Formations 12.16.2018: “Just Hand Me a Baby”

Isaiah 40:1-11

Peggy Smith, a volunteer in the baby cuddling program

Most scholars agree that the words of comfort in today’s lesson were first spoken to Jewish people near the end of their decades-long exile in Babylonia. The national shame of the exile will soon be over, the prophet proclaims. Now it is time to “prepare the way of the LORD” (v. 3) so that the captives may return home.

Despite the inconstancy of mortals, God’s word stands forever. Therefore, the prophet finds assurance in God’s presence with God’s people: feeding, gathering, carrying, and leading them.

In Bexar County, Texas, volunteers have taken on a project that reminds me of this nurturing work of God. “Cuddle Club Volunteers” visit the Baptist Medical Center to provide physical affection to vulnerable newborns in the neonatal intensive care unit. They are especially attentive to babies suffering from neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), who are withdrawing from exposure to harmful drugs in the womb

The nurses and volunteers refer to these infants as “koala babies” based on the idea that koala cubs need to be constantly cuddled to survive. Cutouts of koalas hang beside these babies’ bedside monitors, a subtle way to make the service more inviting—and less stigmatizing—for NAS mothers. As hospital employee Ginger Hejtmancik explains, “They’re already judged by everyone else. It was our way of making it more neutral but welcoming to every mother that comes in here.”

Volunteers like Lourdes Zurita and Peggy Smith say they get as much benefit from the cuddling as the babies do. Smith reports once walking into the unit after a hard day of work and telling the nurse who supervises the program, “Just hand me a baby.” “As much as it soothes them,” she says, “it soothes me.”

Freedom from judgment. Nurture. Unconditional love. Aren’t those things we all need? Advent tells us they are available. In fact, they’re right around the corner! This week, let’s think about ways we can offer those gifts to those who need them most. The Gospel offers the promise that, in doing this for the “least of these,” we may find ourselves in the presence of another vulnerable Newborn, one we are called to embrace.

And in that embrace, as Cuddle Club Volunteers would tell us, we may find that the Child comforts us.

Linda Caruba, “Cuddlers Who Volunteer to Comfort Fussy Babies Find It Soothing for Themselves,” San Antonio Express-News, 24 Nov 2018 <https://www.expressnews.com/news/local/article/Cuddlers-who-volunteer-to-comfort-fussy-babies-13418707.php>.

Discussion

• Who needs comfort or nurturing that you can provide?
• How might you encounter the Christ Child by offering that comfort?
• What comfort can we expect in the Advent and Christmas seasons?
• What must we do as we prepare to experience God’s coming?

Reference Shelf

The Babylonian Exile

During the Exile the Jewish faith was strongly challenged. The Babylonian gods who had apparently defeated the God of Israel and built a huge empire seemed more worthy of worship than the God of Israel (Isa 46:1-2, 9). Some of the exiles even felt that the Exile was caused by their neglect of the more powerful gods (Jer 44:15-19). Even the exiles who clung to their faith in God wondered why Judah had been punished severely (Ezek 18:25) and if Yahweh would ever again be their God (Isa 63:19; Ezek 37:11).

Jewish faith responded powerfully to the challenges. God was the only deity who existed (Isa 45:5); God still ruled history. The Exile was a just punishment upon Judah for its idolatry and disobedience (Jer 7:30-34; Ezek 22:17-22) and as such prefigured the “Day of the Lord.” God’s mercy was also evident. The land of Judah now enjoyed the sabbath years that had never been celebrated (2 Chr 36:20-21) and the possibility lay open for a new covenant between God and the Israelite people (Jer 31:31-34). In the absence of a temple, tradition and Law became the foci of the Jewish faith (Neh 8:1-8) and the collecting and editing of the sacred writings became imperative. Thus from the calamity and difficulty of the Exile came a faith that could survive and prosper in any nation or circumstance.

Robert C. Dunston, “Exile,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 276.

SHBC

Verses 1-11 introduce the opening scene of divine commissioning in the heavenly council. Throughout the subunit, it is not clear as to who the speakers are. Scholars consider the possibility that such a lack of clarity may be intentional and instructive, thereby highlighting “what is said” rather than “who speaks” ….

The double occurrences of the word “comfort, comfort” (v. 1) relate to the “double” punishment placed upon Jerusalem for her sins (v. 2). Besides the coincidental fact that the word “double” (kiplaim) occurs elsewhere only in Job 11:5 and 41:5, the epilogue in the book of Job contains God’s double restitution of Job’s fortunes (Job 42:10). Connected to the legal principle of repaying double for any robbery (cf. Exod 22:4, 7, 9), in both Job 42:10 and Isaiah 40:2, YHWH hints at divine pathos toward these wounded protagonists as though YHWH feels guilty for inflicting excessive pain upon them.

Furthermore, the divine concern for “my” people (v. 1) may correlate with “this” people in 6:9-10. If so, readers can sense a dramatic reversal. The phrase “this people” has occurred in numerous places thus far denoting the corrupt, sinful people of Israel and Judah. Now, divine pathos with compassion calls them again passionately, “my people,” reverting all the way back to 1:3, “Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Likewise, the threefold particle “for” (ki) in v. 2 contrasts with the threefold occurrences of “for” (ki) in 6:5…. Moreover, whereas the prophet’s “iniquity” (‘awon) and “sin” (hatta’t) were forgiven through the cleansing of his lips (6:7) in the call narrative of Isaiah 6, YHWH now directly accepts and pardons (cf. Jer 5:1, 7) the payment of Jerusalem’s “iniquity” (‘awon) and “sins” (hatta’tot). Reading Isaiah 40 intertextually in relation to Isaiah 6, therefore, there is a thematic reversal and development: “As 6:1-13 authorizes the theme of judgment in chapters 1–39, so 40:1-11 now authorizes the theme of deliverance for the remainder of the book” (Brueggemann 1998b, 17).

Hyun Chul Paul Kim, Reading Isaiah (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2016), 188–89.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.

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