Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 10, 2023

Isaiah 40:1-11 Commentary

Comments, Observations and Questions:

The Good News!

The prophet Isaiah must have gotten pretty tired of breaking bad news to people.  Roughly 95% of Isaiah 1-39 is bad news, with the tiniest snippets of hope popping up here and there.  So, I can imagine him taking a deep breath, maybe a soothing drink of water as he turns the page of his metaphorical sermon manuscript to chapter 40.  Here we have, “Comfort, comfort!”

The original Hebrew text didn’t have bold, italics or emojis so the author regularly used repetition to the same purpose.  “COMFORT” in all caps, lit up on a marquee, with a sudden swell of jubilant music underneath. In the Greek translation, “comfort” here is “parakaleo” a word frequently used in the New Testament to signify the work of the Holy Spirit.  A gust of wind in a stagnant, humid place.  A flame of light in the darkness. A burst of energy for the weak. A fountain in an arid desert. Here, at last, is something new.

A Level Playing Field

Although verses 3 and 4 read in the English like commands—prepare, straighten, raise up, lower, level out—they are in fact Divine passives.  God is doing these things and we are invited to help.  Though our “help” is more like a two-year-old “helping”to bake and decorate Christmas cookies. Which is to say the “help” isn’t actually that helpful.  Nonetheless, it is the invitation and shared activity that matters most to both child and parent.

And what is it that God is doing here? By lowering the mountains and lifting up the valleys, God creates a level playing field.  Before we worry that God has something against diverse topography, let’s remember our literary context.  This is poetry in service of prophetic discourse. What God cares about here is justice.  A level playing field means that, when Christ returns, those in high places won’t see him first and those in the valleys won’t be at a disadvantage.  Together all humanity will see God’s glory.

Wait, IS this Good News?

Verses 7 and 8 seem, at least on the surface, to be rather dim tidings of something other than joy.  God wants the prophet to remind the people that they are mortal and finite, which reminds me of the time I was struggling with an overwhelming schedule at work on top of greater-than-usual family demands (basically, I was a pastor and it was Advent.) My husband tentatively suggested, “well, you’re only human, right?” To which I replied, “Why are you being so mean to me right now?!”

Truth is, many of us don’t want to hear that we are (what my clergy coach refers to as) “human sized.” And the truth also is that this is kindest, most generous and gracious news we could ever receive.  Living as though this is true is likely to make us wise.  As John Calvin wrote in the opening sentences of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, “True wisdom consists in this: knowledge of God and knowledge of self.”

God is not offended to discover that our capacity is limited. God is not angry at our finitude. God is not surprised by our mortality.  In fact, the very good news we anticipate celebrating at Christmas is that there is One who limited himself, made himself finite and took on our mortality so that, through Him we might live forever.  This the one the prophet foretells in verse 8 “The Word of our God stands forever.” It’s almost like the prophet has flipped ahead in the story to the opening chapter of the Gospel of John, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.”  When we are human-size, we allow God to be God-sized.  Though, of course, the remarkable thing we celebrate this season is that God became human-sized for a time!

This God-sized God comes with might, ruling, doling out both reward and recompense. This God-sized God became a human-sized God in the person of Jesus Christ.  During his earthly life and ministry, Jesus proclaimed himself to be the Great Shepherd, in other words fulfilling this very prophecy from verse 11.

“He tends his flock like a shepherd:

He gathers the lambs in his arms

and carries them close to his heart;

he gently leads those that have young.”

When we are human-size, we are actually sheep-size and, therefore, living securely and tenderly within the comfort of our God. That is, indeed, the very best news.


The internet is full of videos of soldiers returning home, unexpectedly surprising their loved ones. When a whole troop or regiment returns together at the same time, the festivities are somewhat more formal.  The soldiers stand at attention under the command of their superior officer.  Often standing in a wide field, the soldiers scanning the crowd without turning their necks or breaking from formation.  They listen for their loved ones screaming their name eager to make their break into the massive bear hugs waiting for them.  But they are waiting with all the disciplined of trained soldiers.  Waiting to hear their commander bark one last order: “Dismissed!” These videos are popular because the rush of emotions leave the viewer feeling the some refracted gladness from the unfettered joy of families reunited.

When Isaiah relays God’s message, that the prophet is to proclaim to Jerusalem, “your hard service has been completed”, a literal translation for “hard service” is “military service”.  In other words, the prophet is to announce one last order to God’s people: “Dismissed!” A preacher could surely show one of these videos to capture the feeling.  But it is also a challenge to the preacher: do we preach the good news of Jesus Christ with that level of expectation of gladness, joy, reunion and restoration?  Could we?


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