2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall

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Sermon Ideas For Isaiah 40:1-11 Part 1

Sometimes a verb is just a verb: go, walk, look. Sometimes the actual speaking of a verb can prompt the action which the verb describes, as in the first word of Isaiah 40—comfort. Usually when the divine realm breaks into our mortal world, whether through God's own voice or angelic messengers, the first words heard are the command to "fear not." Fear not, said the Lord to Abram and later to Isaac; fear not, said the angel to the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night and to Mary Magdalene and the other Mary as they visited the sepulchre before dawn. Telling someone not to be afraid, however, seldom succeeds in taking away all their fear.

By contrast, the voice of God or of God's prophet saying `comfort ye' can bring about the desired consolation. The psalmist said be comforted through visualizing the Good Shepherd's rod and staff. The apostle Paul said be comforted through the promise of the resurrection of the dead (1 Thess 4:18). More than anyone in the Bible, the author of Second Isaiah keeps repeating the soothing verb "be comforted." Exegetes can put the opening words of Isaiah 40 in context by describing the historic period at the end of the Babylonian Exile, but preachers need to remember that too much background information will only dilute and dissipate the true healing power of these verses. To some in the pews, Isaiah says "The spirit of the Lord is upon me...to proclaim liberty to the captives,...to comfort all who mourn" (Is 61: 1-2). To others, Isaiah says "As one whom a mother comforts, so I will comfort you" (Is 66:13). To all of us, the prophet Isaiah's proclamation of the word of God merits being heard simply as a verb which heals as it is heard. Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.

With the second stanza of this passage comes the archetypical Advent theme of preparedness. As was the case with the Mark 13 parable on watchfulness already considered, and will be the case with the Luke 2 story of Simeon and Anna in the temple, Advent preparedness is an active process. People are to tend the Master's house, be diligent in acts of worship, or, as in Isaiah's case, prepare the way of the Lord by making a highway for our God. The images of raised valleys and lowered mountains make it clear that our efforts alone are not what makes possible the revelation of God's glory. Rather our active participation in this process is simply the response of a people who have been comforted by their God, who have been sustained in exile by God's promises, and who are willing to serve as the partial embodiment of God's revealed glory.

John Calvin considered it significant that the words on preparedness were preceded by words of comfort and glad tidings. He felt we could not be truly persuaded that we belong to God unless we first recognize God's grace, that people could not apply themselves seriously to repentance unless they know themselves to be serving a Lord who is pleased by their obedience. That is why the promise is first spoken tenderly to Jerusalem, who responds by going out to prepare the way of the Lord, awaiting the later revelation of God's glory which all flesh will see together.

This passage's third stanza serves as a nervous rebuttal, concerned that the testimony of mortal humankind cannot do justice to the prophesied splendor of the Lord. The transitoriness of all life is considered a hindrance to accomplishing the mighty deeds of making the Lord's highway or to professing the Lord's glory so that all nations may see it together. With the powerful phrase "the word of our God will stand forever" (v.8), the prophet establishes a foundation upon which all that is necessary for salvation can be constructed.

To some listeners, the personal tone of the opening, comforting verse gets lost amid the grandiose descriptions of valleys and mountains. The word of God does have both universal and individualistic qualities to it. It is not inappropriate to associate this word with the creation-language found in the prologue to John's gospel, the word which was in the beginning and through which all things were created. Yet it is also as personal as a lighthouse beacon to a ship in peril, or "a lamp to my feet" (Ps 119:105). Joseph Campbell loved the story of Ariadne, who provided Theseus with a sword to slay the minotaur but, more importantly, a ball of thread so that he might escape the monster's labyrinth. Campbell would point out that sometimes we seek for great wealth or power or ideas to save us, when often all we need is a piece of string. Likewise, in the face of the transitoriness of all flesh and beauty, the word of God stands as that constant guide that sustains and saves and will stand forever.

In the final verses of this passage, the exhortation to proclaim good news and not be afraid is pronounced triumphantly. Jerusalem, least of the nations, is to lift up her voice with strength. Yet when this message is heard in Advent, the herald's shout "Behold your God!" stands in stark contrast to a child born in a manger, the one who later endures Pilate's shout, "Behold the man!" By announcing that the Lord who rules with might will also gather the lambs in his arms and gently lead those that are with young, the dominant theme of comfort wins the day. I suspect that Isaiah would be pleased.

Randall K. Bush

SOURCES

John Calvin, Institutes, Bk. III, ch. iii, 2. Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, p. 150.