Isaiah 40:1-11 (NIV)
1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 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.
3 A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the LORD;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
6 A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?”
“All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. 7 The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”
9 You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news 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!”
10 See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. 11 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 beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah,the Son of God, 2 as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:
“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way”
3 “a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
make straight paths for him.’”
4 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 5 The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. 6 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. 7 And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. 8 I baptize you withwater, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
Comfort, oh my people. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. Sometimes we need this. When life is stressful—and when isn’t it stressful—we need someone to speak comfort into our lives. As a sign of this comfort, I have decided to preach this Sunday wearing sweatpants.
The prophet Isaiah speaks comfort to God’s people because their time of service has been completed. And Isaiah understands this time of “service” to have been a punishment for the sins of the people. God allowed the Babylonians to overtake the Israelites and carry them off into exile. But now their time of punishment is complete. Their forced slavery, forced labor, forced relocation is over. They can return to the Promised Land.
This is a beautiful passage of scripture, but it is also very troubling for me as it seems to shake the very foundations of our faith. For instance, look at verse 2, which says, “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.” Isaiah tells us that Israel had received double punishment for their sins from the Lord’s hand. Even Handel’s Messiah chooses to skip over this part as it is not included in the musical score.
I have no idea why Isaiah says this, but I assume that it has more to do with trying to make the meter in the poetry fit than it does with being theologically accurate. I struggled with this passage this week, wondering how and why a just and good God would make the Israelites pay double for their sins. Hopefully, this gives you some pause as well, but we will come back to this later. The point that I want to make right now is that the point of this passage isn’t that God is inconsistent, unpredictable, and harsh. I think that the point is to be found in the comfort.
God will lead the people back to Jerusalem and he will make the journey easy. The paths will be made straight in the desert, every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low, the ground will become level, the rugged places will become a plane, and all of those orange construction barrels will be cast into the deepest regions of hell whence they came. (I started thinking about this sermon when I was driving to Washington, DC to pick my family up at the airport and it took an extra 45 minutes to get there.) This is a passage about comfort, about God’s blessing, and about forgiveness.
We come to the Gospel text for this morning and we find that Mark makes a connection between the Israelites returning from exile and the ministry of John the Baptist. On the surface, these two things seem unrelated. Isaiah is telling the people that they can return to Jerusalem after their time in exile, but in Mark’s text, the people aren’t going anywhere and they haven’t been anywhere. They are in Jerusalem and in Jerusalem they shall stay. They don’t need to have any roads straightened and hills leveled off. Sure, they could use some comfort, but then again, can’t we all?
Mark makes the connection between God preparing the way for the Israelites to return to Jerusalem during the Babylonian exile and John the Baptist’s ministry in preparing the way for Jesus. John’s role was to enhance the ministry of Jesus by blazing the trail for him.
Verse 1 of Mark chapter 1 says this: “The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah,the Son of God.” Nothing too shocking there, right? But where does Mark go. Does he being to talk about the immaculate conception of Mary? Does he talk about the birth of Jesus in the manger in Bethlehem? Does he talk about Jesus’ childhood? Nope. Mark starts with the ministry of John the Baptist. In Mark’s Gospel, the beginning of the good news about Jesus doesn’t start with Jesus at all. It starts with John.
The story of Jesus doesn’t start with Jesus. It starts with John the Baptist. Luke’s Gospel also starts with John. And how does Matthew begin the good news of Jesus? He starts with Abraham and then gives the genealogy of Jesus. Most of Matthew chapter 1 is the genealogy of Jesus. Now John’s gospel is a little more interesting in that it begins before the beginning. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
It is clear that Jesus didn’t come out of nowhere. He had a story, he had family, he had lineage, and he had a history. It wasn’t just John the Baptist, but each and everyone one of these individuals helped to prepare the way for Jesus.
Have you ever given any thought to people that led you to the place where you are today and the things that they did to get you here? Who prepared the way for you? My parents prepared the way for me when I was just a little boy, taking me to Sunday school, reading me Bible stories, and telling me the story of Jesus. Their parents helped pave the way for them, and their parents did the same. I think of the friends in my life that helped me to get involved in a Bible study when I was in my late teens and early 20’s. I think of the leaders of that study. I think of the Christians that I came in contact with at the large, pagan university in Columbus, OH when I was still pretty young in my faith. I think of my pastor whose daughter I married. It isn’t hard to come up with many names and faces of people who have influenced my life and have brought me to this place here today. They have prepared the way for me, and more importantly, they have prepared the way for Jesus in my life.
I think that is a part of what discipleship is. We prepare the way for others, we try to make the way smooth and level for others to come to Jesus. This is true in our family life as well as in our lives outside of the home. We make the path straight for our children, our siblings, our coworkers, and the guy that makes your morning latte. If people are separated from God, we want to make it as easy as we can for them to get back.
Unfortunately, I think too often we put up road blocks and obstacles rather than making the way straight. We invent rules that are not even biblical and in that way we become like the Pharisees. The Pharisees would take a very good rule and then run with it. If it is good to not work on the Sabbath, the Pharisees took it to the nth degree. Don’t walk more than a couple of miles, don’t make a meal, don’t even heal on the Sabbath. Jesus told the Pharisees once that they are willing to travel across land and sea to make a single convert, but when they do they make that person twice the child of hell that they are. That’s not a compliment; not a compliment at all. Religion is really good at making rules about what is okay and what is not okay; what is acceptable and what is not acceptable and it isn’t always faithful who Jesus is.
I recently listened to a sermon from a pretty hard-core Christian, and to be honest, I am surprised that I was able to listen to the whole thing. The pastor, whose intentions I do not question—his method is another issue, repeatedly yelled at the top of his lungs, “God hates you! If you are a sinner, God hates you!” He even went to lengths to explain that the old saying that God loves us and hates our sin is wrong and unbiblical. No, he said, if you sin, God hates you. This guy isn’t making the way straight for anyone to come back to God.
Preparing the way for the Lord does not mean that we don’t talk about right and wrong. We name sin as such. But how we talk about these things is important, and even more important is how we interact with others.
John, the way-preparer for Jesus, did not just sit around and sing kumbaya with the people. Look at verse 4, “And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
Repentance means to turn and go the other way. It means to make a 180. John is telling the Israelites to stop sinning because the Kingdom of God has come near. In Luke’s gospel the people ask John for some specifics as to how they should live and he lays out his vision, no God’s vision, of radical generosity. If you have two shirts and someone has none, give them your extra shirt. If you have extra food, share with someone who has none. The tax collectors shouldn’t take more than they were supposed to take and the soldiers were not to extort money from others, accuse others falsely, and they were to be happy with their pay.
Is this making the path straight for Jesus? I think that if you told someone today that they needed to give their extra clothes and food to someone in need if they wanted to be a Christian, you would be called a lot of things, but a way-paver would not be one of them. You would not make it easier for them to come to Jesus. You would seem to be making it more difficult for them. But I would argue that without that call to repentance, there is no easy way back to God.
This brings me back to the traffic that I got to sit in on Tuesday on my way to Washington. I hate traffic. I really hate construction. I can understand when there is a traffic jam because of an accident and I really try to have patience when I know that there is an accident ahead. I try to remind myself that whatever inconvenience that the traffic jam has caused me is probably nothing compared to the inconvenience of the ones involved in the accident. I am safe and I will be able to get where I need to be, even if I am a little late. I try to think like that.
But construction…ahh! Remember, I come from the state of Ohio where the four seasons are: almost winter, winter, still winter, and construction. So those trips up 77 can take for-ev-er. And what frustrates me the most about construction is when the signs are telling you that the road goes down to one lane ahead and the cones are set up for miles at a time, yet it seems like there is rarely anyone working at that site. Or maybe there is a crew of two, and one of them is holding a sign that says “SLOW” on it. And my favorite thing is the police. Last Sunday, the day after Thanksgiving when everyone was trying to get home, I mistakenly got on 81 where traffic was moving at about 20 miles-per-hour. And there in the median was a police car. I guess he was looking for speeders?
As much as I hate traffic and as much as I despise construction traffic, I know that what they are doing is making the road better. They are making the high places low, the low places high, the curvy path straight. They are literally paving the way for me in the future.
Being one who prepares the way for Jesus doesn’t mean that you won’t cause a few traffic jams along the way. I find myself in a position where I am pulled between making the way too easy or too hard. I get frustrated when I hear people try to get people into the church by telling them “All you gotta do is believe in Jesus.” Then when they come, they are hit with about a million rules. It’s the old bait-and-switch move. But I also believe that we can do just the opposite and make things too hard, with too many hoops to jump through. We have to find the middle ground. And when we find that middle ground, it is there that we will also find Jesus. We find Jesus, who was very clear about what it looked like to live as a part of the Kingdom of God, but was also very quick to offer love, support, and grace when people failed to do so.
So I come back to that challenging line from Isaiah 40:2, the line that Handel left out of the Messiah, the line that doesn’t seem consistent with God’s character. Why would a fair and just God punish the people with a double portion for their iniquities? The verse says, “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.”
I struggled with this passage for a long time this week, reading commentaries and websites, and picking the brains of others. But it wasn’t until a friend of mine on facebook helped me to see this passage from a different perspective that it made any sense to me at all. The passage never specifically says that what the Israelites received double for from the Lord for their sins was punishment. This passage could be understood as saying that the Israelites received double the grace for their sins.
Yes, we need to be clear about what we believe and we need to call people to repentance. But as way-pavers for Jesus, we need to be people of grace. Be clear about what you believe, but be filled with grace for those who fail to live up to those measures. In the wilderness, God provided grace to the Israelites. In the River Jordan, God provided grace to the Jews. May we show the way back to God, may we show the way of comfort, may we show the way of grace.