Preaching with passion - Isaiah 40:1-11
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
If you want to relax in your house by watching a DVD you’ve never
seen before, where would you choose to start the film? At the beginning, somewhere
part way through or right at the end? The answer is obvious, isn’t it?
If we want to understand what we are about to see then the most sensible approach
is to follow the plot from the very beginning. Start watching part way through
and no doubt we’ll end up confused. Confused about who is on the screen
and confused about what they are doing.
The same is true with the Bible story. Start reading part way through without a knowledge of what has come before and it is very easy to be left confused. Confused about who is who on the page and confused about what they are doing.
What can we do if we find ourselves part way through the Bible story and part way through a Bible book, like we are tonight? Part way through the Bible and part way through the book of Isaiah. So how can we make sure we understand what we read in Isaiah 40? Well, like watching a movie part way through, it’s vital that we quickly understand the important points in the story so far.
What do we need to know if we are to understand Isaiah chapter 40 properly? Isaiah was a prophet, that is someone who spoke God’s word to his people, between the years 740BC to about 700BC. We can read what he said to his contemporaries in chapters 1-39. His basic message was, “If as God’s people you keep on living in rebellion against God, he will judge you seriously, as your sin deserves, by removing you from the land of promise and taking you as exiles into the land of Babylon.” And this is exactly what happened. In 587BC, long after Isaiah was dead, the Babylonians demolished Jerusalem and carried off most of the Jewish people to a foreign land, far away from home. And here they stayed for many painful decades.
All this was communicated by the prophet Isaiah to his own generation. He was told by God what would happen in the future if the behaviour of God’s people did not change. And he preached this message with boldness, confidence and clarity to his contemporaries.
However, look at what we read in verses 1 and 2 of Isaiah 40. “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.”
Do you notice what is different in these two verses from the way I summarised the message contained in the first 39 chapters? In chapters 1-39 the hard service is still to come and in the other it has come to an end. The best way to explain these differences is to say that as well as preaching publicly to his own generation God also gave the prophet Isaiah a private message to a future generation. A message that would be preserved until the day when those who were living as exiles in Babylon would need a word of comfort, a word of reassurance that their exile was not the end of the story. And this is the message we read from chapter 40 onwards.
I just love the way it begins. It is so full of intimate language. Here is passionate preaching. Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Don’t bash them over the head with unfeeling rhetoric. These are a broken people so comfort them in their pain. Don’t offer them empty comfort or hard truth. Offer them emotional truth. Your manner must reflect your message.
Who is this message for? In verse 1 it’s ‘my people’ and in verse 2 it’s ‘to Jerusalem’. Jerusalem does not always refer to the physical city. It can also refer to God’s people wherever they are. And so here Jerusalem is a reference to God’s people in exile, not the physical city destroyed by the Babylonians. This message is for God’s people in exile.
What is the message? It’s good news, verse 2. Proclaim to God’s people that their 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.”
Way back in the book of Leviticus God told his people what would happen if they rebelled against him when they moved into the Promised Land. This is what we read in Leviticus 26:43, “For the land will be deserted by them and will enjoy its sabbaths while it lies desolate without them. They will pay for their sins because they rejected my laws and abhorred my decrees. Yet in spite of this, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or abhor them so as to destroy them completely, breaking my covenant with then. I am the LORD their God. But for their sake I will remember the covenant with their ancestors who I brought out of Egypt in the sight of the nations to be their God. I am the LORD.”
And so do you see what is happening in Isaiah chapter 40? A message of comfort can be communicated. The time of the exile is coming to an end. Israel has paid for her sin and the LORD promised she would. She has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. Which does not mean, twice the punishment she deserved, but the exact judgement required because of her rebellion. To help you understand this don’t think of a mathematic double but a body double. A body double should be an exact representation. Here is the message of comfort for these exiled people. The duration of their exile is coming to an end.
How is this possible? How can such a puny people be rescued from such a powerful empire? Look at what we’re told in verse 3. A voice calls out, “In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rigged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
How can such a puny people be rescued from such a powerful empire? Because their God will intervene and rescue them from their captivity. That’s why a new highway needs to be built – metaphorically - in the desert. A VIP is coming to visit the Jews exiles in Babylon. And his purpose is not to kiss the babies on the head but to take the babes, and their mothers and their fathers and their brothers and their sisters, out of Babylon and to lead them back to the Promised Land. God himself would intervene and make sure his people were rescued.
And don’t you just love why the exiles living in Babylon could be so confident of such a future? For the mouth of the LORD has spoken. God has made a promise and when God makes a promise he is always a promise keeper.
The words of God can be trusted completely. Whatever he says will always come to pass.
Now this is such an important point to grasp that we’re told the same truth again in verses 6 to 8. Another voice says, “Cry out” and someone responds, “What shall I cry?”
“All men are liked grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands for ever.”
This message is not just comforting news without any substance. Instead it is certain comfort based on the unchanging word of the true and living God – and therefore the Jewish exiles could be absolutely convinced that their God would bring them home when he decided the time was right.
The Jews living in exile did not literally see their God appear in the suburbs of Babylon. Instead what God did then, and this is all describes in the next few chapters of Isaiah, was raise up a Persian King by the name of Cyrus and he used him to conquer the Babylonians and then through him release his people from their captivity.
I think that makes what we read in verses 9 to 11 all the more interesting.
The messenger of good news is told to make his way to a high mountain, lift up his voice and say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God! See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him, and his recompense accompanies him. He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and he carries then close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”
What would they have seen? The Persian army marching towards them. How were they to understand these events? This was the power of God who was coming to take them home. Such was the power of their God that he could even use a Persian King who did not even acknowledge his existence to rescue his people from their exile.
Deeds need interpretation. Jesus. Our deeds.
What has all this got to do with us? What relevance does this message have for us living in 21st century Britain? Turn with me to Mark chapter 1 and let’s remind ourselves of how Mark begins his gospel.
“The beginning of the gospel about Jesus Christ, the Son of God. 2 It is written in Isaiah the prophet: “I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” — 3 “a voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” 4 And so John came, baptizing in the desert region and preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me will come one more powerful than I, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” 9 At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.”
Do you see what Mark has done? He has reapplied Isaiah chapter 40 to explain what happened when Jesus walked the earth 2000 years ago. As we’ve already seen Isaiah chapter 40 was originally a message of comfort for the exiles Jews living in Babylon. It told how one day their God would rescue them from their captivity. Mark is not denying this meaning. However, he is teaching us that this chapter of the Bible refers to more than one event. It certainly pointed forward to the return of the Jews from exile but Mark wants us to see is that it also pointed forward to an even greater day. A day when God the Son became a man, the man we know as Jesus and the man who walked this earth personally.
Isn’t it amazing how perfectly Jesus fits the description of Isaiah chapter 40? We’re told that the sovereign LORD would come in power and his arm would rule for him. What do we see in the life of Jesus? We see a king building his kingdom. A ruler exercising his authority over people, over nature and even over spirits. Jesus is the Sovereign LORD ruling with power. And he is also the Sovereign LORD tending his flock like a shepherd. That’s what’s predicted as well. He would rule but he would also gather the lambs in his arms and carry them close to his heart. This is exactly what Jesus did when he appeared on the earth.
Why did God the Son come to the earth? We know why God came to the exiles in Babylon – to rescue them after they had paid for their sin. But why come again in a much more personal way? He came to solve the ultimate sin problem, a problem that no amount of time in physical exile could ever solve. He came to pay the awesome price of sin so that those who follow him will never experience the spiritual condemnation of God.
And so we too, if we are Christians, have a wonderful message of comfort and joy. In fact, we have an even greater message of comfort than those Jewish exiles heard many years ago. Do you remember what they heard? Your exile is over because you have paid for your sin over these many years and now God will bring you home. It’s good news.
But our message is even better. Because God says to us, Jesus has completed your hard service instead of you. Your sin has been paid for by someone else, the Lord Jesus Christ. God the Son has come personally, been born as a human, lived as the man Jesus, and died on a cross to pay the price for your wicked rebellion.
What a message of comfort to hear! Do you need to hear this tonight? Do you need this message of comfort?
If you are not a Christian you have no comfort for the future until you become a follower of Jesus Christ. This is not a game. But when you come to Jesus you have a message of comfort. Follow him.
Your future destiny is secure. There is now no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Your present circumstances do not mean God doesn’t love you.
Your greater good is always around the corner.
You will not always understand why certain events happen to you but never conclude God does not love you and is punishing you as a Christian. This is not the case. The cross assures us that God is always working out our greater good. What is that? It is to make us more like Jesus and it is to take us to heaven.
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