2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall

index

Sermon Ideas For Isaiah 40:1-11 Part 2

The principal text, Isaiah 40:1-11, served as inspiration for the familiar aria from Handel's Messiah, "Comfort ye, Comfort ye, my people." The setting is in a royal court. The words of consolation are for Israel in its captivity; voices off stage give directions, "Speak tenderly." Words pour out like balm from Gilead. Here the Wilderness addresses the City, filled with human civilization in all its sinfulness. Babel has always sought to presume its superiority over the Lord God. For forty years the captives have struggled with the death worse than death—the loss of identity and the loss of hope.

Pastorally, the preacher's task is twofold: To equip his hearers for the inevitable losses we all experience in life; and to speak a word of hope from the perspective of realized promise. We all engage in denial. The pain of rejection is a down payment on our (eventual) death. This is so for the boy who rides the bench all season and for the homely girl ignored by classmates. I recall as a young man telling a life insurance agent, "If I die..." Very quickly he reminded me, "You will die; we are making provisions for when you die." A chaplain in war time spoke to a church group on the home front, "My job is preparing people to die."

Preparing people to die is vitally important for us who live in a world committed to denying the reality of human mortality. The real pain of death is when the reality strips away pretense. The opportunity is ours in sermons and through adult discussion classes. When have you last had speakers present the importance of preparation of wills, living wills, organ donations, or gone as a group to a funeral home? It takes the edge off of loss when death comes. Paul reminds us, "The sting of death is sin" (1 Cor 15:56). The heart of all sin is our denial of God's lordship over our lives coupled with our pretense that we live forever and never suffer loss.

The preacher may find it helpful to expand on the dialogue of the heavenly court speaking "tenderly to Jerusalem." Tillich concludes a sermon on the text, "We are not a lost generation because we are a suffering, destroyed generation. Each of us belongs to the eternal order."1 He has identified that we struggle to live within two orders, the historical and the eternal. We have to make our peace with both. We have to come to terms with the realization that ultimate salvation from loss and sin are the work of Jesus Christ on the cross. We are ourselves in dialogue with the two orders.

Interestingly, Walter Brueggemann speaks of another dialogue in his exposition of 2 Kings 18-19 as he affirms the legitimacy of a sectarian hermeneutic.2 Two conversations are taking place. One on the city wall with the besieging enemy—pro phanos, the profane. The second is behind the wall in the temple, where the king does "grief work" through prayer. Israel has to come to terms with its apostasy and rebellion if Jerusalem is to be spared and the people delivered. Judah lies prostrate in its sinfulness.

Along that line, we speak of renewing the inner city of urban blight and social decay. What of the dead spaces and the decay of our own hearts? Advent is a time to clean and purge our souls to receive the Christ at Christmas. In the midst of pre-Christmas activity, it is important to back away from activity to find a space where God can be discerned. The preacher does well to note our human penchant for either/or. A case in point is an appraisal of the social activism of the 1950s in the Church. By the 1970s in the midst of the Viet Nam protest, we had turned to pietism. Scripture makes clear God seeks both. One without the other dies, or becomes perverted.

Our sinfulness and brokenness trap us. The spirit of our human dilemma is caught by the quip, "I don't fear death; it's the process of dying which bothers me." Scripture reminds us, "Fear not those who can kill the body, rather fear those who can destroy body and soul" (Mt 10:28). The sting of death is sin. Comfort ye, my people, even though flesh is grass. We strut our hour upon the stage; we measure our fleeting 15 minutes of fame and the notoriety of others in 30 second sound bites. Are we more significant than the life span of anti-matter which has been measured as one forty billionth of a second? The word of our God will stand forever.

What is the word we preach, and what is the core issue—faith or morality? This year's Easter issue of Newsweek begins an article on the Resurrection, "If Christ is not raised," St. Paul wrote in first Corinthians, " then our preaching is in vain and so is your faith." It continues quoting Marxist scholar, Ernst Block, "It wasn't the morality of the Sermon on the Mount which enabled Christianity to conquer Roman paganism, but belief that Jesus had been reaised from the Dead. In an age when Roman senators vied to see who could get the most blood on their togas (to prevent death), Christianity was in competition for eternal life, not morality." Christianity over the course of three centuries won by virtue of the conviction of the saints and the blood of martyrs—what we now call the power of love. However, notes Newsweek, "The battle for spiritual imagination is never ending."3 How do we preach the Word in our time?

Isaiah speaks God's word to a people in captivity, who are without hope and are spiritually dry, if not dead. Jeremiah in another time buys a parcel of land when the city stands besieged. Though he does not expect to occupy it, he does so for the future generations who will once again return from captivity. Such is the spirit that will deliver us from the death of despair, the death after death. Such is the spirit that can free us from the fear of death and enable us to get on with living—to God's glory. A story is told of a plaque in a small rural German Church, dedicated to its builder. The year of dedication is in the early seventeenth century in the midst of religious wars. It reads, "In a time of civil war when men were killing friend and brother and were tearing down what past generations had built up, Fra Dominic had the grace to build this church." Comfort ye, Comfort ye, my people, says your God. Now get we up to a high mountain to witness to life in the midst of death.

Louis C. Fischer, III

NOTES

1. Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948), p. 23. 2. Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1991), pp. 41-43. ISBN #0-8006-2478-5. 3. Newsweek, April 8, 1966 (New York, NY: Volume CXXVII, No. 15, p. 61)