Scripture Reference: Isaiah 40
Preparing For God's ArrivalDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | March 3, 2002
Selected highlights from this sermon
In order to prepare for God’s coming into our lives, we must humble ourselves and turn from our pride, even though we may want to bask in our perceived glories of humanity.
It’s time for us to yield to God and eagerly await His coming. The bottom line: we should value meeting with God more than anything else.
Well, let me ask you what happens in your house when company is about to come? It is at that time that the floor gets swept; it is at that time that the furniture gets dusted and the kitchen gets cleaned, though some of us live with a clean kitchen all the time. And I suppose it’s true to say that the more important the guest, the more fastidious we are in our preparations. Imagine inviting Jesus into your home. What preparations would you make? The prophet Isaiah actually foresaw the day when the nation of Judah, the Southern Kingdom as it is sometimes called, would invite God back and announce the coming King. The purpose of this message then is to talk about housecleaning to get ready for God's appearing, His coming in power and in glory. And then also, to remind us that we have some Good News to announce to the people with whom we work and the city in which we dwell and in the lives which we lead, to be able to talk about the fact that God has come. And we have to announce it.
But in order to lay the context for the passage of Scripture, the marvelous passage of Scripture that we are going to be looking at, I need to remind you that the first 39 chapters of Isaiah, and you can turn to chapter 40 of Isaiah, I need to remind you that the first 39 chapters of Isaiah are basically chapters of judgment. You read them and Isaiah talks about dark times that are going to come across the nation and as a result of their disobedience, God is going to punish them for their sins. As a matter of fact, the 39th chapter ends with Isaiah saying to Hezekiah in verse 5, "Hear the word of the Lord Almighty, the time will surely come when everything in your palace and all that your fathers have stored up until this day will be carried off to Babylon, nothing will be left, says the LORD." Now I want you to notice that when chapter 40 opens, Isaiah, looking through the corridors of time, foresees the day when that 70 years of captivity is going to be over and God is going to bring His people back–and in the bringing back of the people of God, they shall see His glory in a new way. See, here's what happened. The people of the Southern Kingdom of Judah, with its capital in Jerusalem, those people did two things that provoked the Almighty. The verse says they were constantly going to other nations and depending upon those nations for help instead of turning to God; they turned to everything except God in the time of need. And then what they did is they accepted the gods of those nations and it’s not that they rejected Jehovah. They did not have a ceremony saying, "from now on we will not worship Jehovah." What they did is they added these gods to their worship of Jehovah and God was greatly displeased because there is none like Him. You cannot add to God, when it comes to worship. And so God allowed them to be sold into the hands of the Babylonians. King Nebuchadnezzar surrounded the city of Jerusalem. The people were taken forcibly and they became refugees all the way to Babylon. And it is there that they were humiliated; it is there that we read in Psalm 137, "We were unable to sing, we put our harps on the willows and we wept." Why? Because you can't sing the songs of Zion in a strange land. It would be something like the city of Decatur, forcibly transported all the way to, shall we say, Idaho, but in those days a different country a different language, there to languish for 75 years, where most of the people died, but a new generation arose. Now with that background, you understand, chapter 40 opens. This is part of the reason we know that the Bible is supernatural, because Isaiah the prophet, he made these prophecies between 750 BC and 680 BC (when you talk about BC, the numbers go down, 750 to 680) and yet what he was predicting did not take place for more than 100 years. And here he foresees the time of restoration and the blessing of God returning.
Let's open the text and notice he says, "Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her heart of service has been completed, her sin has been paid for that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all of her sins." Don't misunderstand. Don't think that for a moment, that the suffering in Babylon was somehow a payment for Israel's sin in the sense of atonement; that's impossible. Only Jesus can atone for sins and even the people in the Old Testament, their sins were atoned for by Jesus. They were taken away temporarily by animal sacrifices, but only God can atone for sins. What's going on here in the text is this: God is saying, your time of punishment is over, your time of discipline is over, your time of chastisement is over. And it’s not as if God exacted double; the expression in Hebrew simply means you have fully paid for your disobedience, and it’s time now to come back. I want to speak to some of you to whom this applies directly. You may be in the wilderness spiritually speaking because of your disobedience, and God is saying to you, "It's time to come back, it’s time to experience the blessing of God again." Maybe you've been in the far country, maybe sins have been committed, maybe relationships have been entered into, decisions have been made that have been disastrous. This message is a word of comfort for you, and a word of restoration. Come back.
Now what I'd like to do as we look at the text is to see that there are three voices, three voices in this passage of Scripture and we have the privilege of being those voices today. So join me as we use our voices for God as we look at Isaiah chapter 40. The first voice says, "Prepare the highway, prepare the road." That's in verses 3-5. A voice of one calling in the desert, "Prepare the way of the LORD. Make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up. Every mountain and hill made low and the rough ground shall become level. The rugged places a plain and the glory of the LORD will be revealed. And all mankind together will see it, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. Prepare the highway for God." The imagery here is of ancient monarchs, who when they would go through a wilderness or a highway they would always send people ahead to prepare the road. And they would do that by building bridges if necessary. If the road went through a deep valley, they would try to fill in the valley. If it went over a high mountain, they tried to level the mountain because the monarch is coming, the king is coming and God says I am coming. "Get ready for my coming." Now, the best way to explain this passage of Scripture is to remember that John the Baptist quoted it as applying to him. And recall that when he was here in this world, and came to earth of course, John the Baptist, he was born not supernaturally, but he was a cousin of Jesus and he was called to prepare the way of the Lord. What obstacles had the people at that time set up to make it difficult for the nation to accept the coming of Christ who was already among them but had not yet been revealed as Messiah? Well. remember He said, “You generation of vipers, you self-righteous Pharisees, to you appearance is everything. Your heart is far from God, you sing the right songs you say the right words, you honor God with your lips but all that you are concerned about is the outer appearance.” They had substitutes for God. They substituted knowledge for knowing God personally. They substituted greed. Greed was their god and had built a home in their hearts. And so John the Baptist was saying, "you derive your significance from the opinions of people, and inwardly you are hollow and it is time for you to repent." God has the same message for us today. When it says that the glory of the Lord is going to be revealed, no doubt, Isaiah is thinking ultimately of the millennial kingdom. He's thinking of the time of glory when Christ comes, but at the same time what he's doing is, he's reminding us if we are wanting the blessing of God, we have to get ready. From my heart to yours, if God really wanted to bless you, if God wanted to shower you with an overwhelming sense of His presence, what obstacles are in your life and mine that hinder the overflow of the blessing of God? What obstacles do we have as a church? What stands in the way? The message today is, "Get ready! Prepare the highway! Lower the mountains! Lift the valleys! Make the road clear! Because God is coming!" And we participate in that voice shouting, "Let's make a highway for the coming of God."
Second voice is: humble your hearts. Humble your hearts. You'll notice I'm picking it up at verse 6: “A voice says, ‘Cry out,’ and I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All men are like grass and all their glory is like the flower of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall because the breath of the LORD blows upon them, surely the people are grass. The grass withers, and the flowers fall, but the word of our God shall stand forever." With your open Bible would you notice the contrast between the glory of God. It says in verse 5, it speaks about the glory of God being revealed, verse 6 talks about the glory of man and what a contrast it is. The glory of God is intrinsic to who God is. God's glory is a part of Him just as light is a part of the sun. Like wetness to water. It’s part of who God is. It is the radiance of who He is in all of His purity, in power, in holiness, and, in all of His attributes all coming together, the glory and the wonder of God. But the glory of man is like the grass. It's here today, it’s gone tomorrow. It is not intrinsic to us, is it? You take a king and you strip him of his crown and of his clothes and of his robes and of his entourage and you put him on the street and soon you can’t tell the difference between him and a beggar. Because any glory that you and I have is conferred, it is given to us by God. God's is intrinsic to Him and then, the other difference, of course, is that God's glory is eternal. It will be here today, it will be here tomorrow, it'll be here when dynasties come and dynasties go and kingdoms come and kingdoms go and presidents come and presidents go, but God's glory is eternal. As for man, his days are as grass as the flower of the fields, so he flourishes; if the wind passes over it and it is gone and the place thereof know of it no more, yet the everlasting God, his glory is from everlasting to everlasting. There is a story that cannot be proved historically as historically correct. But, there is a story of the emperor Julian. Maybe you never heard of him, but he was brought up at a time when some of his relatives were killed and he turned against Christianity. He is known in church history as Julian the Apostate. How would you like to have that written on your tombstone? Isn't that terrible, to think you died an apostate? He turned against Christianity intentionally and directly. But one time he was taunting a humble Christian and Julian said to him, "So what is the Son of the carpenter of Nazareth doing now?" And the humble Christian said, "He is hewing wood for the funeral of the emperor." And soon after that, Julian died and it is said that his last words were, "Thou hast triumphed, O Galilean." Humility in the presence of a holy God, how important it is. Because away from God's presence we lose it all, don't we? We forget that we are like grass that is here today, gone tomorrow. We are subjected to fires and to storms and, and, we're just here for a little time, and so we humble ourselves in God's presence. Because if God is going to come, God must break us. We must be like water that is poured on the ground that cannot be re-gathered. We must be people who have died to our rights, because we know who we are in the presence of a holy God. Because we know that His Word abides forever, forever it is settled in heaven. But our own hearts are hearts that are only temporal and full of sinfulness and so we humble ourselves. Why is it that so many people have so much difficulty in living the Christian life? Why is it that for so many people, Christianity is “confess your sins, commit the same sin again, confess the sin again;” and a routine continues. There may be many reasons, but one is this: that we do not wake up in the morning choosing to die to self, that God might be glorified. Except a corn of wheat falls onto the ground and die, it abides alone. We humble ourselves because God is coming. Our glory is nothing. His is everything. He must increase, said John the Baptist, and I must decrease. The brokenness of the cross of Christ.
Well, there's a third voice that cries out. The voice that says prepare the highway, prepare your heart, humble your heart. And now, the third voice announces the arrival of God. As I read this passage of Scripture, beginning at verse 9. I couldn't help but think of how wonderful it would be to go to the top of the Sears Tower and to be able to have a megaphone and speak to the entire city of Chicago and say, "Behold your God has come! Jesus has come! There's a Savior!" The imagery here is so instructive, because what he says is, if you're bringing good tidings to Zion, which by the way is a poetic word for Jerusalem that really referred to a part of the city but it is applied to the whole city of Jerusalem, "Go on a high mountain. Go as high as you possibly can, to reach as many people as is possible and then when you do that, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, don't be afraid, say to the towns of Judah, "Here is your God!" What an opportunity we have to announce to people that God exists, and here He is. And of course, in the New Testament era, we emphasize the coming of our Redeemer the Lord Jesus Christ. Well, what happens when God comes? I mean, are things going to be the same? No, I want you to notice three attributes that God has and they are attributes that every one of us needs to live the Christian life and to be people of faith and not people of despair and hopelessness. Notice first of all, He is a God of power. See, the sovereign Lord (I'm in verse 10) comes with power in His arm rules for Him. What is it that you need in your life today? Some of you are paralyzed by fear. It may be fear of illness, it may be that someone is stalking you, it may be fear of poverty, it may be fear of the future. Whatever it is, remember that God is the God of awesome power, the sovereign one, and His arm rules for Him. And then you'll notice that He is the God of justice. His reward is with Him; His recompense accompanies Him. He is going to do right by you: will you believe that? Do you believe that God does right by His people? And then there is another attribute that we usually attribute to Jesus, but we don't realize that it applies to Jehovah as well because Jesus is Jehovah of course, but notice this: Verse 11, "He tends his flock like a shepherd. He gathers the lambs in his arms and he carries them close to his heart. He gently leads those that have young." When you think of God, you think of power, you think of justice, but do you think of lovingkindness and do you think of tenderness? Here is tenderness. When the Lord God comes for all to see in glory and in power. Do you understand now why, at the end of the day, no matter what it is that we face, no matter what the tragedy is, no matter what the bad decision is that we made, do you realize that always the answer to our problem and I want to be simplistic, you know I've always prayed that God would keep me simple. Some of my staff think that He's overdone it actually. But at the end of the day what we need always is a fresh revelation of God. That’s what we need. That's what the Puritans used to say and, whether we agree with them or not, it's a profound statement that “He who has God and everything else does not have more than He who has God only.” Because if you have God, you have enough. What would it look like if God were to come? What if God were to visit Moody Church? We know that He is here, but what if He came in saving power? What if He came in purifying power? What would Moody Church look like? Ray Ortlund in his book When God Comes to Church describes what it would look like. He says, "When God rends the heavens and comes down on His people, a divine power achieves what human effort at its best fails to do." God's people thirst for the ministry of the Word and they receive it with tender melting of the soul. The grip of enslaving sin is broken. Reconciliation between believers is sought and granted. Spiritual things rather than material things capture people’s hearts. A defensive, timid church is transformed into a confident army. Believers joyfully suffer for their Lord. They treasure usefulness to God over career and advancement. Communion with God is avidly enjoyed. Churches and Christian organizations reform their policies and procedures. People who have always been indifferent to the Gospel now inquire anxiously. And this type of spiritual movement draws in not just the isolated straggler here or there, but large numbers of people. A wave of divine grace washes over the Church and spills out onto the world. That is what happens when God comes down and that is how we should pray for the Church today. Would you like to see that here? That God were to come.
What I'd like to do is to nail this down for all of us by giving you four very specific comments and applications. As we look at the text again, do you realize that even God's special servants incur His discipline? Even God's special servants incur His discipline. Judah was the apple of God's eye, these were His people, they were the ones He chose and they got by with their sins for a long time, but at the end of the day, God says, "You're so bad that you're going to have to go into captivity to learn once and for all that you have to worship me and not idols." Wow. What a tough way to learn a lesson. It should have theoretically been easy to learn. The Bible says that whom the Lord loves, He chastens, and He scourges every son whom He receives. How does God chasten us? Maybe not by overt tragedy, and when you see someone who has tragedy the purpose may not be for discipline at all; it may be for refinement as it was in the book of Job. But normally, when we are disciplined this has been my observation; it is the normal consequences of our sin that becomes the means of discipling us. What is an addiction? An addiction is nothing more than God's judgment on people who toy with sin, you see? It has natural consequences. All sin has natural consequences, but some sins more evidently so. Some sins have repercussions that are much more important. There may be those to whom I speak today who had children out of wedlock. There are those to whom I speak today who had relationships with destructive, with destructive consequences and the deeper you go into this relationship, the more difficult it is to get away from it and I want to have a word with you today if you hang with me for the next few moments, but the Lord, the Lord disciplines even His special people. I want you to know that no matter how long you and I have walked with God, He will not endlessly tolerate our disobediences and our sins. And He will drag us from one thistle patch to another to get our attention. And there are some people who still do not respond to His loving voice.
Second, God wounds us that He might heal us. God wounds us that He might heal us. God's intention, you know, for the people of Israel is to say, "Yes, I know that you're suffering for 70 long years. I know life is tough. But, but you know my intention is to restore you to Myself. My intention is that you might be brought back." We read, just a few moments ago in verse 11, "He takes the lambs in His bosom." And you know it is true, I'm told, that shepherds do break the legs of wayward lambs to teach them to stay close to his heart. Has God ever broken your leg to teach you? Have you learned? When I was a boy memorizing a lot of Scripture, which you ought to do when you're young and also when you're old. I remember that one of the verses that I knew very well was Psalm 119:65, it says "Before I was afflicted, I went astray, but now I have kept Thy word." And then a few verses later the Psalm says, "It was good for me that I have been afflicted because now I have kept Thy precepts." Where would we be if God did not afflict us?
But He wounds us that He might heal us. He doesn't want to harden our hearts, He doesn't want us to rebel against Him and say, well, "If this is the kind of God you are, I'm turning away." No, no, no, no! You're missing the message. He's saying, "Don't you understand how desperately you need to get rid of everything in your life that isn't really Me. You know, if the greatest commandment is, "Thou shall the love the Lord your God with all your heart" what do you think the greatest sin is? It’s to love other things more than God. So He wounds us that He might heal us. I want you to know that God's intention to you today is a tender, loving intention.
Third, God comforts us even in messes of our own making, in messes of our own making. You know, the people of Judah were in captivity because of their own sin, okay. Did God say to them, "Well, you know, this is a mess that you've got yourself into; I guess, you know, you made your own bed you may as well lay in it. And I'm out of here!" No. God was with them even in Babylon. Even in their sorrow when they put their harps on the willows and said, “we can't play a song.” In Babylon that belongs to Zion. They had great sadness; God was there, God was there. Some of you, bless you, you're suffering not just because of your own messes but messes that people have made for you. God is there as well to comfort and to say, "Comfort, ye my people." Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, to Chicago, to you as an individual and know that the time of discipline, if you've learned your lesson, it's over and let's go on from here and let's have a brand new beginning that you might still see the glory of the Lord. He is the God of the second chance. And where you are at today, where you are at today, He will meet you. He loves you and His intention is to help you.
And then finally, it becomes obvious that we have to prepare our hearts for Him, don't we? You know there's that old question of whether or not revival is something God sovereignly sends, He sends revival here, over here, yes God is sovereign, He sends it wherever He wishes. But, it is our responsibility to adjust the sails on our ship to catch the breeze that He sends our way. And we catch that breeze through our praying, through our yieldedness, through our witness, through our commitment to the body of Jesus Christ, by being here as members of the Body, and by saying to ourselves, "Let's get prepared for something special that God would do among us." Let me ask you a question today, "What if God wanted to do something at Moody Church that wasn't listed in the bulletin?" Would we be ready for that? Isaiah would say, "Prepare the way for God and you have no idea what might happen if God were to show up."
And then there's a word also for those of you who have never come to trust Christ as Savior, Jesus in the 25th chapter of Matthew tells an amazing parable. Jesus says that there were ten virgins who were waiting for the Bridegroom to come and five of them had oil in their lamps and the other five did not and suddenly the time came for the Bridegroom and then the door was open and then only those, you know, who had oil in their lamps, whose lamps were lit, could enter in. And the others said, "Well give us some of your oil!" And they said, "No, no we cannot do that." And so those who didn't have oil, they went away but when they came back the door was shut. You see there were five that were ready for the Lord's appearing and five that were not. I wonder how many people in this congregation today are not ready if the Lord should come, not just His presence, but in shining glory, how many, would not be ready? I urge you today, as a believer, prepare your heart to meet God. And as an unbeliever, flee to Christ. Have oil in your lamp, so to speak, to use the imagery. So that when the Bridegroom comes, you're invited to the wedding.
Our Father, we ask in the name of Jesus that You in grace might teach us, what it would look like if You were to come in power, in glory, in strength, in convicting power, in delivering power, in redeeming power. O Father, we pray, help us to prepare the way, help us to be broken and humble. And we ask, Oh Father God, that all self shall be laid aside, that each day would be a day when we choose to die. And then, Oh Father, to announce that the glory of God has come. Do all that in us, we ask, because we are so needy, in Jesus' name, Amen. Amen.