The Second Sunday in Advent
Have you seen the TV advert for a certain Newspaper? It has clips of various statesmen, political leaders and businessmen clipped together, at a moment when there is a lull in their speech and they appear to have forgotten what they were going to say. The message is:
If you feel lost for words then you are in good company!
In our reading today Isaiah is at the crucial point in the crisis that besets the Jews but he certainly isn’t lost for words although he is about to change the message.
Up to now Isaiah like many other prophets has been trying to get across to the Jews that although they are a special people, they were chosen by God to be a ‘light to the nations’, they have not lived up to this calling. Throughout the early chapters of Isaiah, he has been prophesying judgement upon the Jews because of their apostacy, that is turning away from worship of God and turning towards worship of other gods. God judges the apostacy of the kings and leaders and the people. This is both in the northern kingdom and among Isaiah’s fellow countryman in the south. Isaiah 9/10 declares that the northern kingdom will be punished severely but Judah (the southern kingdom) will not escape punishment.
By chapter 40, Isaiah is speaking to the people of Israel just as the northern kingdom is experiencing God’s punishment. Remember that Isaiah is prophesying in Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel around the time that the Assyrian army were attacking the northern kingdom. In 732 BC the Assyrian army invaded the northern kingdom of Israel and by 722 BC the northern kingdom was under the Assyrians control. When Sennacherib came to power in Assyria in 705 BC he wished to go further and mounted an attack on the southern kingdom which included the siege of Jerusalem. However, at this time the southern kingdom did not yield but Isaiah had seen the ‘writing on the wall’. In fact, as early as 712 BC, Isaiah prophesied an even greater threat coming to Judah and that was the Babylonian invasion (Isaiah 39 v 5-7). This invasion would result in the defeat of the southern kingdom, ransacking of the city of Jerusalem, destruction of the Temple and the exile of the leading Jewish statesman.
But Chapter 40 sees a turning point. There is a change in the message that God has for the Jews proclaimed by Isaiah. He is to change his message of challenge, to one of comfort. The message of judgement to one of forgiveness. The message of despair to one hope.
Message of Comfort
Barry Webb expresses this change of message powerfully when he describes the beginning of chapter 40 as “three stirring commands, like trumpet blasts, ‘Comfort….Speak….Proclaim’”
“Comfort, comfort my people…..” says the LORD
“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…..”
“And Proclaim to her…..forgiveness….in fact double forgiveness, she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
This message that Isaiah has for the Jews is given at a time when their world is broken.
And into this situation Isaiah speaks 4 truths.
…is that he reassures the Jews, that they are still God’s people.
“Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God.
Do you notice the little word “my” which to grammarians is known as a personal possessive pronoun and the use of “your” which is also a possessive pronoun.
The covenant made between God and their ancestors at Sinai still holds firm. Even though they are being punished for their wrongdoing, they still belong to God and he still has a plan for them.
Whether or not we see the global pandemic as part of God’s judgement on our world, the truth still remains that God hasn’t given up on us through our time of crisis, we are still His people and we belong to him.
Romans 8 v 28 still holds true today:
“And we know all things work together for the good of those who love him and have been called according to his purpose.”
First truth, that Isaiah proclaims is that the Jews are still God’s people.
…is that they are a forgiven people. The penalty for their wrongdoing, their apostacy and their chasing after other Gods, has been paid in full. The royal pardon has come, the prison doors are flung open wide, and they are free!
Now for some of the Jews who were about to experience the ransacking of their land both by the Assyrians in the north and by the Babylonians in the south, destruction of even their strongest fortress that of the walls of Jerusalem, and even the devastation of the Temple, their holiest place where Jews believed that God was present in the Ark of the Covenant followed by the exile of the leading families into Babylon, it may not have felt like they were free.
In Psalm 137 v 1 & 4 they declare their despair. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept when we remembered Jerusalem.” “How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?”
And many of the Jews experienced destruction, devastation and desolation but here in Isaiah 40, the prophet promises a new day that is dawning when God’s people will experience forgiveness of their sins – and even a double blessing of forgiveness.
And for many of you who have been experiencing the effects of this global pandemic, those who have been trapped in your own home as a result of shielding for 9 months and more, those who haven’t been able to enjoy the interaction and socialising that we have come to expect as normal life, those who have not been able to sing songs of worship at church or even meet together with God’s people or those more seriously affected by poor health or the onset of illnesses, you may feel that you are trapped behind the prison doors of fear, anxiety, sadness or depression brought about by adverse circumstances.
But some of you may remember a missionary couple John and Audrey Coleman who were working in Iran at the time of the Revolution in Iran and a group of the Revolutionary forces kidnapped John and Audrey Coleman along with his secretary Jean Waddell, and for more than 200 days they held captive until Terry Waite, the Archbishop’s envoy was able to negotiate their release.
And I heard John Coleman speak soon after that ordeal, and he was able to say that his imprisonment had enabled doors to be opened for him to speak to more people about Jesus after that time, and even whilst he was imprisoned, he kept remembering the Bible truth that:
“If the Son sets you free, you shall be free indeed!“ John 8 v 36
Isaiah’s second truth is that God’s people are a forgiven people.
…is that God is someone who acts!
God does not leave the Jews alone during their crisis. Even whilst the Jews were witnessing their land devastated, their cities being destroyed, their place of worship desecrated and their leading statesman taken into Exile, God was with them and further God promises to bring them home.
v 10 See the Sovereign LORD comes with power and again in
v 11 He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart
I have a saying which demonstrates God’s power in times of desolation which is “When we pray, God acts!” This is not suggesting that God is like a Santa Claus figure who honours the wish lists of all his children. Rather, it implies that we need to be humble before God at times of crisis and recognise who holds the power, we need to get on our knees before God to enable God to show his power.
And haven’t people around the world, Christians and God fearers, been on their knees praying at our time of crisis, that the thing that might bring a healing to our broken and sick world, a vaccine might be found. And just recently, not one or two, but three vaccines have been heralded and as a result ‘stock markets’ around the world have soared, in America, the Dow Jones reached an all-time record high, on the promise that the delivery of a vaccine will restore us back to a normality.
Great as that is, we as Christians believe in a God who is not only our salvation in the future, ‘pie in the sky when you die’ but as a result of Jesus’ death and resurrection some 2,000 years ago, he has already brought us salvation ‘meat on the plate as we eat’. Our hope in God is not a vague hope that what is to come must be better than what we are currently experiencing, but rather it is a hope founded on what has already taken place.
We trust in a God who will act because he has already acted.
‘All I have seen helps me to trust in God for all I have not seen.’
Hebrews 11 v 1 “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.”
…the word of the LORD stands forever.
v 7 speaks of the transience of the human existence “Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall,” and contrasts this with the permanence and enduring quality of the words of the LORD, “but the word of God endures forever.”
And haven’t we found that to be the case at our time of crisis. Many people have shared with me promises from Scripture during the past year and can testify to the way in which, these verses have supported and encouraged them through the bleakest of times.
And just recently, Laura Simpkins, our discipleship co-ordinator shared with Homegroup leaders some words that had proved a powerful anchor in a time in her life when so much of her solid ground was shifting around her.
“Every word of the LORD is flawless. He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him.” Proverbs 30 v 5
Isn’t that the message that Isaiah brought to the Jews through the word of the LORD? Isn’t that the message that God through His Holy Spirit brings to us today? Our hope in God is not a vague and transient feeling, that is here today and gone tomorrow dependant upon our mood.
The writer to the Hebrews makes this clear when he says
“We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” Hebrews 6 v 13
The hope we have as Christians is a hope that is steadfast and certain. It is based on the fact that God has acted in history and most profoundly when He sent Jesus to be saviour of the world at his first coming. We believe that He will act in the future when Jesus returns to be our comfort and the world’s judge.
This is our Advent Hope.