"Herald of Good Tidings
A Sermon based upon Isaiah 40-1-11;27-31
Happy New Year, one and all! May this be the Lord’s year in Alpena. May we see a few new signs that the promises and visions of the prophets of old are being fulfilled… especially those of the prophet Isaiah, from whom we heard in this morning’s two Scripture readings.
Some sentences of chapter 40 simply leap off the page with familiarity, especially during Christmas-tide and Epiphany. “Comfort, comfort ye my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” A voice cries in the wilderness: “Prepare ye 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 brought low… And the glory [the glory of the Lord!], shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together… for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.” Do those verses not resonate indelibly with the majestic melodies of Georg Friedrich Handel’s “Messiah!”? Do we not feel the rumblings of John the Baptist’s bold preaching as he “prepares the way” for Jesus’ ministry?
On this very first Sunday in the New Year, I felt it is most appropriate to look back 2,500 years to Isaiah’s vision of what was coming on the horizon of his day, which Christians see fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ… and which points us still into a new future.
Six or seven centuries before the birth of Jesus, the word of God came to Isaiah. He’s got 66 chapters of poetry -- and adventure stories and prophecies -- accredited to him! That’s ten more than Jeremiah… and almost twenty more than Ezekiel! (By contrast, Jonah has only 4 chapters; Habbakuk three; Haggai only two!)
Isaiah’s social commentary covers three periods of Hebrew history: first, from the time when the Northern Kingdom of Israel was being destroyed by Assyrians from Damascus and Nineveh near the end of the Jewish Civil War.
Second, when the remaining kingdom of Judah (& its Capitol City Jerusalem) were under attack from the Babylonians; we call that “2nd Isaiah”.
And, third -- “3rd Isaiah” -- was during the 70 years of Jewish captivity when the leading families were in exile in Babylon. (Today we call that country “Iran”.)
It is during this last very bleak period that Isaiah articulated the reassureingly hopeful vision of God coming with mighty arms to “feed 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” (much like we see in our Good Shepherd window up front here).
Yes, in the very worst of times, God gave Isaiah visions of a coming “Day of the Lord” when the “lamb would lie down with the lion” and when swords of war would be transformed into plowshares. “I ain’t gonna study war no more!”
In the soon-coming Day of the Lord “the knowledge of God would cover the earth, just like waters that cover the sea”. Isaiah writes: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create! … No more shall be heard the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. No more shall there be… an infant that lives but a few days, or an old man who does not fill out his days; for the child shall die at 100 years old! … They shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.” How hopeful would such a day be! (Can you almost feel it coming?)
It was (yes) a time of despair and defeat for the remnant people of God. Their national identity was a thing of the past. Surviving in exile -- in foreign captivity, not just as refugees or asylum-seekers! -- was the name of the game. In the midst of fear and death, with horrors behind them and hopelessness on the horizon, God gave the word to Isaiah: “Comfort, comfort my people…”
Walter Brueggemann, a well-known and popular (though now retired) UCC professor of Old Testament, wrote a book back when I was in seminary: “The Prophetic Imagination.”
He makes the case that a biblical prophet is often a “contrarian”. When the people think things are going well -- as they prosper and find life easy -- the prophet critiques the social injustices and self-centered arrogance, idolatry and materialism, of the leading citizens and power-brokers. However, when people are in dire straits, feeling frustrated and powerless -- helpless, hapless, and hopeless -- the prophet encourages a new vision. In short, the biblical prophet comforts the afflicted… and afflicts the comfortable!
“Get you up to a high mountain,” says Isaiah, “O Zion, herald of good tidings. Lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings! Lift it up! Fear not! Say to the cities of Judah: ‘Behold your God! Behold, the Lord God comes with might; behold, his reward is with him and his recompense before him.” … “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak 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 sin.”
Isaiah tells the people that God is about to intervene. The “glad tidings” are that the Lord is about to interrupt the process of warfare and captivity (and well-deserved penalty) in order to bring all the divine glory and goodness that had been promised to the people of Israel back when they had been doing well.
A way is being prepared (a highway) in the desert wilderness (between Babylon and old Israel) which will bring the people straight back… Every valley shall be raised up and every mountain & hill be made low. The uneven ground will be made level and rugged places will become smooth. And the glory of the Lord (the God of the Bible) will be revealed, and all people (together) will see it!
As I said a moment ago, we cannot read this memorable text without hearing the orchestration and harmony of Handel’s Messiah” in the background. It inspired him, and it inspires us. But, as Christians, we also cannot read this text without thinking about Jesus and his ministry as the much-anticipated (longed-for and awaited) fulfillment of Isaiah’s promises. We call the church season which begins today “Epiphany” -- a revealing -- because it is when Jesus was “revealed” (or manifested) to the people as the promised Messiah.
But such a focused vision (in which Jesus was recognized) was not so clear to Isaiah. For him, the description of the Day of the Lord -- the promised salvation of the people, the good tidings which were heralded from the hills – described the “end” of what had been and the inauguration of a brand new era. (Not unlike what Nancy Pelosi is promising with the new majority in Congress!)
For Isaiah, what God was announcing was the end of suffering: the end of captivity, the end of violence, the end of idolatry and corruption, the end of fear. The herald of good tidings who got up the high mountain -- the heralds of good tidings, who lifted up their voices with strength, saying: “Fear not! Behold your God!” – were announcing the start of something new: the appearing of God among them, the intervention of God into human and earthly affairs. Human life on earth was about to be renewed -- refashioned, re-arranged -- according to the will & purpose of God. The Lord God was “interrupting” history -- bringing the old ways to an end and starting something altogether new. (Not just a switch in whose party is in the majority – something altogether new!)
Do you see why I thought that Isaiah’s words might be a good way to start a New Year? “Behold,” says the Lord God, “ , “I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered nor come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create!”
The “end” of the world as they knew it – the “eschaton” it is called in Greek, and has been a major theme of some theologians – is the work of God. The culmination of history and fulfillment of God’s Dream for the world will not be brought about by clever politicians, or deep-pocket philanthropists, nor by military action, nor even by the combined efforts of faithful people (like the Jews in Exile in Isaiah’s day, or by you and me today). We can do our part to help God along, but the End – the eschaton, the salvation -- is the work of God.
Now, that’s something we can TRUST! I would rather it be God’s design and God’s doing – God’s “dream”, if you will – than any of our current crop of politicians. (From what I’ve seen, they are guaranteed not to get it right.)
If Isaiah is to be believed, God will send a Messiah to establish justice, secure peace, reveal truth, and uncover beauty.
Like the dispirited Jews in Isaiah’s day, I (too) find inspiration in Isaiah’s words. I like these texts; they fill me with hope. They kindle what Walter Brueggemann calls my “prophetic imagination”. Yes, things can be different than the present “status quo”; they will be different! (Thank God!)