2017 December Issue
of The Sermon Mall

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Sermon Ideas For Isaiah 40:1-11 Part 3

Some landscapes, both literal and figurative, challenge faith, and some landscapes encourage faith. Isaiah's words of consolation to exiles paint a new landscape for them as they sit bereft and discouraged in a distant land. Isaiah knows the rough road which they have traveled in their distance from God, and he knows the certainty of their approaching road home to God. Comfort takes the form of a theological roadmap to reunion with God.

One lesson about theological landscapes we can learn from Isaiah is that dramatic elevations challenge individuals in their relationships with God. Society's structure of economic "elevations" can be an obstacle to faith: the wealthy lose sight of God because of the comfort of abundance, the poor hunger for some sight of God in the midst of great need. The range of socioeconomic elevations in our culture reveal power and lack of power as obstacles in the road to right relationship with God.

When Isaiah speaks of valleys lifted up and mountains laid low, he calls for a leveling of society. American painter Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) depicted with great detail and strength the dramatic landscapes of the American West. Using large canvases to capture the scenes he encountered in his travels, his human figures are barely perceptible against the immense backdrop of sheer cliffs and towering mountains. Elevations threaten lives in Bierstadt's work. Surprise, danger, and mystery surround the most committed pioneer. By contrast, watercolor artist Doutreleau paints a clean landscape defined only by a flat line marking the horizon. The openness of the space conveys peace and tranquility.

"Make straight" is the injunction from Isaiah, implying that circuitous routes lead to wayward faith. Harlem Renaissance writer Dorothy West recently wrote The Wedding, a novel about an ingrown, exclusive summer colony of African-American elite on Martha's Vineyard. The elite are proud of their long history of snobbish insularity. Newcomers have a difficult time—literally and symbolically—of finding their way to The Oval, which is the enclave of grand homes cut off from the rest of island society.

"The Oval was a rustic stretch of flowering shrubs and tall trees, designated on the old town maps as Highland Park...The only means of exit from or entrance to the Oval was via a winding, rutted road. The underbrush on either side of this road forced one of two approaching cars to back to its starting place, a slow and tortuous procedure that often left scars on the polished hide of an oversize car that did not quite stay in the ruts. The Ovalites could have followed established procedure and petitioned the town for a wider outlet to the highway. But this uninviting approach gave them a feeling of being as exclusive as the really exclusive—the really rich, the really powerful—who also lived at the end of impressively bad roads to discourage the curious."1

A straightening of the road and a leveling of the landscape ensures the most direct route to reunion with God. Isaiah assures the troubled exiles that their context will be transformed, and they will be welcomed home again. This transformation is the consequence of Israel's period of confession and remorse for its neglect of God and breach of covenant. Isaiah offers no easy grace for Israel, but rather begins the message of consolation with words of tenderness because Jerusalem has served her term and paid her penalty. James Joyce describes the cathartic act of confession in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where protagonist Stephen Daedalus receives forgiveness through the priest for Daedalus' sexual sins.

"Blinded by his tears and by the light of God's mercifulness he bent his head and heard the grave words of absolution spoken and saw the priest's hand raised above him in token of forgiveness. ...The muddy streets were gay. He strode homeward, conscious of an invisible grace pervading and making light his limbs. In spite of all he had done it. He had confessed, and God had pardoned him. His soul was made fair and holy once more, holy and happy."2

Who can hear these words of Isaiah 40 without hearing Handel's chorus in Messiah? The certainty of God's promised restoration finds its voice in the fullness of Handel's choral composition. Isaiah draws a vivid landscape of hope and assurance for all God's people who long for reunion with God.

Judy E. Pidcock

NOTES

1. Dorothy West, The Wedding (Doubleday, 1995), p. 3. 2. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, chapter 3.