Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-11
Title: God’s comfort
- God’s comfort
This morning we follow the lectionary reading for the second Sunday in Advent
– In case you’re wondering what a lectionary is, it’s simply a list of prescribed Bible readings for each day
– And the Old Testament reading prescribed for today (the 10th December 2017) is Isaiah 40:1-11
– As I keep saying the word Advent means ‘coming’
– Isaiah 40 is about the advent (or the coming) of the Lord.
– From verse 1 we read…
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak to Jerusalem’s heart, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
3 A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. 5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
6 A voice says, “Cry out.”
And I said, “What shall I cry? All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. 7 The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”
9 You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” 10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. 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.
May the Spirit of Jesus illuminate this Scripture for us
By the rivers of Babylon, where we sat down
There we wept, as we remembered Zion…
Can anyone tell me the name of the 1970’s pop group who sang that song?
– [Wait for people to reply…]
– Yes, that’s right, it was Boney M.
Now can anyone tell me where they got the idea and words for that song?
– [Wait for people to reply…]
– ‘By the rivers of Babylon’ comes from Psalm 137, a song of lament, written by the Jews living in exile in Mesopotamia
In 586 BC King Nebucadnezzar destroyed the city of Jerusalem, killed thousands and forced many of the survivors to leave their homeland
– This all happened because the people of Judah had broken faith with God
– They had betrayed the Lord and dragged his name through the mud
– So God left the temple and let his people suffer the consequences of their own injustice
– The surviving Jews were held captive as exiles in Mesopotamia for about 70 years. Isaiah chapters 40-55 are words of comfort & hope for the exiles
Probably, for most of us here, the word comfort is a soft word
– When I hear the word ‘comfort’ I tend to think of a pillow for my head or comfort food, like ice-cream, or a soft toy for comforting a small child
– But I don’t think this is what God has in mind when he says, ‘Comfort my people’
If you are lost in the bush then having a compass is far more comforting than having a pillow
– Or if you are trapped in a deep hole, then being thrown a rope is far more comforting than being thrown a tub of ice-cream
– Or if you fall overboard at sea, then wearing a lifejacket is more comforting than holding a teddy bear
– The comfort God offers gives real, tangible meaning & hope in the most bitter and hopeless of circumstances
– It’s the comfort of a compass and a rope and a life jacket, not the comfort of pillows and ice-cream and soft toys
The people are hurting, they have suffered much and so the Lord says: speak comfort to Jerusalem’s heart
– The heart of Jerusalem is not it’s buildings or its sacred sites
– The heart of Jerusalem is its people
– So when God says speak to Jerusalem’s heart he is really saying, speak to the people of Jerusalem
– And in the context of Isaiah 40, written hundreds of years before Christ, most of the people of Jerusalem are living in exile, they are not actually living in the city itself – so this message of comfort is meant for the exiles
We’ve heard a bit about Jerusalem in the news this past week
– Donald Trump’s words were comforting to the Israelis but very discomforting to the Palestinians
– I wonder what it would mean to speak words of comfort to Jerusalem’s heart today (roughly 2,500 years later)
– If the heart of Jerusalem is it’s people then we would have to say Jerusalem’s heart is divided today
– Ethnically speaking the people of Jerusalem aren’t just Jewish, they are also Palestinian
– And from a religious perspective they’re not just orthodox Jews, they are also Muslim and Christian and other things besides.
I don’t think Jesus would get involved in a political argument over who Jerusalem belongs to
– Jesus died for the Israelis and the Palestinians – he loves them both
– Donald Trump is trying answer the wrong question
– The question is not: Who owns Jerusalem?
– The question is: Will you be ready when Jesus returns?
Verse 2 continues …proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed
– In Hebrew, the term hard service is the same term used for compulsory military service
– So it is like saying to the exiles that their tour of duty is over
– No more war for them, no more destruction and chaos – they have done their time
The last part of verse 2 reads…
– Proclaim… that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
– Now when I first read this, I thought to myself, it sounds like Israel has paid for her own sins by suffering punishment from God
– And that God has punished her twice over – more than she deserved
– But that can’t be right – God is just & merciful – with God the punishment is never greater than the crime
Israel’s injustice toward God and their neighbours was like an infected wound that had to be cleansed, quarterised and dressed
– Their hard service wasn’t so much payment for their sin as it was painful but necessary surgery to heal a wound
I was sitting in WINZ the other day (as you do) and they had this advertisement playing on their TV, with three guys in the pub betting on the races
– One of the guys spent his wife’s hard earned money on a horse to win but he lost it all and ‘Guilty Feeling’ won instead
– As a consequence the power bill didn’t get paid
– Worse than this though the man had to live with the consequences of having abused his wife’s trust
Israel were like the guy in the ad with the gambling problem
– They had bet on idolatry and broken trust with the Lord
– God allowed Israel to suffer the consequences of their sin and disobedience so the nation would be humbled and learn their lesson
– It was a kind of tough love approach by God, in much the same way that we might have to show tough love to someone with a gambling addiction
When the text says, She has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins, it doesn’t mean that God has punished Israel twice over for her wrong
– It means that God himself has paid for Israel’s mistakes in full
– You see, the word double does not mean twice over, in this context
– The Hebrew word for double here means two sided (or double sided)
– The same word is used in Job 11:6, which reads …for true wisdom has two sides. Know this: God has even forgotten some of your sin.
– So to receive from God ‘double’ actually means that God has paid for (or forgiven) all of Israel’s sins
– Not just the ones that Israel knows about but also the sins they are not conscious of – the sins on the flipside
Have you ever wondered about the sins you have committed without being aware of it? I have.
– On the rare occasions that I buy an item of clothing I wonder whether it was made with slave labour
– I don’t break into people’s homes and steal stuff but I do participate in a global economic system that transfers wealth from the poor to the rich in unjust ways – we are all part of that system whether we like it or not
– Unless we were to live in the desert making our own clothes, eating locusts and wild honey I don’t see how we can avoid being complicit
– The good news is that God’s forgiveness for us is double sided
– Christ has paid for our all our sins – both the ones we know of and the ones we don’t.
– I’m not suggesting that means we can turn a blind eye to injustice
– The point is: God’s grace is often far greater than we imagine
In verses 3-5 of Isaiah 40 we hear a voice calling…
– “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God…”
With these verses the Jewish exiles are being told that the Lord God, Yahweh, is coming and they are to build a highway for him
Construction of Transmission Gully is well underway – a 27 kilometre four-lane motorway which will run from Mackays Crossing to Linden, through Transmission Gully.
– The new motorway is scheduled to be open for traffic in 2020.
Developing the Transmission Gully Motorway was controversial, and was a topic of considerable debate in Wellington politics for some time.
– There are anecdotal accounts that the American Marines were keen to build a road inland through Transmission Gully in World War II, but the government did not have the material (the concrete) to spare.
Building a literal highway for regular motorists in the 21st Century is a significant and costly undertaking
– Building a metaphorical highway for the Lord is also a significant task – it means personal & corporate change, repentance basically
– Straightening out our lifestyle so we are ready when Jesus returns
It is significant that the Lord makes his way through the desert wilderness
– In the ancient world the wilderness was generally a metaphor for chaos and a place where God was thought to be absent
– To say the Lord will come to his people through the wilderness is like saying that God will restore order out of the chaos
– God will make his presence most real in the places he was thought to be most absent
As a family, we found God in the desert
– I don’t mean that we literally drove out to the central plateau to meet God
– I mean that we became Christians when my grandmother died
– She had cancer but by the time they discovered it the cancer had spread to her liver and there wasn’t much they could do for her
– Nan came to live in our house for the last few months of her life before she died. I was about 10 or 11 at the time
– Now you would think that nothing good could come out of that but actually God came to us through that desert experience
– He didn’t heal my nan but she did place her trust in Jesus before she passed and as a consequence we began following Jesus too
It’s funny how God is often most real for us when we are in a place of deep suffering and disorientation – a desert place
– It’s our need that makes us open to receive God
– And it’s the desert that makes us aware of our need
Verse 5 says…
– And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together.
– What does this mean?
– Well, the word glory can mean a number things depending on the context
– In Isaiah 40 the glory of the Lord refers to the manifestation of God’s presence. God’s glory is the sign or the indicator that God is present
It’s easy to tell when a human being is present – you know that I’m here because I have a physical body that you can see and hear and touch (hopefully you can’t smell me from where you are)
– In a sense our bodies are our glory – they are a physical manifestation of our presence
– But God is not like us – he isn’t made of flesh & bones – He is Spirit and so how do we know when God is present?
Well, it’s a little bit like knowing whether someone is home or not, without actually going into the house
– You can usually tell someone is home because their car is in the driveway
– Or, if it’s night time the lights are on and, if its dinner time, you might smell food cooking
– We could say the car, the lights and the cooking smells are the glory of the house, in the sense that they are signs of the homeowner’s presence
God’s glory, his presence, can be seen in a whole variety of ways
– We might see God’s glory (or presence) manifest in a sunrise or when our prayers are answered or when someone makes a decision to follow Jesus
For me personally, one sign of God’s glory (or presence) in my day is synchronicity – being in the right place at the right time
– For example, last Thursday someone from water services came to fix the leaky water toby behind the hall
– Just as I was hopping into my car to leave for an offsite appointment I noticed the plumber coming round the back of the church
– He was having trouble finding the leaky toby – and to be fair it is hard to find, being half way up the bank hidden in the bushes behind the hall
– So I showed him where the leak was and he fixed it
– Had I been a minute earlier or later I would have missed him and he probably would have left without fixing the leak
Now that might seem to you like a mere coincidence or a minor detail
– But for me it was a manifestation of God’s glory, a small sign of His presence in my day
– Had I missed the plumber it would have created more work for me because then I’d have to ring the Council back and get them to send someone again – which would be a bit of a wind up
– By making sure I was in the right place at the right time God saved both me and the plumber time & frustration
– Little things like that are a great comfort to me because they demonstrate in a very real and practical way that God is present – I’m not alone
When the people of Israel left their slavery in Egypt the Lord led them by a pillar of fire & cloud – this pillar was another form of the glory of God
– People could look at the pillar and see that God was present with them, sort of like seeing the lights on at night and knowing the owner of the house was at home – it was a tremendous comfort to the people
– In ancient Israel the Tabernacle and then later the temple in Jerusalem were also manifestations of God’s glory (signs of his presence)
Obviously when the temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC that was a sign that the lights were off, that God’s glory had departed and the Lord’s presence had left the building
– So when it says in verse 5 the glory of the Lord will be revealed, the exiles can draw strength & comfort in the certain knowledge that God’s presence is returning to them – they are not alone
– Verse 5 doesn’t tell us specifically how God’s glory will be revealed
– Initially, we could say it was revealed in the return of the exiles and the rebuilding of the temple
– But looking beyond that we know (from our vantage point in history) that God’s glory is perfectly revealed in the person of Jesus Christ
Over 500 years later the gospel writers would use these words from Isaiah 40 in reference to John the Baptist and Jesus
– They would identify John as the voice of one calling in the wilderness
– And they would name Jesus as the glory of the Lord revealed to all humankind
– For it is through the humanity of Jesus that God chose to make visible his presence with his people
– And it is through the suffering of Jesus that God chose to reveal his glory
In verses 3-5 we heard the voice of someone calling in the wilderness
– Then in verses 6-8 we hear a different voice, or rather two voices:
– A heavenly voice and human voice 
– The heavenly voice says, “Cry out”
– And the human voice responds, “What shall I cry? All people are like grass, & all their glory is like the flowers of the field. 7 The grass withers & the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them…”
Last year we went to the West Coast of the South Island for a bit of a look around – we’d never been there before
– We stopped at Franz Joseph for a night or two
– I remember walking up the valley toward the glacier with these massive stone cliffs either side of us
– The valley had been carved out of solid rock over many thousands of years as the glacier ice moved backwards and forwards through the valley
– We are here for 70 or 80 years maybe, if we’re lucky but this valley, the mountains and the glacier, had been there for millennia upon millennia
– It gives you a sense of the fleeting nature of human life
Being in a place as old as that begs the question: What is the meaning of our lives when our lives are so short?
– In a paradoxical sort of way though, being close to something so ancient actually comforted me
– It quieted my soul, putting all my worries & anxieties into perspective
The human voice (in verses 6 & 7) sounds a note of despair, which is what we would expect from someone who has lost so much and was living in exile
– It’s like this person is saying: What’s the point in telling people that God is coming? By the time he arrives we’ll probably be dead anyway
– What’s the point in comforting people, we are like flowers, here today and gone tomorrow – human life is so fragile, so fleeting and God’s advent (His coming) is so slow (like a glacier)
– But despair eventually gives way to hope for the word of our God endures forever
– It is the enduring nature of God’s word that puts our worries into perspective and gives meaning to the transitory nature of human life
– God’s word is super food for our soul when we are starved for meaning
We hear the content of the message of comfort in verses 10 & 11…
– See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.
The image we have of God here is that of a mighty warrior king
– If you are a weak, vulnerable, defenceless nation then it is a comfort knowing you are under the protection of the most powerful force on earth
– Or, to use another analogy, if you are being held hostage it is a comfort knowing the Navy Seals are on their way to your rescue
The reward accompanying God (the warrior King) is most likely a poetic reference to the Jewish exiles – the people are the treasure, the recompense
– God is about to set his captive people free and lead them back from exile to their homeland in Judea and Jerusalem
But God is not one dimensional – there are many facets and layers to God’s character
– As well as being a warrior King the Lord is also a shepherd gathering the lambs in his arms and carrying them close to his heart, gently leading those with young
Not only is God powerful & strong like a warrior King (so that no enemy can resist), he is also tender & gentle like a shepherd (so the weak won’t be left behind) 
– These twin images offer real practical comfort to the people
When we put it all together the message is…
– God is on the move and the exiles’ sense of God’s absence will soon be replaced by a sense of God’s presence
– This is good news – a message of real comfort
– Not the soft superficial comfort of pillows, ice-cream and teddy bears
– But the real life saving comfort of a compass when we are lost in the bush, or a rope from above when we are at the bottom of a pit, or a life jacket when we fall overboard
In John 14, the night before he died, Jesus spoke words of comfort to his disciples – He promised them the gift of His Holy Spirit
– God’s Spirit is intimately connected with God’s glory
– It is by God’s Spirit that we become aware of God’s presence both in the ordinary things of our lives as well as the extra-ordinary
Questions for reflection or discussion:
1.) What sort of comfort is meant in Isaiah 40?
– What comforts you?
2.) Reflect / discuss the double sided forgiveness of God
3.) How do we prepare a highway for the Lord?
4.) What is the significance of God coming through the desert wilderness?
– Think of a time when God has met you in (or through) a desert experience
5.) What is the glory of the Lord?
– How do you know God is present with you?
6.) How does Jesus reveal the glory of God?
7.) Ask God to make you aware of presence this Advent season and make a note of how he answers your prayer
 These speech marks follow the NIV translation. The original Hebrew doesn’t have speech marks.
 Refer Barry Webb’s commentary on Isaiah, page 163.