This morning we’re going to sit and bask in the sweeping, soaring, deeply strengthening words of Isaiah 40. It is one of the most remarkable chapters of the whole Bible – but that’s not why we’re looking at it together. I want to take you to Isaiah 40 because of this moment in the life of our church family, and our world, and, for many of us, at this moment in our own lives – these words of God are exactly what we need.
The book of Isaiah is written in the middle of a national crisis. A golden age when everything was beautiful one day, perfect the next has suddenly come to an end. Life is chaotic. The Assyrians are knocking at the door. The Assyrians, are were far more virulent than any strain of COVID, and will soon wipe out half the nation. In the middle of all this, Isaiah of Jerusalem is commissioned by God to preach. In chapter 6, we discover that he is told to speak a message of imminent judgment and ultimate salvation to people who don’t really want to listen. They are in denial. So in the first 35 chapters of the book, Isaiah uses every trick in the prophetic book to try to bring these people to their senses. Then in chapters 36-39, there is a real change of gear. In the second half of this epic book, Isaiah is ‘re-commissioned’ to bring a fresh message
In the middle of one crisis, as the Assyrians are erasing the ten tribes to the north, Isaiah starts to speak about a hope which can withstand any onslaught; a comfort which eases not only Assyrian incursions, but Babylonian deportation and anything else that can come our way. This is a message for 700BC, and for the moment when the Babylonians would come steaming into Jerusalem 100 years later, and for every moment of uncertainty and devastation. This is a message for the ages, as our God, the God of the universe, the God and Father of the Lord Jesus gives us a breathtaking vision of himself, and our future as those who are his sons and daughters.
So strap in, as we race through the unmatched panorama of Isaiah 40. As we allow this epic chapter to sweep over us, we’re going to hear seven gentle instructions from God, which, if we take hold of them, will revolutionise the way in which we look at our broken and ailing world, and set us up perfectly as individuals and a church to face the rising tide of COVID, and our own deeply personal struggles, and the challenges and opportunities that this year will bring for us as God’s people. So here goes: seven divine instructions – and here’s the first – it’s not complicated:
1. SEE THE GOD WHO REVEALS HIS GLORY! (40:1-5)
The chapter opens with this beautifully tender, if slightly surprising message: Isa 40:1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Even as the Assyrians trash the northern kingdom, even in the shadow of the looming Babylonian threat, God speaks gently and kindly to his future people, offering them protection and relief. Catastrophe strikes, but they are still his people and he is still their God. That’s why he commissions Isaiah to speak these words ahead of time to subsequent generations of his own people: 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem [lit. to Jerusalem’s heart], and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’S hand double for all her sins.
Isaiah looks forward to a day when the trauma of exile in Babylon is over – the hard yards have been done, God’s discipline endured and survived, the punishment is over and God says ‘enough is enough’. Now there is forgiveness, and reassurance, and above all, comfort. This is God’s default stance towards us as his children. This morning, whatever is going on for us, whatever we are going through, God offers us his comfort. But how can he do that? Where does this comfort come from? For that, we have to look at verses 3-5.
Suddenly, another voice is heard, with dramatic results: 3 A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. One of God’s unnamed servants gets to announce the most dramatic construction project of all time. A multi-lane highway is created which is completely level, bridging valleys, obliterating mountains – and what’s the point of this brand new road? It’s designed so that God might come to us, and, in the powerful words of verse 5, And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people will see it [0bserve and experience it] together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” God’s solution to the trauma of the Babylonian exile is to come to his people, reveal his glory, so that all people can experience it together. Isaiah calls them – and us – to see the God who reveals his glory.
Of course we know that the voice in verse 3, actually belongs to the one we call John the Baptist. Luke actually quotes most of verses 3-5 in introducing the baptiser in his gospel. But the voice isn’t the headline act here. Isaiah is talking about the moment when, to quote John’s gospel, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. The comfort in verse 1 flows from the glory in verse 5.
It is astonishing that even in the 8th Century BC, as he speaks to his own people about the profoundly traumatic experience they are about to face, God invites them to look on his glory with all people. For them comfort is found and recovery starts with gazing on God in all his splendour. And as we face the slightly scary prospect of these next couple of weeks, and the year ahead, this is where we must begin – by seeing the God who reveals his glory. Then we need to… .
2. LISTEN TO THE GOD WHO SPEAKS! (40:6-8)
At this point, someone tells Isaiah to cry out, but the prophet, not unreasonably, isn’t exactly sure what he’s supposed to shout – but he gets the answer in verses 6-8: 7 “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. 7 The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”
Verse 6 is one of the less flattering descriptions of people like us in the Bible, but it is confrontingly true. We are all like grass. We are insubstantial. Short-term. Sooner or later, we all wither and die. Like flowers, we may live beautiful lives with God, but like flowers, our season comes and goes. This is the way God has set things up. We are mortal, and he alone is immortal – he breathes life into us, and he breathes on us and we wither. There is nothing we can do to avoid or change this. This is the brute reality of our existence. We come and we go. We are fundamentally unreliable. Insubstantial. We have our moments, and they may be good and wholesome and attractive, but then we – and they – are gone. We can’t follow through on our words. But the word of our God will stand forever.
God has spoken, and it is his words which hold the key to life and health and peace. His words that bring rescue, and a future and a hope in the face of judgement. His words are enduringly powerful. He speaks, and he delivers. Which is why our enduring need as God’s people is to listen to God speak through his word.
This year, as we gather here on Sundays, as we meet in one another’s homes to study the Bible together, as we read it ourselves in the morning, or last thing at night, or as we snatch lunch at our desk in work or at College, let’s remember this – these are the very words of God. God speaks to people like us, which is underlined in verses 9-11, as Isaiah also urges us to…
3. GASP AT THE GOD WHO COMES HIMSELF! (40:9-11)
What happens next is actually pretty surprising. Now God instructs not just Isaiah, but Jerusalem and Zion – the hill on the southern side of Jerusalem where David built his citadel – to raise their voices. And what are they to say? 9 You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is [Behold!] your God!” In the 16th Century, John Calvin explained that ‘This expression includes the sum of our happiness, which consists solely in the presence of God.’ Whatever else you get from Isaiah 40, I desperately hope you get this: it’s all about God.
John Piper in his marvellous book God is the Gospel says this: “The ultimate good of the gospel is seeing and savouring the beauty and value of God. God’s wrath and our sin obstruct that vision and that pleasure. You can’t see and savour God as supremely satisfying while you are full of rebellion against Him and He is full of wrath against you. The removal of this wrath and this rebellion is what the gospel is for. The ultimate aim of the gospel is the display of God’s glory and the removal of every obstacle to our seeing it and savouring it as our highest treasure. “Behold Your God!” is the most gracious command and the best gift of the gospel. If we do not see Him and savour Him as our greatest fortune, we have not obeyed or believed the gospel.”
What are we doing here this morning? Why read these words and spend time trying to get our heads around them. We are aiming high – we do this so that we might see and savour God. That we might meet with God. God comes and speaks to people like us so that people like us might encounter him, and gasp at his And to bring that about, our God comes himself. That’s the point of verses 10-11: See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. God comes likes a conquering soldier, carrying his spoils and his pay, for he has defeated all-comers. He also comes like a shepherd: 11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young. We meet together so that together we might encounter God, and gasp at his frightening power, and his delicate tenderness as he gathers us up in his arms – as our speaking God comes to meet us.
I hope you realise that the gospel is that it is the announcement of God’s own coming – it introduces us to God himself! The gospel is a means to an end – to enable people to know and encounter and bow before and be strengthened by the one and only God. God has acted in Christ so that people like us may meet this God and gasp at him. And if we meet this God, then the fourth gentle instruction is a complete no-brainer…
4. SUBMIT TO THE GOD WHO IS SUPREME (40:12-17)
If we get the fact that the God of all glory reveals himself to us, speaks to us and comes himself to meet us, then the only logical response is to bow before him in submission. He is simply out of our league. We are nothing compared to him – read with me from verse 12: Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance? The scope of God’s power is utterly beyond compare. 13 Who can fathom the Spirit of the LORD, or instruct the LORD as his counselor? The extent of God’s power and wisdom is unfathomable. 14 Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way?
Unlike the gods of Babylon, who apparently formed a committee to design the earth and then created people to help build it, God does it effortlessly himself – for Who was it that taught him knowledge, or showed him the path of understanding? God’s power is truly limitless… 15 Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust.
If you’ve seen the Avenger movies, you may have through that Thanos’ infinity gauntlet was pretty impressive. In the real universe, God needs no gauntlet. He doesn’t even need to click his fingers, his power makes all that look like child’s play. That’s why not even the vast cedar forests of Lebanon could fuel a fire that was big enough or supply enough animals to provide a worthy sacrifice for him (verse 16). The stark truth comes in verse 17: Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing.
May I let you into a secret? All we can do when this God shows up and reveals himself to us in all his glory is submit. This is supposed to be confronting. Which is why we are, command number 5, to…
5. TREMBLE BEFORE THE GOD WHO JUDGES (40:18-24)
If there is one idea which sits uncomfortably with us as God’s people in our generation it’s the idea of trembling before God. Fearing him. Being awestruck by him. To be honest, our gatherings seem designed to eliminate awe, rather than call people to it… There has been a deliberate shift since I was a child, when a bloke generally dressed in flowing gowns loomed over the congregation from a large pulpit and intoned the words “Let us worship Godddddddd!’ Now please don’t mishear me. I’m not saying we should wind back the clock or go out of our way to make people feel uncomfortable if they come to gather with us- but we do need to be careful that we haven’t eliminated something from our life together that is terribly important. That we haven’t done exactly what Isaiah describes from verse 18, and replaced the living God with a pathetic imitation of the real thing:
18 With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him?
As for an idol, a metalworker casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
and fashions silver chains for it.20 A person too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot; they look for a skilled worker to set up an idol that will not topple.
The problem is that whatever he does, the block of wood is still a block of wood. Our great need is to be confronted by the living God and tremble: 21 Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded? 22 He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.23 He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing. 24 No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff. God is transcendent. Awesome. And we are not. None of us. Even the most significant, most powerful, most influential, most enduring. We are gone in an instant. When flesh and bone meets the living God, the only reaction that makes any sense is that we tremble before the infinite God, who raises up and throws down, who rescues, and who judges.
Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been reading a book in the same series as Gentle and Lowly – it’s called Rejoice and Tremble: The Surprising Good News of the Fear of the Lord by Mike Reeves. Mike points out that Christians today basically fall into two camps – some of us speak of love and grace in a way that rules out any need for any kind of fear ever. For doesn’t ‘perfect love cast out fear’? But ‘the other camp seems angered by this, and emphasises how afraid of God we should be. The fear of God is then like cold water on our love for God. We get the impression that the fear of God must be the gloomy theological equivalent of eating your greens; something the theological health nuts binge on, while everyone else enjoys tastier fare.’ Later in the book, he goes on to explain beautifully how the Bible actually speaks about the fear of God. It is not, he says “the minor-key, gloomy flip-side to proper joy in God… rather this trembling ‘fear of God’ is a way of speaking about the sheer intensity of the saints’ happiness in God – the biblical theme of the fear of God helps us to see the sort of joy that is most fitting for us. Our desire for God and delight in him are not supposed to be lukewarm. As our love for God is a trembling and wonder-filled love, so our joy in God is, at its purest, a trembling and wonder-filled- yes fearful- joy… . We are made to rejoice and tremble before God, to love and enjoy him with an intensity that is fitting for him. And what more befits his infinite magnificence than an enjoyment of him which is more than our frail selves can bear, which overwhelms us and causes us to tremble?’
This is why we need to read Isaiah 40 and allow God by his Spirit to make the hairs on the back of our neck stand on end. Because when we see that this is our God, it leads us to hope and obey and live courageously and persevere through all kinds of suffering, because this is the God we trust. That’s why we need to tremble at the God who judges all things. And why we need to…
6. DELIGHT IN THE GOD WHO IS INCOMPARABLE (40:26-28)
I have a friend who spent a few miserable weeks as a car salesman. He was given the job by his father-in-law, as he sought to persuade him, and his new wife, to stay close to the family home. He was probably the most hopeless car salesman in the history of car sales. Eventually, he and his father-in-law realised this wasn’t going to work after my friend had confided in a customer that actually he wouldn’t buy the car he was allegedly trying to sell either. And that, I think, actually takes us to probably the most basic issue of all when it comes to our God – are we captivated by, and convinced of and delighting in the God whom we are talking about? In verse 25, Isaiah turns to this deepest of all heart issues – our attitude to, affection for and delight in God himself:
25 “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One. 26 Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth each of them by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing. 27 Why do you complain, Jacob? Why do you say, Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God”?
Do you resent me? Are you angry with me? 28 Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. We are wired to marvel at and delight in the living God, and ultimately, it is our apprehension of, commitment to, desire for God which will drive the way in which we live in and through this pandemic and this year, and for the rest of our lives. Has this truth sunk in?
Knowing the truth is important, but the great challenge is to push through knowing to delighting in it. In 1733, Jonathan Edwards preached a sermon in which he said: There is a difference between having an opinion, that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace. There is a difference between having a rational judgment that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness. A man may have the former, that knows not how honey tastes; but a man cannot have the latter unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mind. Our great need is to keep tasting the honey of God’s incomparable goodness through the gospel, as we taste and see that he is good, and delight in him. That’s why we gather together week by week. Because our great need is to feel the taste of God’s goodness on our spiritual tongues, as we rediscover our delight in him. Which is why, right now, and repeatedly throughout our lives, we need to do one last thing…
7. COME TO THE GOD WHO REFRESHES (40:29-31)
Remember how this chapter started? ‘Be comforted my people.’ And that essentially is where Isaiah 40 finishes. Sit back, and bask in the affirming, energising comfort of these peerless words: 29 He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.
30 Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; 31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.. Our God is the one who gives and gives and gives. Even students get to the point where they run out of energy and collapse in a heap, but God is the one who can endlessly replenish our resources. He can rejuvenate us to the extent that we can stand up and get ready to fly again, so that we can keep running, putting one foot past the other again and again and again.
As exile looms, and their life as a nation crumbles, is God able to rescue the the people of Judah? Is he still willing to act on their behalf? And the answer to both questions is a resounding ‘yes’. God is not finished with them. He is still committed to using them – working in and through them. Is he able to see us through omicron, and whatever lies beyond? Oh yes. And the next step for us is to come to him to be refreshed. And that’s what I’d love you to do as we continue our journey together this week. Come to God and be refreshed, that he might launch us out on his mission with a new zeal, and new delight and new confidence – for, to quote Barry Webb, “the gospel of Jesus Christ is simply the gospel of Isaiah 40 transposed into a higher key.”
The most wonderful thing is that everything we have seen and heard in this chapter is amplified and enhanced and enriched in the Lord Jesus Christ. It is in Christ that God reveals his glory in the most stunning fashion. It is in Christ, the word made flesh, in whom God speaks his final, definitive, comprehensive word. It is in Christ that our God comes to us and makes us gasp. It is to Christ the Lord, the one whom the wind and the waves obey, the one who conquers death, that we are to submit. It is before Christ who is our judge, that we will all one day bow down and tremble. It is in Christ that we see that there is no-one like our God. It Christ who says to us in Matthew 11: 28 Come to me, all who labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”