Prepare the Way for the Lord
Have you heard about Manitoba Homecoming? The government and the tourism office is sponsoring and promoting a great big party next year in honor of Manitoba's 140th birthday. They are encouraging people to invite their family and friends to Manitoba next year. Part of the celebration will take place on May 15, 2010 and they are calling it the world’s biggest social. As I understand it, this is an effort to achieve the Guinness World Book record for the largest birthday party. Their advertising says that there are currently 32 communities from all across the province that are coming together to take part in “a true Manitoba tradition.”
Such a massive effort involves all kinds of things – planning, communication, anticipation, and of course the event itself.
At this time of year we are focused on another party that will happen in just over 4 weeks. We are also planning, communicating, anticipating (our Grandson informed us last week that it was only 5 weeks until Christmas) and when it comes, we will enjoy all the events associated with this great party.
When we think of Christmas, what is it that we are planning for? How do we communicate the message of Christmas? What are we anticipating? What are we waiting for?
On this first Sunday of Advent, I would like to invite us to think about these questions as we look at one of the Old Testament passages in which God makes some great promises to His people which speak of His coming. Several things happen in this passage. There is a promise of God’s coming and we realize that this promise is fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. There is a promise of God’s coming into our lives. This promise invites us to think about what God is like and to ask, “what can we expect from Him and how should we live in light of His coming?” From our vantage point, we also realize that this is also a promise of His future coming. Such promises invite us to rejoice, but also to think about preparing for His coming.
I. The Need for God
If we heard an announcement that the Queen was coming to Manitoba for the big party next year, some would be excited, but I wonder how many of us would say, “so what?”
Last week Larry talked about thirst for God. The coming of God is only good news if we have a need for God, a longing for Him in our lives. Christmas is really only meaningful if we understand that the coming of Jesus fulfills a deep need. The promises in Isaiah 40 arise out of such a longing.
A. Comfort My People
In order to grasp the wonder of the promise in this passage, we need to understand the context in which it was originally written. Most of Isaiah 1-39 contains prophecies about coming devastation upon the nation of Israel. In Isaiah 39, there is a hint of what is to come and it isn’t good news. In the days of Hezekiah an envoy from Babylon came to Jerusalem and Hezekiah showed them all the wealth and treasures in the temple and in the king’s treasury. Isaiah prophesied warning in Isaiah 39:6, “The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your fathers have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the Lord.”
Such a message would surely be devastating to all who heard it. Isaiah 40 answers to the despair and devastation announced in Isaiah 39 and gives the message, “Comfort, comfort my people…”
B. Her Sin Has Been Paid For
A second area of need is indicated in verse 2 which speaks of sin. The message says, “speak tenderly,” but this message to the heart arises out of an awareness of the depth of sins with which Israel has been filled. When you read the history of Israel, you come to see how terrible the sin of the people was. Not only did they reject God, but they treated each other terribly. The language used is shocking. The images of sin, such as prostitution, are meant to help us understand just how deeply steeped in sin the whole nation was.
The message of God’s coming arises out of the deep need of a people burdened and overcome by sin.
C. In the Desert
Another image of need appears in verse 3 which refers to “the desert” and the “wilderness.” Why is the voice calling in the desert? Why does the preparation for the coming of God arise in the wilderness? It is because that is often where people become ready to meet God. Sin drives them into the wilderness. In the wilderness they become ready to meet God because there are no resources which distract and there are no means by which normal needs can be met. The wilderness is a place of need in which people finally come to the end of their own strength. E.J. Young says of the desert that it is “…a figure of the obstacles and impediments as well as the difficulties that have kept God from His people.” It is like Larry said last week, when we are thirsty then we will truly appreciate a cup of cold water. The thirstier we are, the more we seek that which will quench our thirst. This is why God had to lead the people of Israel through the wilderness before they were ready to be His people and enter the Promised Land.
Isaiah 40 speaks to need. It speaks to the need of a people who have been devastated by destruction. It speaks to the difficulties of a people who are steeped in sin. It speaks to the lack experienced by people in the wilderness.
It is rare that people thirst for God when they have everything they need. It isn’t until we come to the end of our own selves, until we are helpless, until we are devastated that we will truly seek for God.
Sometimes it seems that Christmas is just a self indulgent party. Do we truly appreciate that God has come? Have we really perceived our need, our desperation for God?
I would invite us in the next month to take the time to notice our need and to recognize that we are in the wilderness. For then the hope of God’s coming will truly be a cause for rejoicing.
II. The Preparation for His Coming
To hearts that are thirsty, a voice calls out for people to prepare for the coming of the Lord. In verse 3, promise is implied, but preparation is required.
A. Prepare the Way for the Lord
The good news is that Israel does not have to stay in the wilderness. This is after all a word of comfort, a word spoken tenderly to the heart. But just because people realize that they are in need does not mean that God will come. So the prophet calls for the people to “…prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.”
Most writers suggest that preparation for the coming of God indicates repentance. When Solomon dedicated the temple he prayed that if the people sinned and if they would repent then God would return to them. Throughout Scripture, repentance is the necessary condition upon which God comes to His people.
This passage is quoted in reference to John the Baptist. In Matthew 3:1-3 we read, “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the desert, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’” Before Jesus could come, the way needed to be prepared. Hearts needed to repent and be ready to receive the coming of Messiah. So we see that this passage is fulfilled in the coming of John the Baptist and his preparation for the coming of Jesus.
Nevertheless, this also indicates a timeless truth. If we are devastated, if we are in sin and living in the wilderness of our need, a part of the path which will allow God to come to us is repentance.
It is hard for us to repent, because it involves humility and a shedding of pride. It involves a recognition that we are not perfect or self sufficient. But until we repent and acknowledge our failure and our need, God cannot come to us.
B. Every Valley Will Be Raised Up
In verse 4 there is a change of verb tenses. Verse 3 was imperative. That is, it is a call to prepare. Although preparation is still the theme in verse 4, now the verbs are not imperative, but future and the verse looks like a promise. It implies that not only do we need to prepare for the coming of the Lord, but promises that the way for the coming of the Lord will be prepared.
The imagery is that of approach. The area around Jerusalem is quite hilly. If you have ever hiked on hilly ground, you know that both up hill and downhill portions are difficult. The easiest walking is on level ground. The easiest approach is a level approach.
If we think about the coming of Jesus, we can see how it happened. John the Baptist prepared the way for the people to receive the coming Messiah but God prepared the hearts of people, like the disciples. The ground of the political situation was prepared by God and did many things to prepare for the coming of Jesus so that it was, as Galatians 4:4 says, “when the time had fully come.”
This encourages us also in regard to the coming of God to our own lives. Although we must have a sense of need, and prepare our hearts for His coming, we also can be assured that God prepares us for His coming. It isn’t all up to us. God is also involved. This is promise!
III. The Promise of His Coming
On the basis of Israel’s deep need and the call to prepare the way, we come now to the promise of the coming of the Lord.
A. Behold Your God
In Isaiah 40:5 and 9 this promise is boldly declared. Verse 5 says, “And the glory of the Lord will be revealed.” Verse 9 says, “Here is your God.” Or as the KJV puts it “Behold your God.”
God will come! What a great promise! To say that the glory of the Lord will be revealed is to say that people will see God in all His glory. With verse 9 we seem to have the image of an introduction. We have been waiting and all has been made ready. The curtain is pulled back and the MC says, “Here He is!” and we all cheer.
What did this mean for Israel?
At a time when the nation was being warned of utter destruction, this was great news. On what basis could God come when sin and evil were the reason that He had left? The promise of Isaiah 40:2 is that sin has been paid for. God promised that he would deal with their sin so that the way would be ready. He would come! Isaiah 1-39 speak of the absence of God. Isaiah 40 promises the presence of God.
What good news! Hanson says, “Life with God has a center, has meaning, has a source of healing and reconciliation and great joy.” “Life without God is doomed to confusion, futility and finally the dread of eternal darkness.” “The God who has been absent is seen returning: ‘Here is your God!’ It is the announcement that can transform the darkest tragedy into the deepest blessing.”
How has this promise been fulfilled?
The ideas in this chapter are reflected in the story of Jesus. John 1:14 speaks of the glory of God revealed in Jesus when it says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” It is in Jesus that God has fulfilled these promises. In Jesus the sins have been dealt with so that there is an open way to God. In Jesus, God has come into this world. In Jesus, we also have the promise and hope that God continues to come to us. So the thirst for God which Larry mentioned last week is promised a fulfillment in our life as well.
But when we read that “all mankind together will see it” we know that the promise points beyond the time of Jesus to the second coming of Jesus. Now many have seen Him and believed in Him, but there are still many who are in darkness. When He comes again, however, everyone will see Him.
B. The Word of our God Stands!
How do we know that these things will happen?
In Isaiah 40:5b the promise is that God has spoken!
But, can we trust that word?
In Isaiah 40:6-8 we have a word of promise that this word is sure. Who is the voice who speaks in verse 6? It is a divine messenger. The messenger from God draws a contrast between humans and God. Human beings are like grass and like flowers. God has built mortality into human life because of sin. Therefore, even the most reliable messenger cannot be counted on to keep all of his promises. The day comes when the flower fades and the grass withers and the breath of God blows on a human life and it is ended. At that time, no promise can be kept any more. In contrast to that temporary, impermanent human life, the Word of God stands eternally. So we know that we can count on what God promises will happen.
We stand at a unique place in regards to the fulfillment of this prophecy. We have already seen the partial fulfillment, but not the complete fulfillment. Therefore we already know that it has begun to be fulfilled, but we still wait for more. We can stand in confidence and at the same time in hope.
God has come! God is coming! God will come! The Word of God assures us of the certainty of this great promise.
IV. The Proclamation of His Coming
This is good news and must be proclaimed as we see in verse 9.
The prophet Isaiah proclaimed it joyfully to his devastated countrymen.
The angels proclaimed it and the shepherds declared it when Jesus was born. They indicated that the glory of God had come to this earth.
The disciples proclaimed it to all their countrymen and beyond to the Gentiles, letting them know that God had come.
Today it is our place to make it known.
The text says to go up on the high mountain, where everyone can hear and see, and make the great message known. Are we willing to stand up and be seen by all to proclaim Jesus?
The text says, “Shout!” That implies some enthusiasm about the message of the coming of God. Do we have such enthusiasm?
The text says “do not be afraid.” Why would we be afraid to proclaim the best news in the world? Because we are shining light into darkness and will be noticed. But this is great news so don’t be afraid. The true vocation of the church of Jesus Christ is to be those who proclaim Jesus. This is good news and must be proclaimed.
V. The Blessing of His Coming
Why is this such good news? What will it be like when He comes?
A. The Sovereign Lord Comes With Power!
Isaiah 40 goes on to talk about what the coming of the Lord will be like.
First of all we notice that the coming of the Lord will be a coming in power. When Jesus came the first time, He did not come with power, ruling the nations. When Jesus came the first time he demonstrated power when he healed and raised the dead and fed the hungry, but when the powers on earth lifted their hands, Jesus bowed down before that power. He did not come off the cross as the mockers suggested, but through resurrection from death demonstrated a greater power than he would have had if he had jumped off the cross. Now the power of Jesus is demonstrated in that Jesus is sitting in power at the right hand of the Father. What a great day it will be when the power of Jesus will be demonstrated as described in Revelation 19 when he comes as King of kings and Lord of lords!
When He comes He will bring his reward/recompense with Him. This is a promise that He will do all things right and make all things right.
B. He Tends His Flock
But His coming is not only in power. In verse 11, we have the wonderful imagery that he comes as a gentle shepherd. In our world’s way of thinking this is unusual. Power is not gentle and gentleness is seen as weakness. Yet the coming of God into this world is the coming of one who is both strong and caring.
What beauty we see in the picture of a strong shepherd holding the tiny, vulnerable lambs in his arms. What blessing to see in the picture of this powerful shepherd holding the little ones close to his heart. What peace to notice that he gently leads the most vulnerable of the flock, the nursing ewes.
This is what the coming of God is like. The power tactics of churches, the coercion of residential schools, this is not the coming of God. This is human institution and power. The coming of God is power and gentleness at once.
When we see that picture, it increases our longing for His coming.
This coming is seen in the coming of Jesus when John the Baptist said in John 1:29, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
In light of where we stand in history this word evokes different responses. First of all there is thankfulness for how we have already seen this promise fulfilled. Then there is a call to preparation for the coming of God into our own life. Through repentance, we prepare the way to have our thirst quenched. Yet with hope and anticipation we look forward to the completion of this promise in his second coming.
May these next few weeks be times of preparation and anticipation! May we meditate on these promises so that we can rejoice to celebrate God’s coming!