The messenger cries out (Dec 6, 2020)
The messenger cries out
Sunday Worship – December 6, 2020
Sermon text: Isaiah 40:1-11
Watch our livestream: https://youtu.be/DGG27w9T7n4
I’m abruptly awoken by a scream and continued crying in the other room. I quickly get out of bed and start hushing my child as I walk down the hall – not quite to his bedside yet. “Shhhh, shhhh, shhhh.” I kneel down by his bedside and wrap him in a hug. He’s in a cold sweat. “It’s ok,” I say. “You’re ok. I’ve got you.” “I had a bad dream,” he says softly with trembling in his voice. “It’s ok. It’s over now. Your dream has ended.” Then, still wrapped in my warm hug, he quickly falls back asleep.
This is the idea of what the people of Jerusalem were going through. Like something out of a bad dream, their homes were burned. God’s Temple was destroyed. They were dragged away from their homes and forced to live in a foreign land. Only… when they woke up, the bad dream was not yet over. Every morning they woke up in a house that didn’t quite feel like home. Every day they lived in a land that still felt foreign. They faced difficult decisions like Daniel, who was thrown into a lion’s den because he would not give up his time of prayer. Or like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who were thrown into a furnace because they refused to bow down to a king and worship him like a god. These were scary times that God’s people were living in. Times they knew they deserved because of their previous rebellion against God, and cluttering their lives with idols. They sinned against God, and now they were living the nightmare that resulted.
At the beginning of Isaiah’s prophecy, God spelled out very clearly why they were enduring this. “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand. Woe to the sinful nation, a people whose guilt is great, a brood of evildoers, children given to corruption! They have forsaken the LORD; they have spurned the Holy One of Israel and turned their backs on him” (Is 1:2-4). Their punishment was just. The nightmare they were now living in was the consequence of their own sinfulness – their rejecting God. But, God does not punish simply to punish. He disciplines his people so that they see the wickedness of their ways and turn back to him. This Babylonian captivity was brought about so that God’s people would realize their sinfulness and rely on their LORD again as their loving Father.
So, Isaiah proclaims, “In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain” (Is 40:3-4). This is your heart, O Israel! This is your condition, O Judah! You put up so many obstacles. You barricade your heart from the LORD and fill it with all kinds of sinfulness. You were proud as you allied with heathen nations, hoping that by their power you would withstand the battles, but you have forsaken the One who is strong to save. You set up idols and shrines on every high place and hill – praying to them for rain, or crops, or children – but you forget the one who sends the rain, causes the seeds to grow, and blesses you with children. You doubt and waver in your trust in the one who gave you a Promised Land, so you clutter your homes with every trinket and fill your lives with meaningless rituals. Knock these down, and fill them in. Prepare the way for the LORD!
You think you are standing firm?! That you have created a name and legacy for yourselves, deeply rooted that will not fall? “All people are like grass,” the LORD says through Isaiah, “and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field… The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them” (Is 40:6-7). As demonstrated by the current bad dream they were living in – captivity under Babylon – when the LORD speaks his judgment, sinful people wither and fall. The messenger cries out: We are nothing. “The glory of the LORD will be revealed” (Is 40:5). I know that sounds like an uplifting Gospel proclamation, but remember what God declared about his glory, “No one may see me and live” (Ex 33:20). God’s glory is a devouring fire to all sin and unbelief. That is why when Isaiah saw the glory of the LORD, he cried out in despair, “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty” (Is 6:5).
This ought to shake every one of us to the core as well. Open our eyes and wake us from sleep because this is the same LORD who is coming to judge once again. What mountains in your life need to be leveled? Is it elevating certain activities or hobbies to a level where they become the number one priority on Sunday morning? Is it the hill of self-satisfaction where your sinful lifestyle has become more important than the life that God commands? What are your valleys? Do you feel trapped in a pit of despair because surely your sinfulness is too much – too much to be forgiven, too much for God? Do you doubt that the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies you from all sin? Do God’s Words spoken against Israel hold true for you and me? “I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but [you] do not know, my people do not understand” (Is 1:2-3). Realize that you and I are nothing – like grass that withers – if God and his ways are not number one in our lives. Realize that you and I are can do nothing – like flowers that fall – if God is not our only hope of salvation. We too, cry out, “Woe to me! I am ruined! The Word of the Lord condemns me. There is no way I can knock down my sinful mountains and fill in my valleys of doubt. I am nothing. Even in my waking moments I am trapped in the nightmare of sin.”
But here, in Isaiah chapter 40, once we and Israel have understood God’s messengers – that we can do nothing – the tone changes. God’s children startled by their condition, terrified by their sinfulness, have woken up and are crying out for their Father! And this is his response, “Nachamu, Nachamu,” “Comfort, comfort my child” (Is 40:1). I had to say the Hebrew because it is the same root word as my child’s name: Nehemiah, “Nechemiah” means “The LORD comforts.” “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, 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” (Is 40:1-2). These were the words spoken to God’s Children when he was coming down the hall. Not quite there yet… but coming soon. And just as my child is comforted just by hearing my voice, so too, God’s people are comforted just by hearing his voice because they know he is certainly coming.
“The glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it” (Is 40:5). That glory is a devouring fire to all unbelief. But it is also a saving power to all who believe. The Glory of the Lord was revealed in the pillar of fire in the Old Testament when God rescued his people from Egypt. But it is revealed most dramatically when the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (Jn 1:14-18). These same words, proclaimed while God was still “coming down the hall,” so to speak, were repeated again when he entered our world. John is the voice calling in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him” (Mk 1:3).
Jesus, your Savior is here! What the Father’s call promised, “Comfort, comfort” (Is 40:1), Jesus supplied. He knocked down the high positions of false teachers, identifying them as a “brood of vipers.” He leveled the pride that came from self-righteousness. He also went into the valleys of sinfulness to bind up broken hearts and proclaim forgiveness of sin. Then he became sin in our place, paid for it all on the cross, and rose triumphant! Therefore, “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, 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” (Is 40:2). Notice, all of these are in the passive. Her “hard service” – that can mean “military service” or “trials” it’s completed! Her sin has been paid for – not by Israel herself, but by someone else. God has done this. “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Is 53:5). It’s done for you. The messenger cries out, “He is everything.” And you might be thinking, “But Jesus hasn’t paid for sin yet in Isaiah’s time. How can he say it is ‘completed’?” So certain is God’s Word that when his messenger speaks, it’s as if it has already been done. In fact, in God’s eyes it has been done because he is the beginning and the end. And, that “double” that Isaiah talks about – “Double for all her sins” (Is 40:2) – it’s not referring to a double punishment, but the “double portion.” The “double blessing” that was given as an inheritance. The punishment is paid by Jesus, so you do not receive punishment, but blessing.
Now, “See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm” (Is 40:10). He is once again coming down the hallway to rescue and save you! “See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart” (Is 40:10-11). The messenger cries out, He is everything!
Isaiah looked far into the future and saw him, “Comfort, comfort my people” (Is 40:1). John heralds the Christ who has come, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him” (Mk 1:3). Finally, Peter urges readiness for Christ’s second and final advent. “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise… Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Pt 3:9). “The day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be?” (2 Pt 3:10-11).
Take some time this week to identify your mountains – the things you make so important in your lives that they compete with God for your time, or things that become your way of climbing up to God. Perhaps asking an honest friend or your spouse would be a good help in identifying these. Then, don’t just stop at identifying, but have a plan to etch away at these mountains little by little – with God’s help – until they are flat. Identify also the valleys in your life – doubts you have about God, and lingering guilt over sin. Then turn to his Word and search the Scriptures for the promises he proclaims to fill in these valleys. Here also, having someone you know is faithful to the Word speak God’s promises of hope to you can be helpful. It’s true, we are nothing. But the messenger cries out, “He is everything.”