January 10, 2016
First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
Life has a way of bruising us. The bad news, the challenges, the conflicts can cause us to lose heart, to get discouraged, even to give up. In those moments we need something that is harder to find these days—a word of encouragement, a moment of consolation. Jadedness and skepticism have their own self-absorbed, inauthentic attraction. To be aloof is to feel powerful. Yet real encouragement can only come with a genuine enthusiasm, an optimistic outlook, a hope for the future. It is this turn from misery to hope that we find in Isaiah’s prophecy for our first reading this Sunday.
If you had the patience to read through all of Isaiah 1–39 (the Book of Judgment) before coming to this reading, you’ll know why God’s people might feel discouraged by this point. The prophet has berated the people with all of their sins and shortcomings, pronounced the judgment of God, and left them with little hope for the future. The idolatry, violence, and law-breaking of the people has brought God’s wrath upon them in the form of exile from their own land. Their future now looks bleak, without hope, as they contemplate going off to Babylon for their sins. Sometimes we can feel just like them—throwing up our hands at our own weaknesses, our own sins. It can feel as if we will never overcome, never conquer our sinful habits, never be truly surrendered to God. Looking inside ourselves can be astonishingly humbling, when we see how we don’t measure up in so many ways. We can find ourselves in a place of true discouragement, standing apart from hope, turning inward in a spiral of self-pity, guilt, and even despair.
I suppose it is hard to figure out what to say to a discouraged person. Oftentimes our words fall flat, as a despairing person clings to his negative outlook and rejects our attempts to help as ingenuine or untruthful. It seems to me that the most effective encouraging words are those that speak the truth about a person in a way that opens a door to his or her future. That is, if a friend fails a test, gets turned down for a job, or otherwise hits a wall, it is easy for his or her mind to become fixated on the failure, but we can affirm the talents, gifts and spirit that we see in them that will lead them to their next success. Merely saying, “it’s o.k.” does nothing to help. We have to go deeper and speak more directly to their soul, offering the kind of comfort the prophet brings.