Text: Isaiah 40:1-11
A few weeks back, at our first midweek service, we heard how the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a priest named Zechariah. Gabriel announced that Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth, who was barren, would give birth to a son; and they were to name him John. Their son would be the one to go before the Lord in the spirit and power of Elijah – to prepare people for Christ’s arrival. Now, Zechariah did not believe Gabriel and, as a punishment, was unable to speak until after John was born. While the neighbors and relatives were debating about what the child should be named, Zechariah wrote on a tablet, “He shall be called John.” (Luke 1:60, English Standard Version) Immediately, his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed. Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and praised God. These were his first words, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people.” (1:68)
Zechariah confessed that John’s birth meant the same thing as Jesus’ coming birth would mean: God is visiting His people. He is revealing His glory in the sight of all people, as Isaiah said in our Old Testament reading. By the incarnation of the Son of God by the Holy Spirit through the virgin Mary, God has revealed Himself to us. He has shown us His glory so that we might be comforted in the forgiveness of our sins, the pardon of our iniquity.
St. Isaiah prophesied by the Holy Spirit the words which we heard. He said,
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…And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.Isaiah 40:3-5
The question for us this week is, what does it mean for the glory of the Lord to be revealed? What was it that God promised through St. Isaiah? Perhaps we should listen to the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and the Baptist himself, that Isaiah 40 speaks about John’s ministry. He is the voice crying out in the wilderness. John was sent to preach and prepare people for the coming revelation of God’s glory. About whom did John preach? Jesus.
Jesus Christ is God in the flesh. In the book of Hebrews it says, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days He has spoken to us by His Son…He [Jesus] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature.” (Heb. 1:1-3) St. Paul also wrote to the Colossians that Jesus Himself is, “the image of the invisible God…In Him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” (Col. 1:15; 2:9) We must also not forget that Jesus said he who has seen Him has seen the Father. (Jn. 14) St. Isaiah prophesied of a time when God would reveal His glory in the sight of all people, and that has come to pass in the incarnation of the Son of God. Incarnation means that the eternal second person of the Trinity has, in our time, become flesh and blood just as we are.
Isaiah prophesied that God’s glory would be revealed in the Incarnation of the eternal Son of God. The Word of God became flesh for this purpose: as Isaiah sang, “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 sins.” (40:1-2) When Isaiah was sent to prophesy this, God’s people lived in a state of turmoil and great distress. We’ve spoken before of Jeremiah’s time; Isaiah prophesied some hundred years before that. In that time, Assyria was the nation in power and they conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. It seemed to the people that Jerusalem and all Judah would be taken with the next swing. In part, these words were a comfort to them – there would indeed be an end to their warfare and crying; God Himself would comfort His people and carry them in His arms as a shepherd does his sheep.
There is, however, a captivity that extends beyond the fear of the people in Isaiah’s time. Ever since the fall into sin, all people have been ensnared in the corruption and depravity of sin. We have plunged headlong into the mire; in fact, we were born this way. We were born dead in sin and, if left unchecked, would die eternally in the same. But, God has had mercy on us and sent us His only-begotten Son. In the Incarnation, God has revealed His glory to us in the forgiveness of our sins. Rather than doom to death a universe, He has had mercy. He has placed our sins and iniquity upon His own Son, with the result that, as Isaiah said, our iniquity is pardoned. Our sins are forgiven, they are cast into the depths of the sea, they are remembered by God no more.
Hidden in this text, also, is another delightful truth. Let us hear verses 1-2 again. “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 sins.” There’s this little phrase where the Holy Spirit tells us that God’s people have received from His hand double for all their sins. The Spirit isn’t saying that we receive double punishment for our sins but double forgiveness. By the death of the Son of God on the cross, our sins are paid for to an infinite degree. We confess from Scripture that our God is superabundant in His grace. He shows this by proclaiming to us that, as great as our sinfulness is, His mercy is greater. Twice as great, in fact. We receive this double forgiveness not by our works, but by faith. If one is rewarded for his works, the reward must match the work. But, in fact, forgiveness is by grace, therefore it abounds far past what we do need.
The title for this Sunday in the church year is Gaudete, which is Latin for “Rejoice.” It comes from St. Paul’s words (which we’ll hear next week), “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” (Phil 4:4) It is with good reason we rejoice and light a rose candle, not a violet one. We rejoice because in the Incarnation of Christ, the glory of the eternal God is revealed to us. It is revealed to us for this purpose: that our captivity to sin be ended, our iniquity pardoned, and we receive from the Lord’s hand double forgiveness according to His great mercy. The Lord grant us this week, and always, to rejoice and give thanks for His steadfast love. In Jesus’ name.