Saturday, December 6, 2008

Prepare the Way Isaiah 40:1-11

This weekend we mark the Second Sunday of Advent, drawing us ever closer to the celebration of the birth of Christ. The message below is the one that I will claim Sunday morning at First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City. Isaiah 40 calls us to prepare the way.

I. Introduction
Did you read this week that our governor is taking an $800 million dollar request to Washington for roads and bridges? Roads are more than concrete or asphalt, they link people together.

In my season with CBF Global Missions I had the opportunity to help birth an initiative among some of the poorest counties in the US. As a part of that process I visited many of the counties. In one of them, just outside of the small town of Nada, Kentucky, I ran across a historical marker that I do not think I will ever forget. It drew an uncomfortable laugh. The historical maker stood at where a road deadened into a mountainside. The marker told the story of a WPA team building roads in the Appalachian Mountains. The team worked along hillsides and mountain ranges linking hollows to hollows and towns to towns. Then they came headlong into the side of a mountain. They knew they had to blast through so they requisitioned some high impact dynamite. They blasted away at the mountain for a few days and rain set in. It rained and it rained, so they claimed the cave they had hollowed out of the mountain as their home and built a huge fire to keep the warm. After a little while one of the workers realized they had left the dynamite out in the rain and thought that something had to be done, so he went out in the rain, picked up the dynamite and set it by the fire to dry. The fire popped, a spark flew out, and in a flash the dynamite exploded. The mountain came down and became a tomb – no let’s say a monument to the men and one man’s decision to dry out dynamite by a fire. Can’t you just see one of the guys looking out and seeing the dynamite and thinking to himself – that stuff is gettin’ wet, I bet ya the fyr would dry it out! This morning our passage is going to beckon us to build a highway for God. I bring you good news, no explosives are required. Look with me at Isaiah 40, verses 1 through 11 and hear our invitation to prepare the way for God.

II. A Cry for Comfort vs.1-2
Our passage begins with great words of comfort and grace. Verses 1 and 2 read: 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.

These words hear God speaking to a heavenly court with a promise of redemption, that those who have struggled will find peace and that our sins will be wiped away, paid for in the gift of Christ. The NIV claims the phrase, “speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” but a more accurate rendering would be to “speak to the heart of Jerusalem.” This promise of comfort is not generic proclamation, but is intended to speak directly and meaningfully into our hearts and lives. The comforted offered is not a cheap grace that glosses over the sins of the past, but a comfort and a grace that wipes it out, that brings real pardon, that restores our relationship with God. The voice of God is clear that this comfort and grace is not earned, but is to be paid for “double” by God. This remarkable, this great shift from wrath to mercy is an unmerited grace gift of our loving God.

I love how the Old Testament scholar David Petersen hears this passage. He speaks to how quickly we claim these words in Christmas hymns, but the reality is that Christ did not come as a bolt from the blue into history, but comes prepared for in story and song. Jesus’ coming was foretold and expected. People stood ready; ready for the messiah; ready for the promised comfort from God. Peterson proclaims; Comfort comes to those who are prepared, who have waited, whose sins God had forgiven in Christ. This comfort call is the Advent call that draws toward the manger and bids us to prepare the way.

III. Prepare the Way vs.3
In a single verse we hear the call to prepare the way, the highway for God. Verse 3 reads: A voice of one calling: "In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.

As we hear the words of Isaiah, we need to remember that “highways shape(d) Israel’s geopolitics more than any other factor, as wealth and power flowed through the ancient highways and trade routes……Isaiah imagines a highway that will connect people to God.” We hear these words echoed in Matthew 3:1-3 from John the Baptist as his heart of his message. The passage calls out; “In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'” The call to prepare the way for God and for people to have an encounter with God is not just the decking the halls and sing the right carols, it is the hard word of clearing away all the obstacles that might separate us from God and from others.

IV. A Christmas Call vs. 4-5
The prophet offers paints the picture of what it will mean to “prepare the way” and it is no small task. Listen to versed 4 and 5. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken."

The first hearers of these words would have been those in captivity and I imagine that they would have been thinking about the hills, the valleys, and the desert that separated them from the homeland and the place the temple mount. “Some see this highway as the path over which the exiles may return home.” But I think the better picture is that the highway is the path that God would claim to reclaim his relationship with His people. It is the path that leads us to Christmas and the incarnation of God. It is the path that leads us to Jesus.

As I hear these verses I can not help think of the mountains roads that twist and turn through the Smokey Mountains and the work each mile of road represents. This picture draws me back to my own faith life story and the twists and turns it has taken. The question calls out, where in our lives are the valleys that must be raised, the mountains that must be made low, and the rough ground that must be made smooth to receive the great gift of God in our lives? Where are the places, like the WPA team, where we sabotage ourselves? We need to make way for God in our lives – clearing out anything that stands in the way – filling in the holes, leveling the mountain tops so we can receive and proclaim the presence of Christ in our lives.

V. A Personal Call vs. 6-9
The call to “prepare the way” becomes a personal call. Hear verses 6 through 9. A voice says, "Cry out." And I said, "What shall I cry?" "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever." You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, "Here is your God!"

The prophet proclaims the difficult words that we are like the grass, fleeting and frail. We must acknowledge this truth when we wander down hospital hallways or feel the creak in our bones reminding us of the constant pull of age. Had the prophet let us hear our hearts might groan with despair. But he reminds of that God stands forever, that the God who brings us grace stands with us for eternity. With this promise we are given a message to proclaim of our own. You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, "Here is your God!" We are surrounded by people who live in fear and apprehension, who are on a spiritual quest to no where, who long to know authentic relationship with God. We are carriers of this good news. This Advent season we are invited to bring a message that “Here is your God!” This is the long awaited answer for the exiles of Israel, and for those who live in spiritual exiles that surround us.
VI. The Shepherd of Christmas vs.10-11
The passage draws us back to where we began. This God we proclaim comes not in judgement but in grace. Isaiah claims the picture of the shepherd, not those on the hillside of which we will sing in the days ahead, but the shepherd who claims us as the sheep of his pasture. Verses 10 and 11 calls out; See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. 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.

The words of the prophet paint an intimate picture that our God is a tender loving God. Can you imagine the warmth and the comfort you can find in the strong arms of God? Can you imagine what it would feel like to be able to trust God with you life and future? This is exactly what God intends for us. It is the purpose of the highway, the heart of the Christmas gift of the Christ.

As we prepare to leave this place I hope that there are things we carry away from this moment together. The first and simplest is for we, as a church, are called to make way for the coming of the babe in the manger. This beckons us to let nothing stand in the way of our walk together toward Christmas. The second meaning becomes more personal, that we need to make way for God in our lives – clearing out anything that stands in the way – filling in the holes, leveling the mountain tops so we can receive and proclaim the presence of Christ in our lives.

Let us come to this Christmas prepared to receive and proclaim that here is our God, a God of grace and mercy, a loving God that claims us and embraces us. Prepare the way for a Christmas, not defined by wrapping paper or bows, but found only in the face of Christ. Prepare the way for a fresh encounter with God.

1 Peterson, David, Isaiah, Volume VI, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2001), p.339.
2Bratcher, Dennis, “The Turn Toward Hope: Verse Commentary on Isaiah 40” available online at http://cresourcei.org/isa40.html on December 4, 2008.
3 Shaped by Kelly, Page H. Isaiah, Volume 5, The Broadman Bible Commentary, (Broadman Press: Nashville, 1971), p.297.
4 Peterson, David, Isaiah, Volume VI, The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, (Abingdon Press: Nashville, 2001), p.339.
5Weir, Todd, “Straight Highways” available online at http://bloomingcactus.typepad.com/bloomingcactus/2005/11/isaiah_40111_st.html on December 4, 2008.
6 Bratcher, Dennis, “The Turn Toward Hope: Verse Commentary on Isaiah 40” available online at http://cresourcei.org/isa40.html on December 4, 2008.
7 Findlayson, Bryan, “Prepare the Way of the Lord: Isaiah 40:1-11,” Lectionary Bible Studies and Sermons, Pumpkin Cottage Ministry Resources, available online at http://www.lectionarystudies.com/studyot/advent2bot.html on December 3, 2008.