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Prepare the Way of the Lord

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Isaiah 40:1-5

Comfort for the Lord’s People

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.

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.

A voice cries:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;

make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

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.

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,

and all flesh shall see it together,

for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” [1]

The need for a message of comfort for God’s chosen seed, Israel, becomes most apparent as we follow the story of the life of the people of God through the eyes of Isaiah.  In earlier chapters, God had warned the Hebrew nation of impending and calamitous judgement.  In the midst of these chapters is a portion of the book which has come to be called the “Book of Woe.”  Isaiah 28:1 begins, Woe[2] [y/h]. Woe[3] [y/h] is the word which begins Isaiah 29:1.  The same holds true for Isaiah 30:1.

Then, we read in Isaiah 30:27, 28a, Behold, the name of the Lord comes from far, burning with his anger, and in thick rising smoke; his lips are full of fury, and his tongue is like a devouring fire; his breath is like an overflowing stream that reaches up to the neck…  Isaiah 33:1 repeats the tragic cry, Woe[4] [y/h].  At last, we read Isaiah’s tragic pronouncement to Hezekiah in Isaiah 39:6, 7.  Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon.  Nothing shall be left, says the Lord.  And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.

That awful prophecy came to pass, as do all the prophetic words of our God.  The nation was destroyed; the Temple left lying in ruins.  The people were carried far away into slavery in a foreign land.  There, in despair and recognition that grows out of the knowledge of their own sinful actions, the people wailed out the cry which is recorded in Isaiah 40:27.

My way is hidden from the Lord,

and my right is disregarded by my God.

They believed God has forgotten them, becoming indifferent to their plight.

God had not forgotten His chosen people.  No more has God forgotten His holy people in this day.  God had acted as He always acts—with a nation, with a people, with a church, with a home, with an individual.  The soul that sins shall die.  The nation that forgets God shall be turned into hell.  Sin always brings divine judgement.  Just so, judgement fell upon the people of God—they lost their holy city, their beautiful Temple, their freedom.  Judgement of sin sent them into slavery, and they sat by the rivers of Babylon and wept.  To those broken, hopeless people, the prophet lifts up his voice and cries out a message of comfort and assurance.  God still cares for His own.

In the same way, at this time as Christians face a great, unknown future, God has a message of comfort and assurance for His own.  That message can serve to encourage each of us as we worship the Son of God during this holy season and as we advance confidently into the coming days, serving Christ and seeking His glory in all things.

Comfort, The Great Need of All People — We all need this message of comfort and assurance with which God begins this message.  Especially do we who are Christians require such a message of comfort.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.

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.

[Isaiah 40:1, 2]

This is the message the entire world needs.  If you have not required comfort to his point, there is coming a time when you will seek divine comfort with all your heart.

Despite the social conditioning we may have received as Canadians, our world is not composed of strong people who need to be beaten and conquered.  Our world is made up of weak people, broken people, people who need to be forgiven, saved and redeemed.  We live among broken and wounded people, and we ourselves are numbered among them.  We groan because of the wickedness about us and because we ourselves are assailed and assaulted by wicked people determined to exalt evil and denounce good.

Who among us has not identified with the words of the Psalmist as recorded in Psalm 44:22?

For your sake we are killed all the day long;

we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.

Increasingly I witness a world which has gone mad and it is Christians who bear the brunt of irrational anger of a sin-sick world.  People are slain by the hundreds in Indonesia, because they are Christians.  Adults and children are beaten and left for dead, shot and burned alive in India, because they are Christians.  Deep thinkers, thoughtful and considerate citizens of Canada and the United States are censured, ridiculed and marginalised, solely because they are Christians.  All the while, our Canadian political system collapses into the rubble of irrelevancy and our courts expose themselves as the epitome of folly.  Conscientious citizens, and especially the most honest and honourable among the populace, those who are Christians, grieve and are astonished at the rage of the wicked.  How we long for comfort, both as a people and as Christians!

May I speak candidly of the struggle I face week-by-week.  I struggle to know how to prepare the message which will be delivered before the congregation.  I know that in the congregation are people who must be confronted in their lost condition.  They are sinners without hope and without God in the world.  They do not need religion; they need a Saviour who will deliver them from condemnation and give them an inheritance among the redeemed.  They need to submit to Christ the Master, believing that He died because of their sin and that He was raised to declare them free of all guilt before God.

I know that in the same congregation are yet others, who though saved, live lives which are indistinguishable from the inhabitants of the world about them.  I know that they need to be confronted with the harm they do to themselves and hurt to the cause of Christ.  I know that their sin needs to be exposed so that they will forsake the evil they do and seek restoration to a secure position with the faithful in the work of Christ.

I know that there are still others who struggle mightily against the downward drag of this world; they long to honour God.  In their weariness, they feel as though they are failures and that they have disgraced Christ the Lord.  They love God and they want to honour Him in all things, yet they believe they have failed Him and His people.

Always, regardless of the message which I have planned to deliver on a given day, I know that seated before me are people leading lives of quiet desperation who desperately long for comfort in their trials.  Whether unconscious in their lost condition, or whether struggling to honour God in the morass of sin which characterises this fallen world, all alike seek comfort when we come to the service of worship.

I know that divine comfort is available to those who are lost sinners, but I also know that the needed comfort will be found only in repentance and faith.  Therefore, I am compelled to confront the lost in their sin, calling them to turn from their wickedness and to turn in faith to the Risen Son of God.  Comfort lies in the forgiveness of sin and in the presence of the Spirit of Christ among those who are redeemed.

I know that the comfort which is available to those who though they are believers have nevertheless surrendered themselves to complacency in the world lies in a return to righteousness.  I know that backsliders must become uncomfortable with the life they have embraced, rejecting it to again live powerfully and wholly for the cause of Christ.  Therefore, I am compelled to address the wayward saints, calling them to again live godly and holy lives which reveal the powerful presence of God’s Holy Spirit in them.

I know that comfort for saints striving to honour God comes through the preached Word of God as the Spirit of God bears witness with their spirits.  They need sound biblical teaching that will remind them that they are not failures, yet encourage them to continue in their struggle against wickedness.  To such saints, I am impelled to speak, urging them to stand firm in their faith and to resist compromise with evil.

Therefore, week-by-week, I prepare the message which I believe the Spirit of God would have me deliver.  Ever and always, that message will conclude with a plea to believe the Saviour, for some among us have yet to receive the forgiveness of sin which is offered to each one through His grace.  Always, the message of the day will confront the complacent and the careless in their frowardness, identifying the wickedness of their actions as sin.  Always, the message I seek to deliver will plead with the weary saint to persevere in the conflict with sin.  The reason for this diverse effort in each sermon is the knowledge that for each listener therein lies comfort.

There is comfort for you who are now lost.  That comfort lies in Christ the Lord.  If you have never confessed Jesus as Lord, if you have never obeyed Him in His call to openly identify with Him, comfort awaits your submission to Him and your obedience to His call.  Believe the message of life and openly confess Him in baptism as He has taught us.  There is comfort for you who have grown cold in your faith and who are complacent in the world.  You need not live as the world lives, thus jeopardising promised rewards.  Even now, as you drift toward oblivion in your spiritual stupor, you must repent, turning again to resist evil together with those who share this Holy Faith.  There is comfort to spare for those who endure the hardships of righteousness, for the Spirit of God even now strengthens you and the Lord Himself lends you strength.

The Hope Our Faith Provides — The basis for the comfort which God commands in the text is the coming of His Messiah.  In the First Advent of Jesus the Messiah, great comfort is to be found.  In His promised Second Advent is greater comfort still.  Though the text does not specifically tell us why the announcement of His advents should comfort us, because we live on the fulfilled side of the Cross, we who are Christians know the reason for this divine comfort.  It would nevertheless be beneficial for us to review the comfort which is ours in the first coming of Jesus the Messiah.

The promise of the second verse is that Jerusalem’s punishment is complete.  Anyone knowledgeable about current events knows that Jerusalem is anything but peaceful.  That city is indeed a “cup of trembling” to the entire world.  Suicide bombings and threats of war mark life in that city.  Nightly newscasts seem to include at least one major story concerning Jerusalem, and multiple stories are reported on many occasions.  Obviously, then, the comfort promised has not yet been extended little Jerusalem.  The verse is clearly a prophecy which is yet to be fulfilled, and the fulfilment is in some way related to Messiah’s First and Second Advents.

Christmas is a time of celebration for Christians because it promises divine comfort.  In His coming as a child, Jesus provided comfort for the broken-hearted.  Before Jesus, it would have been necessary to bring a sacrifice in order to enjoy fellowship with God.  Because we long for fellowship with God, prior generations would have known the necessity of openly confessing one’s sinful condition.  This required placing one’s hand on an innocent animal which was appointed to die because of the specific sin that the individual first confessed sins, and then the animal was killed.

Before Christ came, we were without hope and without God in the world [Ephesians 2:12].  Now, however, through faith we have a hope laid up for us in heaven [Colossians 1:5].  That hope is the hope of eternal life [Titus 1:2; 3:7].  Rather than being required to sacrifice a mere animal, repeating again and again the same sacrifices which can never bring comfort or forgiveness, we have a perfect sacrifice—Christ the Lord.  Small wonder, then, that God is referred to as the God of all comfort [2 Corinthians 1:3].  The love of God comforts us, especially as we experience His divine love through the love of the saints [see Philippians 2:1].  The hope which is ours in Christ the Lord is true hope, then—hope which comforts us in every struggle.  Listen to the Word of God as it speaks repeatedly of the hope which is ours in Christ.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.  More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us [Romans 5:1-5].

I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God.  For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.  For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.  And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.  For in this hope we were saved.  Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience [Romans 8:18-25].

Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory?  For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory.  Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it.  For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory.

Since we have such a hope, we are very bold [2 Corinthians 3:7-12].

For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness [Galatians 5:5].

The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works [Titus 2:11-14].

We Christians are a people characterised by hope.  The hope of which we speak is not wishful thinking, as some would define hope.  Rather the hope which is ours is that confidence which arises in our hearts because the Spirit of God dwells in us through faith.  We live in anticipation of victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.  Every sin has been forgiven and we are being transformed into His image as we look toward heaven.  We know that we are destined to reign with the Living Son of God.  This is real hope.

There is little wonder, then, that Christmas is a time of celebration for Christians.  We have already received peace with God and the forgiveness of sin.  We will yet receive the transformation of our bodies into the likeness of the Son of God.  We are destined to reign with Christ at His coming when we shall rejoice in the triumph of righteousness and at last all wickedness shall be put away.  That is what Christmas means for the child of God.  Indeed, we should celebrate!  And that returns us to the text.

The Fulfilment of the Prophecy — Among the most powerful words included in this specific prophecy must assuredly be those with which this particular strophe is concluded: for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.  The New Testament reveals that these verses serve as a prophetic reference to John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ.

This is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight” [Matthew 3:3].

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, the voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight” [Mark 1:2, 3].

As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level ways, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” [Luke 3:4-6].

[John the Baptist] said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said” [John 1:23].

However, note that the two advents are compacted and blurred.  Commentators, Alfred and John Martin, provide valuable insight into this passage.  “As always in the Old Testament prophetical books, the two comings of Christ are not distinguished but blended together.  The prophecies of verses four and five were not completely fulfilled at His first advent.  When He comes again there will be total fulfilment.”[5]

Note the distinction between the two advents as revealed in some of the New Testament texts.  Revelation 1:7, for instance, speaks of the Second Coming of our Lord.  Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him, and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him.  Even so.  Amen.

This promise of a Second Advent must be contrasted to the glory of the First Advent.  The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth [John 1:14].

We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.  For when he received honour and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain [2 Peter 1:16-18].

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us [1 John 1:1, 2].

Thus, we witness two advents for the Messiah.  Just so, the prophecy before us has a dual fulfilment.  Certainly, John the Baptist was the forerunner of Jesus the Messiah.  As we have already seen, John was identified as the voice in the wilderness crying out in anticipation of the revelation of God’s Messiah.  There can be no question but that for some in Israel at that time, the glory of the Lord was revealed.  We witnessed the references of Peter and John to the unveiled glory of the Son of God.

You will have noted that both Peter and John spoke of the glory of Christ’s presence.  There is a glory which attended our Lord, even during the days of His flesh.  He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him [Isaiah 53:2], and yet, though veiled by human flesh, there was a glory which was His alone.  If the glory of the suffering servant of the Lord was sufficiently great to be thus noted, then shouldn’t we anticipate that His glory when He comes to reign in power will be greater still?  Moreover, shouldn’t we anticipate that His glory will be revealed even among His people in this day?  The Word indicates that His glory is even now evident among His people, the churches of the Lord, as they are gathered and as they worship.

Paul asserts that the Living God is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us [Ephesians 3:20].  Small wonder, then, that Paul broke out in praise as he wrote those words, exclaiming, to Him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever.  Amen [Ephesians 3:21].  Amen, indeed!  Let me focus on this doxology for one moment longer.

The apostolic words are a doxology—a statement of praise, or a recognition of God’s glory.  A doxology takes the basic form, “To God be the glory,” but it may then be expanded as the immediate occasion for ascribing glory to God is elaborated.[6]

God’s power is in view, power which He has granted to His people, the church.  That power resides in believers as they realise the full implication of God’s gracious purpose for them.[7]  The power of God is at work in us.  That power gives life to those who are dead in trespasses and sins as we confess Christ and pray for His mercy to be extended to those in darkness.  That power enables the people of God to live lives worthy of His calling, shunning sin and embracing righteousness.  That power permits us to transform our liturgical efforts into true worship and praise of the True and Living God.

God’s glory in the church cannot be separated from His glory in Christ Jesus.  “This expression of incorporation signifies that believers are able to ascribe glory to God because they are ‘in Christ Jesus.’”[8]  All that we have, all that we are able to accomplish, all that we are, is because we are in Christ Jesus.  Therefore, none of us have anything of which we may boast.  We worship in the power of the Spirit and we serve in that same power.  Thus Christ is glorified and His glory is revealed through our service and praise.

The glory of God is displayed in His church in that the wisdom of God is demonstrated to the spiritual forces of the heavenly realm.  God has saved us by grace, has reconciled us to Himself and to each other, has demonstrated His wisdom to the heavenly beings through the church, and now is to receive glory in the church and in Christ Jesus through all generations, forever and ever![9]  Amen!

Christmas ever points to unfulfilled prophecy; Christmas points to the Second Advent of our Lord and Saviour.  Christmas should, therefore, stimulate us to evangelism among our loved ones and friends.  Christmas always reminds us that because Christ has come the first time, He shall shortly come again.  The next time He comes, He shall bring salvation, just as witnessed throughout the Word.

Christ has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.  And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgement, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him [Hebrews 9:26b-28]. 

As we prepare our hearts to worship the Son of God throughout this Advent Season, I urge each Christian to prepare the way for the Lord.  Extend the comfort of Christ to some beloved someone who even now wanders in darkness.  Approach that someone prayerfully, asking that God would enable you to speak the truth in love.  If each of us who are members of the Body of Christ were to present the call to faith to some someone, we would witness an unprecedented number of people turning to righteousness, being saved and delivered from darkness into the glorious light of Christ’s freedom.

Today, I have addressed some who have yet to believe this Good News.  You are good people, perhaps even people who are thought of as though you were Christian.  However, in the press of daily life, you have somehow failed to personally believe the Good News of Jesus and so you have yet to be saved.  We offer divine comfort to you, calling you to receive Christ the Lord.  This is how you are to be saved.

If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.  For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.”  For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him.  For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” [Romans 10:9-13].

That is our invitation to all who long for the peace of God in this Holy Season.  Come, confessing Christ and believing that He died because of your sin.  Come, receiving His sacrifice as your own, accepting that He has taken away your guilt and that He now lives to ensure that you will ever be free.  Comfort for those in need is offered in Christ the Lord.  Come and receive His mercy and the comfort that attends His presence.  Amen.


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[1] Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Ó 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

[2] New American Standard Bible ® (Lockman Foundation, La Habra, CA, 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995)

[3] New American Standard Bible ®

[4] New American Standard Bible ®

[5] Alfred Martin and John Martin, Isaiah: The Glory of the Messiah (Moody Press, Chicago, IL 1983) 107

[6] F. F. Bruce, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon and to the Ephesians (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI 1984) 330

[7] Bruce, op. cit., 331

[8] Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI 1999) 268

[9] Walter L. Liefeld, Ephesians (InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL 1997) 94

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