Turn in your bibles to Isaiah 40. We are continuing our Advent series titled “Prepare the Way” looking at Isaiah 40:1-11. Last week we considered verses 1-2 focusing on the subject of comfort. With regard to the nation of Israel, this was a promise to be comforted at the end of their Babylonian captivity. They were in a position of waiting on God with a growing sense of discouragement. Just as the message of comfort was applicable to Israel, it is applicable to the church of God, who are the true “Israel of God” (as Paul calls us in Galatians 6:16 and explains in Romans 4:1-16). In light of that, we talked about how we are to give comfort and why we are to receive it. The Advent season is about Christ’s coming. And this passage opens with an emphasis on how Christ’s coming is intended to bring comfort to his covenant people.
This morning we will be looking at verses 3-5. Then next week I will be out of town and we will have a guest preacher here who serves in a sister reformed church. Tim McCracken is the pastor at First Reformed Presbyterian Church in Fresno. He will be looking at the topic covered in verses 6-8 which focuses on the enduring word of God’s promise. So he will be taking you to Luke 2 and considering how Simeon and Anna waited on the Lord and saw his fulfillment of this promise.
In this morning’s passage we will turn to the subject of preparation for the glory of the Lord which was revealed at Christ’s coming.
Before we read this passage let us look to the Lord in prayer for his help in understanding it.
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:
“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.”
6 A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
7 The 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.
9 Go on up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good news;
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good news;
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.
This is the Word of the LORD.
Last week we saw God’s desire that his people be comforted. He delights to bring them peace and pardon. We noted that this was initially fulfilled with Israel’s release from captivity in Babylon. But the primary fulfillment occurred at Christ’s first coming, when sin was defeated upon the cross and those spiritually captive to sins power were set free by faith.
Now, verse 3 begins with the assumption that there are barriers to Christ’s coming. A process of preparation is necessary. How do we “prepare” for Christ’s coming? Obstacles must be removed. Whether these obstacles are self-imposed or stumbled upon is beside the point. The question is, how will you overcome them?
The passage sets up a contrast for us between the unpromising landscape (3b-e) and the coming glory (5ab).1 It begins with a voice crying out to all who will listen. Each verse can be seen as three steps to understanding the purpose of the advent. First, the voice calls us to Prepare the Way (3). Second, we are called to Remove the Obstacles (4). And third, we get to Behold the Glory (5).
Prepare the Way (3)
Let’s begin by considering this voice. Who is it? Each of the gospel accounts credit John the Baptist as the fulfillment of this verse. He is the one crying out. So this is a human voice which testifies to the divine voice (5b). The one crying has advanced into the wilderness and is calling upon the people to come and make a road for the Lord. Remember who the audience is from verse 1, “my people”. It is a call for preparation by those within the covenant community. Many of them are living in compromised ways that hinder the coming of Christ in their lives. So it’s easy to find ourselves in this passage too. We need to hear this voice calling us today!
Last night we had people lined up along both sides of the street. People lined the streets of Clovis and Pollasky as well as the side streets. There was a large number of people ready to watch the Clovis Children’s Electric Christmas Parade. Now, what was incredible was how early people were preparing for this parade. There were chairs on the sidewalks first thing in the morning. There were people sitting in those chairs as early as 4pm (the parade started at 6:30). The preparation in this passage pictures people lining up for the procession of God. Not only are they lining up, but they are clearing a highway.
The voice immediately evokes the metaphorical language of “wilderness” and “desert”. This is the perfect example of a passage describing physical landscape but intending it to be taken spiritually. A literal interpretation would be unconvincing. The preparation of a physical path is not necessary for a spiritual being. John the Baptist fulfills the prophecy of this text. And how did he read it? He literally preached in the wilderness. So you might say, “See we should be interpreting this passage literally.” But what does he cry out? He calls the people to repent. He didn’t cry out for the people to start clearing the vegetation.
So what is the spiritual significance of “wilderness/desert”? Scripture routinely evokes these metaphors to emphasize a time of testing or discipline. It would remind the original readers of the time of the Exodus. At that time, Israel was between Egypt and Canaan waiting on God. During Isaiah’s time they are between Babylon and the Promised Land; once again, waiting on God. The setting was the same at the time of Christ’s birth and it is similar to our modern period of waiting between a time of promise and fulfillment.
Last week we looked at Hosea 2:14 to emphasize the tender voice of divine comfort. In the context of bringing harsh judgment upon Israel for her idolatry and departure from God, we read, “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.” Did you catch where this alluring takes place? God brings the people into the wilderness—a place of testing and discipline—in order to bring them back to himself.
Therefore, preparing the way of the Lord is recognizing that the difficult circumstances of our lives serve a redemptive purpose. The very things we think are working to crush us, actually save us.
We prepare for his coming in the same way that John the Baptist prepared his audience for his coming, namely we repent. This is not something we can make happen. We don’t conjure up within ourselves a heart of repentance. We simply listen to the voice that is calling us to prepare. We don’t try to stifle it’s cry.
Is your heart dry and scorched like a desert? Hear the voice that is calling you to turn away from your sin in repentance.
Well maybe you understand that. And maybe you even agree that you are sinful and need to repent. But what does repentance look like? That’s what we’ll consider in our next point.
Remove the Obstacles (4)
Here we are met with more landscaping metaphors. “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.” In other words, all kinds of obstructions are removed from the path.
Internal and external sins must be attacked. Hardened hearts must be softened. Matthew Henry says our hearts must be leveled by divine grace.2 We see this in two ways:
- Those cast down into despair and condemnation are lifted up.
- The self-righteous are humbled.
We should be humbled, but not condemned. Whether you are filled with pride, or in the depths of despair, you need to hear the voice calling you out of that frame of spirit. The state of preparedness is one of faith and hope.
I’m currently rereading Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (author of Seabiscuit). Its subtitle is “A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption.” We read about the life of Louie Zamperini. His running in the olympics, his entering the war, being shot down, escaping sharks only to be captured, tortured, and finally returned home. It is a remarkable story. He survived some of the most horrendous POW experiences and suffered torment many years after his release.
Four years after the war ended Louie found his way to a Billy Graham crusade (one of the first really successful crusades Graham put on). He heard Graham speaking of the judgment of God. Even those who think they are “pretty good” people will hear God say, “Depart from me.” Louie’s response was one of self-righteous rage, “I’m a good person.” He left during the call to repentance, but his wife convinced him to go and listen to him again the following evening. As Graham once again got to the call at the end of his sermon Louie stood to leave.
Hillenbrand writes, “Louie pushed past the congregants in his row, charging for the exit. His mind was tumbling. He felt enraged, violent, on the edge of explosion. He wanted to hit someone. As he reached the aisle, he stopped. Cynthia, the rows of bowed heads, the sawdust underfoot, the tent around him, all disappeared. A memory long beaten back, the memory from which he had run the evening before, was upon him. Louie was on the raft. There was gentle Phil crumpled up before him, Mac’s breathing skeleton, endless ocean stretching away in every direction, the sun lying over them, the cunning bodies of the sharks, waiting, circling. He was a body on a raft, dying of thirst. He felt words whisper from his swollen lips. It was a promise thrown at heaven, a promise he had not kept, a promise he had allowed himself to forget until just this instant: If you will save me, I will serve you forever. And then, standing under a circus tent on a clear night in downtown Los Angeles, Louie felt rain falling. It was the last flashback he would ever have. Louie let go of Cynthia and turned toward Graham. He felt supremely alive. He began walking.”3
That’s how repentance begins. It is listening to the call and responding in faith. Louie went home, and gave up his many vices. His anger turned to joy. His rage became peace. Louie’s nightmares vanished and when he had the opportunity to meet some of his old guards when he was a POW, he was able to forgive them. His life was completely transformed. He was a new creation!
What are the internal and external barriers to Christ’s coming more fully in your own life? Are there particular sins that have you imprisoned like a POW? Are you filled with fear, pride, or anger? Maybe you’ve always thought of yourself as autonomous and able to take care of yourself. Admitting need would be failure. Whatever it is, this voice calls you to examine the barriers in your life that impede worship. They may be internal or external. They may be obvious or subtle. What are the valleys you’ve walked through this year?
All obstructions to his coming are to be removed. Total transformation is expected in preparation. The glory of the Lord is revealed in the hearts of those who humble themselves removing all self-glory.
But repentance isn’t the only aspect of preparation. There is also an anticipation of his coming when we will…
Behold the Glory (5)
This passage builds kind of like a hike in Yosemite. If you’ve ever hiked Half Dome there is a lot of work involved. It is an all day event and depending on the level of your fitness, it can be quite grueling. But the end result is an amazing scenic view of Yosemite and beyond. The journey to get there actually heightens your appreciation of it.
Whether we are compassionate priests or rebuking prophets our goal is to prepare the way of the Lord.
- If it’s about your feelings you missed the point.
- If it’s about the feelings of others you’re improving.
- If it’s not ultimately about God’s glory then we have left some barriers in place.
The preparation is not about our enjoyment of the advent. It isn’t about removing the guilt of our sin so that we can have a free conscience with which to celebrate Christmas. That’s an incredible benefit, but it isn’t the primary purpose. The preparation is primarily about the Lord’s travel. The highway is being prepared for God’s arrival.
- Straight = Arrive without fail.
- Level = Travel without difficulty.
- Free of obstacles = Move without hindrance.
The results of our preparation is that we have the privilege of beholding the glory of the Lord.
The Glory of God can refer to “his presence; his revelation; his repute and character; or his exalted state.”4 It is the recognition of God’s worth, whether that be in our justification, sanctification, or glorification. In fact, it is a central concept in all aspects of our salvation. Not only for the believer, but “all flesh will see it”, even as we read in Philippians 2:10-11, “so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
For the Israelites in Egypt they beheld the glory of God in his miraculous deliverance of them from under Pharaoh’s hand and by preserving them during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. For the original audience, that glory was seen through the promise that deliverance would come. And it did come at the proclamation of Cyrus. At the time of Christ, John the Baptist announced the arrival of the Messiah. And his glory was seen in his triumph over death in his resurrection. We too prepare to behold that same glory, at the Messiah’s return.
The correction of our unbelief is done by meditating upon the promises of God and his covenant faithfulness. Doctrine + experience (fulfillment). When God’s glory is revealed in our lives, transformation is inevitable, for the individual, the greater body of Christ, as well as the culture.
What frame of spirit prepares us to receive the gospel? Repentance and adoration. Turn away from your sin and return to your God in reverent worship. Repentance and worship are the proper response to the Prophet’s call to prepare the way. It means to make our hearts ready for his arrival.
Matthew Henry, “The mouth of the Lord has spoken it, and therefore the hand of the Lord will affect it.”5 The Word of God prepares us for the work of God. How have you experienced God’s faithfulness? Experience is nothing if unaccompanied by his revelation. Preaching isn’t preaching without the Word. Faith isn’t faith without the Word.
- Start with yourself. What sins in your life are obstructing Christ’s coming in fullness?
- Don’t stop there. What are the cultural obstructions? Help others remove them. How are you stirring up one another? If we are a body, united in Christ, we are called into action by this verse.
What would change if we truly believed this and lived this out today? Right now? Would we still be here? Worship is the end goal!
We are called to prepare the way through our own personal repentance and adoration of the Lord. But we are also called to stir that up in one another. I pray that you continue to meditate upon this passage in your homes and that you are stirred up to know, cherish, and show God’s glory to others this advent season.
1 Motyer, J. A. The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
. Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994.
3 Hillenbrand, Laura, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. New York: Random House, 2014.
4 Motyer, Alec, Prophecy.
5 Henry, Commentary.