From The Pastor At St. Paul's UCC, Freeburg, IL

Sunday December 4 – Isaiah 40:1-11

1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 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.

3 A voice cries:[b] “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 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.
5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

6A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said,[c] “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty[d] is like the flower of the field.
7The grass withers, the flower fades
when the breath of the LORD blows on it;
surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades,
but the word of our God will stand forever.

9Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good news;[e]
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good news;[f]
lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Behold your God!”
10 Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11 He will tend 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.

I’m struck by the fact that all four gospels quote at least verse 3 of Isaiah 40 (Luke quotes 1-5) in connection with John the Baptist. Since the gospel of John tends to go its own way and tell its own stories, that fact that all four gospels refer to Isaiah 40:3 tell me it’s pretty important. Moreover there’s an interesting ambiguity in interpreting verse 3, an ambiguity that’s usually noted in a footnote – the text can be interpreted to mean that it’s in the wilderness that the preparing for the Lord is to happen (as above in the ESV); or it can mean that the voice that’s crying is in the wilderness. There’s a voice in the wilderness telling you to prepare, where you are, for the Lord. OR There’s a voice telling you to prepare in the wilderness. I think that’s a significant difference I want to bring out this Sunday.

One note on the whole structure, which falls into three sections:

  • the encouragement to comfort and the promise of the coming of the Lord (1-5)
  • a reflection on the passing nature of “all flesh”, and the enduring nature of the “word of our God” (6-8)
  • the command for Zion to be the herald of the coming of the Lord (9-11)

I think there’s a logic to the sequence – there’s something about the second section that leads from the first, to the third. In other words, to get from step 1 to step 3, you have to go thru step 2. At least, that’s what this Sunday’s sermon will touch on. The four gospels understood John the Baptist to be this herald. I’m thinking that now that the Messiah has come, it’s the church that’s the herald – the church which has been in the wilderness to prepare the way, and so knows about the passing nature of all flesh and the endurance of the word, and is meant to proclaim the good news.

One further note – this coming Sunday we’re hosting some friends from Puentes Del Esperanza (Bridges of Hope), a Hispanic ministry of Hoyleton Homes. I know that there’s some suspicion on our part about the ministry (to illegal immigrants?). I dunno about that. But it does strike me that since there are no natural born citizens of the Kingdom of God, we’re all immigrants there. And if we know how we got there legally, it’s going to make us merciful and understanding of immigrants anywhere.

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