Monday, December 08, 2008

Words of Comfort / Isaiah 40:1-11

Audio here.

One of my favorite Christmas traditions is listening to Handel’s Messiah. In fact, I am so fond of it that I listen to it year ‘round. In fact, I cannot read this passage without hearing in the back of my mind the orchestral sounds of the first four pieces from Messiah. The Minnesota Orchestra is advertising their upcoming performance of Messiah by saying, “The first words you hear in Handel's beloved oratorio are "Comfort ye!"—and in the middle of the hectic holidays, this phrase falls like balm on the soul.” There are many who find themselves in this day and time in need of just such a balm to be applied to their souls. We need to hear words of comfort. The economy is bleak, the political stability of our nation is uncertain, wars and violence mark the global landscape, the rise of crime and the environmental crises create fear, despair, and stress in our lives. Besides all this, the holiday season itself presents a heavy load of strain with all the preparations, the shopping, the gatherings, and the family dysfunction. For some there is sadness over past hurts that are accentuated at the holidays, or the grief that has come upon realizing that death has taken a loved one away from our holiday gatherings. In the midst of all of this, what we need is a message of comfort, to know that there is a God who cares about our pain, our heartache, our stress, and the general state of affairs in our lives and in the world, and that He will speak and act. We have just such a message in these words.

Isaiah the Prophet was God’s spokesman to the Southern Kingdom of Judah during the latter half of the 700s BC. Throughout that time, the Assyrians repeatedly attempted to invade and conquer the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Because of the wickedness and idolatry of the kings and people in the Northern Kingdom, God allowed them to be defeated by the Assyrians in 722 BC. This gave rise to even greater fears that the Southern Kingdom would be next. When the righteous king Hezekiah came to the throne in Judah around 716, he instituted many legal and spiritual reforms. He repaired and cleansed the Temple and called the nation to return to faithfulness to God.

Around 704, Hezekiah contracted an illness that threatened to end his life. The story of his sickness can be found in Isaiah 38. But Hezekiah turned to the Lord in prayer, and God answered and healed him. God promised to add 15 years to Hezekiah’s life. But God also declared that He would deliver the people of Judah from the threat of the Assyrians. However, it was not long after this that Hezekiah was tempted to turn away from simply trusting the Lord for protection. He entered into an alliance with the king of Babylon to take up arms together against Assyria. Isaiah learned of this and told Hezekiah that because of this, the Lord has declared that the people and all the possessions of the land will be taken away to Babylon (39:5-7). And in saying this, of course, Isaiah was clearly prophesying the Babylonian captivity that would eventually befall Judah.

Understandably, the realization that the nation faces certain destruction and deportation produced despair among the people. But immediately following the promise of judgment comes this message of comfort that we have read today. The judgment must and will come because of the unfaithfulness of the king and his people, but God says to the people that He is still “your God” He says in 40:1, and He still calls them “My people.” And speaking to them as if they are already in the captivity, for it is now fixed in His providence, God speaks comfort to the nation through His prophet. He says to the prophet, “Comfort, O comfort My people. Speak kindly to (literally, speak to the heart of) Jerusalem.” What are these words of comfort that God would have His prophet speak to His people in the midst of their despair? What are these words that we need to hear today? They are words of promise that began to come to pass as the people of Israel emerged from captivity in Babylon, and which continued to develop through the birth, the life, the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, and which await ultimate fulfillment in the day of His return when His everlasting Kingdom of righteousness will be fully consummated. What the people of Isaiah’s day looked forward to, we look back upon. What they were called to believe by faith that God would do, we can believe by faith that God has done, and as we do we find the same comfort in these words that they found applied like a balm to our souls.

We see first of all in this message that …

I. We are comforted by words of gracious salvation (v2)

Twice the Lord says to the prophet, “Comfort,” suggesting emotional intensity. But the words with which Isaiah is to comfort them are not his own words. He is to speak to them the word of God. The verb tense of the phrase, “says your God,” indicates that God is repeatedly saying these words of comfort. The prophet is commissioned to speak to the hearts of all who are in Jerusalem these words of comfort concerning God’s gracious salvation. It is as if God is inviting them to receive the love that He desires to mercifully shower on them. Isaiah is ordered to tell Jerusalem that “her warfare has ended.” The word translated warfare here can also mean hard service or duress. This of course refers to the Babylonian captivity which is to come upon them in their future. It has yet to happen, but even before it takes place, God comforts them by telling them that is over. For seventy years, the Israelites will be captive in Babylon, but all the while they will be comforted in knowing that it is not forever. The time of duress will come to an end, for God has declared it.

And Isaiah is also commanded to say to the hearts of those in Jerusalem, “that her iniquity has been removed.” The Babylonian captivity was going to come about because of the sins of the people. God’s patience with the idolatry, unfaithfulness, and disobedience of Judah would reach its limit and the Babylonians would become the tool the Lord would use to discipline them. So, while the captivity would occur because of their sin, God has told them in advance that this iniquity would be removed. The word used here has to do with satisfaction. It tells us in essence that the sins of the people have been paid for and that they payment has been accepted by God as satisfactory. Now, what is interesting about this idea is that this wording is used elsewhere in the Bible only of God’s acceptance of the blood sacrifices in Leviticus. But this sacrifice that Isaiah refers to for the sins of the people is not one that they have provided for themselves, but rather they have received this “of the Lord’s hand.” God has not responded to their sins with the justice they deserve, but has provided “double for all her sins.” They have received a double portion of grace. God has provided the sacrifice, and God has accepted the sacrifice that is the sufficient payment for their sins.

How has God done this? What blood sacrifice does God have in view that is both provided and received by Him? It is none other than the sacrifice of which Isaiah writes in Chapter 53. There we are told of the coming Servant of the Lord who would bear our griefs and carry our sorrows, who would be pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, chastened for our well-being, and scourged for our healing. Though the prophet says, “All of us like sheep have gone astray,” he also says that, “the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.” Israel would await the coming of this suffering servant who would bear their sins. At this time of the year, we celebrate that He has come into the world, and it was for this purpose that He came – to bear the sins of humanity so that we may be saved from the judgment that our sins deserve. Israel would have been comforted to know that their captivity would not last forever, but would come to an end, and their sins would be paid for by God Himself. And regardless the conflict that we face today, the pain or hardship that we endure, we can be comforted as well by these words of gracious salvation—a salvation we do not deserve, but which God has provided abundantly by His grace for us in the person of Jesus Christ, who came to die for us.

There are more comforting words in this prophecy of Isaiah that we notice as well. In addition to the words of gracious salvation, …

II. We are comforted by words of revealed glory (vv3-5)

In some cultures, before a dignitary visits an outlying region, representatives are sent ahead to make sure that the roads are passable, that obstacles are removed, and that holes in the road are filled so that his travel will be along level ground. Here, Isaiah says that he has heard a voice crying out for just such a way to be prepared for a visitation that is to occur. But this is no earthly dignitary, but the King of Kings, the Lord Himself. “Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.” And once the way is prepared for His coming, “Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together.”
The people of Israel could cling to hope in the midst of hardship knowing that God Himself had promised to manifest Himself in their midst. This would comfort them in the dark days of their captivity, reminding them that the glory of the Lord would be revealed for all nations to see. The Apostle Paul tells us in Galatians 4:4, “In the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son.” That expression, “the fullness of time,” indicates that it was the precisely perfect moment in human history and in the timetable of God. All the necessary preparations had been made for the entry of the Messiah into the world. In Jesus Christ, the glory of the Lord is revealed for all humanity to behold. The writer of Hebrews says that Christ is the radiance of God’s glory. In His birth, His life, His teachings, His death on the cross, His resurrection and ascension, the glory of God has been revealed. As the message of Christ goes forth into all the world, all flesh can behold the glory of God through the eye of faith. As Paul says in 2 Cor 4;6, “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” Catch that – where do we find the knowledge of the glory of God? In the face of Christ! When the shepherds came from the field to look upon the babe in the manger, they were beholding the glory of God. When the wise men came later to the house where they dwelt, they knelt before the child in worship, for in Him was the glory of God made manifest. When Jesus was presented at the Temple, the old man Simeon took Him into his arms and cried out to God, “Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace,
According to Your word; For my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, A LIGHT OF REVELATION TO THE GENTILES, And the glory of Your people Israel.” And when He returns, all flesh will behold this glory together, and every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

No matter what darkness we face as we live in this fallen world, we can persevere for we know that God has made the brightness of His glory to shine upon us in the face of the Lord Jesus Christ. He has come to dwell among us. He has placed His glory within us in the person of His Spirit, and He is coming again triumphantly to reveal His glory to all humanity. Do you find yourself on difficult days doubting that this is true? Well, there is no need to doubt it, the prophet has told us, “The mouth of the Lord has spoken it!”

And this brings us to the third point …

III. We are comforted by words of eternal truth (vv6-8)

Isaiah hears a voice saying, “Call out!” But the prophet knows not what to call out. And so the voice he hears tells him, “All flesh is grass and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.” That word translated as loveliness is sometimes translated goodness or even glory. It is the Hebrew word chesed which is used repeatedly in the OT to express the faithfulness and covenant love of God to His people. Well that sounds pretty good, right? Flowers are pretty. We like flowers. But it is not the beauty of the flower to which God likens the faithfulness or loveliness of humanity. It is another attribute of the flower that God speaks of. “The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flower fades.” Yes, flowers, for all their beauty, are only a fleeting beauty. No sooner than they bloom but they begin to wither and fade. So it is with humanity and all the faithfulness that humanity can muster. It looks nice, but it is not lasting. Human beings and their deeds are temporary. We are frail, fallen, flawed, and fickle, like the tender petals of the flower. And just as God gives live by His Spirit, His ruach (the word translated as breath here), so He also brings an end to man’s days. Not many are the days of man upon the earth.

“But wait!”, we say. “I thought these were supposed to be words of comfort. This does not sound very comforting!” Indeed there is nothing we can say about the nature of humanity that is comforting. Comfort is not found in the nature of man, but rather in the nature of God. By His righteous nature, His words are true and trustworthy. Though mankind is fleeting, fading, fickle, frail and failing, the prophet must remind the people that “the word of our God stands forever!” Seventy years of time will elapse during the captivity of Babylon, and another 500 after that, in which Israel will wonder if the promises they have heard will come to pass. But God is not a man that He should lie. His word stands forever, and blessed are those who hold fast to those words patiently and persevere as they await the fulfillment of His Promise. The fact that God has spoken and that His Word stands forever is a great comfort to His people.

In God’s perfect time, not only would His word be fulfilled, His word would become Flesh. We are familiar with those words which open the Gospel According to John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God, … and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” In the birth of Jesus, all the promises and prophecies of what God would do for His people became incarnate. The hope of redemption, the hope of deliverance, of forgiveness of sin and the hope of salvation emerged from the virgin’s womb to be wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in the manger. As the writer of Hebrews says, God, who had spoken in the past in various ways, had spoken fully and finally to man in the person of Jesus.

As we persevere in the life of faith awaiting Christ’s return, we find ourselves surrounded by those who seek to persuade us to abandon the promises of God to which we cling by faith. Peter writes in 2 Pet 3:4 that mockers will say, “Where is the promise of His coming?” But if we will let our mind venture back to the manger, we will be reminded that God’s word stands forever. In the birth of the Christ of Christmas, we have the full assurance that every promise He has made will come to pass. As Paul writes in 2 Cor 1:10, “For as many as are the promises of God, in Him they are yes; therefore also through Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us.” We are comforted by this message that “the Word of our God stands forever.”

Finally, we look to verses 9-11, and find that, in addition to the comfort that we can have through the words of gracious salvation, the words of revealed glory, the words of eternal truth, …

IV. We are comforted by words of tender care (vv9-11)

In these verses the one who has been commissioned begins to commission others. You who believe God’s comforting words, announce them to others. Get yourself up on a high mountain and tell this good news so that everyone can hear it. Say to them, “Here is your God!” Literally, “Behold” or “Look!” “Here is God!” Though He is coming with a ruling arm, notice also that this same arm will gather those who are His close to His heart as He carries them like a shepherd. He has not born His arm for wrath, but for mercy. Notice the words of tender care in the imagery of this Shepherd. He tends His flock, He gathers His lambs, He carries them in His bosom, He gently leads the nursing ewes.

The imagery of sheep and Shepherd is used throughout the Bible. We are familiar with the tender words of His care found in Psalm 23. We have seen the words of Isaiah 53, “All we like sheep have gone astray.” We know the promise of the Lord Jesus, “I am the Good Shepherd.” We recall that when Jesus miraculously fed the multitude, that He looked upon them with compassion for they were like sheep without a shepherd. This is the state of humanity separated from God, wandering aimlessly through the world following only the destructive instincts of human nature. But Christ has come to gather His sheep in His arms and carry them close to His heart with tender care.

Do you find yourself fearful in this world? Confused, distressed, and in despair? Fear not! Enter into the fold of the Shepherd who loves you, who was born for you, who has laid down His life for the sheep. Look upon the child in Bethlehem’s manger and “Behold your God.” Hear this word of comfort and receive it, and then like the shepherds of Bethlehem, go out glorifying and praising God, go to the mountaintops and shout this message that God has come to us in the person of Jesus that we might be saved. He is coming again, and will bear His arm in judgment as a righteous ruler, but He has come first to bear the arm of a Shepherd. He calls us to come to Him like sheep and receive His mercy, His compassion, and the care of His tender affection.

Comfort, O Comfort My people, says your God. Speak kindly to them. Speak to their hearts. Call out to them. And what shall we call out to them that might comfort them? We point them to the babe in the manger and say “Behold your God!” And we speak words of gracious salvation, revealed glory, eternal truth, and tender care.

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