Isaiah 40:1-11

This text is used for the Lectionary Year B on December 7, 2014.

It’s hard for those of us separated by more than twenty-five centuries to understand the enormity of what the people of God were told in Isaiah 40. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed.”  Good news is probably far too anemic a description to encapsulate what these words represented to people whose entire world had been turned upside down.

The book of Isaiah spans approximately 200 years of Jewish history in the decades after the deaths of David and Solomon.  If one word could be used to characterize not only the kings but also the Jewish people during this period it would be wicked.  Time and again, the people had turned from God and the covenant.  They had worshipped idols, they had neglected the widows and orphans, and when they had worshipped God it was usually shallow ritual rather than genuine devotion.  There were occasionally moments of repentance, but they were short lived, and according to the early chapters of Isaiah, God was going to punish his people, so that they would not remain in their wickedness but could be called back through repentance.

And so sometime just after 600 B.C., the hammer fell. The King of Babylon arrived with his army.  In political terms, it was because the Jews had sided with Egypt in a dispute rather than Babylon, but Isaiah attributed the defeat to the people’s rejection of God and their lack of covenant faithfulness.  Regardless, the result was the same. Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon conquered the city of Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and carried off most of the nation’s best and brightest citizens into captivity in Babylon.  The collective result was cataclysmic.

But, if a cataclysm has the power to destroy, it also has the power to create new possibilities.   “Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.” (Isaiah 40:4).

It is easy in American culture to miss the boldness of Advent in the midst of twinkly lights and colored paper.  We talk about a baby in a manger, and sing songs about a silent night.  But Isaiah describes hope more like an earthquake than a baby shower, and the gospel writers follow in the prophet’s footsteps. What would it look like to challenge our congregations with bold significance rather than mere sentiment in this season of hope?  How much more meaningful could this season be, if we asked them to name the mountains in their own lives or in the world around them that need to be levelled for hope to become reality?  Would it be a greater blessing to our congregations to help them envision what it would feel like for the valleys where we have resided for far too long, to be filled in rather than merely endured?  Far too often we settle for familiar stories this time of year.  There is nothing wrong with said stories, unless we allow them to be robbed of the life-changing significance that God intended not only for their original audience centuries ago but also for us today.  We must not merely pronounce hope, but learn to experience its power.

Most importantly of all perhaps, what would it look to remind ourselves during this season that hope is not just a disembodied idea, but a living, personal reality?  The massive displacement to which Isaiah gives voice is not an end in and of itself, but put to a higher purpose.  “You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem…say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God” (Isaiah 40:9)!  The mountains that have come down and the valleys that have been filled in have merely been a part of the construction of a divine superhighway that opens the way for the coming of God to His people.  This is the reason for hope, not merely the end of hardship but the coming of God.  We may be separated from the exile by more than twenty-five centuries, but humans then and now share a tendency to ground our hopes in things that are superficial or transitory.  Some of us trust in politics, some of us trust in the market, most of us trust in ourselves at some point, but when such trust loses sights of the eternal truth of God’s desires and designs, disorientation is the inevitable result. “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever” (Isaiah 40:8).   Perhaps we all need a reminder that our deepest hopes and our desires to know God must not be separated.

Matt CookDr. Matt Cook
Pastor, First Baptist Church
Wilmington, NC

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