TEXT: Isaiah 40:1-5

This Sunday begins Advent, the season of the church year when we focus on preparing our hearts for the coming of Christ. In the church this Sunday -- the first Sunday of Advent -- is New Year's. The church year begins not with the event of Christ's birth, but with the preparation for it. What I want to do this morning is a bit of straight Bible study. If you have a Bible with you this morning, you can use that or use one of the pew Bibles. Turn to Isaiah chapter 40, beginning at verse 1.

One of the first things to look at in Bible study is the context of the passage. What is going on here? Who is talking, who is being addressed, and under what circumstances? In this case, the prophet Isaiah is bringing a message from God to the people of Israel who are in exile in Babylon. The greatest faith crises Israel has ever encountered has happened. Babylon has conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and carted the people away to exile. Some of the Psalms talk about their torment there. How their captors told them to sing the songs of Zion, but they merely hung their lyres on the willows and would not sing, because how can you sing songs of home in a foreign land? They were oppressed and miserable and homesick. It is about 540 BC.

To that situation finally God speaks words of comfort, beginning in verse 1, "Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins." The reason God allowed Babylon to sack Jerusalem was because of the great sin of the people. Despite prophet after prophet trying to get them back on the right track, they would not follow God in the ways of justice and mercy. At last God had enough and allowed them to be conquered. But now, says God, Israel's sentence has been served. It is time to be free. It is time to go home.

That is the announcement starting in verse 3. A herald goes in front to make a clear path for Israel and Yahweh, her God and King. Highways in the ancient world were typically built to accommodate royal processions, and everything was done to make the path smooth and clear. Especially that would be needed for Israel, since the way home led across a desert wilderness. Passage is easiest when it is level, so the valleys are raised, the mountains are brought down so that there will be a straight highway for the glorious procession back to Jerusalem in full view of the rest of the world. That is what is going on historically in Isaiah 40, and that's what it meant to the original readers. The exile is about to end. It's time to go home -- not slinking back home, but in a royal procession led by Almighty God.

It is important for Bible study to learn the original meaning to the original hearers. But it is also important to recognize that the Bible represents the living, dynamic Word of God. And so the words of Isaiah both apply to Isaiah's time but also leap forward to speak again during the time of Jesus. Now turn to Luke, chapter 3. Jesus is now in the world and the Word of God comes now to the prophet John the Baptist, who is in the desert preaching.

Israel is not in exile now, but they are oppressed. Rome has conquered the area and Israel's short time of self-rule was ended. They groan under heavy Roman taxes and the constant demands of Roman soldiers. They are in their homeland, but they are not free. It is about 26 AD.

At first it seems that John's words are different from Isaiah. Isaiah's first words are "Comfort," and John's first words are "Repent." This is one of the reasons I love the Hebrew language. The Hebrew word for "comfort" in Isaiah 40 can also be translated as "repent." In Isaiah's day, their penalty had been paid and it was time for comfort. But John needs the other meaning of the word. Just like in the days before the exile to Babylon, Israel has forgotten about justice and mercy. John spells out what their repentance should look like beginning down in verse 10...share what you have, collect only what is fair, be content with what you have, don't accuse people falsely. Basically they are breaking the last three of the Ten Commandments. They are stealing, bearing false witness, and coveting. For the Israel of Jesus' day to know comfort, they need to repent of their sins and turn back to follow God.

In Isaiah, the highway is being prepared so God can lead the people to their physical home in Jerusalem. In the Gospels, the highway that is prepared will be for God to lead the people to their spiritual home in Jesus Christ. One way to look at the Old Testament is as the physical representation of the spiritual reality expressed in the New Testament. In Isaiah the people are in physical exile, have paid a physical penalty for their sin, and are being physically brought back home by a God who offers comfort. In Luke, the people are in spiritual exile, separated from God by sin. Jesus is coming to pay the spiritual penalty so that Israel might have not just physical life, but eternal life.

Now let's take one more leap. The amazing thing about the Bible is that it is not just a dusty tome filled with past events that are over and done. Because it is the Word of God, it is a living document. No matter what point in history you happen to pick it up and read it, there are ways that it speaks in the here and now. The words of Isaiah aren't simply the words of Isaiah. They are the word of God that came through Isaiah, then again through John the Baptist, and then again to us today. The word of the Lord endures forever says Isaiah. And so it does. It speaks now.

"Prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God." Advent is the proclamation of the church that God is ready to come to us. It proclaims our belief in a second coming of Christ when everyone will indeed see God's salvation and we will be led from this world of exile to our true home in God -- making what was spiritual a physical reality once again. But it also proclaims that God is ready to come to each of us individually now. Here. This Christmas. Today.

The message from God begins with the deep and rich word, "Comfort." You will have to decide how to translate that word in your life. Perhaps you realize that you have been in exile, cut off from God because of choices you have made. Perhaps you know that the far country is not home and you are ready to return. Your word from God is then "Comfort." Take heart. Jesus paid your penalty and is ready to welcome you home. Every valley shall be exalted, every mountain and hill made low. The way is made for you to return -- comfort, comfort my people.

Or perhaps like those in Jesus' day you need the wild man in the desert wielding the divine 2x4 and crying "Repent!" Maybe you need to take a long, hard look at the way you have been living your life and recognize that it is only bearing fruits of hatred, envy, greed, and strife. To repent means to turn around, to head in another direction...the direction of the path, the highway of God, the straight and narrow. Are your primary concerns for justice and mercy? If not, your word is "Repent! The Kingdom of God is at hand."

Advent represents our hope. We actively seek to prepare for the coming of God to us in the here and now, because we truly expect God to show up and fulfill what God has promised. To take us home; to set us free. Is that what you expect? What would this Christmas season be like if we really expected God to come on Christmas? It seems like every year we get more and more caught up in all the secular preparations...baking and writing cards and buying gifts...and it has become a huge burden. We heave a sigh of relief when it is over, but somehow too we are disappointed. We think Christmas should be more than this, and we blame commercialism for taking the true meaning out of Christmas.

Is that really the fault of anyone outside of ourselves? How many of us put in as much spiritual preparation as we do commercial preparation? We know that if we want a big Christmas dinner we have to plan and shop and cook before it will be possible. We know that if we want presents to give to others we have got to make some plans. Even Santa makes a list and checks it twice. So why is it that we think Christmas will bring us a huge spiritual boost when we make no preparation for that to happen? Prepare ye the way of the Lord. There is a highway to be built, a new direction to be taken, rough places to be smoothed out. THEN the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.

Israel had to make preparations before they could leave Egypt. They had to carefully build the tabernacle in the wilderness according to God's instructions before the glory of the Lord came to dwell among them. Jesus told of the wise young maidens who brought enough oil for their lamps and so were prepared when the bridegroom arrived. What are you doing to prepare for Jesus to come to you? Can anybody tell that you expect anything but the usual festivities this Christmas? Are you more ready for Y2K than for Jesus to knock on the door of your heart?

Prepare the way of the Lord. God is coming to lead you home.


(c) 1999, Anne Robertson

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