Isaiah 40:1-11 (Midweek Advent Series)
Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield CT
December 15, 2010
God’s Saving Love Speaks Comfort and Joy
Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Our text this evening is the First Reading from Isaiah 40:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 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. A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 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.
Rejoice is the word for the third week in Advent. That is why the third candle in the wreath is pink or rose. But this is not some tinseled, artificially-lit rejoice. It is a sturdy, bursting, life-in-the-face-of-death rejoice! Rejoice because God speaks. God’s voice, John the Baptist, is on the scene. Without God’s voice “we waste away, Like flow’rs that wither and decay” (Lutheran Service Book 344:3). But in hearing and taking to heart the Lord’s permanent and certain promises, we are as eternal as His word.
John the Baptist is no happy-go-lucky reed bending in the wind. He’s not out to be popular. For John it isn’t about him. It’s about your salvation in Christ. And so John is bold—perhaps a little too bold for our times. John wouldn’t speak politically correct clichés, “Seasons Greetings.” (What is that—winter hello?) John is the Lord’s prophet. He proclaims what God says. John lives like a prophet. He munches on locusts and wild honey. He dresses like the prophet Elijah—camel hair and a leather belt. He focuses on one thing: being the faithful and clear megaphone for God’s message to sinners.
Isaiah 40 calls John a voice crying “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord” (v. 3). Isaiah 40 tells us his message:
All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. (vv. 6–8)
The “word of our God” is both the Bible and the Word in flesh—Jesus Christ. Whatever we rely on that isn’t God’s word will fail. Youth, looks, brains, health, family, things, fun, wealth, music, sports, entertainment—all will fail. Even the beautiful flesh of a baby or all the strength and promise of a gifted, hardworking, striking young adult—it will all wither and decay. So John cries out, yes, the flesh is beautiful, the flowers of humanity are stunning to behold. But it won’t last. Repent. Turn from the love of flesh to love the God who made our flesh and will restore our flesh.
John cries out against sinners of every stripe that they might repent and have life in the coming Christ. He calls the self-righteous religious experts a brood of vipers—snakes slithering with Satan’s deceitful speech. So he warns people not to follow them, yet he’s also calling them to repent and live.
Fellow sinner, let this word of our God sink in and save you. God loves you dearly. The Word made flesh, our Lord Jesus, withered under the blast of God’s judgment for our sins on the cross, yet Christ rose and endures forever. Jesus has double paid your sin. He paid your death penalty. The only-begotten Son, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, paid your debt in full! Jesus also has paid the perfect goodness that was demanded of you by living a righteous life from His sinless conception through His sinless life all the way to His sinless death. In Christ’s double payment for all our sin, here is true comfort. Christ has suffered and died so that you can live forever. He has lived a perfect life in your place so that God counts baptized believers as sinless from conception to death. God loves you dearly. He knew you could not save yourself, so He came in human flesh to save you. The Word made flesh will endure forever. And this enduring Word of God comes to you and fills you every time you hear Christ preached and every time He fills you with His resurrected flesh and blood. This Jesus is the one perfect and permanent antidote to sin’s deadly infection.
But some will not yet hear it. Some will not yet receive the Lord’s mercy. Consequently the messengers of grace are treated shamefully. John preached in order that King Herod, who had stolen his brother’s wife, would repent and live forever. But unlike King David, Herod confessed nothing. He covered his ears. He threw John in the dungeon. Herodias, Herod’s partner in adultery, saw to it that John’s head was served up on a platter. Why? Because the voice of God hadn’t given up on them.
John died as God’s faithful voice. Christ won for John and all who trust the Word made flesh an open heaven that kings, swords, and angry sinners can never close. Rejoice! Yes, Jesus said, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (Matthew 5:12).
Dearly beloved, God loves you dearly. His voice still speaks. As Saint Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 4:1, “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”
God’s voice still speaks in Holy Scripture. His voice also is heard in the blessed consolation you give when you send Christmas cards that proclaim Christ. His voice calls when you speak biblical words of correction and comfort. His voice still sounds from this flawed man and from other pastors and missionaries. When Paul writes of “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God,” he is talking about the Office of the Holy Ministry. It is this office, established by Christ, which is to be like John the Baptist—God’s voice to you in this wilderness.
Now there are many who claim to be voices of Christ. But as St. Paul teaches: “it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy” (1 Corinthians 4:2). How do you know which steward is “trustworthy”? Compare what they say with God’s Word. The best thing you can do for a pastor is to ask us to prove our teaching from Scripture. It is not disrespectful; it is the kindest thing you can do for us. It’s a matter of life and death.
There are some churchly traditions designed to show just this. Vestments—like John’s odd attire—emphasize that it’s the office that matters, not the personality. Clerical collars mark that—like a dog—this man belongs to his Divine Owner. White covers his vocal chords because it’s to be the Lord’s Word he preaches. Why is the service so different from everything else during the week? Because this isn’t entertainment, theater, or make-believe—it’s heart surgery.
The Church is a hospital: the death of our sin is being done in and the resurrection life of Christ is poured into us. Our hearts of stony sin are replaced with hearts of Christ’s eternally living flesh. Things are real and serious here so that you can have solid joy—true, lasting comfort for your soul. Having confessed your sin and receiving its double payment through Christ’s saving death and perfect righteousness delivered to you in Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the Word, you are one with the resurrected Lord, and you will endure forever.
Rejoice! God still speaks His promises for you in Christ!
Thanks be to God, in Jesus’ name. Amen.