Advent – Hope (Isaiah 40 – Ethan Wormell)
Introduction: Christian Hope
When I was in elementary school my friend Rebekah invited me to her birthday party, but only a few of us were invited…only the ones who loved basketball…because her father was taking us to see the Boston Celtics. We were so excited to go, none of us had been to a professional sports game of any kind. So at school Rebekah and I got pieces of paper and we wrote on top, “Boston Celtics” and we each listed the entire roster with a space next to every name, because as we imagined it, we thought we would be able to get autographs from every Celtics player just because we went to the game. We had a great hope, but in the end our hope put us to shame. Because not only did we not get any autographs, our seats were so high up in the stadium we could barely see the players.
Now the Christian faith boasts of a great hope. We believe God became man (and not just a man, but was born a baby), and we believe this God-man lived a perfect life, died a sacrificial death in the place of his people, rose from the dead with an incorruptible body, ascended into heaven, and is going to return the way he left to judge the world and usher in an incorruptible kingdom called the new heavens and new earth. These are quite some claims. This is quite some hope. But is this all too just wishful thinking? Do you have any more reason to believe this will all happen, then I had in elementary school to believe I would get all the Celtic’s autographs?
First off, the Bible almost never uses the word “hope” the way we do. We use the word “hope” to refer to something like a “wish” or a “dream.” But in Bible the word “hope” is used to refer to an “expectation” — a future certainty. Do you see how radically different these two understandings of “hope” are? One is something we do. The other is something we have.
The hope of the Christian faith is not a wish or a dream but rather a future expectation [How so? What makes the difference?] It is grounded in the past and sustained in the present. Hope in the Christian faith is not something we do, it is something we have. It is a future expectation grounded in the past and sustained in the present. You’re not worried about it. Your hope is so sure, in fact, you are preparing for it to come…like writing out an autograph sheet ahead of time, only it does not put anyone to shame who holds it. This is what The Apostle Paul says about our hope as Christians. He writes in Romans 5:5, “[our] hope does not put us to shame…
In Isaiah 40, Isaiah declares a prophecy of hope for God’s people Israel who have been ravaged by invading nations. And the biblical storyline picks up this prophecy in the Gospel of Matthew so that we see and know how Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled. When we see this connection, we will know what our hope is as God’s people, why it is so sure, and how we can prepare for it to come.
So let’s look at Isaiah 40:1-5 and we’ll see how it answers these questions about the hope of the Christian faith. What is our hope? Why is it so sure? How can we prepare for it?
I. Hope Needed & Hope Given — Isaiah 40:1-2
The context of Israel in Isaiah 40 is one of great despair and hopelessness. Because of Israel’s idolatry and rebellion, God punished them by raising up stronger nations to destroy their land and leave the people desolate. The poorest remained behind in their desolate city while the strongest and wisest of their leaders were taken captive.
Do you remember the names of some of those carried off in captivity? This is the life-story of Daniel and his three friends. They were among the up-and-coming leaders of Israel who were taken captive and separated from their homeland and their people.
The people were left without their farms, shelter, protection, and leadership. Another prophet mourns over this tragedy as he writes in Lamentations, “How lonely sits the city that was full of people! How like a widow has she become, she who was great among the nations! She who was a princess among the provinces has become a slave. She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has none to comfort her…”
Now imagine crashing on an island, going back to the cockpit of the wrecked plane to use the radio and call for help…only to find that the radio had also been destroyed in the crash. This was the Israelite’s experience, because along with their city, their temple was destroyed, leaving them without access to their God, the only one who could save them in such desperate need.
Yet they hear a word of comfort. Look again at verse 2: Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, [why?] that her iniquity is pardoned…she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. God begins his work of restoration by pardoning their sin.
At first glance it seems to be saying that they received a double punishment for their sin. The Hebrew word is rare, so commentators speculate about what it could mean. Some say it could refer to the double invasion Israel experience (first by the Assyrians and second by the Babylonians).1 Others say it could refer to an actor who has a “double,” like an exact match, saying that Israel has received an exact match of punishment for her sin.2 But what’s more clear is the tone of this passage. “Stand up and proclaim loud and clear so that all the people in the city can hear, and say ‘Comfort, comfort! The time of hardship is over!” What is the message here? “Speak tenderly to God’s people… ‘[whispers] God’s going to get you double for what you did!” No, no, no. It’s more of, “The punishment you have endured is sufficient.”
I’m still new to this game of parenting, but perhaps even you veteran parents still remember this. Have you ever experienced this? Your child persistently disobeys you, so you finally say, ‘Enough is enough’ and you put them into a state of condemnation. “Sit in the timeout chair…for 10 minutes”. As an adult, 10 minutes goes by in the blink of an eye, but to a child it can seem like forever, so long in fact they may begin to believe they will stay in timeout forever. But I have set a time, and not only will their punishment be complete, but my anger is going to subside, and even in my anger I know the future — how my compassion will restore them to me.
The Israelites are pardoned under the light of God’s abundant mercy which surpasses a thousand generations. Hope is found in the Lord’s steadfast love and mercy towards his people. Though a Prophet laments the destruction of Jerusalem, hope wells up within him as he gazes towards the Lord’s unending love. “…this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (La 3:21-23).”
II. Preparation — Isaiah 40:3
God has pardoned his people. Their sin has been covered. They have been washed clean of their guilt. What does this allow? God is able to dwell with them once again. Their King is returning, therefore, they must prepare for his arrival.
If you knew that a special guest were coming to your house, what would you do? Certainly, you would celebrate, but your excitement would fade as soon as you began to look at the rooms in your house…the clutter…the dust…the dishes…the chipped paint…the broken doorknob…etc. and suddenly you would be overcome with sense of urgency… “We have to prepare! Get everything ready!” And this is just what we see in Isaiah’s prophecy.
Look back at verse 3, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
This call to prepare a way in the wilderness and a highway in the desert was the common, ordinary preparation people would make for their guests. Knowing a king or dignitary or important person was coming, the people would scatter about the incoming road to their city and remove rocks and debris from the path. Perhaps they would even use tools to level out some of the bumps in the road. Today we might say, “Roll out the red carpet!” All this was a sign to the coming guest that they had prepared for his arrival, making the final stretch of his journey nice and smooth.
But did you notice the extravagance of this preparation? Look again at Isaiah 40:4-5, 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. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Can you imagine such a place? Surely this will not be the same Jerusalem that the Israelites knew, because the road leading into their city was quite difficult to traverse. In fact, for most of its history it remained relatively isolated because it sat on a mountainside, and there was only one primary road that brought you up steep slopes before you reached the city gates.
It’s one thing to say, “Let’s sweep up the road and remove the rocks for our guest.” It’s another thing to say, “Let’s flatten that mountain!” The questions they are left with (and the questions we’re left with as we’re reading this) is, “When is this king coming, and what kind of path are we supposed to prepare for him?”
- New Hearts
Hundreds of years pass and the people of Israel never saw anything resembling the hope of Isaiah’s prophecy. They heard the announcement the Lord was returning, but where was the announcement when he would arrive?
This brings us to our studies in the Advent season: the coming of Christ. After hundreds of years of silence, waiting to see what would happen next, all of a sudden a voice is heard calling out from the wilderness (just as Isaiah foretold) saying: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Mt 3:2).”
This scene is recorded for us by Matthew in chapter 3 of his Gospel. He writes, “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” [This is the one Isaiah spoke about] when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight (Mt 3:1-3).”
How were they to prepare? In this announcement we see Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled with two layers. The first layer: repent. Matthew writes,, “…they were baptized by [John] in the river Jordan, confessing their sins… [To the Pharisees who questioned John’s ministry, he said…] Bear fruit in keeping with repentance…( Mt 3:6, 8).” When Jesus took the helm he too repeated John’s message saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Mt 4:17).”
Preparation for the King of glory comes, not by removing rocks from the road, but from removing sin and idolatry in our hearts. Not only does a clean heart make a suitable path for the return of the King, but the preparation of repentance solves the problem which caused the King to leave in the first place. For it was Israel’s sin of idolatry — worshipping other gods and trusting in other kings — which led to her judgment of exile. God’s people needed new hearts of faith which would rely on him without fail, so that when he returned to dwell with them they would remain together.
The reason a repentant heart is the kind of path needed for this King is because when he returns he is calling for ultimate allegiance and bringing in a whole new kingdom. This is the second layer of fulfillment to Isaiah’s prophecy: the ushering in of a new kingdom.
- New Creation
Just as Christ came in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy preparing a path of faith in our hearts, so too Christ is preparing a place for his people to dwell with him. Do you remember him saying… “I go to prepare a place for you.”
As the Lord comforts his people through Isaiah’s prophecy, Jesus comforts his disciples saying, “Let not your hearts be troubled…I go to prepare a place for you…[and] I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also (Jn 14:1-3).”
We sometimes call this “Heaven,” but Jesus most often referred to it as “a Kingdom” like when he said, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He told Nicodemus, “Unless a person be born from above he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” The Apostle John describes it as a “New Creation” with a “new Jerusalem” for not only will the heavens above be made new, but the earth below, and everything in between. Revelation 21:1, I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…
Truly “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. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together…”
Here is where Israel’s hope and our hope come together: in Christ’ coming kingdom where we will dwell as God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule and blessing. A whole New Creation whose roads are smooth and paths are cleared — a New Creation where water and trees springs forth in the desert — a New Creation where sin and death are no more — where the nation’s gather to worship together their God, our King — a New Creation where the glory of the Lord covers the earth like the water covers the sea.
This is the great hope of the Christian faith: dwelling as God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule and blessing.
III. How Sure Is Our Hope?
But how sure is it to come? How is it an expectation instead of just another wish we have? Because it all sounds wonderful, but its wonder quickly fades when we turn and look at ourselves (clumsily trying to follow Jesus), let alone does our hope fade when we look at our world (still incredibly broken and seeming without hope). We need hope for today because despair continues to cling to our lives.
However despair infiltrates our lives, all our despair is answered with hope in Christ. And this future hope becomes sure when we see how it is grounded in the past and sustained in the present.
- Looking Back
We need to look back. Our hope is orientated toward the future, but is grounded in what has already happened the past. Back to Romans 5, the Apostle Paul writes, “Romans 5:1-5, “Therefore, sincewe have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. (Rom 5:1-2).” God has been faithful in his promises by sending Christ. We are reminded of this each Christmas season. Christ’ birth addressed the problem of our alienation from God. He has brought us near by coming to us himself. Christ’ death has addressed the problem of our sin. He has canceled the record of our sin debt by nailing it to the cross. And his resurrection has addressed the problem of our decaying bodies and broken world, for the glory of his resurrection was a preview of the same resurrection all God’s people will experience in his kingdom, the new creation. Our future hope is grounded in what Christ has already done for us in history: he came, he died, and he rose.
- Looking Around
But we also need to look around. Our hope is orientated toward the future New Creation, is grounded in Christ’ past work, and it is sustained in the present by the Holy Spirit. Romans 5:5, “…hope does not put us to shame, [why?] because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us (Ro 5:5).” Our hope is sustained as we look to God’s present faithfulness to us when we see the Holy Spirit at work (1) creating new faith where it does not exist and (2) strengthening the faith of those who believe.
The only reason people can demonstrate new faith in Christ and the only reason Christians can be strengthened in the faith they have is because the Holy Spirit is here. The Holy Spirit gives us glimpses of life in the Kingdom through the new creation he has made of us, living new lives which glorify God. 2 Corinthians 5:17, …if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come…
The Kingdom of God is breaking into our present world through the Holy Spirit as he makes new creations out of people like you and me, bringing us to faith in Christ and enrolling us as citizens of this coming kingdom.
IV. How Then Should We Prepare?
Now we’re cooking. Now we have moved far beyond wishful thinking and have come to rest in a sure expectation.Because Christ has come and the Spirit is here, our hope is sure. How then should we prepare?
If you’re here today and you are not a Christian, you’ve already heard your call: repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand. Here’s another way to put it: Submit to Christ as King and become enrolled as a citizen of his coming kingdom.
To repent means to turn around to walk a new way. The way we come into this world is walking on our own path, charting our own course, seating ourselves on the throne of our life as King. When we are confronted with God’s authority over us we ask him, “What right do you have to rule my life?” And he replies, “I have the only right.”
This God made you and has given you your life and everything good you have as a gift of his grace, despite your disregard of his authority and goodness. And he has sent his Son to live a perfectly obedient life in place of your prideful and sinful life, and to die a sacrificial death in place of the judgement you deserve. And having risen from the dead, Jesus now calls on all humanity to repent of our sin, rely on his merciful sacrifice, and trust in his rule and reign.
So if you’re not a Christian, we’re glad you’re here, you’re welcome any time, and we invite you to submit to Christ as King and become enrolled as a citizen of his coming kingdom. You can know today that your sins are forgiven if you but pray to God with a humble heart, asking for his forgiveness and receiving his grace for you in Christ. And if you pray for that today please tell me or another member of this church. Jesus said, “Whoever acknowledges me before others, I will also acknowledge before my Father in heaven (Mt 10:32).”
If you are a Christian, if you have repented of your sin and received a new heart of faith, you’ve been enrolled by the Holy Spirit as a citizen of this coming kingdom, how do you prepare for Christ’ coming kingdom? Christ said, “Seek first the kingdom of God…” Seek first this kingdom which Christ is bringing — the New Creation — whose blessings you are already experiencing by the Spirit.
But what does that mean? Separation and isolation from the common world? No. God has called us to live in this world at this time (as we see clearly in our instructions throughout the New Testament to live at peace with all people and submit to our secular governing authorities).
To “seek first the kingdom” means to live in this world with the values of another. Prepare for your King by importing the values of his coming Kingdom into your present life.
[I’ve used this illustration before] It’s kind of like working overseas in an American Embassy. For three years I served in the military as a Marine Security Guard in American Embassies overseas which serve as outposts of the United States. And what I didn’t know about them that I found fascinating was that the grounds on which an American Embassy or Consulate stood is considered US soil. That’s why we could fly a huge American flag, and why we could get packages from Amazon sent there (it was considered a US address). That also means that the laws, customs, and values of the United States were in force on Embassy grounds. If someone committed a crime on Embassy grounds in South Africa, they would be prosecuted by a US court of law. Even though we worked and lived in foreign countries, we worked and lived there as American citizens.
So Christian — follower of Jesus — you are a citizen of the Kingdom of God. Therefore, in the foreign country (of Cape Cod) in which you live and work, live and work with the laws, the customs, and values of your homeland. Seek first that Kingdom.
This is what Jesus is teaching in the Gospels: how to live in his kingdom, e.g. he teaches, “love your neighbor” and then tells the story of the Good Samaritan. He’s showing, “This is how we love people in my coming Kingdom.”
The Apostle Paul lists the values of the Kingdom, describing them as the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:19-26): love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These stand in contrast with the values of this world (e.g. Col 3:1-5, 8)….sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, greed…anger, wrath, malice, slander, and filthy language from your mouth (Col 3:1-5, 8).
Prepare for your King by importing the values of his coming Kingdom into your present world.
This evening we’ve seen that we have hope, our hope is not a wish but a sure expectation, and we can prepare for it even now while we wait. So despite great struggle and despair we may experience in life, we are stood upright with courage moving forward in the lives God has called us to live, knowing that He has pardoned us through Christ’ work on the cross, He is preparing a way for his arrival by his Holy Spirit, and He is making all things new that we may dwell with Him in his Kingdom.
May we praise God for his grace, and hold fast to the hope he has given us as his people.
1 A. R. Fausset, A Commentary, Critical, Experimental, and Practical, on the Old and New Testaments: Job–Isaiah, vol. III (London; Glasgow: William Collins, Sons, & Company, Limited, n.d.), 685.
2 R. C. Sproul, ed., The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version (2015 Edition) (Orlando, FL: Reformation Trust, 2015), 1192.