Our family moved to Marion in 2006. During the last fourteen years we have seen many changes as Marion has continued to grow and develop. Our initial view of Marion has only been enhanced during this time. Marion is big enough to have everything that you need to live very comfortably. But it is also still a small enough to have a small town feel. And as an example of the latter I would offer the homecoming parade that goes right by our church every year.
Marion has continued to develop, and one of my favorite recent developments has been the extension of Halfway Road from where it used to end at Old 13, further south to Westminster Dr on which our church is located. We can now get from the area around the church where we live out to all of the stores and restaurants that are on State Road 13 and the Hill without having to drive down Carbon St. It is so much faster and easier.
It was fascinating to watch the extension of Halfway Road being built. Although the road still climbs a hill as it goes south, a lot of earth was moved in order build the road. Each time as I drove buy, I could see the progress that was being made as the large earth moving machines were at work.
This recent memory came to mind as I read our Old Testament lesson for today. In our text, we also hear about the building of a road - a “highway for God.” But this road is not about mere convenience. It instead is a reference to the rescue God is going to bring to his people. And even this rescue is not the thing of ultimate importance in our text, because it points to something even greater that God has done.
Our text from Isaiah this morning begins with the words, “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.”
Isaiah wrote in the eighth century B.C. During his lifetime Yahweh rescued Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah from the Near Eastern superpower, Assyria. At the end of the previous chapter, God had granted healing to King Hezekiah when he was about to die. We learn that the king of Babylon sent envoys with letters and a present to Hezekiah, for he heard that he had been sick and had recovered. In response Hezekiah gave them the grand tour – he showed them everything. We learn, “And he showed them his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his whole armory, all that was found in his storehouses. There was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them.”
Needless to say, this was not the smartest thing Hezekiah could have done. When Isaiah heard about it he told Hezekiah, “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.”
Isaiah said the God would allow Babylon to conquer Judah. Because God’s people were unfaithful and worshipped other gods Yahweh did indeed use the Babylonians as instruments of his judgment. In 587 B.C. they destroyed the temple in Jersualem, tore down the city’s walls, and took the people into exile in Babylon.
Writing in the eighth century B.C., in our text the prophet speaks about what God would do in the sixth century B.C. Yes, God would allow the people to be taken into exile. But then, he would act to bring them back. Isaiah begins by saying, “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.”
The very first words God speaks through Isaiah are words of comfort. Notice that it in the sentence Yahweh calls them “my people” and refers to himself as “your God.” God’s calling, covenant and love had not been ended by their sin. Yes, their sin had brought God’s judgment. There is an important reminder here for us that God does judge and punish his people when they sin. The Ten Commandments are not “the ten suggestions.” As the Small Catechism says about the Close of the Commandments: “God threatens to punish all who break these commandments. Therefore we should fear his wrath, and not do anything against them.”
But like a father who disciplines his children, punishment does not mean that love is absent. God’s uses his law to bring about repentance. And now, God was going to bring his people back from exile. Isaiah says 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 imagery here is that of God coming to his people to rescue them. It describes a highway for God from which every obstacle has been removed. And the result of this action would be dramatic. Isaiah says, “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 speaks of the dramatic and unexpected rescue that God provided through the Persians and their leader Cyrus. They defeated the Babylonians, and in 538 B.C. Cyrus issued an edict that allowed the Judahites to return to their land and rebuild the temple. This rescue was the revelation of God’s glory, and it is described by Isaiah like the mighty work of the exodus that God carried out when he brought his people out of Egypt.
But this revelation of God’s glory was just the beginning, and it pointed forward to something far greater. 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 was preparing the way because the glory of the Lord was about to be revealed in a dramatic new way – a way that was the fulfillment of everything God had done in the Old Testament. The kingdom of God – the reign of God was about to arrive. And in preparation for this, there was only one thing to do: repent. John called people to confess their sins and submit to a baptism – a washing - that he administered to others.
By receiving John’s baptism people demonstrated their repentance in preparation for the arrival of God’s reign. Mathew tells us that people were coming from all around as “they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” John proclaimed that people needed to be ready because someone even greater was coming. This One would bring God’s end time reign. He said, “I baptize you with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
During Advent we are preparing to celebrate the revealing of the glory of God as the Son of God entered into our world. Conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of the virgin Mary, Jesus Christ was everything that John described. Yet we know that his entrance into the world was very humble – as an infant laid in a manger. And we know that the humility of his entrance into this world was a indication of the work he had come to do.
Jesus was born at Christmas, not to bring judgment, but to save us from God’s final judgment. He came to win the forgiveness of sins, and to redeem us from Satan, sin and death. The One born in the humility of a stable had come to die in the humiliation of the cross. Though he was the promised Messiah descended from David, he also was the suffering Servant described by Isaiah later in his prophecy. He was the One who came to receive God’s judgment against our sin.
Crucified, dead and buried, Jesus carried out the Father’s saving will for us. But John the Baptist was not wrong about Jesus. For on the third day God raised Jesus Christ from the dead, and forty days later he was exalted to the right hand of God as he ascended into heaven. Truly he was the saving glory of the Lord being revealed. And as we heard in last week’s Scripture lessons the One who came in humility will come a second time in glory. He will bring the final judgment exactly as John the Baptist declared.
So how do we prepare to celebrate Jesus Christ’s first coming? We listen to John the Baptist who was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words: Repent! We examine our lives and confess our sin. We cling in faith to Jesus Christ who was crucified for us and rose from the dead.
And we recognize that this life of repentance and faith is not merely about “getting off the hook” for our sins. John told the Pharisees and Sadducees that came out to hear him: “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.” Or in the poetic words of Isaiah from our text: “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.” Those things in our lives – those sins – that are opposed to God need to be removed. Repentance and faith receive forgiveness, and the Holy Spirit is at work through this faith to lead us to turn away from sin, and instead to live in ways that reflect God’s will and the love he has given us in Jesus Christ.
In our text today we hear: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Isaiah says, “And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” God comforted his people and revealed his glory by bringing them back from exile in Babylon.
But during Advent we prepare to celebrate the fact that God has comforted us in an even greater way. He has revealed his glory by sending his Son into the world, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary in Bethlehem. We prepare to celebrate this birth by repenting of our sins, confident that the baby in the manger grew up to die on the cross for our sins, and then rise from the dead. And because Jesus has risen from the dead and ascended, we have the living hope that the glory of the Lord will be revealed in all it fullness one last time. It will be when the Lord Jesus returns in glory to raise us from the dead and pronounce the judgment of the Last Day - a verdict that we already know will welcome us into eternal life with God because we have been baptized into Jesus Christ’s saving death and resurrection.