Advent Midweek 1 – Isaiah 40
In the Name of Christ Jesus, our Advent King +
In the Name of Christ Jesus, our Advent King +
This Advent Season, we will be looking at various passages that were used by George Frederich Handel when he wrote his famous “Messiah”. It may be the most famous English language chorale in the world. And it is one of those pieces that gets pulled from all the time – the Hallelujah Chorus shows up all the time. And the Messiah shows up in the Advent Season a lot, because so much of it dealt with the Old Testament prophecies about the coming of Christ. And so this Advent, we will look at three of the passages from Isaiah used by Handel which we hear quite often, and tonight it is Isaiah 40 – where you have that famous “Every valley shall be exulted” line. But let’s start at the beginning of the passage and see what we hear from our Lord tonight.
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Again, another famous Advent passage. Several hymns that we sing yearly are based off of this verse – but here is the question I will pose tonight. What is comfort? One of the things that comes up when reading the Scriptures is the use of language – words can start to shift their meanings over the centuries – so, what do we think of as 21st Century Americans when we hear the word “comfort”? If the word “comfort” is used during the week, or on the TV – in our commercialized day and age, it so often means “nice” or “luxurious”. We can think “comfortable” – like I want a nice comfortable chair, or sure, you could buy a Ford, but this Christmas season go buy an Audi – it’s a more comfortable ride. And that’s not the point of this passage in Isaiah. It’s not that God wants to give Israel an upgrade from coach to a more comfortable first class seat – it’s something more, profound and important.
“Comfort, comfort My people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” This isn’t about luxury. This is about serious, heart-wrenching stuff. This is about the impact of sin upon our lives. Sin brings violence and pain and suffering and heartache. And while it is true that many will use luxury to just deaden the pain and hardship of this life, it doesn’t work. In the times of the Prophets, Jerusalem was constantly getting dumped upon. Wicked kings, massive idolatry, wars, rumors of wars. And the faithful there knew that as a people, they were just getting what they deserved. Sin was ever before them – and life was going to be just dealing with sin until they went down to the grave and that was it. Everything was ruined. And it was to people who saw the world that way that Isaiah was sent to proclaim comfort, to proclaim pardon. What is comfort – comfort is this. You are forgiven, and even though you die, yet in Christ Jesus, because of the Messiah, you shall live.
This is shown in the next section. A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain shall be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” Let’s talk a little bit about geography. You have the land of Israel, on the west side of the Jordan river – and it’s a good place, however, it’s rather rugged, mountainous, hard to get around. But then, when you cross the Jordan, you start moving into the wilderness. For a Jew, the word wilderness brought with it both terror and shame. Remember, what happened to the children of Israel in the wilderness? That’s where they were left for 40 years to suffer for their sin! And during the Exodus, God took care of them – gave them Manna, their clothes didn’t wear out. But now – you cross the Jordan… the wilderness is bad. It’s harsh, it’s dry, there are wild and dangerous animals – you go to the wilderness and you suffer. The wilderness is the highest example of what is wrong with the world, with what happened when Adam and Eve fell and creation got messed up. Sin makes a garden turn into wilderness.
Be comforted, God’s people. Be comforted you who dwell in a land and world impacted by sin – the LORD comes to you here in this “desert drear”. Why is Jerusalem to be comforted, why is she pardoned? Because the LORD Himself will come; He will come to this wilderness of a world, and He will be tempted, and He will over come, and He will drive away Satan, and He will affect your rescue. Jesus, the Messiah, will run roughshod over Satan. And then what happens – “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain shall be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” And there’s the thrust of Handel’s music – that lilting “every vall-hal-ley”. Do you see what is going on here? The Messiah has come, and what is He going to do? He is going to fix creation. Don’t get me wrong, the Jewish people loved the promised land, loved their home – but it was hard to get around. And one of the things that they understood was that this ruggedness of the land – that’s part of the fall. It’s when you have the raging flood waters come, the rending of the earth to open the fountains of the deep – that’s when you get all this geological confusion kicking in. That’s when walking from here to there means instead of a straight line (like you’d get on a plain) became over the hills and through the woods and around the bends and the like. Geography was a reminder of sin, of sin’s impact upon the world – that’s why the end will be accompanied by earthquakes, and thunder and lightning. But the Messiah comes to comfort His people, to put an end to sin, to bring forgiveness – and even to fix creation, to restore, to make things the way they should have been in the New Heavens and the New Earth.
That is what we look forward to. Yet, it’s not always what we see. A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever. Isaiah sees reality in this world. Yes, we are waiting for the Messiah, but what is life like? We suffer and die, like the grass. Israel could be dry and warm and windy – just like Oklahoma summer. And what happens when the good Lord blows upon our lawns with that warm south wind? The grass withers, the flower fades. That’s the reality that we see in this life so often. Yet over and against that – the Word of God stands forever. In the face of the trials and difficulties of life, in the face of sin and its impacts, Isaiah pointed forward to the promise of the Messiah – that promise is good, and we will see it.
And we are somewhat in the same boat at Isaiah. Yes, we know that the Messiah has come – but we will await His second and final coming. We still walk by faith and not by sight. We still see heartache and pain and a world racked with sin and violence and suffering. Yet the Word of the Lord remains. Comfort, comfort my people. Your warfare is over. Your sins are forgiven, for Christ Jesus has won you full pardon, double pardon, with His death and resurrection, and He shall come and bring you to the new heavens and the new earth, where you too, by the power of the Word of God, shall stand forever. Come quickly, Lord Jesus! Amen.