Chris Appleby Ministries

Chris Appleby Ministries



 Hope for the future    Audio

Is 40

One of the major themes that have run through the media this year has been the sense of isolation and pain caused by such a long period of lockdown and disconnection. What we’ve longed for is some sense of comfort and relief. So where do we look for comfort? Well some of us have probably looked to food, as testified to by the daily recipes in The Age, not to mention our expanding waistlines. But we probably also acknowledge that that’s not the most positive way to seek comfort. The people of Israel, suffering not lockdown but exile, felt a similar sense of isolation and disconnection; not from one another but from their land. And so God speaks to them, offering comfort through a promise of rescue. His words are addressed to Israel but are equally helpful for us, struggling in a fallen world, longing for release. His words are gentle. He says “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” Literally, “speak to her heart.” The way lovers woo each other, speaking sweet nothings to one another, wooing, persuading, inviting a response of love. But it’s a cry that holds real hope: “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.”

Sometimes we have trouble hearing when God speaks to us, but here the prophet is told to speak with quiet words of love and a loud shout of proclamation. Whatever it takes they’re to hear this message: ‘Comfort, Comfort!’ and believe that it’s true.

The people are still in captivity, cut off from their land, seemingly cut off from their God. But now God comes and addresses them as “My people.” Even though they’re in captivity, in exile, even though they feel like God has abandoned them, or they’ve failed him, God is still their God. They are still God’s people.

So it’s a message of subjective comfort. They can feel relieved that God hasn’t forgotten them. But at the same time it’s a message of comfort based on the objective historical reality of what God’s doing. God is about to rescue them, to bring them out of captivity and return them to Jerusalem. As we discover when we come to chs 52 & 53, the Servant of the Lord has paid for their sins through his sacrifice of himself. And now in God’s grace he’s about to restore them despite their unworthiness.

And so we read “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” Notice, it isn’t: “prepare a way for the Jews coming out of exile.” No: “Prepare the way of the Lord.” If you were a nomad out in the desert tending your flock of scrawny goats or sheep, and you looked up as this exodus went by, all you’d see would be a great horde of Jews trudging along, looking tired and thirsty. But the eyes of the prophet sees the LORD God coming, - and as he comes he brings with him his people.

One of the interesting things about prophecy is that while it’s generally clearly directed at the time in which it’s spoken it often extends beyond that time to a later period when we can see different implications of what’s been written. And so it is here. As Jesus prepares to begin his earthly ministry John the Baptist is sent to re-enact the words of Isaiah 40. He appears in the desert, calling people to prepare for the one who comes to bring God’s salvation to his people. How are they to prepare? By repenting of their sins. Jesus is coming to bring true comfort to his people. Not just a physical return to Jerusalem but a spiritual return to the presence of God. Jesus will remove the barrier of sin that separates us from God so they need to meet him with a spirit of repentance.

As we read through Isaiah 40 what do we find? Images that immediately remind us of Jesus. “10See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 11He 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.” Jesus comes as the good shepherd who’ll care for his flock. He’ll feed them. Those who are too weak to keep going he’ll lift up and carry in his arms, holding them close to his heart. Is that an image that might help you in those times when you’re feeling worn out or hopeless, lost and on your own? Jesus is there with you ready to take you up in his arms and comfort you. If you’re in a position of leadership Jesus will lead you as the shepherd leads the mother sheep.

You see, this is a prophecy not just for Israel, not just for the people of Jesus day, but for us, God’s church here in suburban Melbourne.

As you think about our church today, what do you see? Do you see a fairly motley group of Christians, or do you see God at work? Sometimes it takes the eye of a prophet, or the eye of a believer, to see God at work. The Jews in exile needed to be reminded that God was still at work; that even if they felt like they couldn’t sing the Lord’s song, that he was still at work, working for and with them. Can you see that God is at work in our midst? That’s the only basis on which we can feel true comfort in the midst of the struggle and hard work of being God’s people here at St Hil’s.

And notice how when God acts, seemingly impossible hurdles are overcome. Mountain ranges are made low, valleys are lifted up, uneven ground made level.

The hurdles we face aren’t mountains; they’re the barriers of our modern culture, that’s so focussed on short term rewards, on seeking pleasure and financial security, on personal freedom, personal autonomy. How do we break down those obstacles so we can communicate the gospel of God’s grace? It seems as impossible a task as was the return from exile for these Israelites.

Our problem is our human limitations. Isaiah sees that: “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. 7The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass.” In other words, how can all this happen? How can they possibly leave Babylon and return to Jerusalem? What will they do when they get there? The city’s in ruins, the Temple’s destroyed, they have no money to rebuild, there’s no developed land there for them to farm. What there is has been taken over by foreigners. How can they do it? You see, faith in God isn’t easy. Our outward circumstances are usually far more obvious to us than God’s power.  We’re weak and withering. Our resources are stretched, our energy levels are limited. How can we possibly do the things that God tells us to?

But the answer comes loud and clear: “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” Do you believe that? Do you believe God’s word? Do you believe that when God says something, he’ll do it? Or do you hedge your bets. Do you say “well, let’s wait and see?” Do you think, “Well, I guess the odds are pretty good.” Or worse still, “the odds are against us?” When you read this in Is 55: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Do you believe it? Do you believe that God’s word will accomplish what God intended by it? If so, are you acting on that belief? Are you inviting your friends to join in our life here at St Hil’s? Maybe inviting them to join a connect group? Letting them know of the hope you have for the future.

Can you see how Isaiah gives his people solid grounds for confidence in this promise of rescue? “12Who 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? 13Who has directed the spirit of the LORD, or as his counsellor has instructed him? 14Whom 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?” God is so far beyond us that we should have no doubt that he can do what he promises.

So God tells Isaiah: “You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, ‘Here is your God!’”

Now at this point in time Jerusalem is lying in ruins. The Temple is just a pile of ash and rubble. David and Solomon’s palace is no more. The cities of Judah are now the home of the people who were once their pagan neighbours. But God is coming so they need to hear and prepare.

The same is true for us. Jesus is returning and when he does we need to be ready. Our non-Christian friends need to be ready. They need to hear the gospel. That means we need to be like John the Baptist, warning people of the coming of Jesus, of the need to be his followers; inviting them to discover this Jesus who is the good shepherd who cares for his sheep, who feeds them and holds them close.

Finally, look at the end of the chapter. There were still those in Israel who doubted that God was looking after them and so God gives them, and us, this extra bit of reassurance that they don’t have to rely on their own strength because God knows the frailty of our human nature. He will provide what we need to persevere to the end. He says: “27Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, "My way is hidden from the LORD, and my right is disregarded by my God"? 28Have 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. 30Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted; 31but 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.” (Is 40:29-31) This is the God to whom we turn if we want true comfort in the midst of all the struggles of life. And don’t miss the order in which he puts that last bit. We often begin on eagles wings, but then we find we need to come back to earth and run for all we’re worth, but even then we may run out of puff. Yet even in those circumstances God will help us to continue to walk and not faint. I find that very encouraging now that my knees tell me I can’t run at all. God is our strength at whatever stage of endeavour we find ourselves. He is the one in whom we can hope and not be disappointed.

So as we begin the season of advent, when we remember the coming of Jesus to save us and we look forward to his coming again to take us to be with the Father, lets rest in this hope: that the God who saves us is also the God who strengthens us to persevere in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.


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