December 12 2021
Book: Isaiah

Longing for Comfort

Bible Passage: Isaiah 40:1-5

Tuesday was the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

1941 was a good year for Americans before the attack. It was the year of Bugs Bunny, Walt Disney, Captain America, and Wonder Woman. The economy was recovering well from the 1930s. Life was more comfortable for more Americans than it had ever been. By December 6, Americans were thinking about Christmas.

But on December 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy, the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

Now, imagine with me – what if that attack had been an invasion? What if America had been conquered and our grandparents were exiled to a foreign land?

Or what if that happens tomorrow? Imagine being forcibly removed from our homes and exiled to a strange country. Imagine life as we know it gone.

And in order to keep this “What If?” scenario Biblical, imagine that all of this happens because of our sin – both as a nation and personally. That’s the context of Isaiah 40.

Things had been good in Judah for many years. The people were living in peace and prosperity. But in Isaiah 39, God tells Hezekiah that Judah will one day be conquered by Babylon and the people will be exiled because of their sins. The days of peace and prosperity will end, and it will be their fault.

And now, we come to our text. Isaiah 40:1-5:

1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.

2 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.

3 A voice cries:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;

    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

4 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.

5 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,

    and all flesh shall see it together,

    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

On the heels of a devastating prophecy, that God’s people will be exiled in a foreign land, God immediately provides good news. It will not last forever.

But we have the benefit of looking back through history and we know that this carries even greater significance. This is not just about returning from exile. This is also about Jesus Christ.

With that in mind, let’s look more closely at the text.

Notice that the first word is repeated – “comfort, comfort”. This is the Bible’s way of emphasizing a word. “Comfort, comfort, my people.”

And this is not what we think of when we hear the word “comfort”. This is not chestnuts roasting on an open fire, a warm cup of hot chocolate, and a soft blanket. This is the comfort of good news in response to bad news.

“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her…” 1) that her warfare has ended and 2) that her sins have been pardoned.

To the first point, it’s like the difference between December 7, 1941, and August 15, 1945 – the day Japan surrendered. The war was over. Husbands and fathers, sons and brothers were coming home. There was a physical comfort – good news that the hard times will end.

But it’s the second point that carries the most weight. Her sins have been pardoned. The reason for the exile is being addressed. God will do something about the problem they created. He’s going to solve that problem.

Notice also this good news is not for everyone. It is covenantal. It is for “my people” God says. These are my people, and the verse is written as a command. Comfort my people. Comfort MY people.

And notice how the message is given. “Speak tenderly,” God says.

Most of us probably don’t have to wake our kids up on Christmas morning. They usually wake us up. But if you’ve ever had that experience, how do you do it? It’s not like a school morning when you flip the lights on and bark at them to get out of bed. No. You do it gently. “Wake up kids, it’s Christmas!”

And apparently, that’s how God wants this good news delivered. Gently. Tenderly. Like waking us up on Christmas morning.

Again, this is for God’s people. It is explicitly not for everyone. But what is the difference? What is God doing for His people that makes them special?

Isaiah answers that question at the end of verse 2. “She received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

At first glance, that doesn’t sound like a good thing, does it? But the reason it is good news is because God is saying the payment has been made. And this is where it gets interesting.

The sins of the people technically deserved death and eternal punishment, not just exile. No one should have walked away from the exile believing that they had served their time and earned their own redemption. The punishment did not fit crime. They had not, in fact, paid double for all their sins.

And it is on the heels of that proclamation that we find a massive foreshadowing of the Gospel message. Look at verses 3 and 4 again:

3 A voice cries:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;

    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

4 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.

We know that the voice in the wilderness was John the Baptist because all four Gospels reference verse 3 when they introduce John. All four of them.

We don’t make much of John in the church. Most of the time, we skip right over his ministry, thinking of it as a footnote to the “more important” parts of the Christmas story. But if all four Gospels mention John’s ministry, it may be more important than we realize. We need to pay more attention to John’s mission. And his mission, according to the text, was to “prepare the way” for Jesus.

But what does that mean? What does the prophecy say? It says he will make a straight highway in the dessert. Lift up the valleys and knock down the hills. Level the ground. Smooth out the rough places.

What does that sound like? Last year, everyone living in Horn Lake celebrated. Do you know why? Because the city finally repaved Horn Lake Road. I’m not exaggerating when I say that it was ten years overdue. Horn Lake Rd. was like a minefield of potholes. It was a mess, but now it is glorious.

John’s ministry was a bit like repaving Horn Lake Rd. There’s a king coming, and we can’t have the king driving down a street with dozens of potholes. He deserves a comfortable ride.

The irony of course is that Jesus was born into humble surroundings… no palaces or red carpets. No comforts at all, really. In fact, they had to run to Egypt to avoid an assassination attempt. But that’s not what the prophecy means. What needed leveling was the hearts of God’s people. We are the uneven ground.

Do you know what John’s sermons sounded like? Luke 3 gives us an example. He told people to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And when the people pressed him for examples of what he meant, this is what John said:

10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?”

13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

John tells them to bear fruit in keeping with repentance and every single example John gives is about what? Money. Sacrificial giving. Giving up what you don’t need for people who do need it. In other words, the fruit of repentance, according to John, looks like giving up personal comfort for the sake of others. This was from a man who ate bugs and wore camel skins. And according to the Bible, this is how John prepared the way for Jesus.

He taught the people to value sacrifice more than their own comfort. He taught them to share with people in need. And this is not a coincidence, when you link it back to Isaiah. In the first chapter of Isaiah, God lays out his case against the people. He calls them children who have rebelled against their father. And then he says this:

16 Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;

    remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes;

cease to do evil,

17     learn to do good;

seek justice,

    correct oppression;

bring justice to the fatherless.

    plead the widow’s cause.

 

That sounds like the kind of stuff John told people to do, doesn’t it? And what did John do to people? He baptized them. He washed them in the Jordan river!

Now, here’s a Gospel connection and an application. First the good news: John’s ministry prepared the way, but it wasn’t the way. Jesus Himself is the Way. It’s actually impossible for us to make ourselves clean. No amount of doing good or avoiding evil will be enough. John demonstrated the need for repentance, but faith in Christ Jesus was also necessary.

In Isaiah 51:12, God says, “I, I am He who comforts you.”

Jesus is our comfort. He is the bread of life. He is the light of the world. He is the door, the gate, and the good shepherd. He is the resurrection and the life. He is the true vine. He is the living water. And all of that is true because Jesus left heaven and experienced the opposite of comfort – the curse of sin, death, and the wrath of God – in order to draw us back into God’s favor.

I’ll be the first here to admit. Christmas is usually all about me. And if I’m honest, it’s not just Christmas. It’s 365 days a year. How can I squeeze the most comfort out of this life? How can I get more satisfaction? And when suffering comes, my first thought is not usually “run to Christ”. Very often, it is “how can I self-medicate my way back to feeling comfort”?

But as we remember what Jesus gave up for His people this Christmas, may we also bear fruit in keeping with repentance – making low the hills, lifting up the valleys, smoothing out the rough places – preparing our hearts for the Savior.

The glory of the Lord shall be revealed,

    and all flesh shall see it together,

    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”