Christmas Series: Getting a Handel on Christmas: Getting a Handel on Christmas (4)- Comfort Ye My People

Sermon by Derek Thomas on February 14, 2003

Isaiah 40:1-5

Isaiah 40:1-5
Comfort Ye My People

Dr. Derek Thomas

Turn with me now to the text that we’ve just heard sung so
beautifully from Isaiah chapter 40 and verses 1 through 5. Before we read the
passage together, let’s look to God and ask for His blessing. Let’s pray.

Our Father in heaven, this is
Your word; You caused it to be written. We thank You for the way in which this
passage has been such a source of help and strength and enabling to Your people
down through the years. And we pray now this morning, as we gather together as
Your people, come Holy Spirit and illuminate these words; help us to understand
them. Help us not only to be hearers but to be doers of Your word. And this we
ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.

This is the word of God:

“Comfort, O comfort My people, says your God. Speak kindly
to Jerusalem; and call out to her, that her warfare has ended, that her iniquity
has been removed, that she has received of the Lord’s hand double for all her
sins. A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make
smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up, and
every mountain and hill be made low; and let the rough ground become a plain,
and the rugged terrain a broad valley; Then the glory of the Lord will be
revealed, and all flesh will see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has

Amen. May God bless to us the reading of His holy and
inerrant word.

Now we are in a series of sermons
this December under the general title “Getting a Handel on Christmas.” George
F. Handel, it is said–and everyone is familiar with the story of how he wrote
the Messiah in the space of 24 days–gives testimony as to how he felt on
during the time that he was the conduit through which this music just poured
forth. In 1780 or thereabouts, John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” on
the centenary of Handel’s birth, preached a series of about 50 sermons on the
texts that make up the Messiah. And we are not preaching 50 sermons, but
we are spending the month of December in these grand, grand texts and largely
from the book of Isaiah.

I. The label
Imagine with me this morning
that I bring you an early Christmas present and that I bring this Christmas
present to you this morning. It is the content that I want to focus on, but
before we get to the content it’s always fun to look at the wrapping and the
casing. In the first place, there’s a label on this present. And on this label
is inscribed a word; actually it’s repeated. It’s the word…it’s the word
“comfort,” “comfort”– “Comfort Ye My People.”

I won’t do the whole survey of
the book of Isaiah here now this morning, but we need to appreciate something as
we turn to chapter 40 of Isaiah: that it hasn’t been like this for a long, long
time in the book of Isaiah. Since about chapter 13 there have been occasional
flickers of light; but really since chapter 13 all the way down to at least
chapter 34, Isaiah has been giving us a series of judgments, prophecies of doom
and destruction on the surrounding nations of Israel, to be sure, but also on
the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Samaria is
already collapsing in the north, and Isaiah is prophesying a day when Judah and
Jerusalem will also fall.

In the preceding chapters 36 to
39 or so, Isaiah has been describing the way the king of Assyria, Sennacherib,
has come all the way down to Jerusalem. And if it hadn’t been for a divine
intervention, Jerusalem would surely have fallen. As it is, Jerusalem will fall
in about 587 BC. If you turn your eye just for a minute back to verse 6 of
chapter 39 where Isaiah is speaking not of the impending threat of Assyria to
the north and east, but a threat more directly to the east from Babylon. He
tells us in verse 6 that nothing shall be left; everything will be carried away
into Babylon. It’s in that context of doom and destruction that Isaiah comes
with a message that has on the label of this present “comfort.” If you drop
down to verse 11 of this section in chapter 40, you’ll see something of the
metaphor that Isaiah now employs. And he speaks of God as tending His flock
like a shepherd and gathering His lands in His arms. Isn’t that a beautiful
picture of what God sometimes does? He lifts us and carries us as a shepherd
might carry His lambs. No matter how far Judah may have transgressed, no matter
how deep they have fallen, God has not abandoned His promise and there’s a word
of comfort here.

The label, as you begin to examine it, also bears a
name. It tells you who it’s from. And it comes from verse 1: “your God,” “your
God.” Martin Luther said that the gospel was all about personal prepositions.
Can you say, “He is my God; we are His people”? And what the gospel effects is
to bring us, you and I, into a living vital relationship with God that we may
call Him “my God.” I’m not a prophet, at least not in the classical sense, and
I’m not the son of a prophet, but I do have for you this morning a word from
God. And it’s this text; it’s this present.

II. The wrapping.
Secondly, as you lift
this present, take a look at the wrapping paper. No, don’t rip it off and
discard it; have a look at it. Someone has taken trouble to wrap this present
in delicate paper. Do you notice how Isaiah puts it in verse 2? “Speak
tenderly to Jerusalem.” “Speak tenderly”: these are words that come from God,
but they are tender words. It’s the Hebrew verb…well, it’s the Hebrew word that
is employed in the book of Ruth for the way Ruth describes the way Boaz has
spoken to her. And you know Boaz loved Ruth. These are words of a lover.
These are tender words. These are precious words. These are words of God
whispering…well, I was going to say sweet nothings but… sweet somethings into
your ear. These are words that are surrounded by the assurance that He loves

You see, this is all so
surprising because all around this passage everything is collapsing. These were
the darkest days in Israel’s history thus far, that the Northern Kingdom of
Israel has already collapsed. Samaria has gone. Sennacherib and his forces
have invaded the land; they’ve come all the way down to Jerusalem. These are
dark days. Israel, at least Judah in the south, were tempted to make an
alliance with Egypt to thwart the kingdom, that the empire to the north and
east, Assyria…but it would prove to no avail. And in that context: when the
light was going out of the hopes, and dreams of God’s people seem to be
vanishing, when the purposes of God seem to be at the point of extinction, when
the covenant of God seemed to have been but a mockery and the promise of
deliverance of fading hope, and a story of redemption seemed to be about to
flicker and die–God comes with words, tender words, and whispers them into the
ears of His people. God is whispering words in your ears this morning, designed
to strengthen you and to help you and to comfort you.

III. The box.
But let’s take the wrapping off and
look in the third place at the box. And it’s a strange box because it only has
three sides. Now my assistant over here said, “There’s no such thing as a box
with three sides.” Well, I meant…this was from the earlier service and we’ve
got a scientist over here. So let me explain that the box has a base, and I’m
not counting the base, but it’s triangular. And I’m only looking at the three
sides because there are only three points in the text. I tried to make it a
four-sided box but I couldn’t do it. So let’s look at this triangular box.

Let’s look at the first side:
“Her warfare is ended,” or accomplished. What a beautiful word in the midst of
the context of Isaiah. They were surrounded by the forces of war. They were
surrounded by an imperial enemy that could have sent them into oblivion. Judah
had no army; she had no forces; she had no military might. Assyria was one of
the greatest military mights the world has ever seen. Its forces were to be
feared, and here’s a word, “Her warfare has ended.”

Turn the box and look at the
second side and it says, “Her iniquity is pardoned.” You see, there’s the
problem. Why have these words of judgment come on the surrounding nations? Why
have these words of judgment come on the Northern Kingdom of Israel? Why is God
threatening to judge Judah and Jerusalem? Because of sin, because of iniquity,
because the people of God had abandoned His ways, because they had forsaken His
covenant, because they had turned their back on His love and grace and mercy.
And God is coming in judgment, but in the midst of this there is this word of
comfort. “Her iniquity is pardoned.” Not just that God says, ‘You’re
forgiven,’ but ‘your iniquity is atoned for.’ It’s the word that’s implied in
the opening chapter of Leviticus in the midst of the description of the
sacrificial rights, the shedding of blood, the destruction of animal carcasses,
in the place and room of the sinner. Your iniquity is pardoned because God has
found a way to be just and the justifier of him who believes in Jesus. Isaiah’s
favorite description of God is “the Holy One of Israel.” And this holy God has
found a way to pardon iniquity.

But turn the box and there’s a third, and it says
“double.” She has received for her sins “double.” Now don’t misunderstand
Isaiah. He’s not saying that her sins have been punished twice as much: that’s
not what he’s saying. I think it’s the language of a mirror image. That
however great her sins were there was grace to match it. Whatever the extent of
the iniquity there was a double; there was a counterpart; there was a mirror;
there was grace to cover every sin and every iniquity.

IV. The contents.
But you want to know what’s
inside this box, don’t you? Isn’t it fun? I’m 50; I still lift presents from
the tree and shake them. I love it when they rattle. I love it when Rosemary
puts in something there just to rattle for the sake of it to set me off on the
wrong track altogether. Let’s open this box. What’s inside this box? I want
you to try and imagine with me as you open this box that a sort of glow…there’s
a light that seems to shine, and it seems to pulsate, and it seems to get
stronger and stronger and fills the room…and a sense in which you are attracted
because you want to know what this light is, but there’s a sense in which it
also intimidates. And what’s inside this box is a picture, a picture of a
highway that has been made where the valleys have been filled and the rough
places have been leveled, and there’s a highway. I hope it’s not the folks from
Mississippi that are doing these highways because it’s never going to get
done–but this highway, this highway is level and straight, and along this
highway is coming the glory of God. The glory of God is coming along this
highway and every eye sees it.

What in the world is Isaiah talking about? That’s
what the choir sang in response to that beautiful rendition of the earlier part
of Isaiah 40. The glory of the Lord is coming along this highway. That’s the
present. What does it mean? Maybe Isaiah means…he’s looking 200 years into the
future. He’s looking to that period where Cyrus the Persian king has issued
that decree; Babylon has fallen to the Persians. He’s issued that decree that
the people: the exiled people of God may return to Jerusalem. Can you imagine
the pilgrims returning from their exile in Babylon, coming back to Jerusalem?
What did they see? Rubble. Stones lying on the ground. Burnt embers of
timbers that once made the buildings of Jerusalem. The Temple is destroyed;
weeds are growing. I don’t think that’s what Isaiah is talking about. It’s
tempting to think that that’s what he’s talking about here: a day when the glory
of God is going to return to Jerusalem. But I don’t think it was that day.

Turn the pages a little more; come right down to
the end of the Old Testament to Malachi. Turn the page into the New Testament;
rip out that blank page. Go to Luke chapter 3. Luke cites this text, “the
messenger crying in the wilderness”; it’s John the Baptist. That strange,
strange man with funny clothes and eating the most abominable things, and crying
a message in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord. God is coming.’
Isaiah is looking down 700 years and more to the coming of Jesus, to the birth
of Messiah in a stable in Bethlehem, to the fulfillment of John the Baptist’s
words, “The Lord is coming.”

Isn’t it interesting when John writes his gospel,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was
God. The same was in the beginning with God.” And do you remember: “And we
beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace
and truth”? John is saying something staggering. Do you remember Moses in
Exodus had asked to see the glory of God? And what did Moses see? Well, the
Bible has to imply an anthropomorphism. It has to say, “He saw the back parts
of God.” He saw God’s back as it passed by because he couldn’t behold the
splendor and the magnificence of the glory. But John is saying about this baby
in the manger in Bethlehem, when the shepherds come and they fall down and they
worship Him, and John says, “We beheld His glory.” That as C.S. Lewis says,
“The One lying in the manger is bigger than the whole world.”

There’s something more. Come with me to 2
Corinthians chapter 3. You needn’t turn to it; just pay attention for a second
to 2 Corinthians chapter 3. It’s a complicated chapter. I always find it
difficult to preach on. Paul is contrasting the old covenant and the new
covenant. And you can commit a heresy in a heartbeat in 2 Corinthians chapter
3, but one thing is plain: he says in verse 9–and he’s comparing the glory that
was present under the old covenant with the glory that is present under the new
covenant–and he says, “There was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the
ministry of righteousness must exceed it in glory.” Now what is Paul saying?
There’s something about living in the new covenant in which the glory of God is
more manifest than it was under the old covenant.

Isn’t it a beautiful thing to live this side of the
incarnation of Christ, to live this side of Calvary, to live this side of the
empty tomb, to live this side of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit? Yes, Isaiah
saw and he saw more than we often think that he did, but he didn’t see as far as
Luke saw or Paul saw or Peter saw or as you and I see. I can remember the day a
color television came into my house. Can you imagine going back to black and
white TV? Can you imagine going back to the days when the TV screen was more
snow than anything else? With rabbit ears that you had to sort of hold in some
sort of contortion to get a picture. You remember those days? Imagine going
back to the days of Jane Austen when medicine was about leeches and blood
letting. I’m glad I’m on this side. And Paul is saying there’s something more
glorious about the new covenant.

Is that was Isaiah is saying? He’d seen the day.
In the midst of all of this trouble and doom and warfare, there’s coming a day
when the glory of God will be displayed in a way that you can’t even dream about
now. Perhaps, but maybe Isaiah is seeing something even more wonderful than
that. He’s seeing the end of the age itself. You know, from the vantage point
of the Old Testament, the first and second comings of Jesus look as if they’re
on top of each other. It’s like looking at a range of mountains when you’re a
long way away and they look side-by-side, but actually when you drive to the
first mountain you see that there’s an enormous valley in between that mountain
and the next one. But from Isaiah’s perspective, he sees the glory of God: it’s
the coming of Jesus; it’s the outpouring of the Holy Spirit…but it’s more than
that. It’s the coming of Jesus on the clouds of heaven with the angels and the
archangels and the trumpet of God, and all flesh will see it and the glory of
God will be displayed.

Oh, you know that hymn; “But Lo there breaks a yet
more glorious day. The saints triumphant rise in bright array; the King of
Glory passes on His way. Alleluia, alleluia.” You see, I think that’s what
Isaiah is seeing. He’s saying at the most fundamental level, “There may be
trouble now; there may be difficulty now; there may be wars and rumors of wars
now; but there is coming a day when war will be over, and sin will be pardoned,
and the glory of God will be coming down this highway, and all flesh will see

And, my friends, as you unwrap this Christmas
present this morning, what are you going to do with that? What are you going to
do with that great vision? Are you going to treasure that vision in your heart
today and do what the shepherds did, fall down and worship Jesus? That’s the
glory of God. May God enable us so to do. Let’s sing now from this closing
hymn, 197. We’ll sing verses 1 and 4, 1 and 4 of 197: “Comfort Ye My People”


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