TEXT: ISAIAH 40:1-11 LXX
OLD TESTAMENT LESSON, SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT, SERIES B
In the name of Jesus. Amen.
Our Old Testament lesson is very famous. In the coming weeks, it will be heard throughout the world by large crowds of people. Why? Because this reading was used with stunning effect by George Fredrich Handel as the opening three parts of his famous piece of music, “The Messiah”. I’m sure many here have heard Handel’s Messiah. I had the privilege of hearing it live for the first time ever last Christmas. Blew my socks off! But, what does it mean? How does it point to our Messiah?
First a bit of background information: God had given Israel his Law, “You shall have no other gods.” The Kingdom of Israel hadn’t listened. They worshiped Baal, Asherah and Molech. So, God sent the Assyrians and annihilated them. The same fatal disease also infected the kingdom of Judah and its capital Jerusalem. Like today, Religious pluralism was the predominate view. There was a diversity of religious beliefs which were encouraged to co-exist in Israelite society. Baal, Asherah, and Molech were honoured right alongside the Lord. A few good and faithful kings tried to enact reforms, but only delayed the inevitable. People thought if they offered the Lord half-hearted lip-service in the Temple, that it would be enough. Throw God a bone, offer him a goat, and I can go off and worship Baal. The people refused to listen to the warnings of the prophets. So, Isaiah prophesied a time when God would send Babylonian invaders to strip the temple and take Jerusalem’s people into exile. God’s just judgment for Judah’s unrepentant idolatry.
Listen to his gracious comfort (vv. 1-2)
But, God follows up this message of judgment with a message of comfort. After he gave the bad news, he proclaimed the Good News. Isaiah wrote to a wounded and broken people. Their kingdom was gone. Their temple, the very house of God, was in ruins. They were exiles in a foreign land. Filled with sorrow, they were terrified about the future. No relief from the consequences of their sin seemed possible in their situation. In exile, they would lose their national identity if they shared the fate as other enslaved peoples. So, inspite of their rebellion, God sent them a message of comfort and hope.
God called them, “my people”. He still considers them his people. He still cares for and loves them. So, God comforted them by announcing the forgivness of their sins. God tells Israel that her warfare is over. Israel resembles an army unit who have been on a demanding tour of duty in a foreign country; the tour is over. Forginess means that Israel’s sin is pardoned, that is, they have been atoned for. The penalty of Israel’s sin was paid for even though she could do nothing to make amends for the debt she incurred. Seventy years in exile was not enough to pay for almost a thosand years of false worship! Instead of receiving what their sins deserve, they receive a double portion of good things. Who paid for Israel’s guilt? How did he do that? What sacrifice was offered?
We are in bondage and slavery too. Did you know that? We are in bondage to Satan, sin and death. So listen to the message of comfort. The message of comfort for Israel is ours also. Our hard service to sin is over, our guilt has been paid for, and our obligation satisfied. And this is nothing we have deserved. We haven’t done anything. We still deserve God’s present and eternal punishment. But instead we have been freed. Released. Forgiven. All debts paid. And on top of all of that, we get a double portion: grace upon grace. How is this possible? But who paid for our guilt? How did he do that?
Prepare his desert highway (vv. 3–8)
The scene changes: A voice commissions highway contractors to carve out a highway. The caravan route from Jerusalem to Babylon followed a huge arc northward, using known water sources. But this highway is being built on a direct route to Jerusalem, straight through the Desert. So, the mountains and hills need to be leveled and all the ditches and valleys filled in to make a desert highway.
What this means is that God is returning to Jerusalem. The forgiveness of Israel means that God will return to be with his people, because it is sin that separates us from God. The glory of God had left the city of Jerusalem on the eve of its fall to Babylon. (Ezekiel 10:18) Israel chose their sin over the Lord, and so he left them to their enemies. But now God has forgiven Israel. He intends to return to the city.
The leveling of mountains and filling of valleys means that every conceivable obstacle which could impede God’s return is removed. God is determined not to let any obstacles stop His eternal plan for mankind’s salvation. All opposition to the coming of God will be futile. The only thing that creatures of flesh can do is wither like grass and fade like a flower. On the other hand, nothing can undo what the mouth of the Lord says will happen. His Word stands forever.
Do you know what the glory of the Lord is? It’s God’s presence. The glory of the Lord is that cloud that covered the tabernacle. (Ex. 40:34) Remember when Solomon offered the opening prayer of the Temple and the entire temple was filled with the cloud, the glory of the Lord? (1 Kings 8:10-11) So the Jewish exiles naturally thought that this meant that when they rebuilt the Temple, that the same cloud of God’s glory would appear. However, at the dedication of the rebuilt temple, there was no cloud, no glory of God. So what happened? Where’s the glory of God? When will God return?
The gospel of Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1-8)
Israel’s deliverance from exile in Babylon is a picture of the greater deliverance which John the Baptist preached. John the Baptist was commissioned to “go before he Lord to prepare his ways” (Lk 1:76–79). He did so when he preached repentance “in the wilderness of Judea.” John is literally the voice crying in the wilderness! How does John prepare the way? How does he level the mountains? Every obstacle is removed, and the obstacle is our own sin. So, John preaches repentance. Repent because God is finally returning! That ancient prophecy in Isaiah is finally coming true. That’s his message. Those mountains and valleys that need to be leveled are your pride and self-righteousness, your crookedness, hypocrisy, and deceit. “You brood of vipers,” says John the Baptist, “Repent!” “The axe is already at the root of the tree.”
Repent because the Lord God himself is returning, just as Isaiah said. John spoke of the Mightier One and we look around and see John pointing to Jesus. And it is in that Jesus, whom John pointed to, that God’s glory has been revealed, for all flesh to see together. The Glory of God, veiled in human flesh. This is what we will see in Jesus of Nazareth. He is the Lord, God in the flesh, returning to his temple. In Him the message of comfort takes shape for you. You can be comforted because Christ went through the greatest discomfort for you! He was led bound, so you might be set free.
That comforting message resounds throughout Scripture. Jesus is the one promised in Eden who would crush the head of the serpent. He is Abraham’s Seed through whom all nations will be blessed. He is the Savior who was born “of the house and lineage of David” (Lk 2:4) as foretold. He is Isaiah’s Suffering Servant who was bruised for our iniquities and by whose stripes we are healed. In Jesus, God comforts us. Your sins are atoned for by the death of Christ. Jesus is your champion. Your slavery to sin is over. Christ has set you free. God has returned! Jesus is the good shepherd. He loves you and cares for you, and will lay down his life for the sheep. That’s you. This message of comfort, of forgiveness and liberation from Satan, sin, and death, is preached today from every pulpit still faithful to Christ. God comforts his people through every baptismal font and from this very communion rail. The Glory of the Lord is here. The very body and blood of the Lamb of God is hidden in with and under the bread and the wine, for us to eat and drink, a highway by which God comes to comfort us in Christ today.
And may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.