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The Gospel According to Handel: The Surprising Cry of Advent
Isaiah 40:1 - 40:5
November 27, 2022
Reverend Chris Hildebrand
In the first sermon of our new Advent series, The Gospel According to Handel, we take a close look at Isaiah 40:1-11 and explore the obstacles of Advent, the surprising cry of Advent, and how we ought to respond to Advent.
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This morning marks the first Sunday of Advent. We're beginning a new sermon series called The Gospel According to Handle. Handel's Messiah, which will be performed here on December 10, has been an integral way that the story of Advent and the larger story of Jesus as Messiah has been celebrated and told since the middle of the 18th century. This happened after a man named Charles Jennens compiled a set of texts from the Bible and sent them to George Handel, who at the time was the premier composer in England, and really throughout the world, and Handel in a few short weeks, put the text to music and thus the great oratorio of Handel's Messiah was born.
For the next few weeks, we're going to be looking at the Scripture texts that form the centerpiece of Handel's Messiah, and certainly, the expectations around Advent. Handel's Messiah fits well into Advent because Advent is the time of the year where Christians around the world prepare for the coming of Jesus at his birth. We celebrate the fact that Jesus promises to come to us now by the power of his Holy Spirit. We long for his coming to us when he will make all things new at his second and final coming.
During this time, the church cries. We just sang, and you heard Rebecca so beautifully sing, that the cry of the church during Advent is: Come Lord Jesus. It's a fitting prayer and even a plea given the world in which we live. It's both an expression of our deepest longings and also a declaration of our greatest hope. We hold these realities that Christ has already come in the flesh, that he comes to us even now by his Spirit, but also that he will come again to establish in its fullness the comfort and hope that he offers us in a passage like this that we're about to look at in Isaiah 40. This will be the first passage that we look at during our Advent series, and it marks the beginning of the text of Handel's Messiah. It offers us great comfort and hope. I'll be reading Isaiah 40:1-11. Let's give our attention to God's word.
1Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
2Speak 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.
3A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4Every 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.
5And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
The Word of God Stands Forever
6A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
7The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the Lord blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
8The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.
The Greatness of God
9Go on up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good news;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good news;
lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Behold your God!”
10Behold, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.
This is the word of the Lord. It's absolutely true, and it's given to us in love.
Would you pray with me?
Gracious God and Heavenly Father. This day, we ask that you would draw near to us, that you would come to us by the power of your Spirit so that our hearts would be stirred, that we would see and celebrate the promises you've made to us—this hope of comfort that can that can come only in and through your Son Jesus. Help us to see him, to know him, and to follow after him. We pray this all in Jesus' name. Amen.
It's the time of year when we earnestly begin to think about gift giving. You might not be ready. You might not want to think about it, but it's time. Each year around this time, of course, there are countless articles and experts who offer their advice about how to give the perfect gift and what kind of gifts are in vogue now and what gifts we should be giving. I recently read an article that discussed this topic from a different perspective about how to avoid giving terrible Christmas gifts. This article invited its readers to write in and talk about some of the terrible gifts that they had received either from a spouse, or from an in-law, or from a parent, or from a child. There were lots of accounts of really bad gifts that were given. Some are really funny, some are kind of sad, but the following was my favorite.
Someone writes in says, “Two years ago, I got this musical jewelry box from my mom. I'm a 22 year old male, by the way. Also, I never wear any sort of jewelry. The worst part is pretending that I liked it. I felt really guilty about not liking it because I'm sure it had some sort of sentimental value. I just sort of put it in the corner of my closet, and then I forgot about it. My mom would ask me where it was or if I put anything in there. I'd be like, ‘Yeah, see, I really liked it. Thanks for the great present mom.’ Now every time I see it, it makes me feel guilty about every single horrible thing I've ever done to my mother.” And he concludes with, “Maybe that's why she gave it to me.”
Then the writer of that article goes on and notes that a good rule of thumb in giving gifts is that you should never suggest a desperate need for change. Don't give something that suggests a radical change in image or weight loss or that the person might be in some sort of crisis. Even if you know there's a desperate need for change, give something that doesn't send that kind of message. This is one of the things that makes the holiday season work for us, why almost everyone likes it, or can at least tolerate it because for a time it covers up all sorts of bad stuff that lies just below the surface in our lives and in our relationships and in our world.
That's one of the comforts of Christmas. For instance, only on Christmas, can you get together with family with all sorts of unresolved issues and all sorts of drama and just eat and sing Christmas carols and exchange gifts. At least for a little while you can enjoy yourself and relax and forget the hurt feelings and all the unresolved issues that are going on in the room and the people you are with. Even on a national and on a global scale, it seems like every year we sort of limp towards the holiday season and the Christmas season because everyone knows that at least for a day, or at least for a few days or so, the markets will be closed and we can forget about the economy for a while. The news cycle will slow down hopefully and we can just exchange gifts and everything will be OK.
When you hear words like we have that Isaiah opens with in Isaiah 40, “Comfort, comfort my people,” when you hear words like that it sort of fits. It's what you would expect at Christmas time: chestnuts roasting on an open fire and a nice warm cup of hot chocolate. Just anything that can bring you comfort, your favorite songs, all of it, it just sort of fits. But here's the thing, when Isaiah and the rest of the Bible talk about Advent and Christmas, the birth of Christ, there's an ever present crisis that accompanies the coming of the King. The reason there are comforting words being spoken is that something terrible has happened. These words on Isaiah 40, mark a new section in the book.
Isaiah was a prophet during some really dark times in the history of Israel. Up until this point, and much of what Isaiah has been sent to preach, have been messages of looming judgment because Israel has not been faithful to God up to this point. They have time and time again broken their end of the covenant with God, and basically, God is running out of patience. In Isaiah’s lifetime, he has prophesied and watched as an empire rises up in the north called the Assyrian Empire. Isaiah has prophesied that God would use that empire to judge Israel, and not just to judge them, but to bring repentance in them.
Israel at this point in the history is divided between a northern kingdom and a southern kingdom. Isaiah is watching a judgment come upon the northern kingdom of Israel. He's telling his audience—who are all living in the southern kingdom, and that's where Jerusalem is—don't let what's happening to your neighbors in the north happen to you. You need to turn. You need to repent because you, too, will be sent off into exile. Not only is there an Assyrian Empire that's growing, Isaiah knows that there's an even greater empire coming—the Babylonian Empire. If the southern kingdom—Isaiah’s audience—doesn't turn, they too will be taken off into exile.
If you read through Isaiah, this is what you get over and over again promises of judgment, but also promises of restoration and hope. Isaiah has been crying and pleading to his own people that they would turn from their rebellion, that they would put their trust in God. When Isaiah cries out, “comfort, comfort my people,” he's not offering them some sort of pseudo comfort that we are so familiar with around this time of year, that never really addresses any of the real things going on in our lives, never addresses deep scars with our family or recessions in the economy or the reality of a broken world. No, Isaiah is willing to talk about all of that. For Isaiah all is not right with the world and with God's people. It's because the Bible is willing to deal head on with the realities of the world, that these words of comfort that we read can actually bring real comfort, real comfort to you. Maybe not the comfort you're looking for, maybe not the comfort you would expect, but this is real comfort, and we ought to give our attention to it.
I briefly want to look at three things from this passage. I want to look at the obstacles of Advent, the surprising cry of Advent, and how we ought to respond to Advent.
The Obstacles Of Advents
First, the obstacles to Advent. This passage, in describing the obstacles of Advent, uses this imagery of a king coming on a highway. Verse 3, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” When Isaiah says “prepare the way,” he literally means clean up the streets. Get ready, because the king is coming. In the ancient Near East, when a king would come to visit a city or a far off land, there would be heralds and messengers who would precede him. They would go and say, “Look, the king is coming! You better get ready! Philip, fix all the potholes in the roads. Make sure the town is fixed up. Remove any sort of obstacle, so that it's inviting and welcoming for this king as he comes into town with his entourage on his chariot.
There's a modern day equivalent of this, of course, that happens today. When a president, or dignitary, or head of state enters a town, there's a whole team of people who go ahead of them and get the place fixed up before they show up. What is implied in this text is that the roads are not ready for this king. The roads are rough and crooked places remain in Israel. Here the original audience are just not ready for their king. Even more so, they don't want this king showing up in their cities. Israel has only proven that time and time again by ignoring the prophets like Isaiah. The crisis of the time is that the king is coming and no one is ready. In other words, there are all sorts of obstacles to Advent. Isaiah tells the stories of all these barriers that Israel had laid down in the road to prevent the king from coming.
The message of Isaiah, and the real crisis of Advent that Isaiah is facing that we ought to face as well, is that the real obstacle of Advent, the barriers, are the people themselves. God's own people have turned from their king, and they refuse to repent. Their hearts have been hardened. Nothing Isaiah says gets their attention.
The perfect example of this is King Hezekiah. In the chapter right before this, Isaiah 39, Isaiah gives us an account of the obstacles that King Hezekiah puts on the road, so to speak. King Hezekiah has entertained envoys from Babylon, where he shows them all of his wealth, all the store houses of his wealth. King Hezekiah sees what's happening to the North. He sees what Assyria is doing to the neighbors in the north, and he doesn't want that to happen to him and to his Southern Kingdom. Instead of trusting in God's word, instead of listening to Isaiah, instead of leading his kingdom in repentance, he hedges his bets and tries to make an alliance with the Babylonians. Just like that, the king of Israel was an obstacle and so are his people. Israel is an angry and rebellious people.
This carries its way all the way into the New Testament in the coming of Jesus, which is the fulfillment of this prophecy because there are still obstacles. It's not Babylon. It's not Assyria. It's Rome. It's not the leaders of those empires. It's Herod who is in power. There are very few Israelites still holding out hope that a Messiah, a king, was actually going to come.
This is what Advent asks of us. Do you want this God in our world? Do you want this God in your life? Do you want this king to show up? Does it bring you any comfort that he promises to do so? The prophet Isaiah’s experience has been that while this ought to bring comfort, while this ought to be good news, oftentimes it is not received that way.
I wonder if that's why Christmas is so appealing to all of us. It's so easy to think of Jesus as a baby in a manger. He is so helpless. Surely there's no way a baby being born on a silent night, where all is calm, all is bright, in a manger, some 2,000 years ago is going to interfere with your life and your quest for personal growth, and your own pursuit, and our own pursuit for our own glory. But he does because this baby is a king, and he comes with authority. He comes with power.
The story of Israel is our story as well. We are a people who put all sorts of obstacles in the road because we want to live life on our terms. His coming gets in our way because Advent means that you are not the king of your own life. You are not the ruler over you. You are not the ruler over your circumstances. God is. That news might not bring you much comfort, at least initially, if for no other reason that we simply want to be in control. We want to be in charge of our lives. Verse 5 tells us that it's, “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,” at his coming. It's his glory that we are to seek. It's his glory that we are to look to, not our own.
This is the world in which Isaiah tells us that the king is coming. It's not a world of Christmas carols and smiling people eagerly awaiting a baby in a manger. It's a world that works very hard to pile up obstacles in the road. And instead of welcoming and celebrating this King's birth, and arrival, we resist it because it means that we must come down from our own perceived thrones. We must walk away from our own projects of building our own kingdoms, and have him rule and reign in our lives and in our worlds.
The Surprising Cry Of Advent
That brings us to the surprising cry of Advent. We put down all these obstacles to prevent this king from coming, but this surprising cry is even more astonishing in verses 6-8. The punctuation in our Bible is a little tricky and sometimes it clouds what's really being said here and who is talking. It's important to understand, to catch the emphasis of this text because in verse 6, “A voice says, ‘Cry!’” telling Isaiah “you need to cry. Cry out. Make an announcement. Make a proclamation,” and Isaiah says, “‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass.” In other words, Isaiah is saying, “Cry? Why do you want me to cry? What do you want me to say? What's the point? You're going to come O, God, and bring judgment on everyone anyway.”
Isaiah sees the darkness. He sees the rebellion. He knows the judgment is coming. Now he's being told to comfort his people and that, for Isaiah, it's almost too hard to believe. Isaiah is caught totally off guard by these words of comfort. Even Isaiah is having trouble believing these words of comfort at this point. And yet comfort is the surprising cry of Advent because no one is looking for this king. This is not what anyone wants to hear. This is not what anyone deserves to hear. Because no one wants this king. Israel isn't rolling out the red carpet, and yet in spite of that, Isaiah is given these words to speak. This is what makes the comfort of the gospel, the comfort of Advent and Christmas, so comforting. God comes to us in the midst of our great darkness, in the midst of rebellion, in the midst of the hardness of our own hearts. You have to see how shocking and radical this is to understand this kind of comfort.
This King comes not when everyone has cleaned themselves up and paved the roads perfectly. He comes to people who are in exile. He comes to people who are a total mess. He comes to people who've spent so much of their time in rebellion, setting up obstacles in the road, looking for comfort in anything, in any place, and in anyone else, but the King of the universe.
The same holds true when these very words then again are spoken by John the Baptist. At the opening of the gospels, John the Baptist uses Isaiah’s very words to announce the coming of Jesus. John the Baptist is in the wilderness just like Isaiah. He is outside the seat of power. Not with a huge following of people, but with a few faithful followers. God for hundreds of years at this point has been silent. Herod is in power. Israel has been decimated. And to all of this, God shows up. This section ends with verse 8. Almost a reminder to Isaiah, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” In other words, what Isaiah needs to remember, what Israel needs to know, and what you and I ought to always keep in front of us, is that when God says the word of the Lord stands forever, he always keeps his promises. God never forgets, and he never fails.
God had promised Israel even before the exile that he would one day set things right, that he would come and bring healing and forgiveness of sins. He has done just that in Jesus Christ. This is something we are asked to believe every day of our lives. We are asked to trust this surprising cry of Advent. To believe God's promises, to believe that what he has said about what he's going to do, what he is doing, is absolutely true, in spite of the mountain of evidence and the circumstances you're facing in your own heart, in your own relationships, in your own life, and the evidence you might see out in the world. We're asked to believe this, and not just during Advent, but we're asked to believe it all the time. God has promised that he will provide for his people, so we can either look at the world and what's going on and just hoard our money and our resources, and move towards self-protection and preservation. Or we can continue to live sacrificially and generously offering our lives for the sake of others because God has made these promises. God has promised to be with you even in the midst of suffering.
I know that many of you are suffering in some really profound ways. Some of you are suffering in your marriages, you are experiencing a distance and attention, a frustration and a loneliness that you never thought was possible. And your instinct is to retreat, to lose hope, to give up, to move towards self-protection, to build walls, but here is your God calling out to you, telling you that he will keep his promise that he will never leave you and never forsake you, which means that you need not retreat. You can step back into something as difficult as a hard marriage, trusting that God is with you.
Some of you are suffering in your loneliness. You are carrying grief and sorrow and anger and boredom and debilitating fear. There are all sorts of ways that you can cope with and manage your pain, but over and over again, God promises that if we seek first his kingdom, he will give us everything else that we need. But so often the loneliness and pain feel so acute, and so real, it's hard to put anything else first. It's hard to behold God's glory. It's hard to celebrate his coming. It's hard to delight in his comfort. It's hard to trust in his promises when nothing seems to cure what is ailing us. But Advent tells us that we can trust God's promises, even as, and especially as, we wait in hard circumstances because these words of comfort are not just pious lip service. God has brought comfort to us, to you, in Jesus, and God through the power of his Spirit brings us comfort in every kind of circumstance imaginable.
Let me encourage you during Advent, to seek comfort in Isaiah’s words—his words of comfort that God shows up and keeps his promises are to all of us. Though no matter what we are facing, we need to hear these promises, to meditate upon them, to reflect upon them, to bury them deep in our hearts because the truth is you and I will see comfort somewhere else, someplace else with someone else. You will do something with your pain. You have to. You're going to do something with your frustration, with your boredom. You have to do something with how you perceive and how you navigate through the brokenness of the world. Isaiah’s invitation is for you to find comfort in the promises that God has heard our cries, and that he has come. Now John the Baptist tells us that it is Jesus who comes to bring comfort and healing to the world.
Response to Advent
What's our response to all of this? Isaiah offers this command or maybe it's a proclamation in verse 9. Isaiah tells us to, “‘Behold your God!’” Notice the two ways in which Isaiah tells us that our God comes: what he offers us and how this King comes to us.
He comes to us first with a mighty, victorious army. See this in verse 10. He comes to us as a victorious king. The picture here is that he's got his reward and his recompense with him, meaning he subdued all his enemies and now he is the one who is ultimately victorious over his enemies. He comes as a victorious king. In verse 11, that same arm that brought victory, that same arm rules in might and brings victory, is now the same arm that gathers his flock like a shepherd, carrying them close to his heart, gently leading the weakest and the most vulnerable ones. Notice how careful and how gentle Isaiah describes this king in the shepherd in verse 11.
The comfort of Advent is the truth that there is no circumstance, there is no place where God will not enter your world, where he will not rescue you and your life. If he's willing to cry, “comfort, comfort, my people” to Israel in exile, if he's willing to offer these promises to Israel under their circumstances, if he's willing to enter our world in a cold, dark manger, if he's willing to die on a Roman cross, so that he would overcome sin and death, then there isn't any place where his mighty arm of restoration and his gentle arm of care cannot and will not reach you. You are not out of God's reach. You are not outside of God's ruling arm and his gathering arm.
This is what we see so beautifully as we see all things most clearly and beautifully in Jesus. Jesus has the power to heal, the power to calm the seas, to subdue any power, any principality. He has overcome death by his death, and resurrection. He is utterly victorious in his battle over sin and death. At the same time, he promises to guide and lead us knowing exactly what we need and when we need it, knowing exactly how to care for us, knowing exactly where we are wounded, where we are weak, knowing where we need to be led. He calls out to us carefully and gently, dismantling our obstacles, tearing them down, standing in the way of our own self-glorification projects, and he does it because he loves us. He does it so that we would have life in him.
Our response is to behold him—as Isaiah says, “Behold, the Lord who comes,”—to worship him, to honor him, to trust his words, and to celebrate his coming. During Advent as we prepare for his birth, perhaps the greatest way to behold him is to consider the obstacles we put up to prevent God's mighty and tender arm from reaching us and to begin to do the work of dismantling them—dismantling all the objects, all the obstacles, we put in his path, our personal projects of pride and self-glory, our goal is to put our own interests and comforts above anyone else's. All these obstacles have to come down. They're going to come down because this King is coming. That is good news. It is good news for you. It is good news for me. It is good news for your neighbors. It is good news for the world. It's actually the only comfort we have. It's the only comfort we need—that Christ has come with his mighty and gentle arm, and he comes for you today.
Our gracious God and Heavenly Father, we thank you for these words of Isaiah. This cry of comfort that surprises us because we know that we do not deserve it. And yet you come in grace and power to dismantle all the obstacles that we lay down to prevent you from coming to us. It is your mighty hand and it’s your gracious arm that gives us life. God we pray that you would stir our hearts, that we would love you, that we would follow after you, and that we would delight and prepare for your coming. We pray this all In Jesus’ mighty name. Amen.