We have all been appalled by the events in Iraq over this last week with accounts of the shooting and beheading of men, women and children who have refused to convert to Islam because of their commitment to Jesus Christ. They are truly Christian martyrs.

Our hearts cry out for Christians in Iraq, Syria, Nigeria (there are still more than one hundred kidnapped teenage girls hostage to Boko-Haram), South Sudan, and many other places. And we find ourselves asking with the Psalm writer (Psalm 13),

‘How long, O Lord?’  

Where do we look for answers? In the power of western forces? While there is now some action, it is too little, too late. Perhaps one of the reasons for the lack of western involvement lies in the silence of Christians in the West. Over the last forty years our voice has become muted in the public square. We have not been willing to look for ways to ask questions or speak out against the self-interest of our times with wise, clear, bold and reasoned thought.

Consider the opening lines of Isaiah 40: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God”. Handel’s Messiah opens with these very words. Isaiah was speaking to people who had been brought low by conquering armies. For hundreds of years they had been told they were God’s special people. He had given them their land and success, but now they were under siege by the armies of pagan Babylon. Picture that scene: mothers weeping for their children; people being forcibly taken to another land, their homes and city a smoking ruin.

We can only imagine the shattering effect those events would have had on the faith of those people. The temptation to reject their God would have been enormous. Even the strongest of believers would have been tempted to think, ‘God doesn’t care. How could he do this to us?’

How did the faith of ancient Israel survive? Through the voice of the prophets like Isaiah. His opening words in chapter 40 have a timelessness to them as they speak to people who are suffering in every age: Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. And the tenderness of Isaiah’s words continues in 40:11:

He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom…’

How could Isaiah speak like this? When things are going well people tend to forget God. And those who go to church tend to put aside the tough questions. But when tragedy strikes or when your nation, your family, or you, are threatened, the bottom can drop out of your faith.

Let me say, that kind of religion is gutless. In tough times a pocket-sized God is no good to anybody. Only a big God can sustain us. Only a God who can overrule our world when it is falling into chaos around our ears, can say to us, with any degree of credibility, ‘Comfort’.

How can we be sure this is not fiction? Isaiah goes on: The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken (Isaiah 40:5).

These words were fulfilled in part with the coming of Jesus Christ. Three of the Gospel writers quote this very text. But Isaiah was also speaking of the far, far greater day, when we shall all see Jesus Christ in all his glory. This news about this God cannot and will not be contained: it must be shouted from the rooftops – not just in the cities of Judah, but to the nations of the world, even if in the face of suffering. For here is the God worth knowing – the awesome, true and caring God, who is Lord of all.

Isaiah concludes his great chapter saying that ‘Young men will grow weary; their energy will pass, and their empires will one day be nothing but dust. But the people of the living God will never become extinct.

One of the things we need to do is pray daily for God’s people who are suffering. We also need to ask whether we are being silenced by fear or lack of confidence in God. Jesus warns us that we will encounter challenges and various kinds of suffering. So, let’s pray that the Lord will give us the wisdom to know the questions we should ask and the words to say, and the grace and boldness to speak.