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Comfort, Comfort, My People

Isaiah 40: 1 – 11
John 10: 11-18

Reign of Christ Sunday

Delivered by Rev. Ron Coughlin

Eternal God,
in the reading of the scripture, may your Word be heard;
in the meditations of our hearts, may your Word be known;
in the faithfulness of our lives, may your Word be shown.

We began our Advent Bible Study last week and started something a little different. We have been studying the words and music of Handel’s most famous oratorio called the Messiah. So I thought it be interesting to share our study with the whole congregation, so you could learn and have a similar experience.

We will be listening to words of scripture as they are sung in Handel’s Messiah and will reflect on their meaning for us today. We will consider the scripture passages in terms of its original context and the original meaning of the words. We will then consider the scripture passage and how it has been interpreted by Christians in light of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and through all this we will consider how Handel has interpreted the scriptural passage musically.

But first a little background about Handel.

Handel was born in Germany and was a musical genius, composing his first opera at the age of 20. He was hired by Queen Anne of England and then by King George I to compose music for the royal court. He composed many operas in the Italian Style (in fact he composed 40 operas in all) and when the popularity of Italian operas began to dwindle, he cast about for a new musical form, which would be more accessible to the English speaking public.

His first response was to compose a sacred opera based on the Old Testament Book of Esther. It was sure to be a box office hit. But Handel encountered one major problem, which he did not anticipate. When the Bishop of London learned about the opera, he forbade it on the grounds that it would be sinful to present biblical characters in a theatre.

A compromise was reached. Handel had to promise that there would be no acting on the stage and there would be no lavish costumes or scenery. In other words, they would just sing it. The compromise worked. In the end the Bishop may have done Handel a favour, since the result for the financially strapped composer was a less costly production. In any event, the result was a new musical form, the English oratorio. It was an immediate success. And Handel went on to compose a whole series of oratorios based on biblical stories. The most famous is Messiah.

Handel wrote the music for Messiah in just 24 days in the year 1741, more than 270 years ago. The text was written by a man named Charles Jennens based on biblical passages from the King James Version of the Bible. In fact every word in the Messiah is from the Bible arranged in three sections. The first section is about the birth of Jesus, the second is about his passion, his trial and crucifixion, and the third is about his resurrection. During Advent we will be studying only the first section – about the prophecies leading up to the birth of Jesus.

Now before we listen to the opening words from the Messiah, I want to imagine this scene with me. Picture yourself in Jerusalem. The year is 587 before Christ. You are quite well off. Life is comfortable. You enjoy going to the Temple to worship every Saturday.

One day, the Babylonian army led by King Nebuchadnezzar is at the city gates and he defeats the Jewish army. He literally tears down the city of Jerusalem and destroys the great temple, which Solomon had built. Then you and your family are carried off to a foreign country, to Babylon, where you are refugees in a strange land.

Imagine the searing disillusionment you must feel, in watching the Babylonians take over the city. Their gods must be more powerful than your God, otherwise, how could you lose! Imagine the anguish of standing beside the smoldering ruins of Solomon’s Temple. Imagine the despair of being carted off into captivity.

In Babylon, the psalmist captures your spirit when he writes
By the rivers of Babylon-
there we sat down and there we wept…
On the willows there
we hung our harps.
How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

For almost 50 years you languish in Babylon. Most of the people who came into exile with you have died. A new generation has grown up who do not know anything about home. They are turning to other gods, other values, other ways of thinking. They are becoming comfortable in this new setting.

Then you hear about new battles and wars. Change is looming on the horizon. A new power is sweeping through the territory. He is King Cyrus of Persia who defeats the Babylonian army. And the policy of Cyrus is different from Nebuchadnezzar, his policy is to let people return to their homelands and rebuild their lives.

Into this moment of history comes a new prophet. Into this moment of history comes a message from God. A prophet of the exile says the words of our scripture reading this morning. Now the words of The Messiah are from the King James Version of the Bible, so they are slightly different from the version I did.

Listen to these opening words of Handel’s Messiah:
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God;
speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her,
that her warfare is accomplished.
that her iniquity is pardoned.

The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness:
prepare ye the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Every valley shall be exalted,
and every mountain and hill made low:
the crooked straight and the rough places plain.

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together:
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.

What a powerful message! What great news! What good news! God is with the Israelites in Babylon. God is going to deal with the people tenderly. God is going to lead them straight back home. The way will be easy, no hills to climb, no wandering around in circles for 40 years like Moses, no rough terrain, but only a straight highway through the desert. And because of this the glory of God will be revealed. All people will come know that God is faithful, God is powerful, God is trustworthy.

Handel captures this excitement quite aptly in his music. The music begins softly, almost somberly. It broods like the darkness of the exile, but there is a note of hope alive within it. It is a little like a lullaby, sung to a child. And the tenor’s first note of “Comfort ye” is like a ray of light illuminating the dark. His rising line is like the breaking dawn of a new day for God’s people.

The music of “Every valley shall be exalted” is written to reflect the words. We thrill with the exaltation of the valleys, we hold our breath at the lowering of the mountains and hills. There is such joy in this announcement.

Then finally, we get a mini hallelujah chorus. Did you hear the overpowering sense of triumph and victory in the chorus about the glory of the Lord? It is a foretaste of the great Hallelujah Chorus which comes later in the oratorio.

When the first Christians considered the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and read this passage, they said this not only talks about how God cares for his people, but also illustrates our experience of Jesus, the Christ.

When we are feeling abandoned, when we are feeling in exile, when we are feeling set loose from our roots, far away from our moorings of home, when we are feeling like God has forgotten us, Jesus comes into our experience dealing with us tenderly, pointing us in the right direction on the straight and narrow path, revealing God’s glory for us.

My father died on Christmas day in 1982. The following year, I went to hear Messiah presented by Tafelmusic, the Baroque orchestra and choir in Toronto. When I heard the first notes of “Comfort ye, comfort ye”, sung by the Tenor, I began to cry. At the time, I was not sure why I was crying. But later as I thought about it, I realized that I was taking this message of comfort to heart. I was letting God heal my loss and deal with me tenderly. I was receiving good news.

Truly, this is the message of Christianity. God is calling us to return to our roots, to return to our faith, to return to our place of home and safety. The path that leads home will be straight and level. We are on our own journey, an exodus out of fear, an exodus out of loneliness, an exodus out of doubt, into the arms of the strong and tender Jesus, who cares for us like a shepherd.

To those exiles who experienced only the pain of God-forsakenness and the feelings of unworthiness, God sent a messenger with the assurance that God is with them and that God will be their salvation.

Today when so many people feel the agony of loneliness and forsakenness, who feel grief and loss, who feel fear and anxiety, God sends a messenger who says, I bring comfort, I am the good shepherd, who cares for my flock. Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together!


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