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.

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

-from Isaiah 40

In 587 BC, the city of Jerusalem – the city which God himself had founded, in which the temple of the one true God of Israel was located – was overrun by the Babylonian army.

The prophet Isaiah was busy, to say the least, in the run-up to this great failure. The first thirty-nine chapters of the book bearing his name detail his attempts to call the people of Judah back into relationship with God. He wrote about the idolatry that brought God such displeasure. He wrote about God’s anger at the mistreatment of the poor and the vulnerable. He held out the option of repentance: if we turn and seek God’s face, this looming disaster need not befall us.

No one listened. The city was taken. God’s temple was set on fire, and all of its treasures were carried away.

Thirty nine chapters, Isaiah spends on offering two options: grace and judgment. Grace is rejected, and judgment arrives in its place. The people are led away to Babylon in chains, in exile.

Then here, in chapter forty, a new piece of music begins. The low brass and the timpani fall silent, and out of that quiet moment a flute begins to play. Judgment is real, but judgment is also over. The worst has happened, and now it’s time for healing to begin. Wrong has been done, punishment has been received, and the new theme is comfort:

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.

You’re probably familiar with those words because they appear among us every Christmas. The next few verses remind Christians of the story of John the Baptist, who was called into the wilderness to prepare the way for Jesus. The comfort, in that sense, is that one is coming to bring good news to Jerusalem. There’s no baby in the manger yet, though- this is still about expectation, not about promises fulfilled.

I like that holiday setting for this passage, and I’ll be happy to haul it out for that purpose come December. As I was doing my research, though, I learned something that interested me: in the Jewish tradition, this passage is read on the Ninth of Av. That’s a day set aside to mourn the two destructions of the temple in Jerusalem: once in 587BC, and again in 66AD.

This isn’t our tradition, but think about that for a second. The temple was destroyed, and then Isaiah wrote this hopeful poetry about time of judgment being over, and the temple was rebuilt. THEN, the Romans came and burnt it all down again.

Charles Kopel (the author of the piece I was reading) remarked, “When prophetic promises fail to actualize, Jews are not to reject these promises but to understand them as applicable to a future moment and to keep striving.”

Reinterpret and keep working. That’s what hope really looks like, right? It’s not the evidence of things you can more or less make out in the fog already. It’s the evidence of things unseen, the evidence of things so invisible that the mere fact that anyone believes in them at all makes them seem more possible.

Kopel connected this kind of hope with the most famous orator in our nation’s history to make use of this passage: Dr Martin Luther King, who riffed off Isaiah 40 in his I Have A Dream speech.

After namechecking the red hills of Georgia, the state of Mississippi sweltering in the heat of injustice, and the vicious racists of Alabama (none of whom thought much of King’s dreaming), he said this: I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

This is our hope, and this is the faith that I go back to the South with.

Talk about evidence of things unseen! King leads the people in the first verse of My Country ‘Tis Of Thee, sweet land of liberty, and the command to let freedom ring. And then, King makes one of the most intimidating conditional statements in American rhetorical history: “If America is to be a great nation, this must become true.”

Because here’s the thing: if the ground is going to be leveled, then the mountains are going to have to fall. That’s what today’s passage is talking about:

Every valley shall be raised up,

   every mountain and hill made low;

the rough ground shall become level,

   the rugged places a plain.

So when King called for freedom to ring from the mighty mountains of New York, or from the Rockies, or from Lookout Mountain in Tennessee, he isn’t asking for a crier to climb Mt Marcy in the Adirondacks and sing a song of equality. He’s asking for Mt Marcy to crumble. He’s asking to be able to walk from here to the St. Lawrence River on level ground.

This isn’t a sermon that mountains tend to appreciate. This is the hope that Isaiah offers Jerusalem, though: it’s time to speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Her sins are all paid up. God is returning to be with her, and this is what that return will look like: land as flat as a Midwestern corn field, as far as the eye can see. For Isaiah, this is what comfort looks like.

Of course the point here isn’t the actual mountains. Mount Marcy is going to be just fine. The problem, as it almost always is, is the people. We’re the ones who need to be raised out of our valleys. We’re the ones who need to be led down off our mountains.

Look. You can fill the details on the sermon on systemic racial inequality that I’m not preaching today. I’ve preached it before, and you know it anyhow.

I want, instead, to give you two questions to think about:

  1. Where are you standing on a mountain?
  2. Where are standing in a valley?

I’m thinking about these questions in a personal sense. You don’t have to answer them personally, although if you’d like to, come out to Taco Bell for lunch and talk it over.

We say often enough, don’t we, that Quakers believe in equality? That may be true – I certainly hope it’s true – but when we say that Quakers have a testimony of equality, that’s not actually about belief per se. Quaker testimonies aren’t beliefs- they’re ways of talking about faithful actions that Friends have felt led by the Spirit to undertake.

So, for instance, I have a testimony of gravity. I believe that it’s a real thing, but more to the point, I act like it’s a real thing. When I throw a ball, I expect it to arc back toward the earth. When I set a plate on the table, I expect it to stay there. My belief that gravity is real informs how I interact with the world around me.

Having a testimony of gravity is sort of an expected thing, right? I’ve seen videos of returned astronauts who had gotten so used to being in space that they didn’t have a testimony of gravity- we take videos of that because it’s weird and funny. Generally speaking, having a testimony of gravity isn’t the kind of thing that you’d track.

Equality isn’t always obvious like gravity. I mean, sure, it’s part and parcel of the greatest truths found in Scripture. We are all God’s children, and we are all sinners, and grace is available to cover all our multitudes of sins, and we’re all given the Spirit to guide us and gifts that the church cannot do without.

Equality doesn’t appear before us as a natural law, though, the way that gravity does. Drop a pencil on the floor, and it stays there. Treat a group of people as unequal, and the consequences aren’t always so immediate. Equality is something that we hear about in a prophecy, while we’re still in exile. It’s something we see through a dark glass, something that we move unsteadily toward.

Paul writes this to the Galatians, because they seem to have forgotten: There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Paul has to write it out because it’s not obvious, whether you’re standing on a mountain or in a valley, that you ought to be on level ground.

Isaiah draws a connection, in today’s passage, between our willingness to live equally and our ability to see the glory of God. Listen again:

Every valley shall be raised up,

   every mountain and hill made low;

the rough ground shall become level,

   the rugged places a plain.

And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,

   and all people will see it together.

See? We don’t get to see the glory of God until we’re all watching together from level ground.

That’s really what I love about this passage from Isaiah. I mean, this is about the people of Israel returning to their homeland after decades of exile. Their punishment is over. Her hard service has been completed.

If I’m honest, I expect the next passage to be about what God is going to do to her enemies, or about how strong and safe Israel is going to be, how no one is ever again going to be able to defeat her. I expect to see the powerlessness of the exile contrasted with grand visions of the new impregnable city which God will never leave.

That’s not what we get, though. We get, not an image of strength, but an image of vulnerability. We have this image of all the arrogant and powerful people being brought down from their mountains, and all the shy and timid people brought up out of their valleys, and all the people gathered together on level ground.

That’s when the glory of the Lord is revealed. That’s what salvation looks like.

These are difficult conversations to have. Am I standing on a mountain, speaking down to others from a position of power? Or am I speaking from a valley, from a place where the very geography of the landscape makes me more difficult to hear? Answering questions like those requires a searching and sometimes painful kind of honesty.

The central image in this passage, though, isn’t drudgery. It’s joy! The Lord is coming, in comfort and tenderness. The God of the universe is coming to live with us. We work toward equality, not so much because we’ve been assigned a task as because we’re preparing the path for the Lord of love.

That’s the promise, this morning: when every valley is raised up and every mountain brought low, then the glory of God will be revealed among us.