Sunday, August 1, 2010

Comfort

We begin a new section in Isaiah today. And we do that with one of the more eloquent chapters in Scripture. What Isaiah has written here has had a powerful impact on many people. I know that when I was new to the things of God this chapter was a special favorite. It spoke of the wonders of God in a way that I had not heard before. It remains one of those choice bits of Scripture for me. So, I’m going to do what I haven’t done with any of the other chapters in Isaiah. I’m going to spend at least two weeks on it.

Listen as I read the first eleven verses of Isaiah 40.

If you’re going to get what’s going on here, you need to connect it with chapter 6. That chapter set the tone of the first half of Isaiah’s prophecy. As you’ve noticed, the first half has been dark. It has been about punishment and discipline. We’ve seen how King Ahaz, true to his colors, responded so poorly to his situation. But we’ve seen how good King Hezekiah also responded poorly to his situation leading to Isaiah’s words about a coming exile. The first half of the book has been all about chapter 6. ‘Go, and say to this people: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.’ But chapter 40 is the beginning of something very different. There is a new tone. Jesus gives Isaiah a new commission. ‘Comfort, comfort My people says your God.’ The rest of the book is the overflow of this chapter.

And why is that? Why this change? What has happened that the hard words of chapter 6 are not to be applied anymore? Our text tells us. ‘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.’ The days of discipline for the people of God are coming to an end. And that is so good. The discipline was so severe that it felt like Jesus was waging war against them. Moses’ prayer elsewhere fits here. ‘Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, and for as many years as we have seen evil.’ This is an appropriate way to understand the discipline of Jesus: days of affliction. The exile has been a severe discipline.

Something from another part of Isaiah will help us understand this better. ‘Behold, the LORD'S hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.’ The days of discipline for Israel were days when their God seemed so far away. And, in a manner of speaking, He was. He did not hear and He did not act. His face was turned away from them. Their sins had caused that separation.

But now it will be different. Now, says Isaiah, the days of separation are over. Now, Isaiah tells us, there will be days of comfort. The needed discipline has done its work and is to be removed. Now, God is coming. The issues that were highlighted in Isaiah 6 have been dealt with. Now is the time for restoration. And so we hear again the language of the covenant. ‘Comfort, comfort My people, says your God.’ This relationship, once so strained, and that almost to the breaking point, is now renewed and restored. Jesus is coming to meet with His people.

And so the prophet calls the people to prepare for that time of their Lord’s coming, that time of renewal. And where will this happen? ‘A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”’ Why the wilderness? Well, what better way to describe what the people of God have been experiencing? They have been living in what must have felt like a desert. So, David writes, ‘O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.’ Wherever David’s body may have been, his soul was in a dry wasteland, the wilderness. But this is not the only reason for meeting in the wilderness. This is from Hosea where Jesus is talking about Israel, His bride. ‘Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. And there I will give her her vineyards and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt.’ Jesus was first betrothed to His people in the wilderness of Mt. Sinai. But His bride has wandered away and found other lovers. But Jesus doesn’t give up. So, He meets with Israel, again in the desert, for what we might call a second honeymoon, to renew marriage vows. In our text Isaiah proclaims a message of hope. ‘Get ready. Jesus is coming! He will meet you in the wilderness. Days of renewal are near.’

And Isaiah tells us what He will do when He arrives. ‘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.’ Jesus comes to His people to rule as a good king, to reward them with great blessings and to carry and gently lead them into the Promised Land.

And so, the prophet calls them all to prepare. Listen to how he describes this. ‘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.’ Isaiah calls the people to prepare the way for Jesus to come and he describes this in terms of clearing path. But what does this imagery mean? What are they to do? As many of you know, our text is quoted in the New Testament. ‘In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.”’ So, what is this preparing of the way about? What did John call the people to do? Clearing the way for Jesus to come requires the people to repent of their sins. And that makes sense. Jesus is the Holy One of God. If anyone would meet with Him, his sin must be dealt with. Isn’t that what we saw back in chapter 6? The angels shout about Jesus’ holiness. Isaiah quickly becomes aware of his sin, specifically his sin of words. And those sins are dealt with. Jesus provides forgiveness. That’s what this preparation in our text is about, dealing with sin by repentance and faith so that there can be forgiveness and change. Sin must be dealt with before anyone can meet with Jesus. And that’s what Isaiah is shouting about. ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD…’

So, Isaiah has the privilege of crying out words of comfort for the people of God. The days of discipline are over. Their Lord is coming to renew their relationship of covenant love. And all that is required is to be honest about sin.

It’s fair to say that Isaiah is thinking about the end of the exile he predicted in chapter 39, what we call the Babylonian Exile. But we know that this fulfillment in the history of Israel does not exhaust Isaiah’s words. The Spirit intended more. As I just mentioned, Isaiah’s prophecy about the coming of God at the end of the exile is a picture of Jesus’ coming in the days of John the Baptist. And what a picture it is. That’s why the Gospel writers quote this passage. But does even this exhaust Isaiah’s words? No. The Spirit intends even more. Neither the return of the exiles nor Jesus’ ministry in the first century exhausts this text. The ultimate goal of these words is Jesus’ return at the end of history. It is only then that Isaiah’s prophecy here will be completely fulfilled. That’s when our God will come to His people in the desert for the last time.

Having explained some of what’s going on in our text, let me take the next step. There are many themes flowing through this part of Isaiah’s prophecy. What I’d like to do is to work on just one of them. What Isaiah has written about is tied to a pattern that we see throughout the history of God’s redemption. Proverbs says, ‘…the righteous falls seven times and rises again…’ What we see in Scripture is the people of God falling again and again, but then rising each time. When you look at that closely you see that there is a cycle: blessing, failure, discipline, restoration. It’s falling and rising again. You can see this in the early days of Israel: deliverance from Egypt (blessing), the twelve spies and the refusal to conquer the land (failure), forty years in the desert (discipline), entering the land under Joshua (restoration). Read through the book of Judges and you’ll find the same cycle. Consider Peter’s life in the Gospels, and you’ll see the same thing. And that’s what we have in Isaiah’s book. This is from Isaiah chapter 5: First, the blessing: ‘Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it…’ Then comes the failure: ‘…and he looked for it to yield good grapes, but it yielded worthless ones. And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah, judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard, that I have not done in it? When I looked for it to yield good grapes, why did it yield worthless ones?’ Then discipline: ‘And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it.’ Isn’t that the basic tone of the first part of the book? Blessing, failure, discipline. But restoration comes in chapter 40. ‘Comfort, comfort my people, says your God’. This is a common pattern. It is a pattern that describes the history of the church not just in Scripture but even to our day. And it is a pattern that describes your life: blessing, failure, discipline, restoration. ‘…the righteous falls seven times and rises again…’

Seeing this pattern can be so very helpful to you because it describes what you should expect of your days here. First, blessing. Jesus intends to bless you. He has blessed, and He will again. Build that expectation into your life. There is no room for pessimism or bleakness. Jesus intends to bless you. But it’s also a fact that you are going to blow it. You are going to fail. You are going to sin. You should never be surprised when this happens and the Spirit points it out to you. There should be sadness but never surprise. Surprise says, ‘I’m not that kind of person.’ Well, Jesus says that you are. You’re going to sin. You need expect that to happen. This is not some twisted way to excuse your sin. It’s just being honest about yourself. Then there is discipline. And sometimes Jesus’ discipline is hard. David wrote: ‘You have disciplined me severely, but you have not given me over to death.’ It may be severe but it is limited. Remember why this is good. Discipline is not punishment. Punishment is about justice, but discipline is about love. Discipline hurts, but you are disciplined so that you can be changed and become like Jesus. And in the midst of your discipline bear in mind that there will always be restoration. By His Spirit Jesus will come to you to renew your relationship of covenant love. All you need to do to prepare is to repent of whatever sin the Spirit has pointed out to you. Be honest, hate it, want to be changed.

So there is this cycle to your life: blessing, failure, discipline, restoration. It’s up and down. But if you step back a bit and get the bigger picture you will see that the overall graph moves upward. There is progress. Each cycle moves you that much closer to becoming as beautiful as Jesus.

I’ve presented this very simply. Don’t think of it in some mechanical way: first this then that and on we go, step by step through the list – and then start all over again. It is much more subtle and nuanced than that. Sometimes discipline is not tied to some immediately preceding failure. And lots of times discipline is completely skipped. So, it is more involved than what I made it sound. But this is a place to start to understand this.

Our text is about restoration, so let me lean on that a bit. When you find yourself in the wilderness, in David’s ‘dry and weary land’, remember that there will be restoration. Jesus will come to you. And He will lift you up and gently carry you. You may be in the desert for a while. There are times when we need that so that we can see life more clearly. But there will be a restoration. All you need to do is listen for the Spirit. Time in the desert is good for hearing from God in a fresh way. Listen and wait. At the perfect time Jesus will come.

But because even the best of times have the aftertaste of the desert, let me remind you of something. One day Jesus will meet you in the wilderness for the last time. He will restore you for the last time. After that the cycle is over. There will be more blessing to be sure, more than you can imagine. But there will be no more failure and so no more discipline, and no need to restore. This last meeting in the desert, this last restoration, does not happen at your death, though there is a really big jump when that happens. It happens when Jesus comes back. That is our great hope. One day, there will be the final climax of this cycle. One day, all the ups and downs will be over. One day, no more failures. One day, Jesus will stand on this earth again. And then life really begins. Prepare for that day now as the Spirit deals with your soul. And look forward to that day.

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