Get Ready for God
Isaiah 40:1 – 11
Mark 1:1 – 18
Waiting for God
Good news and bad news ...
“I’ve got good news and I’ve got bad news, which do you want first?”
How do you respond, when you get asked that?
I read this week about someone going to the doctor, and the doctor says, “I’ve got bad news, and worse news. The bad results is, your test results showed you only have 24 hours to live.
And the patient, shocked asks, “Well, what could possibly be the worse news?”
And the doctor replies, “I was supposed to tell you yesterday.”
Well, we know something of that, don’t we? At least when it comes to good news and bad news,
And maybe you’re like me, because I always want the bad news first, and then I can enjoy the good news.
The pattern of Isaiah: bad news then good news
But we see this pattern in the book of the prophet Isaiah, there’s bad news, really quite terrible news for the people of God, then a shift to some really, really good news.
Of course the “bad news” that God has for his people, it’s still right, and just, and fair.
God is telling the people what the consequences of their sin is going to be.
And sin has consequences.
You can’t live with no regard for God,
Take all the good gifts that God gives but want nothing to do with God,
You can’t set yourself up as the final authority on what’s right and what’s wrong and expect to be able to keep doing that forever.
No, sin, rebellion against God, has its consequences, it will one day be punished, that’s the only just outcome.
But of course that’s bad news for whoever’s facing God’s just judgment.
And so the passage we’ve got before us today, Isaiah chapter 40, is in many ways the turning point in the book from bad news to good news. So much so, that some people have suggested that from chapter 40 onwards was written separately, and then tacked onto Isaiah’s 39 chapters at some later point.
That’s probably not the case, but there’s no doubt it’s a decisive turning point.
But have a look in your Bible, just a couple of lines from Isaiah 40 to the last couple of verses of chapter 39.
You see there in verse 5, that God says to Hezekiah, king of Judah, that everything he has amassed for himself, all the family heirlooms that have been passed down to him from generations before, it’s all going to be taken away.
Even some of his family, verse 7, his own flesh and blood, will be taken away as prisoners, to the palace of the king of Babylon
Now, it doesn’t really matter how you slice it, that’s bad news, isn’t it?!
It’s the climax, of all the bad news in the book so far.
But, you’d have to say, Hezekiah is the world’s most optimistic optimist. He can see the silver lining even on this,
These things are not going to happen in his lifetime.
It’s all going to be somebody else’s problem.
Not really an approach to bad news that I’d recommend! Just bury your head in the sand, because it doesn’t make the news any less bad, does it?
The sin of the people here still needs to be punished,
Doing evil has consequences.
But then just, two sentences later, we read these beautiful words, this good news, in chapter 40.
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
2 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.
Isaiah speaks first to Judah, and then to us
Now, the few weeks we’ve spent in Haggai recently have prepared us for the fact that we need to understand the original context that these words were spoken into.
This isn’t a promise to us in the first instance.
Although most of us know, even if it’s thanks only to Handel’s Messiah that these words have some connection to Jesus.
You’ll be pleased to know, I’m sure, that there are only 29 days left until Christmas. You can put that into the good or news or bad news category depending on how you think about it!
But I’m sure, that over the next 29 days, we’ll hear bits and pieces from Handel’s Messiah, reminding us that that these words of promise eventually reach fulfilment in the breaking into the world of the incarnate God.
But remember, like we saw with the promise to Zerubbabel at the end of Haggai last week, there is an immediate or much shorter-term fulfilment, a way in which these words come true.
When we read the Old Testament from our moment in salvation history we do want to ask the question, “how does this prepare for the life and ministry of Jesus?”, or “How is this fulfilled in Jesus?” That’s an essential question,
But it mustn’t be our first question, or our only question.
We need to remember that these are words spoken in a particular time to a particular group of people.
In the first instance, God’s words here refer to events that occurred within about 150 years of Isaiah’s speaking.
Isaiah’s in the 8th Century BC, the events connected to these verses unfold in the early part of the 6th Century BC.
So in promising this comfort, Isaiah is speaking about a time, when the “bad news” of the earlier chapters has already come to pass.
And if you’re trying to work out where this fits with Haggai who we’ve just been learning from,
The bad news bits from chapter 39, that’s the destruction of the temple and the city of Jerusalem, and the carrying off of the people to Babylon. That’s what sets the scene for Haggai, when they return and rebuild about 70 years later.
So God’s people are going to be sitting in Babylon, modern-day Iraq, and they read in Isaiah that getting taken away from their land, was because of their sin and rebellion against God.
For some of them, life as a prisoner in war in Babylon is the only life they’ve ever known.
They’d never experienced the life of blessing in the land of God’s promise,
They knew little of the privilege that was supposed to be theirs as God’s special people,
They knew nothing of their role as a light to the nations around them.
But as the 70 years of Babylon draws to a close, they begin to experience God’s blessing as the words of comfort here begin to be fulfilled.
The comfort they experience, the fulfilment of these promises is in the first instance, their return to the land of their ancestors, out of their captivity in Babylon.
The first 5 verses of chapter 40 serve as a bit of a summary for all the chapters that follow, and so we’ll focus mainly on these words, which are probably quite familiar to many of us.
God promises comfort to his people (v 1 – 2)
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God
Well, now, who doesn’t want to be comfortable?!
But it pretty quickly becomes clear that God’s not talking about having a nice chair and a cushion.
This isn’t so much about being, comfortable. It’s much more than that.
The comfort that God promises his people flows out of the fact, that, one, their hard service has been completed, their suffering is over,
And 2, that their sin has been paid for.
Since I mentioned Handel’s Messiah a moment ago, some of you have probably been singing that to yourself!
These words from Isaiah 40 are the very first words that are we sung in the Messiah, and Handel, Charles Jennens who wrote the libretto, used the phrase her warfare is accomplished, which was the translation in lots of the old Bible versions.
Strictly speaking Isaiah’s words here are broader than just, rest from war and fighting, so our NIV’s hard service having been completed, is a good translation, but for the original hearers, much of their suffering had come through war and fighting. God used the military might of other nations as his means of judging sin.
So sure is this promise, it’s spoken of in the past
But the time is coming, God says, when that suffering and duress will be a thing of the past. And do you notice that even though in Isaiah’s time, remember, these events are still 150 years in the future, he speaks about them in the past tense. Her hard service, has, been, completed.
her sin has been paid for
It’s not an uncommon technique in the prophecies of the Bible, to speak of things that are in the future, either in the present tense, or even the past tense.
And it’s not that God’s kind of lost track of time,
It’s a way of emphasising certainty.
So, one of our children, really wants guitar for Christmas. Not the child you might expect actually! But one of the others.
So if I said to her, “I will buy you a guitar for Christmas”, that’s a promise, she could have confidence if I say that. And so if she thinks I’m trustworthy, then she’ll have a fair degree of expectation, won’t she?
But if I say “I have bought you a guitar for Christmas”, well then, there’s no more wondering and waiting, is there? No hoping that dad keeps his word,
Hoping that dad remembers,
Hoping the shops don’t sell out,
Hoping that something doesn’t come up that spoils my plans.
If it’s something that I have done, there’s great assurance.
See the great assurance here?
Isaiah doesn’t live to see these events come to pass. But he’s so convinced that God will bring these promises to reality, that he speaks of them as if they already, reality.
Her hard service has been completed
That’s some kind of confidence in the promises of God, isn’t it?
We can depend on God’s promises to us
It made me wonder actually, if we sometimes imagine that God’s promises aren’t quite that dependable.
Or maybe we’ll trust God’s promises in those areas where other people don’t make promises, eternal life, that kind of thing.
But in the parts of life where all kinds of people and things make promises to us, we sometimes live as if those are all much more dependable than God’s promises.
Have you ever noticed that?
The assurances that money makes to us,
The promise of security and significance that a career holds out to us,
We often believe those things unquestioningly, don’t we?, But struggle to believe God’s promises?
Or maybe we’re OK with depending on God in the little areas, where it doesn’t really matter,
But in the big areas of life, like relationships, who I’m going to spend the rest of my life with,
Or how I raise my kids, and make choices for them, sure God’s made promises to us about those things, but we actually don’t expect him to come through for us.
I read the other day about a former president of the Boston Red Sox baseball team. It was often said of this bloke, that “he never met a loophole he didn’t like.”
And sometimes I think we’re tempted to think of God in those kinds of terms, yeah, he’ll make the promise, but when the time comes for me to depend on his word, I mean really depend on his word, that God’s found some loophole, or something’s come up, so that he’s not going to keep the promise that he made.
Well, if we’re ever tempted to think like that, let’s hear Isaiah;,
His confidence in God’s promises.
His confidence in God’s sovereignty.
His rock-solid assurance that God keeps his word.
God’s promise of forgiveness is also absolutely certain
The other part of the message of comfort for God’s people in Judah, is that her sin has been paid for.
Again, notice, past event, even though it would be many, many years until the consequences of Judah’s sin would be dealt with.
But what wonderful confidence, in the assurance of forgiveness.
Sometimes we wonder, don’t we, if the forgiveness that is ours through faith in Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, we wonder if it’s real, or effective, or whether it really covers everything.
I spoke here at Cornerstone in school chapel last week, and this is what I wanted to remind the students and staff about. I talked about the great assurance we find in Hebrews 1 verse 3 that Jesus purified us from sin, and then sat down, job done.
If you trust in Jesus death there’s nothing left for you to do to ensure or contribute to your forgiveness.
And if you’d like to know how one teaches that in school chapel with Caramello Koalas and whipped cream in a can, come and see me after!
But for Isaiah, there’s no lingering doubts over whether the forgiveness God promises is real, or effective, or sufficient, or whatever.
God’s solution to the problem of sin is still hundreds of years off, but it will so completely deal with the problem of sin for Gods’ people, that it can be spoken of in the past tense.
And as if to emphasise the restoring of the relationship, the removal of the barrier between the people and God that had existed because of sin and rebellion, Isaiah says, Jerusalem, the people of God, the city of God, has received from the Lord’s hand, double for all her sins.
It’s an expression that points people’s attention both backwards and forwards.
Backwards, to the law, to remember that according to the law God had given the nation through Moses, sin had to be paid for. And it had to be paid for over and abundantly.
When somebody sinned against another person, they were required to pay back double whatever the damage was. It was a practical reminder of the cost and the seriousness of sin.
Sin matters! The law was designed to make you never forget that.
But also this was supposed to make them look forward, to a time of such blessing, that their current troubles will fade into insignificance. Later in Isiah this the exact picture that God uses to picture the super abundant blessing that his people will experience;, a double portion from God’s hand
Their suffering will be more than swept away, by the blessing God has in store for them.
That’s the comfort that God offers to his people, who are held captive in Babylon.
And so sure, so unshakeable this promise, it can be spoken of as if it’s already happened.
God is coming to be with his people (v 3 – 5)
And so having spoken of the absolute certainty of God’s plans for blessing and forgiveness, Isaiah goes on with some of the detail, exactly how God is planning to bring this about.
And the answer is, by coming to be with his people.
How to get ready for royalty?
Look with me from verse 3.
A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God. b
4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.
5 And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
God’s coming, get ready, Isaiah says.
Earlier this year I was in Kuala Lumpur, and I preached at the Anglican cathedral there, in their morning and evening services. The people there were all very very kind to us.
However, just a couple of months after I was there, Charles, Prince of Wales, and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall also visited St Mary’s cathedral, and I couldn’t help but notice that the reception given to Charles and Camilla was somewhat different to the reception given to the visiting speaker from Mount Barker.
I noticed that people were dressed up!
There were rehearsals and practice!
A special morning tea was laid on,
Official photographers ran about,
The red carpet was rolled out.
Let me clarify, that was the welcome for Charles and Camilla, not me!
Actually I’m thrilled about the royal visit to the cathedral, especially the attention it gives to Christian ministry in a country where it’s illegal for Muslims to convert to Christianity, where a pastor adducted earlier this year, is still missing. Snatched off the street like something out of the movies, and we believe it’s because he wants Muslims to put their faith in Jesus.
So I’m quite happy for Charles and Camilla to bring the spotlight into that part of the world,
And we know that the arrival of the heir to the throne, requires a certain type of preparation and response, doesn’t it?
And it was no different in the ancient world.
Except the priority was not red carpet and morning tea, but building roads.
The king and his entourage couldn’t travel on the windy back roads to the far-flung reaches of his kingdom, so if royalty were expected, roads would be built.
Even as late as 1796, a man in the US named Ebenezer Zane was authorised by Congress to build a highway between 2 states. And the terms of his contract stated that as long as any tree standing in the roadway was reduced to a stump one foot high or less, then his road would be considered passable!
Little wonder then, that if royalty’s coming, the roads need an upgrade!
Archaeologists have found inscriptions with this kind of language. The king’s on his way go and build the roads to get ready for him.
And certainly if anyone in Isaiah’s day heard these words, they’d know who to expect.
Get ready for God himself to arrive!
But it’s not just a king whose arrival is promised in Isaiah 40, is it?
When a king comes, the valleys are made passable. Here, the valleys are raised up!
The mountains aren’t surveyed to find the best route, they’re flattened!
The one who is coming is more than just an earthly king! It’s God himself. Prepare the way, for the Lord, a highway for our God.
The promise of comfort, and forgiveness, and restoration in those first couple of verses, can only come to fulfilment because God himself is coming.
One of the other prophets, Ezekiel, had spoken of God abandoning the city of Jerusalem, as a sign of his judgment on the sin of the people.
It’s a sign that the people have torn apart their relationship with God.
But now we read the promise of God’s return, there’s the promise of restored relationship.
Get ready for a new Exodus
So God himself was going to come,
But also the people were going to come back to Jerusalem. It was going to be a wonderful reunion.
I haven’t been to any of my high school reunions. That doesn’t appeal to me at all!
But this is a reunion to look forward to!
The people will return from Babylon where they’ve been captive.
God’s arrival is as a triumphant king, the people’s journey, is as, a flock, following their shepherd, verse 11.
It kind of has the feel of a second Exodus. It reminds us of God bringing his people out of Egypt.
So in the very last line of this chapter, Isaiah pictures God’s people being carried on wings like eagles. It’s a very famous section,
those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint
These words have been a great encouragement to many, many people over the years, People who have felt completely without strength and who long to feel lifted up by God.
But there’s more to these lines than just a promise of feeling safe in God’s arms.
God’s explaining how he’s going to act in the future, this wonderful experience of blessing that the people of Judah are going to have, and he does it by referring to what he’s said in the past.
See, the language of being carried on eagles’ wings is how God describes his rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt.
So in Exodus 19:4 God says You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself.
I don’t know anyone went to hear Paul Kelly at the Entertainment Centre Thursday night, but when you go to one of those big name musos in concert, they want to perform all their new music, but all the fans at the concert, what do they want to hear?
They just want to hear the old stuff, don’t they?
The greatest hits!
Well, God here is playing his greatest hits for his people.
The forgiveness of sin that is coming,
The blessing that is going to flow,
God’s presence among his people,
It’s all going to be so great, that the only way to get any sense of it, is by comparing it to that most spectacular thing that God’s done in the past;, the Exodus from Egypt.
Such a spectacular homecoming after the exile to Babylon, overflowing with forgiveness and comfort and measure upon measure of God’s grace, it will declare to all the world, the glory of the Lord, verse 5.
And we saw some of that in Haggai, didn’t we?, as this is fulfilled, the blessing and restoration of relationship between God and his people.
In his renewal of the remnant of Israel we see God’s glory;,
and all people will see it together
Where and when do “all people” see the glory of the Lord?
But all people together don’t see fullness of the glory of the Lord in this event do they?
And so we know that even though God speaks through Isaiah to those carried off from Judah in the 6th century BC, there must be more.
More than what took place over the next 70 years,
More than the return of a people from a foreign land,
More than the manifestation of God’s presence once again in the temple in Jerusalem
So who is the one of whom verse 9 can be speaking, here, is, your, God?
When does the Sovereign Lord come with power, and rule with a mighty arm verse 10?
Where is the glory of the Lord revealed in a way that all people will see it together
Where is the ultimate penalty for sin paid for?
Where is the sacrifice that brings comfort, and assurance, and blessing?
Well, turn with me in your Bible to the opening of Mark’s gospel, which we read earlier.
The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, 2 as 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 wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’ ”
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.
John the Baptist is the voice in the wilderness (Mark 1:1 – 4)
So in the first Century AD, the Holy Spirit says through the historian Mark, that John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness in fulfilment of this promise from Isaiah, of God turning up.
Another one of the gospel writers actually records John the Baptist quoting Isaiah 40 as a means of identifying himself. John 1:23, John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’ ”
And then a bit later on, when John the Baptist is in prison, he sends 2 of his disciples to ask Jesus if he really is the one who John had been getting people ready for, Is Jesus really God arriving among his people?
And Jesus responds by saying to the messengers, Luke 7:22, tell John what you have seen and heard, The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed,
the deaf hear, the dead are raised,
and the good news is proclaimed to the poor
The very things that later on in Isaiah, he tells us, this is what God will do, when he arrives as promised in chapter 40.
Jesus is God among his people
So, the answer is “yes!” Jesus is the one promised in Isaiah 40.
Jesus is, the God who arrived among his people.
It’s Jesus through whom forgiveness is offered to everyone,
It’s Jesus who brings comfort, greater than any human comfort, because Jesus’ comfort flows from peace with God, a relationship with the creator,
It’s Jesus who reveals God’s glory to all mankind together.
We see in Jesus’ death on the cross the true character of God,
The depths of his forgiveness.
The lengths that God would go to to bring people to himself.
In fact the cross of Christ is so much the ultimate display of God’s glory that Jesus speaks of his death, as his, glorification.
And lest there be any doubt that this is in fact where Isaiah was pointing God’s people, or we think the parallels are just coincidental or something, The Apostle John, not John the Baptist, he writes in his gospel account, that Isaiah wrote these things down, because he, saw Jesus’ glory, and, spoke about him.
Jesus’ glorification means our comfort.
Jesus’ glorification means our forgiveness.
Jesus’ glorification means our hard service, our captivity to sin, is behind us.
Talk about good news!
The words of comfort and forgiveness and assurance spoken to the people of Judah in the 8th century BC, are good news for us, too.
How to hear Isaiah’s words today
But I think there are a few other, or particular things to bear in mind about Isaiah 40, for us who stand after both the initial fulfilment and the ultimate fulfilment of these promises.
Hear the assurance of forgiveness today
First of all, our forgiveness is just as certain as Judah’s forgiveness. I don’t know what went through your mind before when we were thinking about the certainty of the promises in this chapter.
Maybe you thought, “Wow! Obviously Isaiah never had any kind of nagging doubts or dark moments wondering about forgiveness, like I do!”
If you’re a Christian who struggles with doubts about your forgiveness, if you long for the assurance of God’s blessing and favour on you, then please find that assurance in God’s unshakeable promises here.
If you’re trusting in Jesus’ life and death and resurrection, his death in your place, then your sin, has, been, paid for.
There is nothing else that needs to be done to deal with your sin and rebellion against God, nothing else that can be done.
If forgiveness couldn’t be guaranteed by God himself breaking into the world as a human that very first Christmas, and dying on a Roman cross, then what possibly could achieve it?
Our forgiveness is just as certain as the very sure forgiveness in these verses.
Hear the good and bad news of the gospel today
Secondly it’s good to remember that the pattern of bad news followed by good news that we see in Isaiah is mirrored in the gospel of Jesus.
See, in order to hear the good news of forgiveness, eternal life, reconciliation with God, we first have to hear and accept the bad news, that on our own, we’re God’s enemies,
We ignore him,
We rebel against him,
And we’re separated from God.
Without hearing and understanding that bad news, we simply can’t appreciate the good news or understand how good it really is.
Do you remember the Costa Concordia cruise ship which sank in 2012? In the immediate aftermath of hitting the reef, one of the ship’s officers told Italian port authorities that there was no danger, just that the ship had suffered an electrical “black out.”
The captain was so sure that there was no danger, that the order to abandon ship wasn’t given until over an hour later! Despite the fact that the ship’s been fatally holed!
Isaiah 40 gives us a great promise of forgiveness and the removal of sin. But how can we be excited about that, if we don’t think we’re sinful?
How can we value the promise of the presence of God and relationship with God, if we don’t realise that we’re estranged from God?
We won’t understand what it means to be declared right in God’s eyes, until we realise how far we fall short of his standard.
Isaiah 40 reminds us that God rescues people when they can’t do anything for themselves. We need to understand the bad news that the gospel brings us about ourselves, before we can benefit from the very very good news about what Jesus does for us.
Me mustn’t ever be like Hezekiah and think “the problem of sin and rebellion, that’s someone else’s problem.”
We need to hear where we fit in this.
Hearing the call to trust in Jesus today
Lastly, I think Isaiah 40 is worth hearing particularly, if you’re here this morning and you’re not a Christian.
If you’re not trusting in Jesus for reconciliation with God, for the forgiveness of your sin and rebellion, then I say this as, gently and carefully as you can, the “good news” part, doesn’t extend to you.
I know that sounds incredibly harsh and intolerant, but the comfort and restoration and reconciliation, promised in Isaiah 40, and fulfilled in Jesus Christ, are for those who aren’t still trying to live their life apart from God.
If you want nothing to do with God, then God himself turning up is not going to be good news for you, is it?!
The people who reap the benefits of this good news are those who say, “I know Jesus took the punishment that I deserve for ignoring God,
And I don’t any more want to run from God. I want to be with God.”
Now, having said this doesn’t apply to you, it can apply to you!
The Bible is very clear, whoever acknowledges that Jesus is the one who brings God’s comfort, and reconciliation, and pays the penalty for sin, then all of that is yours.
Friends, perhaps more than any other time of year, Christmas, 29 days away, Christmas speaks into our world, into our lives, and says God has come.
There really is no better news!