|Learning to Hear God's Voice #11
The God Who Deserves Our Trust
Reading: Isaiah 40
Introduction: If you have made the trip to any shopping mall or department store, or even a grocery store in the past 10 days, you know what’s already arrived – the Christmas shopping season! Yes, Santa may not make an official appearance at the Mall until the day after Thanksgiving, but the set-up and decorations are already in place. Each year, it seems that the faux Christmas trees and decorations and shopping aisles of Christmas stuff encroach on more and more of the year, crowding out the Fall Season in general. You can’t walk into a grocery store without seeing Christmas items for sale. In line at a Walmart over the weekend, the people in line in front of Anne and me were already buying presents for the grandchildren. I don’t know which is worse if you are a parent: the early stimulation that comes to children when they see all of the stuff in the stores, or the anticipation of the busyness that will consume the end of the year. Each year the “shopping season” seems to arrive about two weeks earlier than the last. I expect any day now that a little box will show up in the newspaper telling me there are only 48 shopping days left! Hurry up! Get ready! Mark your calendars. Fill in all the dates of activities that you must attend; all the dates for school and children’s activities; all the social events.
What is so interesting about this long anticipation in the commercial world of Christmas is that we otherwise live in such an instant gratification, instant results culture. I was thinking this week as we all were watching the election results on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning what life was like before television and exit polls and visual maps being colored in red and blue before our eyes. There was a time when one waited for the paper boy to come yelling in the streets the next day. And before that, there was the waiting to tally the hand-written, hand-counted votes and sending them by telegraph. And before that…waiting until Tuesday morning at 11:00 seemed such a long time. We think nothing these days of instant entertainment; we google instant answers on the internet; the food is fast; the day-timers calculate every minute of our day for us. It ought not to surprise me, therefore, that it is time to hurry up and get the Christmas shopping done.
There is something about extending the Christmas season that creates just the opposite sense of waiting. This is not the waiting of hope and anticipation; it is more like a weighting of life, loading us down with one more reminder of how fast time moves on. Not surprisingly, the Christian faith is otherwise not immune to such quickenings of pace and expectation. This is not like the religious idea of Advent, that four weeks of anticipation that begins around Nov. 30 and eagerly anticipates the coming of the Christ child. No, the early shopping season is designed to make us want more now, have it all now, need to get it done now. Fewer and fewer people have time for those extra during-the-week-church activities. Sundays often seem crowded with just a couple of hours squeezed out for church on Sundays.
The irony of Christmas coming early is that our text this morning actually brings Christmas early as well. Isaiah 40 provides much of the rich lyrics in Georg Frideric Handel’s “Messiah,” music that we are so accustomed to associating with the Christmas season. “Comfort ye, Comfort ye, my people” - I can’t speak the words without also hearing the music. “O thou that bringest good tidings to Zion, get thee up to the high mountain.” “Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the Everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the Earth.” Isaiah 40 is the text quoted in all of the Gospels to announce the coming of Messiah:
“A voice cries out: ‘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. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together for the mouth of the LORD has spoken’” (Isaiah 40:3-5; cf. Matt. 3:3; Mk. 1:3; Luke 3:4-6; John 1:23). This text even speaks of waiting, although the NIV obscures that a bit by using the word “hope” in verse 31: “Those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint.”
Yes, the translators are correct in recognizing that the idea of waiting in this text is indeed filled with hope, that positive expectation that “in the LORD” strength will be renewed, courage and endurance for the journey will be provided. But the waiting upon the LORD in this text has little in common with the waiting and inability to wait that mark our instant gratification lives and expectations. Advent seems either too long or too short in our world. 48 shopping days left either obscures the other activities that we have to get done first, or it reminds us of how fast time is flying by. Yes, there are still circumstances in life where four weeks or even seven weeks can seem like a long time. But the waiting of Isaiah 40 cannot be measured by days and weeks – it must be measured by decades and centuries!
One of the strange circumstances that scholars have tried to explain, literally for centuries, in the book of Isaiah is that the time difference between chapter 39 and announcement of good news in chapter 40 is somewhere around 150 years. Chapter 39 closes with words spoken to King Hezekiah sometime around 701 BC. But the comfort announced to Judah and Jerusalem in verse one of chapter 40 is spoken as a word of hope to people in exile sometime around 550 BC. The comfort that is promised, and ultimately brought to reality in Jesus Messiah cannot fully be heard for more than 700 years. Think about “waiting” in that context; waiting not just for something to happen next month or next year or in the 2025, but in 2250 or 2704. Science Fiction can’t keep up! Between chapter 39 and the announcements of chapter 40 will come the stories of Daniel and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Jerusalem will be destroyed. Jeremiah will weep and lament over the ruined city and himself be exiled in Egypt. The great civilization of Babylon will conquer the Middle East and then fall into disarray and itself be conquered by the Persians.
Only then will the people begin to hear these words: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins” (40:1-2). The comfort announced is an imperative from Creator God issued to the heavenly realm. God’s messengers and angels are commanded to bring comfort the creatures of earth that are made in his image. The time is suffering is over, the time of salvation has come. From exile in what we know as Iraq, the people hear this promise:
“A voice cries out: ‘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. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken’” (40:3-6).
If it is not the perspective that comes from waiting 150 years, it is the perspective of those under Roman rule who have known only intermittent moments of freedom for seven centuries who hear the words of John the Baptist in the desert. But at the heart of the message of Isaiah 40 is a word about the everlasting God who sees and acts in ways that are far beyond time lines and human understandings. The reality of humans is that of our own short-sighted instant gratification existence. Humans are like grass, the prophet says. The breath of the Lord moves the grass and flowers in an instant; grass withers and flowers fall to the ground, but the word of the LORD endures forever.
Thus, the bulk of the announcement of Gospel – of good news in this text is not about the salvation of humans but the sovereignty of Creator God. On the one hand he is the Almighty God whose strength and power makes all human governments nothing more than a drop in the bucket (v. 15).
“Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!…. See, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him and his recompense before him. Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? Who has directed the spirit of the LORD, or as his counselor has instructed him? Whom did he consult for his enlightenment, and who taught him the path of justice? Who taught him knowledge and showed him the way of understanding? Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as dust on the scales; see, he takes up the isles like fine dust. Lebanon would not provide fuel enough, nor are its animals enough for a burnt offering. All the nations are as nothing before him; they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness” (40:9-10, 12-17).
All of the gods followed in those neighboring lands are nothing more than word carvings overlaid with gold and silver by human beings. There is nothing to them. In comparison to human idols, the prophet speaks again:
“Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in; who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown, scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth, when he blows upon them, and they wither, and the tempest carries them off like stubble” (40:21-24).
In the midst of recounting not only the military strength of Yahweh and the incomparable understanding and otherness of Creator God, there are also these images in verse eleven that I skipped over: “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom and gently lead the mother sheep.” Almighty and Everlasting God is also compassionate shepherd, gently carrying the lambs next to his heart. So he says this people whose life circumstances have seemed utterly removed from God’s attention for 150 years, or 700 years – or 2700 years:
“To whom then will you compare me, or who is my equal? says the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high and see: Who created these? He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing. Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God’? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless. Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint” (40:25-31).
Our nation breathed a collective sigh of relief this week when we didn’t have to wait for a month to find out the results of our Presidential election. It’s time to take out those insurgents in Fallujah so that our new freedom can be enforced in Iraq and they can have their free elections in January and we can get our troops home sooner rather than later. We wonder what will happen in the Middle East if Arafat dies or is already dead. We can only hope that the stock market numbers continue to climb and our retirement plans flourish. Guy’s prices surely will go down sometime this winter.
We’re not quite sure how to spend this afternoon since the Titans aren’t playing. Maybe I should take care of the leaves in the yard that are piling up before the neighbors complain. I do need something fast for lunch, however, because it’s going to be a busy day and a busy week, no matter what. In fact, I may need to get started on that big project at work this afternoon…
No, our waiting does not look much like the waiting of Israel in Exile, or even the waiting of the world for the coming of Jesus Messiah. But the truth of human existence is that the promise of God’s presence cannot be heard in the midst of a life of ease. Waiting on the Lord is a possibility for most of us only when our easy lives have crashed in crisis and all of our human self-help options have failed. Waiting on the Lord is only possible when we can tell the truth about ourselves and our circumstances.
We can ponder, I suppose, whether life here more resembles the life of the exiled Israelites or the conquering Assyrians and Babylonians. Either way, the message is the same – there is no life apart from the breath of life graciously given by an incomparable God. In the midst of all the gold and silver that our human intelligence and ingenuity and technology have produced that we are prone to worship, the truth is that most of us do not live stress-free lives. In spite of all the smiles that we share in this room, too much of our church existence is human-all-too-human. Perhaps it is, in fact we in this room this morning who most need a new definition of waiting – not the “hurry up and wait” of standing in line somewhere, not the waiting for this to get over so that we can get on with our day, but the waiting in hope that we will see God. Perhaps this is a year to take Advent seriously. It’s popular, almost faddish in church circles these days, to spend 40 days in prayer in search of life’s purpose. Perhaps in your life, as in mine, this is a good year to start thinking and hoping and waiting for Christmas early – not the shopping mall Christmas, not the money-purchasing, idol revealing Christmas, but the announcement that only Creator-God can make to this world. “A voice crying out: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; in the desert make straight a highway for our God.”
Delivered at Woodmont Hills, November 7, 2004.
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