airfix kit I had bought with some of my holiday money. ‘Leaving or Going.’ Both these words can be used about the same event but reflect very different emotions.
If we talk about leaving in terms of departing, we can think about the pain of leaving with the sadness parents might feel as they prepare for a child leaving home to go to university, the anxiety one might experience in leaving one job to take on a new role, or the pain of losing someone dearly loved with the throat tightening words — “they have left us.” Leaving focuses us on the person or the place that will no longer be with us. Leaving evokes a sadness or sense of loss.
However if we replace leaving with going we can elicit a different sense of emotions. Going points to a destination. Going is a word of hope. When a parent’s language changes from “my child is leaving home” to “my son is going to College,” or “my daughter is going to University,” there is a change in the tenor of the voice to one of expectation and promise, even though the pain of leaving is still present. Likewise, the pain and hopelessness of the death of a loved one is softened by the knowledge that, yes, my dearest has left us, but my loved one is going to be with the Lord. The sense of destination elicits hope and comfort.
One of the great themes of Advent is ‘Hope’. During this season Isaiah chapter 40 reminds us that God’s Word offers us hope, even in the midst of difficult situations. The grass withers, and flowers fade, but the hope and strength of God’s Word stands forever. Hope. True biblical, theological hope is more than just wishful thinking. The ‘I hope the weather will be sunny tomorrow’ type of hope. True hope is the cry for a change in circumstances that seem hopeless. It begins with a cry of anger and desperation but hope does not leave us there. True hope gives light to a path out of our desperate situation.
The hope of Isaiah functions similarly. It begins in the midst of Israel’s distress as indicated in verse one. There is no need to cry “comfort, comfort my people!” if Jerusalem was not upset or in distress and in need of comforting. So it is imperative that we remember the context of this word of hope. The people of Jerusalem have been in exile and have experienced Babylonian captivity, economic devastation, and upheaval of life as they knew it. The prophet is challenging them to cease their focus on what they have left and to rejoice about where God has promised to take them. They are to imagine cities rebuilt, restoration of the nation, thriving economic life, and their restored relationship with God. God offers them a word of hope not based on their current condition, but based on their future, directed with promise and abundant life. It is not based on leaving, but rather, based on where they are going.
It is so easy to get stuck in the desperation of life — the pain, the struggles, what we don’t have or can’t afford to do — rather than to focus on the hope provided to us in the birth of Christ Jesus. Our Advent hope is based on the knowledge that our joy comes from God leaving heaven, giving up the crown of glory to come to earth. When God asked, “Who will go for us,” God decided to take on flesh, come in person, and dwell among humanity to light the way for us. God’s destination was not just to come as a babe in a stable. Even in leaving glory, God had a final destination in mind — the cross and Resurrection. So on this side of Calvary, we can celebrate the light of Christ preparing the way for us. We understand that the birth of the Christ Child points to a destination for our salvation.
God does not say that we will not have valleys, mountains, and crooked places in life. Adversity, pain, and trial are a part of life’s journey. Yet even in the midst of traversing life’s difficulties, God cries “comfort, comfort my people!” Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, is the light that makes the crooked paths we create for ourselves, straight. He lifts the valleys of oppression, He destroys the mountains of depression, anxiety, and stress from our lives — in God’s time and in God’s way. Advent is a reminder that Jesus Christ is our hope in the midst of the troubles of life.
God bless and stay safe, Alan.