Date: December 1, 2019
Speaker: Jeff Breeding
Scripture: Isaiah 40:1–40:11
As Christians, we are a people who live in between the times. This is always true of the church, but we are perhaps especially mindful of this during Advent. Our lives are very much defined by two days – the Lord’s Day, when Jesus took back up his life in victory over the grave, and the Last Day, when the Lord Jesus will return to gather his church. Those two days capture the story of our lives as Christians. We live now because Christ lived, died, and rose again, and we will live forever because Christ will return in glory to save his church to the uttermost. As Christians, we live in between the times.
And that means learning to wait is a central act of the Christian life. That’s really what we’re doing right now. We’re here on the Lord’s Day, while we wait for the Last Day. And yet, to borrow a phrase, the waiting is the hardest part, isn’t it? This is why, as a kid, the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas were always the longest weeks of the year. It’s hard to wait, and that’s true of the Christian life as well. We celebrate the Lord’s Day, while we wait for the Last Day.
But this is where the prophet Isaiah can help us. Isaiah also lived between the times. On the one hand, Isaiah faced the day of God’s judgment, a day he predicted time and time again. In fact, from chapter 13 until about chapter 34, Isaiah’s entire ministry was dominated by this day of judgment. Over and over, he warned the nation of Judah that they would be exiled from the Promised Land, that judgment was coming.
But on the other hand, Isaiah also faced the day of God’s salvation. Beginning here in chapter 40 and stretching to the end of the book, Isaiah predicts a new day, one that promises nothing less than light and life and glory for the people of God. You can see how Isaiah lived between the times. He predicted both the day of God’s judgment and the day of God’s salvation.
The question, then, is how did Isaiah navigate this time between the days? How did Isaiah endure the waiting? The answer is, by looking to the promises of God as revealed in his Word. The promises of God allowed Isaiah to understand that judgment was not the end of the story, but that there was redemption coming for those who believed.
And brothers and sisters, that is Isaiah’s testimony to us. As we wait in between the Lord’s Day and the Last Day, we are sustained by the promises of God that have been revealed to us his Word. This is why Isaiah is so helpful during Advent. We look back to God’s promises fulfilled in Jesus Christ, and then armed with renewed faith, we look forward to those promises consummated in Christ’s return. If the waiting is the hardest part, then we endure the waiting by standing on the promises of God.
And our passage this morning, Isaiah 40, is the beginning of a glorious section of those promises. Think of Isaiah 40 as the first link in an indestructible gospel chain. The links of this chain are God’s promises through Isaiah, and these links will stretch to chapter 55 here in his book. In fact, chapters 40-55 are one sustained meditation on Isaiah’s part, so if you don’t have a plan for Advent, you might consider following the reading plan available in the foyer, perhaps with your family or a with a fellow church member. There’s a gospel chain that begins here in chapter 40 and stretches to Isaiah 55, and then on into the NT, where we find that each of Isaiah’s links prepares us to see Jesus Christ.
But this particular chain of promises begins here in Isaiah 40. And you don’t have to look any farther than the first word of the chapter to find Isaiah’s theme – Comfort. That’s the beginning. Isaiah’s gospel chain starts with the good news that there is comfort for the people of God.
Of course, that word comfort calls for more explanation. Comfort for whom? From whom? For what purpose? And the rest of the passage spells out those answers, and that’s where we’re headed. I’d like to draw your attention to four sources of comfort here in Isaiah 40, each one connected with the promises of God, and each one forming a link in this gospel chain that stretches on to the Lord Jesus.
The Comfort of God’s Grace
First of all, in vv1-2, we see the Comfort of God’s Grace. We’ve just noted that the first word of the text, Comfort, gives us the theme of the chapter, but it’s the previous chapter that gives us the context. Chapter 39 closed with what was surely the worst news in the history of Judah – the Babylonians would come, they would destroy Jerusalem, and they would take God’s people captive. Exile, in other words, and that was the worst new you could hear as a citizen of Jerusalem.
When chapter 40 opens with this trumpet blast of Comfort, we have to understand that this is nothing but grace for God’s wayward people. Remember, the people deserve judgment. They’ve broken the covenant. They’ve worshipped other gods. They’ve ignored their neighbors in order to love themselves. When you live like that Babylon is what you get. Exile is what you deserve.
And yet, in the muck and mire of Israel’s sin, what does God declare to his people? Comfort, v1 says. Comfort my people, says your God. That pronoun is key. Notice that the message does not come from the God, but your God. Amazingly, God remains devoted to his people. Though they have sinned, they still belong to him. This is grace and nothing but grace. The people deserve condemnation, but in their misery, God proclaims comfort.
But Isaiah does not leave this grace undefined. In v2, we see that this grace results in pardon. Notice v2 – “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” When you’re a criminal staring a life sentence in the face, there is no sweeter word than pardon. And that’s the grace God declares in v2. At his own initiative, God forgives the sin of his people. The idea here is satisfaction – that the punishment required has been dealt with, completely and totally.
Think of a cup, and that cup holds the judgment of God. The point of v2 is that the cup is empty. Judgment is complete, and therefore, the pardon envisioned here is total. That is the heart of this comfort. It’s that God himself has taken action to deal with his people’s sin, and he has done this so thoroughly that the only thing left to say is, “Pardoned.”
Now, you might be asking yourself at this point, “But how does God do this? How can he pardon sin, while also maintaining his own holiness and justice?” That’s a great question, one of the most important questions in Scripture. How can God do this?
The answer actually comes in Leviticus, of all places. The form of the verb used here in v2 is only used elsewhere in Leviticus. And in every instance in Leviticus, do you know what the topic is? The blood sacrifice of atonement. How can sin be paid for? Because – and only because – an atoning sacrifice stood in the place of the sinner. Pardon, in other words, is secured with blood.
Brothers and sisters, do you see why I said this chain of promises stretches into the NT and brings us face to face with the Lord Jesus Christ? Redemption, Paul tells us in Romans 3, is found only in Jesus Christ, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. That word propitiation means to satisfy, so Jesus Christ satisfies God’s wrath. He receives our double portion, so that there is none left for the believer.
This is the good news of Advent. This is why all the Christmas carols sing so clearly of joy and grace and comfort. It’s because of God’s grace that sent his Son into this world to take on human flesh for us and for our salvation. In fact, this is the entire reason for the Incarnation of the Son of God. Why did the Son of God take on human flesh? Precisely so he could shed his blood to redeem God’s people. Please don’t miss the gospel heart of Advent, brothers and sisters. God’s people are pardoned because God’s Son was punished. God’s wrath is satisfied because God’s Son drank the cup of judgment. God’s people have comfort because God’s Son bore the condemnation. That’s the comfort of Isaiah 40. The prophet Isaiah may not be able to see the cross at this point, but through the Spirit, the prophet is reminding us that pardon for God’s people comes only through sacrifice.
The Comfort of God’s Presence
But the second source of comfort completes this picture. The second source reminds us why God bestows such grace. Look with me in vv3-5, where we see the Comfort of God’s Presence. In v3, we’re introduced to a key feature of the chapter – a voice that cries out on God’s behalf. We’ll find the same feature in v6 and then again in v9, and this is actually how we see the structure of the passage. God speaks in vv1-2, and then these voices cry out in verses 3, 6, and 9.
And here in v3, the voice declares a message of preparation. Notice again what the text says, v3 – “A voice cries, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” Now, here’s the important point. The highway of v3 is not for the people to travel back to God. It’s actually the opposite. The highway here is for God to come again to his people. The theme of grace continues, doesn’t it? How will the exile end? Not with the people returning to God on their own, but with God himself coming to his people. And this highway will be smooth, v4 tells. There will be no obstacles in God’s way. He will come to redeem his people. This is always how salvation begins – not with our movement, but with God’s. The highway is prepared because God is coming.
But the pinnacle arrives in v5. V3 prepares the way, v4 creation responds, and then v5, the glory comes – “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” This is the center of the passage. At the heart of chapter 40’s comfort is the glory of God. You could even say that the glory of God is the very center of the good news that Isaiah proclaims. This is important, but we often overlook it. The goal of forgiveness is not simply that our slates are clean before God. No, the goal of forgiveness is that we get God, in all his glory. He is our treasure. God pardons his people, as it says in v2, so that his people might be reconciled to him and to his glory. The great goal of God’s redemptive love is that we, his people, see his glory and then love it forever.
Listen, this is what the entire storyline of Scripture has been driving at since Genesis 3. Think about it. The heartbreaking tragedy of Genesis 3 was not that mankind lost the garden paradise. No, the heartbreaking tragedy was that we lost God’s glorious presence. We could no longer dwell in the light of his glory.
And yet, every since that tragic day in the Garden, God has been pursuing his people with the promise of redemption, and at each point in redemptive history, there have been these echoes of glory. What did Moses see on Sinai as he received God’s Law? He saw a glimmer of God’s glory. What did Israel see in the wilderness when the Tabernacle was completed? They saw God’s glory descend in a cloud. What did Isaiah see at the outset of his ministry, Isaiah ch6? He saw the fringes of God’s glory in the heavenly throne room. Redemptive history has been driving at this grand aim – that God’s people would again see and delight in the glory of God. That’s the purpose of redemption, and that is what Isaiah anticipates here in chapter 40. The way is being prepared, God is coming again, and when he comes, all creation will see the glory of God.
Brothers and sisters, this is the true wonder of Advent. The Birth of Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of v5 here in Isaiah 40. Think about how the apostle John put it in the first chapter of his gospel – “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his” what? His glory, “glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Isaiah looked forward to the day when God would come again to redeem his people, and the gospel picks up that hope and says, “God has come to earth, and he has come in the person of his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Brothers and sisters, let this truth be the source of your joy and satisfaction during this Advent season. Don’t be content with mere sentiment or nostalgia. Those things can be good, but the joy they provide won’t last. The glory our souls long to see is found here in the Lord Jesus Christ. How long has it been since you’ve paused to wonder at the miracle that is Jesus Christ? Here is God and Man together in one person. Here is the glory of God in human form. Here is the Love of God in flesh and blood. Here is the Wonder of Wonders – that God would humble himself in such lowliness, so that he might raise us up with him in Christ. How long has it been since you’ve simply paused in wonder at the miracle that is Jesus Christ?
I’m convinced many of our struggles as Christians begin right here. We lose sight of the glory of God in Christ. We get distracted with all these lesser glories. But that’s the blessing of Advent. For just a few weeks, we are compelled once more to gaze upon Christ and remember that this is why we have been redeemed. This is why we have been forgiven – so that we might see the glory of God in Christ, and then be transformed into that same image. Won’t you receive this comfort, brothers and sisters? Don’t settle for the lesser saviors the world holds out to you. Don’t settle for the world’s counterfeit glory. Behold God’s glory in Christ, and let the glory of the Savior satisfy your soul.
Now, as we reflect on the comfort that comes with God’s Presence, there is a question in the passage that demands an answer. Remember, until this point, Isaiah’s message was largely a warning. The Babylonians will come, and God’s people will go into exile. And that creates this question. Based on circumstances, it sees that the powers of this age are more powerful than God. If the Babylonians arrive before God does, then where’s the comfort? Do you see the issue facing God’s people? It’s the same issue facing God’s people today. On the one side, we have the forces of this world, poised to make war on our faith, but on this side, we have the promises of God, which often appear as no more than words on a page. Our situation is actually pretty similar to Isaiah’s, so where’s the comfort? That’s the question that demands an answer.
The Comfort of God’s Sovereignty
And in God’s mercy, the text gives us that answer. It’s our third source of comfort in vv6-8 – the Comfort of God’s Sovereignty. Again, a voice cries out in v6, and this time, the voice presents a striking image. Notice v6 – “All flesh is grass, and its beauty is like the flower of the field.” Now, if your house has a lawn, then you know that no matter how hard you work, there comes a point every year when that luscious green grass turns brown and lifeless. It happens every year, right?
The same is true for humanity. That is the point of vv6-7. No matter how strong we might appear, there is always an end to our strength. No matter how full of life you are, there is a day coming when your vibrancy will fade. That’s true for all people, even those human foes arrayed against God’s people.
But why do we fade? What determines the course of human life and strength? Notice v7 – “The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it.” It is God who determines the course of life. That phrase the breath of the Lord is the same phrase that is used of God’s Spirit. And that is Isaiah’s point. Human beings are not the masters of their own fate. The power of both life and death are in God’s hands, and by his Spirit, he both brings life and takes it away. If human beings are like flowers, as v6 says, then it is the Spirit that causes us to bloom, and it is the Spirit that makes us wilt. Our lives are in God’s hands, and that truth is the antidote to both pride and fear. We should not think too highly of ourselves, for we are but grass compared to God’s Spirit. And we should not fear human foes, for they too are subject to the Spirit of God.
But that just pushes the question back a level. We shouldn’t trust in ourselves, and we shouldn’t fear others, but still – where’s the comfort when the world is arrayed against us? Where do we turn? V8 finishes the answer. Notice the comfort, v8 – “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” That’s the comfort, brothers and sisters. God’s Word is not like the grass of the field. It’s not like the flower of the garden. God’s Word endures forever. It never changes, it never falls short, and it is never overthrown. God’s Word endures because his Word is the expression of his sovereignty. God’s speaking is his doing, as one theologian has put it. When we read God’s Word, we’re not simply reading words. We’re coming face to face, eye to eye with the voice of the Sovereign God, and his voice expresses his unstoppable power.
Brothers and sisters, this is why the Lord Jesus says that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. This is how God’s people are sustained – not by our own strength, which fades like the grass, but by the enduring Word of God. Faith feeds on the Word of God. That’s the answer we need when the world is arrayed against us. We don’t trust in ourselves, and we don’t fear our foes. We go to God’s Word, we trust in his promises, and we remember that his Word endures forever.
And there is no Word more powerful than the gospel of Jesus Christ. The apostle Peter, in his first epistle, actually quotes these verses from Isaiah 40, but then Peter makes this stunning statement – “And this word IS the good news that was preached to you.” The gospel will not fail you, brothers and sisters. The gospel is the good news that God’s sovereign power will not fail to save all whom the Father has given to the Son. The gospel will not fail you. You may be wracked with guilt over sin you have committed, and the gospel will answer that guilt with the full pardon that Christ accomplished. You may be shackled with shame over sin committed against you, and the gospel will destroy that shame with the cleansing power of Jesus’ blood. You may be fearful that God has abandoned you or that he has failed to hear your prayer, and the gospel will answer that fear with the good news that he who did not spare his own Son will not fail to graciously give you all things in Christ Jesus. Brothers and sisters, the gospel will not fail you. You will fail yourself, and other people will fail you, sometimes spectacularly so, but the gospel of Christ will not fail. Every promise finds its yes and amen in Jesus Christ, and therefore, those who are in Christ will never be put to shame. This is the comfort of God’s sovereignty, and it is given to you, dear Christian, in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Comfort of God’s Compassion
But there’s one more truth to add here, and we will close with this. God’s sovereignty, by itself, might intimidate us. God is so mighty, so powerful – we might struggle to believe that such an awesome God stands ready to welcome his people by faith. And that’s why we need to note the final source of comfort in this passage, from vv9-11. It is the Comfort of God’s Compassion. In v9, we hear the final voice of the passage, and this time, the voice calls God’s people to announce the good news far and wide. You see that there in the text, v9 – “Go on up to the high mountain,” the voice declares, and “herald” this good news. And then v10 summarizes what we’ve seen so far. God is coming to redeem his people. Notice again v10 – “Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him.” That’s v2, v5, and v8 all summarized together. There is redemption for the people of God, and there is nothing that will stand in the way when our sovereign God comes to save.
But it’s v11, brothers and sisters, that rounds out the picture for us. It’s v11 that reminds us that this sovereign God is also our compassionate Shepherd. Notice again v11 – “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.” Oh, what a wonderful picture that is of God’s heart for his people. Like a careful shepherd, God gathers his people in his arms, and he leads them to the good pasture of his presence. Do you see it? The God whose arm is mighty in sovereignty is the same God who extends that arm in gentleness to carry his sheep when they cannot carry themselves. If your understanding of God includes only power, then you don’t know the fullness of our God. He is mighty and gentle. He is sovereign and compassionate. He crushes his enemies, and he carries his sheep.
And nowhere is this truth more clear than in the face of Jesus Christ. He is the Good Shepherd, after all, and through his flesh and blood ministry, the Lord Jesus shows us both God’s sovereignty to save and his compassion to carry. In fact, before the coming of Christ, v11 here in Isaiah 40 was simply an image – a metaphor to describe God’s character. But with the Incarnation of Christ, v11 has become a flesh and blood reality for those who believe. We have a Good Shepherd, brothers and sisters, one who gathers his people in his arms and leads them to the good pasture of God’s presence.
And on this first Sunday of Advent, that Good Shepherd is holding out to you, here in his word, this good news of comfort. If you don’t know Christ today, won’t you hear this word of grace and turn from your sin to trust in his name? There is no comfort apart from Christ, and his Word calls you today to repent and believe.
And for the church – for those who are trusting in Christ, this is the Lord Jesus’ word to you as well. Here in Isaiah 40, this promise of comfort is not a mere collection of words. It’s the promise of God, now realized in Jesus Christ. Oh, brothers and sisters, won’t you receive again Jesus’ comfort today? As we wait in between the times, won’t you look back in faith to the Lord’s Day and see God’s promise fulfilled in the Risen Jesus? And then with renewed hope, won’t you look forward to the Last Day with joy, knowing that the Good Shepherd is coming soon, to gather his sheep together forever?
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. It’s true, brothers and sisters, and that comfort is found even today in Jesus Christ. Amen.