The Gospel According to Isaiah: Isaiah 4o:1-11

The moving descriptions of a foretold Messiah earned Isaiah his nickname: “The Fifth Evangelist.”  Did our Old-Testament reading for today not confirm this?  Still, what a contrast to the dispatch God earlier directed Isaiah to deliver, in chapter 6.

Go and tell the people: “Be ever hearing, but never comprehending; always seeing, but never perceiving.”  Make their hearts sluggish, with ears deadened and eyes closed.  Otherwise, seeing with their eyes, and hearing with their ears, and understanding from within, they might turn and be healed.” [Isaiah 6:9-10]

A hard word for any prophet to preach.  Still, his heart hungered for respite.  So, he responded.  “How long, O Lord?”  Until the cities lie waste and are without inhabitant, and houses are left deserted, and the fields ruined and ravaged.  First, the Lord must banish the people, and the heart of the land become desolate (Isaiah 6:11-12).

Those cities and towns will turn into a wreckage, including Jerusalem and its Temple.  The Lord’s presence will be absent among His people because the Temple, where and through He pledges to be, will topple down into dust and rubble.  No longer will His tangible presence come to His people to grant them His atoning grace.

The realness of this took root.  The specified priests, who used to chant the liturgy, refused to do so when their enslaving captors commanded them.  “Sing us a song of Zion!”  In its place, the words of Psalm 137 saddened the air.  “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept as we remembered Zion.  On the willows, we hung up our harps.  For our tormentors demanded songs of joy.  How are we to sing God’s music on foreign soil?” (Psalm 137:1-3, 4).

Those in the Old Covenant experienced divine favor or punishment based on how well they followed the Mosaic Law.  Though God-given displeasure descended on unfaithfulness, a different reality awaited its release.  For they will, once more, be Yahweh’s favored people.  The eviction from above will be spent, with disaster superseded by a blessed relief.  The era of forgiving light from heaven is here.

“Comfort, comfort My people, says your God.”  With such a Gospel word, once is never enough.  Why?  The liberation from heaven’s throne comes through this Word.  “Proclaim your time of warfare is over and your iniquity is pardoned.”  Through His reassuring words, God declares the war is over.

The emancipating message isn’t military orders to organize and fill the streets with the enemy’s blood.  No, the heartening, encouraging words grapple with something else—our internal conflict and spiritual imprisonment by death and sin.  “For, from the Lord’s hand, [Israel] received double for all her sins.”

The rescuing announcement is like a conscript who fulfilled his time of armed service.  The communique affirms his obligation is complete.  Now, he is released and free to return home.  The discharge papers provide twice the consolation.  No longer must he wage war and, at last, he can go back home.

The idea of repaying twice as much is what the Law required for someone caught stealing (Exodus 22:4-9).  Now, God flips this command around, for He will do the double-payment.  The hard times turn into the treasure of forgiveness.  Double gifts from the Lord is the language of forgiveness—more than we merit or deserve.

The Messiah covers all our iniquities.  All?  Yes!  So this also embraces those sins not yet committed.  How insane, which is the point of paying double.  By faith, you are always under the forgiving cover of Christ.  Though if you abandon such trust, not connected to the promised Savior, you are on your own, exiled from God.

The restoration is like a ruler returning home from battle.  Ahead of the conquering king, heralds broadcast his arrival.  The people prepare to meet their monarch, who advances with his victorious army, traveling through the wilderness.

So, how are the people to prepare?  With a poetic power put to parchment, “every valley will be lifted up, and every mountain and hill will be leveled.  The uneven ground will become smooth and the rough places, a plain.”  The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are called to carry out these duties.

Do you remember Jacob, who received the name “Israel” after he wrestled all night at the Jabbok River (Genesis 32:24-28)?  Here, God uses Jacob’s grasping and straining to make His point.

The “uneven ground,” which is ‘aqob in Hebrew, will be level, mishor.  The obvious wordplay to the Hebrew ear is Jacob, Ya’aqob, will now become mishor, which also means “righteous.”  Let’s go over this once more—‘aqob mishor, the bumpy road will soon be level; Ya’aqob mishor, Jacob, Israel, will be made righteous.  The prophet puts two messages in the same sentence.

Don’t neglect the passive voice in this verse.  Yes, God calls Israel to these tasks, but they can’t do them.  The approaching royalty, however, isn’t any old earthly leader.  No, God is coming home to Zion—and He can do what the people are powerless to achieve—make themselves righteous.

Still, Isaiah yearns for more.  “What am I to announce?”  A voice from God answers him.  “Cry out.”  To which Isaiah responds, “What am I to cry?”  “All humanity is grass, and all its goodness is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flowers fade when the breath of the Lord blows on them; indeed, the people are grass.”

To become righteous requires us to recognize our failings.  For without doing so, why do we need this coming king?  The repetition hammers home the passion of the prophet’s proclamation.  Unrepentant sin, pictured by parched pastureland and dried-out, wind-blown blossoms, leaves you bereft of God in His Temple, banished and forlorn.

By God’s doing, however, the predicted restoration becomes fact.  The people return to Israel following 70 years in exile.  A new and rebuilt Temple rises from the earth, with its rites and rituals restored.  The people again gather in the name of God, delighting in His presence, where He promised to be with them.

“The glory of the Lord will appear for all to see.”  The nations in those days marveled at how an inconsequential country survived the rise and fall of superpowers, such as Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon.  Several hundred years later, the supreme revelation to marvel over arrived.  A prophesied virgin, from the insignificant tribe of Judah, delivered an infant.  Yes, this is the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy.

So, why is this heavenly message worth our time?  Here’s why.  “The word of our God will stand forever.”  The enduring character of God’s Word now contrasts Himself against the brevity of fallen man.  For we are like grass, and our body’s grandeur is like a delicate flower.  Born into this world, we blossom, dwindle, and soon wither away, which we call “aging.”  For we are all fading and falling, facts of our human fragility.

From the time before time into eternity, the Word endures.  By speaking this Word, we, too, prepare the way for Christ’s appearance.  Each year, we acclaim the Christmas message, for Salvation again is arriving into our time and space.  Every Advent, we ready ourselves for the Word become flesh—the real meaning of Christmas.

A waiting period trains us to be patient, as we live in the length of time for the return of our Lord.  The prophet, Isaiah, wrote his words 700 years before Christ.  Imagine a season of Advent lasting, not several weeks, but centuries!  Still, how little do we want to wait for Christmas!  Over time, the money-making drive of merchants shaped us and moved us to make merriment ever earlier and earlier, instead of preparing.

Still, the Almighty’s mouthpiece of old needs to speak a few more words.  “Climb a high mountain, Jerusalem, herald of glorious news.  Lift your voice high.  Speak out and do not fear!  Tell the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!”

How dangerous for sinful creatures to be in the presence of the holy, omnipotent Creator—but with His divine pardon, everything changes.  For He absolves you despite your offenses and misdeeds.  Such a reprieve, which is why Isaiah rejoices.  Now, we also can exult in joy!

The definitive glad tidings took place when God became “Immanuel,” which means “God with us,” who became a physical being, born in Bethlehem.  Some 30 years later, He gave His perfect and holy life to atone for the sins of Israel and all the world.

Thus, Isaiah prophesied in chapter 2.  “In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established at the top of the mountains and will be raised above the hills.  All nations will stream toward it” (Isaiah 2:2).

The combat, deportation, and captivity are over, not because of Israel’s deeds or doings.  No, because of God’s undeserved generosity and His grace-filled words of promise.  So also with us.

Like Israel, our eternal struggle against sin’s enslavement and death is over.  Not because of our actions or virtue but because of what our Immanuel did and said on the slope outside Jerusalem, “Tetelestai.”  “All is finished and complete” (John 19:30).

Ever on schedule, Christmas will soon be here.  So, we make our arrangements to revel, remember, and honor our Redeemer.  Did the Jews commemorate their freedom from Egypt by choosing to celebrate Passover before the designated day?  No, and so too are we to learn the art of patience.

Still, our provisions and preparations do not make Christmas come.  No, we plan and recollect because Christ is coming, which alters what we do.  The focus of our activities now revolves around turning from sin back to God.  For the King is entering His sacred sanctuary.  Even so, we realize our repentance doesn’t cause Him to be present among us.

Either way, He is still coming.  So, God draws near to be with His people, but not because of what we do.  The reason is His gracious nature.

So, we need to listen to Isaiah a moment more.  A King unlike any other will arrive, who “protects his flock like a shepherd, gathers the lambs in his arms, and carries them in the fold of his garment.”

Do not be afraid, for your King comes to you.  Like in days of old, He is also here with us in our temple and liturgy.  So, behold your God and your faithful Shepherd.  Welcome His words to you during this Advent Season, “You are righteous because I am with you, while you still wait for Me.”  Amen.

 

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