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Sermon preached on Isaiah 40:1-11by Rev. W. Reid Hankins during the Morning Worship Service at Trinity Presbyterian Church (OPC) on 12/23/2018 in Novato, CA.
Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
“Behold Your God”
If you are familiar with Handel’s Messiah, you’ll note that today’s passage is also the same one used to start Handel’s famous oratorio. The first part of Handel’s Messiah’s deals specifically with the birth of Christ, and his first scene uses Isaiah 40 as a prophecy of the salvation that would come with the arrival of the Messiah. We’ll see today that in context, this prophecy first comes to God’s people in Judah who would find themselves under God’s chastening for their sin. The answer to this would be God coming to his people in the Messiah – that’s what this prophecy is foretelling. But Handel’s Messiah rightly understands that this prophecy is fulfilled in the birth of Jesus Christ. That is when God came to his people. He came to deliver his people of old from their sin and guilt. And he continues to provide such deliverance to us today and to all who trust in him. And so this is a fitting passage for us to consider for a Christmas sermon.
I’d like to begin then in our first point for today to consider the humble estate of man that we find in this passage. That is intimately related to man’s need of salvation and to why we needed God to come to save us. I draw your attention then first today to the center verses of our passage, to verses 6-8. There we find a declaration of man’s frailty and weakness. Verses 6 and 7 says that all flesh is but like grass that withers quickly and like the fleeting beauty of a flower. This is in contrast with the LORD God who stands gloriously high above us humans, as verse 5 describes as well. As verse 7 notes, it is the LORD’s simple breath that can cause our lives to be taken. Similarly, in verse 10 the LORD is described in terms of his strength and might, as the one who comes with a strong hand.
That truth from verses 6-8 can certainly stand on its own to speak to the frailty and humble estate of mankind compared to the Almighty God who made the heavens and earth. And yet, it’s not stated on its own. It’s situated not only here in the middle of this passage about the comfort and salvation God would bring for his people. It’s also situated here in the midst of the book of Isaiah. This context adds important background to this. You see, the book of Isaiah takes a major thematic turning point here at Isaiah 40. The first 39 chapters were largely pronouncing various judgments for sin. The most recent one is there in chapter 39 where God’s people are told that Babylon was going to come and conquer them and carry them off into exile. That would be God’s judgment upon his people for their sin; he would allow Babylon to afflict them like that and remove them from the Promised Land of Zion. And so, it’s in that context of the mighty Babylonians conquering and subjugating God’s people, that God emphasizes how weak humans are compared to himself. In other words, when God comes, he comes mighty to save. He can free God’s people from the mighty Babylonians. They are but withering grass and fleeting flowers to him. He can but blow on them and these enemies shall fall apart.
And yet notice what verse 7 says. At the end it mentions the people are like grass. Likely this is intended to be a narrower description than when it say “all flesh” are like grass. When it says “all flesh” we should think of all the nations of the world, all the peoples, including the enemies like the wicked Babylonians. But when it turns to say “the people” likely it has in mind God’s people: the people of Judah back then who needed this salvation. If this is correct, it only highlights all the more why they would need God to come and save them. Yes, the Babylonians are like weak grass compared to God, but so are God’s people. And God’s people had been weak compared to Babylon. So, they would need God to come to save them if they were going to be free from Babylonian oppressions.
In fact, this in context only further makes this point. It’s was because God was so much more powerful than his people that they would end up in Babylonian exile in the first place. Verse 2 reminds us that they would be in Babylonian exile because of God’s punishment on their sin. The Lord’s discipline would be strong on his people. It even says in verse 2 that they would have to receive from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. Surely, that doesn’t mean that they will have paid back twice as much to God as what is owed. That interpretation wouldn’t fit with what Scripture says elsewhere of man not being able to atone for their own sins. Rather, this is more like say they’ve experienced God’s chastening in multiple ways. It’s like if you cause a car accident because you are texting while driving. You’ll end up paying for the other person’s damages, but then you’ll also get a ticket from the police for texting while driving. In that case you could say you had to pay twice for your crime. But I digress. The point is simply that humble Israel had known the might of God against their sin.
But that brings us to our second point. This passage is turning to declare how God’s chastening of his people was coming to an end. God would be coming to them to bring them salvation. This passage then tells them to announce his coming and to prepare for his coming. We see this in verses 3-5 and again in verse 9. Both verses mention a voice. Verse 9 specifically uses the language of delivering news. There are tidings to be brought. It’s a message that needs to be announced. What’s the message? In verse 3 it says the message is to “prepare the way of the Lord” and it goes on to say how God’s glory is going to be revealed. Similarly, in verse 9 it says the message is for Israel to behold their God. In other words, the message to announce is the coming of God to his people. The LXX even translates these good tidings mentioned in verse 9 with the same Greek wording used in the New Testament to refer to proclaiming the gospel. And so clearly this is a message to announce and declare.
Here we can find an application to us Gentiles too. On the one hand, the announcement of his coming is specifically described in verse 9 as something to be told to the cities of Judah. In other words, announce the good news to God’s existing people that he is coming to save them. But what does that say for us who were otherwise outsiders to God’s people? Well, in the New Testament, 1 Peter 1:22-25 references this passage here in Isaiah and says that this announcement is the same gospel that has been preached about Jesus. In other words, God extended the application of this passage to Gentiles as well. He has commanded to bring this gospel preaching to the nations. We then today who have believed in Jesus and his gospel of salvation have received the salvation envisioned here in Isaiah 40. Or to say it another way, when we today declare the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world around us, we are essentially continuing the same announcement given in this passage. The only difference is that Isaiah 40’s gospel announcement is that the Lord is coming. Our gospel announcement is that the Lord has come!
But this passage not only announces God’s coming; there is especially an emphasis here on preparing for his coming. That’s seen in several related ways. First, the very fact that he is promising this ahead of time implies that people should prepare. If the Almighty and Glorious God says he’s coming over for a visit, you should prepare for his coming! So then look at how this is described. In verses 3-4 it describes God as coming from the desert into presumably Zion. Just as Israel had first come out of the wilderness wandering into the Promised Land, so it poetically describes God come from the desert to his people. It then describes the preparation for God’s coming by lowering every mountain and raising every valley. In other words, make a nice straight path through the wilderness for God. It’s like saying to clear the way and roll out the red carpet for God to come down it.
Now, if the All Holy God is coming to you, especially after he’s already sent you prophets that you didn’t listen to, and then he had already chastened you, then the fact that he himself is now coming is reason to get your act together. It’s like Jesus’ parable of the wicked tenants who beat or killed the owner’s servants who came to collect the rent. He said he’d finally send his son thinking they would respect his son – and they should. And so, sinners should prepare for God’s coming by turning away from their disobedience by repenting of their sins.
That is in fact how we see this idea of preparation worked out in the New Testament. In advance of this passage’s fulfillment, John the Baptist came into the scene. He said that he was sent by God to fulfill this very passage, to prepare the way for the coming of the LORD. All four gospel accounts record John the Baptist referencing verse 3 of this passage. John the Baptist not only announced the coming of God, he sought to prepare people for it. And he did that by calling people to repent. He called people to come back out of the Promised Land, into the wilderness, repent of their sins, be washed in the Jordan and then go back to the Promised Land and meet the Lord when he comes. It was a sort of call for them to start over in their faith, in a sense; a new start, a new birth.
I love then the way we see this preparation idea fulfilled with John the Baptist. God announces in Isaiah here the need to prepare for his coming. But in God’s grace and compassion he doesn’t just command that here. He then sends someone to help the people prepare, i.e. John the Baptist. John then pastorally makes the call for repentance and preaches God’s Word to the people in preparation for the coming of the Lord to his people. It’s just another testament to the rich and varying ways God gives grace to his people in order to personally know the salvation that he gives.
Let’s turn now in our third point to see the comfort and encouragement that God is giving them and us in this prophecy. We find this in both verses 1-2 and verses 10-11. It’s of course how the passage begins. “Comfort, yes comfort my people!” This is being spoken specifically to God’s people in Judah in light of their chastening they experienced from God due to their sin. In light of their Babylonian captivity and all their sufferings, God announces that after that will come a time of comfort. We see part of what that comfort entails here in verse 1 when he calls them “my people”. Whatever chastening the people had experienced in being handed over to Babylon, God had not utterly disowned them. He would yet save and redeem them. Verse 2 relates this comfort and restoration to the forgiveness of sins. It says her iniquity is pardoned. I mentioned earlier that we shouldn’t see the language of her receiving double for all her sins as paying off God for their sin. The idea that their sin needed to be forgiven only highlights that. In fact, it will be spelled out further in Isaiah 53 how it is that God could forgive their sin. It would be through the atoning sacrifice for sin offered by God himself in the person of Jesus Christ. But I digress again. The point in verses 1-2 is that God’s people could find comfort because there was coming a time when God would stop from his punishment on their sin to instead grant them mercy and forgiveness.
That would then begin a process of healing for them and having their fortunes reversed. That’s what verses 10-11 continue to expand on. Instead of being under God’s chastening and in exile, we see verse 10 describing how God would come to them with both his rule and his reward. That’s kingdom language. He will come to reign over his people and he will bring with him for his people the reward of his heavenly riches and glory. But then notice the language in verse 11. He will care for his people like a shepherd cares for his sheep. As we think of how Jesus fulfilled this, we remember he liked to describe himself in these terms. Jesus is the good shepherd of the sheep. As it says here in verse 11, he feeds the sheep, thinking especially of the nourishment he brings to the souls of his people. It says he gathers the sheep, and we can remember how he brings his gospel to the ends of the earth to draw his sheep from all places to himself. It says he carries and leads his sheep, reminding us that Jesus is with us and guiding us and directing us how to live.
As I hear these words of comfort, I think of a common misconception. I often hear people say that the Old Testament is full of God’s judgment and wrath whereas the New Testament is full of God’s grace and love and compassion. On the one hand, we see how that is not a true statement. Here in the Old Testament there is a great description of God’s compassion and mercy toward his people that have deserved otherwise. Here in the Old Testament we find God as a bringer of comfort, as one who forgives sin, as one who is a tender and caring shepherd for his people. That’s right here in the Old Testament. So, it’s a misconception to think that’s not here in the Old Testament too. That being said, misconceptions often are rooted in some truth, even if that truth gets misunderstood. And the truth that we find here is that God’s mercy and compassion will especially be realized when Jesus Christ comes as recorded in the New Testament. That is in fact when the promised comfort here is fulfilled. The comfort here is announced as a promise; as comfort to be realized in the future for God’s people. Comfort that comes when God comes to his people in the person of Jesus Christ. And so, yes, there is judgement and wrath in the Old Testament (as well as in the New Testament). There is also grace and compassion in the Old Testament. But God’s grace and compassion comes to the fullest measure and best expression in the coming of Jesus Christ.
That is what makes this chapter such a wonderful announcement of comfort! And its what makes what we celebrate at Christmas so worth celebrating. The whole Bible finds the focus of God’s comfort in the coming of Jesus Christ. And as this passage reminds us, the coming of Christ is the coming of Immanuel. Remember Immanuel means “God with us”. This passage doesn’t use the word “Immanuel” like others do. But that’s what it is talking about. It says that the climax of God’s comfort that he will bring to his people will happen when he himself comes to his people. And that is what Jesus being born represented. God the Son came in the flesh of Jesus Christ. Jesus was and is simultaneously Son of God and Son of David. What a glorious mystery, and what a glorious climax to all of Scripture!
Of course, the reason Jesus could bring the comfort described here is not simply that he as God showed up on earth. He had to not only be God in the flesh. He would also have to be what Isaiah 53 goes on to talk about: the suffering servant. As that suffering servant, he lived a perfect life without any sin, keeping all the law on our behalf. He then died on the cross in the place of his people, so that all our sins could be forgiven while still satisfying justice. The gospel then says that as we put our faith in Jesus, his righteousness is accounted to us. So, in faith in Jesus we have forgiveness of sins. In faith in him, we know the comfort described here. In faith in him, he acts as our tender and caring shepherd. And so, this Christmas as we celebrate the birth of Christ, we also remember why he came. He came to secure such comfort for us.
And so, prior to this coming, the people were called to prepare for his coming. That involved faith and repentance. Now that he has come, instead we are called to respond to this coming that has already happened. That also involves faith and repentance. That is so important because as verse 5 acknowledges, there will be a day when all flesh sees God. That looks ultimately to the second and final return of Christ on the day of judgment. And so, our call today is to not wait until then to “behold our God.” Let us today “behold our God” through our faith in Jesus Christ. Let us acknowledge again our sin and our need for forgiveness and grace. Let us rejoice that God has come in Jesus to do away with our sin. Let us put our faith and trust in this divinely given salvation!
For us who have such faith, be comforted again today. This is a passage declaring comfort. As much as God said to his people back then, he says it to you again today. “Comfort, yes, comfort my people! Says your God.” To you! He says this to you who are God’s people today. Comfort! Be comforted today! Your warfare is ended! Your iniquity is pardoned! The Lord has fully and completely paid for all your sins! Comfort, comfort! That is what God says to you today!
As a final point of application, let me say this. Before the first coming of Christ, God called for people to prepare for his coming. But then God commissioned John the Baptist to help people prepare. Now, in light of the second coming of Christ, God again calls people to prepare for his coming. And God has again commissioned a spokesman to help people to prepare. That spokesman is the church. So then, in preparation for the second coming, let us be announcing and spreading this news to all the world. Let us spread the news that Glory to God in the highest has come in Jesus. And let us call the world to find this comfort in Jesus in preparation for his return! Amen.
Copyright © 2018 Rev. W. Reid Hankins, M.Div.
All Rights Reserved.