2017 December Issue
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Sermon Briefs Isaiah 40:1-11

In a very provocative sermon, What We are Awaiting1 Jacques Ellul addresses the Isaiah text from the position of its first fulfillment in the Gospel lesson and the promise of a second fulfillment in the Epistle. He arranges the sermon around three proclamations in the prophecy.

That this sermon will not be one to sleep through becomes clear as Ellul addresses the first proclamation of Isaiah, which contains the double aspects of comfort and pardon.

While Israel's comfort was a result of liberation from concrete historical servitude, our comfort in Jesus Christ has to do with freedom from all constraint. Ellul confronts the popular opinion that freedom means automatic happiness or the ability to do what one wants. Instead, he challenges us to understand our freedom as one which will put us in conflict with the rules of society or profession, among other things.

Ellul does not permit listeners to sleep through Advent, either. Nor does he allow us to dream during Advent about preparations for the joyful festival of Christmas. He calls us, during Advent, to consider the cost of pardon for God. God paid a double price, the "terrible adventure of the Incarnation" as well as Christ's death on the Cross. He invites listeners to ponder the "tragedy of the separation of the Father and the Son" during Advent.

Isaiah's prophecy does not just call us to revise our thinking, however. It calls us to action, says Ellul. The second proclamation, "In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord," makes it clear that we have a responsibility. The preparation for God is not exhausted in the work of John the Baptist. It puts the meaning of our lives in question as well.

Ellul challenges us to prepare for God in our own wilderness, the world in which we live. His language is graphic: "Desert of unbelief, desert of hardness of heart, desert of ambitions, desert of false loves!" We are to lay out a road for God in such places as unjust institutions, foolish philosophies and parched hearts. We are to preach the Gospel, and we are also to combat falsehood, dishonesty, injustice, extravagance, slavery. God awaits our work in bringing down the mountains of empires, money, political power, the arrogance of technology, and dominions of every kind. God also awaits our work of raising up the valleys of human conflicts and separation, and raising up the weak, downtrodden and the oppressed. Our work is not to instigate revolts or to foster a spirit of hatred. Rather, our work becomes the work of Jesus Christ when it places the powers under the power of God. Ellul is bold to say that only then will the third, or future, time of Isaiah's prophecy be fulfilled.

In addressing Isaiah's third proclamation, that the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, Ellul turns the sermons to a more comforting tone. Still he does not lull his listeners to sleep.

The glory of God appeared at Christmas in love rather than power. The coming of the Word of God in the incarnation gives us more responsibility, however. All flesh did not see it when Jesus was born. All flesh does not see it now. Ellul startles us when he declares that it is our fault that all flesh has not seen God's glory! He says that were we genuine bearers of the Word, there would be a radical change in the world as well as our hearts. But when all is said and done by human beings, we can rest assured that the third time of Isaiah's prophecy shall be fulfilled. In spite of the errors of churches, dangers of the world and omissions of Christians, the prophecy has been fulfilled by the Word incarnated and resurrected in Jesus Christ. The same Word which came in love at Christmas assures us that "we shall also receive this love in Glory!"

Though not preached for Advent, Paul Tillich's sermon on the whole of Isaiah 402 is interesting because a metaphor he uses stirs up the preacher's imagination. Tillich compares Isaiah's words to the ocean with the rising and falling of waves. The sermon is worth reading in preparation for preaching. It ends with a strong word of consolation to people who are a "suffering, destroyed generation." We belong also to the eternal order, and Isaiah speaks comfort to all of us.

Ronald Luckey's sermon, The Desert is in the Heart,3 is a beautiful example of speaking comfort to one's congregation.

Luckey begins with a powerful illustration. He reads from the life story of Emma Eve Smith, one of his mother's ancestors. Emma Eve writes of the fear and despair she felt when the Federal Calvary ransacked her Georgia farmhouse, burned the barn, and knocked the baby's bottle from the nurse's hand before she could feed him. The desert for Emma Eve Smith was in her heart.

Isaiah was speaking of more than geography, says Luckey. The desert is in our hearts. The sermon proceeds to define those wildernesses with imagery so vivid that we can almost feel the hot winds blow and taste the sand in our mouths.

Luckey invites us to be very still during Advent. As we listen to the sounds of the desert, we will hear a voice crying, "Here is your God!" There is no desert big enough or dry enough or dark enough to stop God's coming to us.

Janice W. Hearn

NOTES

1. Jacques Ellul, "What We are Awaiting," James W. Cox and Kenneth M. Cox, Ed., Best Sermons 3 (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1990), pp. 77-83. 2. Paul Tillich, "We Live in Two Orders," The Shaking of the Foundations (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948), pp. 12-23. 3. Ronald G. Luckey, "The Desert is in the Heart," Biblical Preaching Journal, Volume 6, Number 4, Fall 1993, pp. 30-31.