Monday, December 18, 2017

Sermon on Isaiah 40:1-8, for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, "Double Comfort"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Although 2,700 years is quite a long shot from “forever”—it is still a respectable distance from which we can see and recognize the enduring power and comfort of God’s word, which stands forever. 2,700 years ago, the prophet Isaiah wrote these words of comfort in Isaiah 40, which still “speak to our heart” today. They speak of a double comfort for all that God’s people have suffered for their sins. The passage also speaks of John the Baptist as the herald who would announce the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, the Lord who would traverse the wilderness and reveal His glory to us. The Word of the Lord stands forever, bringing a message of solid comfort and hope, across the centuries, despite all the changes and chances of life while several dozens of generations have flourished and then withered away like the flowers and grasses of the field.
In human life, whenever we extend a gesture of comfort—it logically follows upon some need for encouragement. Someone is facing difficulty or hardship of some sort, and we respond with a hug, a prayer, a sympathy card, a sympathetic ear to listen to their troubles, words of encouragement, or whatever. Small gestures like those are usually warmly received. But we know or can envision situations where a person might refuse them, or gruffly say, “thanks, but no thanks”, or in some other way recoil or signal that they don’t need any help or want anything from us. They may have better or worse reasons for doing that, that we cannot judge, but we all can realize that in order to receive comfort, there has to be an openness, or even an emptiness to take it in. If we are full and need nothing, or perhaps hard and empty, the comfort is meaningless to us.
Sometimes it’s heartbreaking in life when you see someone who objectively needs help, but they stubbornly refuse it. Pride and individualism might carry us a long way in earthly matters, but there’s always a point where it exhausts itself, or proves insufficient for greater things in life, or we find that we are just out of our league with the problems we face. Pride and stubbornness can close the heart to God’s intervention, to God’s work—or alternatively, humility and repentance can acknowledge that we need God to enter in and the way is open.
Isaiah said that this was God’s chosen preaching theme for John the Baptist—the voice in the wilderness crying out: “Prepare the way of the Lord”. He would preach of a stony, rough, crooked, and thirsty desert, and how it needed to be leveled, straightened, smoothed and made ready for the entrance of the Lord. What desert? John wasn’t preparing for earth-moving operations and hiring contractors—he was talking about the condition of our human hearts, and the obstacles to the Lord’s entrance there. In one word: unrepentance. Unrepentance—or unwillingness to turn back to God, is the single unifying obstacle to the Lord entering to bring His comfort, His healing to His people. All our separate sins unify under the devil’s banner of unrepentance, and as long as unrepentance persists—take their stand against God. But if God by His Law hammers on that wall, and breaks through that dam of our damnable sin-pride, then He enters, not as an invading destroyer, but as the One who brings double comfort.
Maybe it helps to realize that Isaiah’s first audience in chapter 40 had already digested the first 39 chapters of the book, which had painted a pretty bleak picture of the fate of Israel. They had been hammered pretty thoroughly. They were going to be judged for their sins and taken into captivity by Babylon, because the message hadn’t gotten through. The prophet Jeremiah had said they were going to get a double measure of punishment and destruction for their wickedness, guilt, and idolatry (Jer. 16:18; 17:18). Things were definitely not looking up for them, and wouldn’t be anytime soon. So Isaiah 40 comes as a major hinge in the book—swinging from grim news of what lay ahead because of their sins, to the bright hope and anticipation that God would eventually relent and bring them a double portion of comfort for their sins. Isaiah 40:1–2 “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.” Israel had every reason to be humbled, empty, and to hunger and thirst for such comfort.
Do we? Are we laid low by our sins? Does the way to our heart look rough and stony, crooked and overgrown with brambles? Does God need to engage in some road-clearing operations? Does He need to hammer through some pride or sin making is last stand against Him; or is there a straight path for Him to enter in? Are we proud, stubborn, and closed to His entry, or do we survey our life and realize that we’ve reached the limits of our efforts, that our sinful choices are toxic? Do we admit that we are out of our league when it comes to facing the overgrowth our sins, or that the ominous fact of our own mortality is something we’re just not prepared to deal with? How we answer these questions has a lot to do with whether the double comfort of the Lord can enter in and do it’s healing work on us, or whether it will fall on deaf ears, and we persist instead in facing God’s judgment or warnings.
How can God speak comfort to us, and why a double comfort? “Her iniquity is pardoned” the Lord says. Iniquity is the objective guilt or debt of sin. It’s not just feeling guilty—it’s that we objectively are guilty before God. Our iniquity, or guilt, consists of all that we have done wrong, through a lifetime of sins and failures. Whether you own up to it or not, that guilt is still there, and God’s Enduring Word is clear that it has an eternal cost. It’s not a debt that can easily be made up, nor is it a debt that we have the means to repay. But God tells us that it is pardoned. How? “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5). Jesus, the Lord, the One who traversed the dry deserts of human hearts to reveal His glory, went to an ugly, hideous cross—a place of hatred, shame, and contempt, and died there to pardon our iniquities. He bore in His body all the guilt of our sin so that we could hear that the debt has been paid. We have been pardoned! That we would not be faced with a double measure of destruction, but rather a double comfort!
This doubling of comfort and doubling of good news shows up in a couple of places. Today we sang "O Come, O Come Emmanuel": a double invitation to God to come and be with us--and sang in the refrain the double: "Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel has come to you!" Today is “Gaudete” Sunday, also for “Rejoice!” Our responsive Introit features a double rejoicing! “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice!” (Phil.4:4). Isaiah 61:7, speaking of the year of the Lord’s favor when Jesus comes, declares: “Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion; instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot; therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion; they shall have everlasting joy.” All that they have suffered for their sins will be a distant memory when the double portion of joy and blessing pours down from God! Another reason for double rejoicing! And finally, that prophecy from Zechariah 9:12 that announced Jesus’ coming on the humble donkey to bring righteousness and salvation to Jerusalem; this passage also declares: “return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope; today I declare that I will restore to you double.” God acknowledges the hurt and pain His people have suffered—even if they have suffered it justly for their own faults. He acknowledges it, but even more He sends His Son to bring a double blessing, a double comfort, a double restoration.
And what about the sin that is out of our league to handle? Turn it over to Jesus, who is more than capable to deal with our sin problems—who already paid the price for them, but now also renews and sanctifies your life by dwelling with you. Comfort, comfort my people. That little pronoun “my” speaks volumes of God’s love and care for you. And what about the looming fact of our mortality? The clock is ticking on each one of us—as this very passage reminds us, “all flesh is like grace and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” We’ve talked about this several times in these recent weeks of Advent, that whether it’s our own mortality or the return of the Lord and the signs that anticipate that—Yes, the clock is running—but No it’s not a call for anxiety, fear, or gloom. Because we are secure on the eternal foundation of Jesus and His Word, because His Word endures forever, we look forward to our redemption with joy and hope. The grave does not intimidate us, because our hope is not in our own flesh, but in the Eternal Word of God, and in Jesus, the Risen One who defeated sin and the grave for us.
Are we open and ready for God’s double comfort and healing? You’ve heard and you know how to build the obstacles of unrepentance, pride, and the refusal of help that would prevent it—but you’ve also heard how earnest and loving our God is to enter in, and bring His comfort. This Advent season, as Christ approaches, humble your hearts, prepare the Way of the Lord, and rejoice as He enters in! Don’t just rejoice—rejoice doubly! Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice! Rejoice that where sin has left its wake of devastation, no matter how severe, God earnestly desires to follow in and make straight paths to enter and reveal His glory. Jesus comes with His double comfort, to make this groaning creation new again, to replace our shame with a double portion of His blessing, to replace our dishonor with a double portion of His joy. God’s gifts are ready, and He is giving them to you freely and generously. Merry Christmas, in Jesus’ Name. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. The book of Isaiah was written about 2,700 years ago. Why is its message still timely and comforting for us today? Isaiah 40:8; 1 Peter 1:23-25. Meanwhile, what has continually changed throughout those 27 centuries?
  2. What are examples of common comforts given or received, and when is such comfort received or rejected? Why would people reject the comfort of God, or feel no need for it?
  3. What was the theme of John the Baptist’s preaching? Isaiah 40:3-5; Luke 3:3-14. What does the crookedness, dryness, roughness, etc of this wilderness represent? How do we prepare and ready our hearts for the Lord’s coming?
  4. Isaiah 1-39 features strong messages of judgment against Israel for their idolatry and wickedness. How does Jeremiah 16:18 and 17:18 similarly describe what is due to them for their sin? How does this relate to the words of Isaiah 40:1-2? How is Isaiah 40 like a “hinge” that swings between the first and second halves of the book (hint: the change in the predominant message).
  5. Are we receptive and ready for the Lord’s coming? Are we humble, or proud and stubborn? If we are proud and stubborn, how do we face the challenges of our own sin and mortality?
  6. How has God objectively pardoned our iniquity? Isaiah 53:5. How does this bring double comfort?
  7. What other examples of doubling joy or comfort do you find in these passages? Isaiah 61:7; Zechariah 9:12; Philippians 4:4. How much do Christ’s gifts cost us? Merry Christmas!

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