Right now if you drive north from here on I-57, get off at the Herrin and Johnston City exit, and then head west on Herrin Road you encounter an interesting sight. A little over two miles from the exit you meet a location where an arrow straight and level strip of dirt heads of from the road.
The Herrin Road itself continues on and soon enters a very windy curve that goes left and then back to the right. As it curves back to the right, you again see this straight strip of dirt. You can tell that massive amounts of earth have been brought in to build it up so that it is higher than the surrounding area. The strip of dirt crosses the railroad tracks and heads into Herrin, at which point, the road and the strip of dirt basically intersect as the dirt comes to an end and the road continues on.
The strip of dirt is a construction project that is currently going on. It is intended to straighten out Herrin Road and eliminates that curvy section. It’s not hard to understand that over the years it probably has been the cause of a number of accidents. Certainly, the new construction will be easier and safer to drive – though I would say, not as much fun. I enjoy the curves.
In order to build the new road, workers have leveled everything in its path and cut a swath through the woods. And then, because that area has some creeks that flood when there has been a wet period of heavy rain, they have filled in areas with dirt and built it up so that the level of the road is higher than the surrounding area. As you enter Herrin, you can see a large depression on the right from which they have taken all of this dirt. The landscape has been cleared, filled in and leveled in order to build this new stretch of road.
When I began working with our text from Isaiah chapter 40 for this sermon and drove by the construction, I was immediately struck by the correspondence: Here in our area is exactly what Isaiah is talking about! Isaiah declares to Judah that they are to prepare the way of the Lord. He uses the metaphor of a highway for which everything is to be filled in, leveled and smoothed over. The prophet declares that God is coming to bring salvation and everyone needs to be ready.
Preaching on the portion of Isaiah that begins here at chapter forty is always a bit of a challenge because of the history that it covers. Isaiah lived in the eighth century B.C. – so, during the 700’s. During his ministry the Assyrian Empire conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and took the people into exile. The northern tribes were taken away and were never heard from again. The Assyrian leader Sennacherib attempted to conquer Judah and take the city of Jerusalem, but failed when God intervened and killed one hundred and eighty five thousand of his troops in the middle of the night.
After this rescue, in chapter thirty nine envoys from Babylon arrive. King Hezekiah naively welcomed them and showed them all wealth of his storehouses and his land. He practically put out a sign that said: “This country is a great place to conquer.” It was not a good idea. Isaiah said to the king: “Hear the word of the LORD of hosts: Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the LORD.”
When we turn to chapter forty we are now hearing about a different time and a different situation. Having just mentioned what the Babylonians would do, Isaiah now speaks to Judah in what for him was a future time. He speaks to Judah in the sixth century B.C., because in 587 B.C. the Babylonians would conquer Jerusalem, destroy the temple, and take the people into exile. Isaiah speaks about a destruction and exile that had not yet happened, and speaks comfort to the people who would experience it.
During the course of this section of his prophecy, Isaiah announces that God will use Cyrus to bring the people back from exile. Cyrus turned out to be the Persian king who defeated the Babylonians and issued an edict that allowed the people of Judah to return and rebuild the temple. The return from exile to the promised land is the salvation that God is going to bring. Yet this salvation is described in terms that point beyond the mere return to a piece of land.
In our text, the Lord declares through Isaiah: “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.”
God had punished Judah because of her sin. They had rejected God by choosing to worship the false gods of the surrounding lands. And this lack of faith had infected the way they treated others.
Twenty six hundred years may separate you from ancient Judah, but the story has not changed. You still worship false gods – you worship money, possessions, pleasure,sports and hobbies. And because you do this, it infects the way you treat others as well. You don’t seek the welfare of your spouse, and instead you make selfish decisions. You don’t obey and help your parents, and instead you sulk, you whine, you complain – anything to make life difficult because you aren’t getting your way. You don’t forgive others, because you would rather bear a grudge that eats away at you inside and poisons life around you.
God had punished Judah. Yet now he spoke a word of comfort. Where earlier in Isaiah when talking about their unfaithfulness he had referred to Judah as “this people”, now he speaks about “my people.” Yahweh was going to bring rescue and the people needed to be ready. We hear in our text: “‘A voice cries: ‘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; 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.’”
The return from exile by Judah was a type. A type – as our catechumens can tell you – is a person or event in the Old Testament that points forward to what God is going to do in the New Testament. The rescue from exile pointed forward to the rescue from sin and the return to life with God in the new creation.
We know this because the New Testament tells us that these words of Isaiah find their ultimate fulfillment in John the Baptist. Matthew tells us, “In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”
John the Baptist called people to repent. He called them to turn away from their sin and remove those things that prevented them from receiving God. They needed to do this because the arrival of God’s kingdom – his reign – was imminent. God’s end-time saving action was about to begin. It was bringing forgiveness, but this forgiveness could only be received by those who were repentant.
John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus Christ. It was in Jesus that the words of our text were fulfilled: “And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” The glory of the Lord was revealed in Jesus, the incarnate Son of God. He was God bringing rescue from sin and death, for he came to die on the cross and rise from the dead. Because of his sacrifice you have been redeemed – you have been freed from the slavery that held us as we shared in Jesus’ saving death through the waters of Holy Baptism.
The words of Isaiah fulfilled in John the Baptist still apply to you. They apply every day because you continue to struggle against sin. You continue to need to drown the old Adam in you by daily contrition and repentance as you return to your baptism so that a new man daily emerges and arises to live before God in righteousness and purity forever.
And especially now during Advent, as you prepare to celebrate your Lord’s first coming, you need to take Isaiah’s words to heart. You need to remove every obstacle that hinders us from focusing on Jesus Christ in whom the saving glory of God has been revealed.
When you do this, you can recognize the wondrous reason for the season of Christmas. As the cover of this month’s Lutheran Witness indicates, it’s you. You are the reason. You are the reason because of your sin. And you are the reason because in God’s unfathomable love he desired to save you.
He has loved and forgiven you, so that now through the work of the Spirit you can love and forgive others. During the days that lead up to Christmas we do a number of special Christmas events in order to share this love. Congregation members donate money that the youth use to purchase and wrap Christmas gifts for children in foster care. Congregation members help to pack Christmas food boxes at the Marion Ministerial Alliance food pantry using food items purchased through money donated by Thrivent.
But more than those special events, the love and forgiveness received in Jesus Christ is something that permeates our daily life. It is shared with others in our home, work and school. The act of repentance removes those barriers that hinder the glory of God from being revealed to others through us who are in Christ. Through the work of the Spirit, God sends us as “little Christs” into the world so that in word and deed we can share this love and forgiveness with others.