“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2).
Those words from the Bible are my favorite quote from any literature in any genre. The words “Comfort my people” are on my tombstone already, not just because I want people to console my loved ones after my passing, but because I want them to remember these two verses from the prophet Isaiah and the powerful, encouraging message that they and the next three verses proclaim.
They originally were written to ancient Israel to help a nation recover from invasion, destruction of property, violent deaths of loved ones, and exile. Isaiah conveyed God’s loving message that they could survive because they had hope. God had forgiven them. Desperate times still would follow. The people still would suffer. However, they no longer had to shoulder an extra burden of guilt. The book of Lamentations reveals in graphic terms the agony that the people of Jerusalem endured during the Babylonian invasion. But even in that tragic treatise, in the middle of lament over pain and suffering, occur the words
“Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail” (Lamentations 3:21-22).
As I write these words, people in Ukraine cower underground in subways and other shelters. They know firsthand the horrors experienced long ago which Isaiah and later Jeremiah addressed. They all fear, but some have hope, even if not for physical or national survival, because they know the words with which Isaiah 40 begins and they believe that God has forgiven them. Please do not think that I regard lightly the plight of the Ukrainian people. I have been in a combat zone, have heard explosions, have seen what a fiery helicopter crash does to human bodies, have informed parents and spouses of the deaths of soldiers and infant children. Some Ukrainians, taking shelter in subways, have sung hymns of hope and praise. Others, rather flee the country as the Russian Army advances, have resolved to stay and minister to other Christians whatever may happen. They act and think like this because they realize the character of God remains as it was when the words of Isaiah 40 and Lamentations 3 first were proclaimed.
Early Christians applied the words of Isaiah 40 to the circumstances brought about by the death by crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus, whom they understood to fulfil the roles of Messiah and Suffering Servant about which Isaiah wrote. So Peter could proclaim,
“Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah. When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do? Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off – for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:36-39).
God had acted through Jesus to accomplish the forgiveness of sin and to demonstrate victory over death. Another apostle Paul described himself and his coworkers (and I think also by extension all Christians) in 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 as “ambassadors of Christ” and “ministers of reconciliation” who fulfill Isaiah’s commission to “comfort my people” by showing the way to reconciliation with God and with one another.
As I perused social media, including other blogs, in recent days, I read many pleas to “pray for Ukraine.” I echo that plea and add to it a plea to act for Ukrainians whose lives are endangered. You may give to agencies that have established histories of helping people in Ukraine. You may prepare to offer hospitality to displaced Ukrainians and missionaries who flee that country. Consider how you may comfort people whom God has called to serve him. If you have opportunity to teach, teach as one who brings good news, as an ambassador who aims to mend broken relationships. And, by all means, continue to call on God to act for peace. Pray for Ukraine. Pray for all of us, that we may accept the comfort God offers and that we may learn to love one another.
• Quotations from the Bible are from the New International Version, 2011.
O God who heals and forgives, open the eyes of people to your message of forgiveness, healing, and hope. Help us to realize that you already have acted to restore hope, even as reasons for hope evade our awareness in areas scarred by combat and dissension. Lust for power and dominance over people betrays the ancient temptation to appropriate your powers for ourselves, to act as if we are God, rather than God’s Creation. We are created in your image. May we remember to see our fellow humans as image-bearers of you, no matter how dimly your image may be reflected in their actions and words. May we act as people who love God and one another. May we act for justice, because you are a just God. Give hope and life to the people of Ukraine. We thank you for people around the world, including many in Russia, who have called for peace and for an end to attacks against the Ukrainian people and their nation. Help us to remember that you have done the hard work so that we know comfort and learn how to love one another. Lord, have mercy. I pray in the name of Jesus, amen.