Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 6, 2020
Isaiah 40:1-11 Commentary
Advent began last week with a lament filled with longing for the coming of God (Isaiah 64). On this Second Sunday of Advent, the mood changes dramatically with the Good News that God is coming soon.
That shift of mood parallels the radical shift between Isaiah 39 and Isaiah 40. Even the most casual reader of the great prophet can see that Isaiah 1-39 is filled dark words of judgment, while Isaiah 40-66 overflows with words of comfort. The words of our reading serve as a kind of prologue to the Book of Comfort.
Why the sudden shift of tone and theme? Nearly all scholars point to the bad news that Jerusalem has fallen, that the Temple has been burned to the ground, that the Davidic monarchy is over, and that a whole new cohort of Jews are being exiled to Babylon. With that bad news, life as Israel knew it was over, and Israel will have to stop putting their trust in the Temple, the City, the kings, and the land. God’s word of judgment and punishment has been fulfilled, so now Israel is ready to hear the Good News of comfort and joy. That’s what we hear in Isaiah 40:1-11.
This is a word that speaks powerfully to our contemporary world. It is hard to describe the atmosphere of gloom and foreboding that hangs over my country as I write this. The pandemic has stricken millions of people worldwide, killing over a quarter of million in America alone, and there is no end in sight. The resultant financial crash has left millions of families in dire need and thousands of businesses in ruin. The protests over racial injustice devolved into violence and what threatened to be civil war for a few tense weeks. The recent vitriolic political campaigns have shaken the foundations of government and the lives of ordinary citizens. The natural disasters that have flooded and burned vast portions of our land may be a portent of climate disaster to come. As many said at the beginning of the pandemic, “life as we know it is over.”
Where can one find comfort in this moment? What can comfort a reeling society? Who can comfort a hurting and frightened world? Today we have the privilege of preaching the Good News that focuses on the imminent coming of God. The God who came to bring judgment through Assyria will now come to bring redemption from Babylon. As Isaiah says in a number of ways, “the old has passed away, the new has come.” The new has come because God is coming soon.
Many scholars spill much ink trying to identify the voices that speak in these verses. Who is speaking, and to whom? Some imagine a heavenly court with angelic beings speaking on behalf of God. Others hear anonymous prophets speaking for God. And still others think that the voice is that of Second Isaiah, or even First Isaiah, the author of chapters 1-39. I think it is much more important to hear the message announced by these voices.
Yes, I said, “message,” in the singular, because, in spite of the variety of emphases in these verses, there is one over-riding message: God is coming to comfort his exiled people. The different emphases are all part of a careful progression of thought in that message: the announcement that punishment is over (verses 1-2), the call to prepare the way for the coming of the glory of God (verses 3-5), the permanence of God’s word in a passing world (6-8, and the presentation of God (verses 9-11).
God announces double comfort to a people who have received double punishment for all their sins. That comfort begins with the assurance that the terrible past is now over: “her hard service has been completed, her sins have been paid for, she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” When your world has fallen apart and there seems to no end to the horror, it is incredibly comforting to hear that it’s all over.
Parts of this opening comfort might trouble some of your listeners. I mean, here is the God who inflicted punishment on Israel now “speaking tenderly” to them. Isn’t it a little late for that? Why did God ruin their lives to begin with? Well, here God explains their plight to them. It was punishment for your many sins. It wasn’t random, or capricious, or cruel. It was simply the wages of sin, the reward for rebellion, the hard service demanded by a destructive enemy, the bitter harvest of bad seed. You did it, you asked for it, you wanted it, you refused to stop it, you received what you deserved.
But now it is over, completely over. That’s the import of that troubling word about receiving “double.” It sounds like over-much, an excess of punishment. But another reading of the Hebrew is “full, or complete.” Your debt has been paid in full. Your sins have been completely forgiven. You don’t have to live your life waiting for the other shoe to drop. Your punishment is completed. “It is finished.”
That is comforting. But what about the future? It’s good to know that God is done punishing our many sins, but we are still here in Exile, suffering the results of our sins, far from home back in Jerusalem. What are we supposed to do with these shattered lives? “In the desert prepare the way for the Lord….” God is coming soon, so prepare the way for him.
Is the prophet referring to the many miles of desert between Babylon and Jerusalem? Or is this a way of talking about the bleakness of life in Exile? Maybe both. The point is that God is coming to you, and you need to prepare the way for him.
Many scholars see this as an allusion to the Exodus and Israel’s 40 years of wandering in the trackless wilderness of Sinai. In your second Exodus, then, make sure that the road on which God will come to you is a highway, straight and level and smooth. In other words, clear away any obstacles to God’s return to your lives. The Gospel writers see these words fulfilled in the Baptist’s stern call to repentance. The first Exodus took 40 years. The second will be immediate.
And his coming will be universal. When God comes, says verse 5, the whole world will see his glory—not just Israel, but “all mankind together will see it.” Did the world see Israel return from Exile? Well, some of the known world, but not all mankind. Did the world see God come in the person of Jesus? Well, in the persons of the Magi, and then in the mission of the church proclaiming that God has come in the flesh, but not all mankind sees his glory yet. That will happen when he comes again on the superhighway from heaven. Then every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. We prepare the way for that coming by announcing his first coming and living in a way that demonstrates his Lordship.
This will certainly happen, “for the mouth of Yahweh has spoken.” That phrase leads into the third part of the comfort God offers his suffering people, namely the permanence of God’s word in a world that is always passing away. The mighty empires that had swept Israel out of their land and devastated their lives must have seemed like indestructible granite mountains that would last forever. But, God says, the strongest are like grass and their glory is like the flowers of the field.
And here’s the thing about grass and flowers. They wither and fall, because the breath of Yahweh blows on them. The breath of Israel’s God gives life and takes it away. All human life is subject to the will and wind of God.
Only one thing lasts in this world—the word of our God. When he threatens judgment, it will come to pass. When he promises salvation, it will happen. When he speaks comfort, it will be given. You have seen his word of judgment come true. Now you can trust that his word of comfort and joy will come true as well. In all the changing scenes of your life, trust the Word of your God.
Then comes the center of God’s comforting word to his hurting people, forced to live far from their land, their temple, and the God who lived back there. The God who is coming is almost here. So, tell people that. Climb to the highest mountain and shout the Good News as loudly as you can. Stop your cowering and whimpering there in Exile. “Lift up your voice with a shout, do not be afraid, say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’”
What a challenge and what a comfort that must have been to them. It surely is to us. To boldly declare that God is here, in spite of what we can see all around us—that takes courage and faith. But that’s what we are called to do in these dark days. The God who promised to come has, indeed, come. And he will come again. He is the only source of true comfort in this whole sad world.
Our task as disciples of the Coming One is to present the reality of God to those who can’t see him. Twice, the prophet calls on his readers to “see, see.” We are to present him in our words and deeds in such a way that “those who don’t see [can] still believe.”
What a comfort the coming of our God gives to Exiles then and now. He comes with “power, and his own arm rules for him.” He will see to it that justice is done in a world filled with injustice, giving pay back (“recompense”) to those who thought they had gotten away with it. In a world filled with wrong, he will make all things right.
But not just that. He will come with awesome power to do justice, but he will also come with infinite tenderness to take care of his flock like a shepherd. The weak and vulnerable will be the special object of his tender care. “He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those who have young.” The unrepentant wicked will get exactly what they deserve and the trusting weak will get exactly what they need.
In Jesus, God came to pay for sin, to fulfill the word of God, to be the Word made flesh, to be God with us, and to make the world right and whole.
Even outside my own little Christian Reformed tribe, many people have been encouraged by the words of Question and Answer One of the Heidelberg Catechism. “What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”
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