"Announce God's Coming and Comfort"
Dec.4, 2005 Isaiah 40:1-11
[sung] "Announcements, announcements, announcements: what a terrible death to die; what a terrible death to die; what a terrible death, to be talked to death, what a terrible death to die!" So we used to sing in the dining hall at camp, when the daily announcements were made and mail was handed out. It all depends on the nature of the announcement - routine or revolutionary - whether it's greeted with a groan or a grin.
There is, for example, news that is NO news - because it's been anticipated so long, by the time it happens, it's 'old hat'. So it was with the announcement of the defeat of the government and upcoming federal election this past week: we were prepared for that for some time, it was expected. The news may have been met by yawns on the part of many Canadians; it remains to be seen whether we wind up with a parliament that's very different, or just another minority government.
But Isaiah prophesies a startling announcement. For centuries Israel and Judah (to the south) had been led by kings and priests who were looking out for their own interests. Prosperity had lulled the nation into a quest for pleasure and a more exotic approach to religion, with disastrous immoral results. First the northern kingdom, then the south, were conquered by regional dictators, and forced into exile. After 70 years in Babylon, the Jewish community was feeling beaten and forgotten. They had adjusted to their new surroundings; memories of Jerusalem's former grandeur were all but forgotten. They were a nation without a homeland. Dispersed, discouraged, they knew they were no match to take on current political powers and try to re-assert themselves.
In our own lives, we can get into slumps where we feel defeated, as if even God's forgotten us. Health concerns keep popping up. Bills pile up faster than the income. Family feuds and misunderstandings escalate out of control. Even the daily routine can seem like it's dragging us down, we're locked in a prison of pointlessness.
Isaiah 40 though announces a turning point in history. The history of the nation of Israel, exiled in Babylon, and our own personal history when we thought God had forgotten us. It's a startling announcement that the Lord is bursting onto the scene and has us on His radar - for good.
Words about announcing are found all through this passage. V2, "speak tenderly to Jerusalem, proclaim to her..." V3, "A voice of one calling;" v6 "A voice says, 'Cry out'." V9, "You who bring good tidings [2x]...lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up..." Do you think God has a message He wants to get across here? He's wanting us to get the word out loud, and now.
Those who profess to be Christians are charged to "Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation." (Mk 16:15) We have a wonderful announcement to make. The Greek version of v9, "bring good tidings", is literally to "evangelize", to proclaim good news. And at the start of December, in the season of Advent, this is a great time to be finding creative ways of expressing the truth God wants to get across. The season coming up is "Christmas", it has to do with Christ, our Saviour come from God. Christmas means something very special, its customs and traditions are meant to point to Jesus' arrival on the human scene in an astounding way. You can't just rename "Christmas tree" to "holiday tree" (as Boston officials tried to do in an unoffending way - thus giving offence to some people from Nova Scotia, which had given the tree). Let's listen closely as Isaiah the prophet communicates at least 4 reasons his message is truly a startling announcement.
1) God's Presence is Near
First, he's announcing God's presence is near. V3, "prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God." Yahweh was about to allow a sensational release for the captives, so they'd be free to return to Palestine. Time to remove the obstacles, prepare the path for all ages of Jews to return to Jerusalem and area. We see in Nehemiah's case, the king in power at the time not only lets them go, he even makes provision for reconstruction of the city walls (Neh 2:8). God would make a way. He's God of the impossible, nothing is too hard for Him. When He's behind a project and blesses, wonderful things can happen.
V9, what is the content of the good tidings? What's the voice to be lifted up about? "Say to the towns of Judah, 'Here is your God!' See, the Sovereign Lord COMES with power..." He's here! God has come - even better than the cavalry! When we know the Lord is involved in our situation, watch for the unexpected - the Master Potter's at work, fashioning something beautiful out of the mud.
"Advent" is derived from the Latin for "arrival" or "coming". There are 3 times of God's coming in view: the return of the Jewish nation from exile; and Christ's first and second coming. Of the original return - "When the LORD returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes." (Is 52:7ff) Of Jesus' triumphal entry - "But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple area, "Hosanna to the Son of David," they were indignant." (The children recognized Messiah had come, but the religious rulers missed it! Mt 21:5) And of Christ's second coming, Jesus says, "Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done." (Re 22:12) Are you ready for the Lord to break into your life and call you heavenward at any time? Are you so bent on your routine and your objectives that you'd resent His coming? Or would it be a comfort and relief to you, so that you'd welcome it?
2) God's Punishment is Satisfied
A second note of the announcement is that God's punishment is satisfied. Isaiah is very conscious of the exalted nature of God, how He transcends humankind. "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty," called the seraphim at Isaiah's vision in chapter 6(3). The prophet's response? "Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips..."(6:5) Elsewhere in chapter 40 we see how vast the gap is between the exalted God and frail, faulty humans. V12, God measured the oceans "in the hollow of His hand", He's "held the dust of the earth in a basket". V15, "Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales." V17, "Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing." That's not much, is it?! V22 says God "sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers." He calls each of the starry host by name, by His great power not one is missing, the Lord and Creator never grows tired or weary (40:26,28). What an awesome God! We humans are like grass, soon withered when His breath merely blows on us (40:6f). Surely the mighty Creator has every right to deal with us just as he chooses, particularly if we've rejected or insulted Him.
Yet though Jerusalem and the Jewish leaders sinned greatly, Isaiah announces that "her sin has been paid for", her "hard service has been completed", she's been made to pay "double for all her sins." (40:2) God's punishment is satisfied; now the prophet, instead of condemning and alerting people to their moral failure, is to comfort them: v1 "Comfort, comfort my people" (repetition for emphasis - GREATLY comfort).
The Biblical message about grace is astounding. Though God's so far above us - we're comparatively "a drop in the bucket", withered grass, "less than nothing", minuscule grasshoppers - yet God has mercy on us and forgives us, when we confess and are honest to Him. In Is 43(25) God says He blots out our transgressions "for My own sake" - not because we deserve it. He has swept away our offenses like a cloud (Is 44:22). Paul writes plainly to Titus (3:3-5), "At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit..."
How can this be? How can we possibly be put right with such an awesome, exalted God of the universe? Isaiah declares, "Lebanon is not sufficient for altar fires, nor its animals enough for burnt offerings." (Isa 40:16) Where nothing we could offer would do, God Himself became our mediator in the person of His Son; "We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all." (Isa 53:6)
Lately we've been hearing how outraged people are that the restrictions on Karla Homolka's release have been overturned. People are afraid she will re-offend, as in the grisly sex crimes with her husband against Leslie Mahaffy and Kristen French. But Homolka's lawyers argue that she's served her time, she's paid her debt to society. While we shouldn't discount the horror of her crimes, let's not pretend the rest of us are innocent; to a Holy God, our least transgression must be as abominable as a pervert's worst deed seems to other humans. We never can claim we have a "right" to be accepted by God on the basis of our paltry good deeds. Jesus alone could take away that stain, soaked right into us.
In an interview, Homolka said in some ways she'll never be really free, she referred to a sort of "internal prison". Jesus said that anyone who sins is a slave to sin; but "if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed." (Jn 8:34,36) Thanks to the cross of Christ, God's punishment is satisfied; our sin has been paid for.
3) God's Glory is Shared
Another exciting aspect of God's arrival that Isaiah heralds is the seeing and sharing of God's own magnificent glory. V5, "the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it."
The doctrine of glory in our churches is far too minimized. If we really appreciated what glory's about, we'd be way more excited! All human 'glory' or stardom is a faint shadow, a muddy reflection by comparison. V6, "All men are like grass, and all THEIR GLORY is like the flowers of the field...the flowers fall..."
Conrad Black may be an example of someone who has made it pretty well to the top of the ladder, in a worldly manner of speaking. He was born the son of a wealthy brewery executive. By the 1990s his company, Hollinger, controlled 60% of Canadian newspapers and hundreds of dailies around the world. At one point he was the third-largest newspaper publisher in the world. Along with this money and fame, he wanted a title; in 2001 the British government made him a "Lord", though he had to give up his Canadian citizenship to receive it.
In November 2003, Black stepped down from being CEO of Hollinger International, after a special committee determined that Black and other senior Hollinger executives received $32.15 million in unauthorized payments. In August 2004 the US Securities & Exchange Commission made public a report by a special committee of Hollinger International that says the former CEO and other executives took hundreds of millions of dollars they weren't entitled to. The Commission in November 2004 laid a civil fraud lawsuit. A criminal investigation was launched. In May this year, despite an Ontario court order that barred Black from taking documents from Hollinger's offices, Black, his chauffeur and a personal assistant were caught on a security video removing 12 boxes of files from the Toronto headquarters of Hollinger Inc. (That sounds like it's going from 'twisted' to just plain 'dumb'!) Then last month, the U.S. Attorney's Office in Chicago charged Black with eight counts of mail fraud and wire fraud relating to the alleged diversion of millions from Hollinger International. He faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted. In the words of a CBC web article, "For Lord Black of Crossharbour, it was the most damaging accusation yet in a long and public fall from grace."
People's glory "is like the flowers of the field.The grass withers and the flowers fall..."
God's glory, by contrast, far transcends our human attempts at imitation. When Isaiah has the vision of God in the temple which forms the basis for his commissioning as a prophet, he hears the seraphim calling out, not just that the Lord is holy, but that "the whole earth is full of His glory." (6:3) The Hebrew word for glory has the sense of honour, riches, abundance; they're a 'heavyweight' in their area, someone significant, to be very honoured. God gave Isaiah the ability to look ahead down the centuries and predict Jesus' coming, particularly His crucifixion as pictured in chapters 52-3. John writes in his gospel that Isaiah "saw Jesus' glory and spoke about Him." (Jn 12:41)
When Jesus arrives on the scene at Bethlehem, the angels sing, "Glory to God in the highest!" (Lk 2:14) John closely associates Jesus' appearance with glimpsing God's glory: "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth." (Jn 1:14) Hebrews 1(3) states the Son "is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being..." Jesus' works revealed God's glory, as the raising of Lazarus produced a real "WOW!" (Jn 11:41) In his prayer in John 17(4), Jesus says, "I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do." Glorifying the Father was what the Son was all about.
Even more mind-boggling: when we trust Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, God's glory begins to be seen through us too. Paul writes, "And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. [and] God...made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ." (2Co 3:18; 4:6) You are God's beautiful, dazzling glory-bulb! The Father delights to look at you because He sees Jesus' light shining through you. That's exciting! So Paul can urge us, "whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God." (1Co 10:31) God doesn't "hog" His glory, but shares it out, to be seen through us His creatures.
4) God's Leading is Strong yet Gentle
We've seen the Good Tidings are that: God's presence is near; His punishment is satisfied; His glory is shared; and, fourth, His leading is strong yet gentle. V10 says "The Sovereign Lord comes with power, and His arm rules for Him." God's arrival on the scene with power is bad news for His enemies. Isaiah 59(15ff) indicates that God is appalled when there is no justice; He puts on garments of vengeance and repays wrath to His enemies, so that people will revere Him from east to west.
Leave it there and you might get the idea He rules with an "iron glove", so to speak. But v11 interprets more finely how this great power is administered: "He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young." (Isa 40:11) The Lord is not just a might King to be feared by His enemies and revered by all; He is a loving Shepherd, exercising His great power to help those who are weak. Other prophets such as Jeremiah (31:10-14) and Ezekiel (34:16) echo this, promising God brings joy and bounty to His flock, an end to sorrow and mourning; He searches for the lost, brings back the strays, binds up the injured, and strengthens the weak. The Lord confronts the sleek and the strong, but nurtures those in need. God's Ruler isn't a despot or power-gorged dictator; Isaiah predicts of the Messiah, "A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out." (Is 42:3)
We see this gentle shepherding personified in Jesus. He invited the weary and burdened to come to Him, so He might give them rest (Mt 11:28). When passing on the baton of ministry after the resurrection, He commanded Peter, "Feed my lambs...tend my sheep." (Jn 21:15ff) Peter in turn instructs church leaders, "Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care...[be] eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock." (1Peter 5:2f)
That's quite a different style to many earthly leaders. This past Thursday the King of Swaziland came under some criticism for cancelling events marking World AIDS Day in his country. Swaziland happens to have the world's highest HIV infection rate: over 38% of adults are HIV+. As for the king himself, this year he has just selected his 13th wife, and is about to become a father for the 25th time. In one of Africa's poorest nations, he's been criticized for his lavish lifestyle and multiple wives. Over half the people in the country live on just $1 a day. In April, this king threw himself a $1 million birthday party. To commemorate the occasion, he bought a new fleet of Mercedes cars for himself, his wives (each of whom lives in her own palace) and a $500,000 Daimler-Chrysler Maybach. Far from what you'd call being an example! You could almost call it an obscene use of power.
God's leading is very different. Human rulers may seek power and pleasure at other's expense; God makes His power available to lambs, carrying the lowly, gently leading the most vulnerable.
Another Step in Faithful Service
Dr Jean Chamberlain Froese is a Canadian obstetrician and gynecologist who has worked in some of the poorest nations on earth. Until recently she was an assistant professor and director of the international women and children's health program at McMaster University in Hamilton. But 3 years ago she decided her efforts (and those of her colleagues) were not enough. She says, "I've just seen that building more hospitals and trying to get more doctors and nurses is not the answer." She launched Save The Mothers, an international Christian ministry committed to promoting the health and dignity of mothers in developing countries.
With her husband Thom, a journalist, Jean is parent to a toddler and an infant. In the past month or so, she and her family have left the comforts of home in Ancaster Ontario for a little bungalow on a dirt road in Mukono, Uganda. The electricity there goes out every other night from 7-10 pm due to nationwide energy shortages.
She's moving to Uganda to equip local leaders with tools to improve women's health care. Save The Mothers will train 20 working professionals each year, through a Masters of Public Health leadership program in conjunction with Uganda Christian University. Their vision is to transplant Save The Mothers into a new country every 4 or 5 years.
Jean says people sometimes idolize Christian missionaries and overseas workers, but she insists that's wrong because such workers are just people doing the work God intends for them. She observes, "We're just human, and we make mistakes and we have our uncertainties and insecurities. But at the end of the day, each one of us just needs to be faithful to what God's called us to do."
Jean's arrival will be making the Lord's help concrete in her corner of Africa. God doesn't call every Christian to leave the country; the vast majority are to find His leading here, where we live. Knowing His presence is near and His power is available to strengthen us, how is the Lord leading us to show His glory to those we meet day-to-day? When the church as a whole catches that vision - now that'll really be news! Let's pray.