This sermon was preached at Peace Hill Christian Fellowship on December 4th, 2012. To listen to the audio, just click on this link – Is 40.
Right now, we are celebrating Advent. Each Sunday in Advent takes a different theme regarding Jesus’ birth and reflects on it. This Sunday, we are looking at the theme of prophecy – the promises our spiritual ancestors received about God returning to them and caring for them. Focusing on themes like prophecy helps us ready ourselves for Christmas – for the arrival of our promised and long-expected savior. It also points us forward to His second coming, the day He will restore peace to His world completely.
As we look forward to the coming Christ, Isaiah 40 helps us center ourselves by calling us to reflect, listen, anticipate and receive.
REFLECT on our need for merciful intervention
Isaiah 40 describes a place and people who are frail and exhausted, weary from fighting and desperate for rescue. It comes at the end of a long period of judgment on Israel for their rebellion against God and hateful treatment of each other. They’ve wandered in exile for a long time and feel keenly that God is distant and has forgotten them. They’ve been at war with neighboring countries for as long as they can remember, and the battle never seems to let up. Throughout the book of Isaiah, they’re characterized by systematic oppression of the weak and vulnerable, by consistent involvement in reprehensible behaviors, and by repeated rejection of God and His holy standard. Their time at war and in exile is a constant reminder of where they’ve come from. They are not just in a physical wilderness, far from home, but are spiritually desolate.
At the end of their long battle Israel is finally ready to acknowledge that they are in desperate need of change. Their current situation points to death, to abandonment, to warfare, to destruction (v 2). They feel the weight of their burdens; they feel their own mortality (flesh as grass, vs. 6-7). Under this crushing load, they are finally prepared to listen closely for their savior’s coming.
Isaiah’s promise speaks of Israel’s return from exile, which God was about to accomplish for them. But it also points to a deeper fulfillment, and in that sense, it was not until John the Baptist appears that the themes of Isaiah 40 take a more solid shape. He is described in the gospels as the voice crying in the wilderness. He served as the preparer, challenging the people of his day to reflect on their conditions, their need, and to turn away from their destructive habits and towards the coming hope.
The heavier our burdens feel, the more pressing the battle, the more we long for promised relief. Advent is first a time of reflection. We experience the same judgment as Israel, if not to the same degree.
We need to remember who we are, and how far away we and this world are from what God has intended. We cannot long for merciful intervention until we first recognize that we need it. Where is your life a wasteland? Where do you find yourself overwhelmed with warfare? Where do you feel like you are far from home? Where do you feel most keenly the need for a mighty rescuer to come?
LISTEN for the words of comfort and sounds of approach
At the end of their long battle and exile, Israel hears the words they’ve longed for: Take comfort! You are MY people (v 1). I am returning to end your fighting and to bring victory. Your time of judgment is over. No more war. Your iniquities are forgiven. You’ve carried your sins long enough (vs 1- 2).
It’s likely that Israel had forgotten what their God sounded like. At the end of their judgment, they had to re-train their ears to hear good news. Their God approaches! And (SURPRISINGLY) he does not come in wrath and anger. He comes to bring peace and gentle comfort.
God’s words to his people are densely packed with hope. He lays out an image of a city, once ruined and without hope, now reinvigorated to battle on by the returning king. And he promises a speedy arrival. As the listener strains his ears, he can hear voices in the desert commanding workers to level the rough path, to streamline it for fast travel (vs. 3-4). Take comfort! God is coming, and he is coming quickly and with powerful reinforcements.
Our God, who is strong enough to level mountains, to raise valleys, comes with the promise of reward and victory, not judgment. He brings with him riches where there was destitution (v 10). And he comes to lead his people, not with a heavy hand, but gently, gathering them like a mother scoops up a weary child (v 11). He comes to win the battle for us (v 2). He comes to reveal His glory to everyone (v 5) and his glory appears in his tender, effective care of his beloved creation (vs 11). What comfort this is! As if this was not enough, he declares that his promise stands forever (vs 8).
As we reflect on our need for God to come and restore us, we must also listen for his promise to do so. Spend time remembering your need, yes. But do not stop there. Listen, also, for God’s promise to meet you in your need.
ANTICIPATE his imminent arrival
Part of listening to God’s promise of returning to care for his people is believing this promise, living as though it were true. Israel receives the news of comfort – Your savior approaches! They could choose to be cynical in their response: “I’ll believe it when I see it” and return to going about their daily business, assuming God to be either unable or unwilling to save them.
But Isaiah charges them with a different approach. He calls them to go up to the high mountains and prepare to shout at the first signs of God’s approach. He calls them to watch intently, looking not only for God, but for the protection and peace He brings in his royal caravan. He calls them to *anticipate* God’s coming, to act like it will happen at any moment. He commands them to “lift up” the good news and “fear not” because their God is in sight (v 9).
Anticipating our savior’s coming involves peeling away our trepidation and hesitancy. We are accustomed to dealing with ourselves and this world. We expect to fail. We do not believe that our hope is just over the horizon, hastening his return. We get discouraged in the darkness, and give up straining our eyes to see the dawning.
Isaiah says, God is coming soon, and that is good news! He challenges us to actively believe this – to re-enter the battle. And, in the midst of battle, he tells us to lay aside our fears, because our savior is coming quickly and will lead us away from harm. Part of preparing for the coming savior is living in anticipation of his arrival, believing he’s near. And we can anticipate on this level because he is not simply NEAR. In Christ, he HAS arrived! Christ has come to set in motion his final victory over brokenness and evil.
RECEIVE His restorative mercy
Because our savior, Christ, has come, we are able to continue our battle. Isaiah challenged Israel to look to the horizon for their coming warrior-king, and to believe his victory to be imminent. We stand in a different place from Israel. Christ has come. But in His first appearance, Christ came in meekness, restoring relationship with his people. Our iniquity is pardoned (as promised in verse 2) because Christ has come. Our sins are covered because Christ has come. God gently leads us through a treacherous world (as promised in verse 11) because Christ has come. As members of God’s family, we receive the gifts of Christ’s first coming.
So we can wait in hope, not guilty fear, as Christ will come again. When he does, he will arrive as the warrior-king, who swiftly comes to the rescue of his battle-weary people. Until the day of His return, our battle is not won though our victory is sure. We still wait in expectation of the day He triumphs fully over death and sin. Sometimes, the battle rages around us and we grow weary, feeling like there will be no end, no respite, no victory. In those times we must remember that we have received the power Christ has given us through His first coming – the power of relationship with Him. He says He is our guide, that all is not lost, and that He battles for us. He is not simply a reinforcement; He is the one who will win victory and peace on our behalf. But until he does, we are still at war within ourselves and with a world that defaults to death and despair. There are places in each of our lives where we think change is impossible. We think the situation is hopeless. How would our vision change if we saw our powerful rescuer approaching swiftly? We must live in hope of our savior, coming over the horizon, ready to complete his promise to fill all the world with his glory and peace, even as we receive and experience God’s gentle care now.
Advent is a time of active waiting; of remembering, listening, anticipating and receiving. Look to the horizon for the day when your savior will come in final victory. But live now in the first-fruits of that victory. Do not be consumed by the brokenness of your life and the wasteland this world often is. Instead, know that Christ has come, has strengthened us, has entered into empowering relationship with us, and has shown Himself to be trustworthy. And allow that truth to reshape your brokenness into the place where you long all the more deeply for his final return, for the time when he will come again to put all things to right.