Isaiah 40 (1-5, 18-31); Luke 19:28-23:56; Philippians 2:5-8
This is a beautiful, though neglected passage. We are probably familiar with parts of it. The beginning verses are sung by a baritone in Handel's Messiah to introduce a turning point in that piece. The ending verses of this oracle are often seen on postcards and posters, standing alone, separated from the rest of this speech by and about God.
Isaiah is known as the prophet of hope. Though more than half of the book is composed of judgments against Israel, Judah, and the nations, Isaiah was also the book used by the New Testament church and by the early church to explain Jesus. It is filled with prophecies of the Lord's Anointed, of his Messiah.
The judgments portion of Isaiah is found mainly in chs 1-39. The remainder of the book addresses prophetically the experience of the Israelites during and after their exile and details promises that God makes about his Messiah and about the mission of Israel to the nations.
But why is there this theme of comfort? The words of comfort, "Comfort, yes, comfort My people," says God, come at a turning point in Isaiah. Just as the words are sung in the Messiah at a pivotal point, so these words come at a pivotal point in Isaiah.
Chapter 40 is this pivot point in this book and follows a historical narrative about Isaiah and King Hezekiah. This story bridges the judgment portion of Isaiah (1-35; 36-39) and with the messages of hope (40-66) and details that faith in God is the key to a good life. The words of Hezekiah, though spoken by him, are also prophetic and close out the message of judgment: "The Lord's word you spoke is good. Let there indeed be peace and righteousness in my days." Though Hezekiah speaks selfishly without thought for the promised destruction and exile, which Isaiah preaches prophetically about in chapters 40-55, his words are prophetic about the comfort and strength God will give to his people when he brings them back from exile.
Renewal is around the corner. After darkness comes light. After judgment comes hope.
Renewal comes only after we have tasted other things and realize that it is only in God that we will find the strength and comfort we desire. Renewal comes only after we have seen the darkness and have lived in need of judgment. In Isaiah's case, the needed renewal was the hope promised to them in the face of idolatry.
During the exile, as judgment, God shattered the pride of Israel (v. 2, 18ff) and made them dependent on him. This was a prelude to the promised renewal: "Let us wait...and be renewed!"
Isaiah shows the ultimate act of pride is to create an idol that we then worship. But idols of our own making cannot compare with God, and neither can our pride. God shatters this pride—of ourselves, our church, our doctrine—but doesn't leave us with nothing. He freely offers to renew us by his strength and grace. But renewal comes when we wait...in humility, trust, and dependence on him.
Waiting in humility, trust, and dependence, waiting to be renewed, is the opposite of the attitude seen in 40:18-26 where the workman sets himself up as the creator of his own god. The passage is a contrast between the workman who thinks he creates his own destiny and God, who actually does create...and arranges...and calls forth...and displays. It is God who works! It is God who strengthens! It is God who comforts! It is God who renews!
It is our pride that puts us ahead of God and it is this pride that God calls us to let go of in order to seek renewal from him.
Where do we see this pride in our lives and in our church experience? Pride in ourselves? our plans, as we seek our own destinies? Pride in our church? “We don't really need to follow the word of God to reach out to others; we belong to the true church.” Pride in our doctrine? “We don't need to follow Jesus; we merely need to hold to the correct doctrine.” Do we claim to worship the true God, while it may be that we have built or made a god in our own image?
Do we rest on that pride, like Israel did, and become dependent on ourselves rather than God? This is what Israel was guilty of, and their pride led them to the wrong focus, where they were exiled as they learned once again how to trust God.
What we pridefully hold onto--the idols we create; the pride we live by--distracts us from God, but God overcomes those things—he gives power to the weak to make them strong and is not weakened himself. He promises that those who wait for him will be renewed.
We see this waiting comfort and renewal in the life of Jesus. In the last week of his life, Jesus enters Jerusalem seemingly in triumph (Luke 19:28ff). Yet the narrative arc in the Gospels of his last week shows us that Jesus' mission was always to be a mission of rejection by people, until the work of God was complete. From the "triumphal" entry to the conflict with religious leaders to the tightening of the instructions to the disciples to a torturous night in the garden to the arrest and suffering and, finally, to death.
"Triumph," as we see it, leads to death. But death leads to resurrection. To renewal.
In Philippians 2:5-11, Paul describes hymnically what Luke described narratively. Jesus died so that we might live. As we follow him, we die to live. And in that death, which is made when we are buried with Christ in baptism, where we die to ourselves by being linked to his own death, we find renewal, renewal that comes when we are raised with Christ, out of the waters of baptism, into a new life. This is comfort! This is strength! This is renewal!
Let us give up pride. Let us give up idols, recognizing them for the worthless things they are, and remember the life of our Savior, who entered in triumph for us, not a triumph for himself, but a seeming triumph that led to his death. But with God is always the great reversal--where death seems to reign, there is life. And that life is a life of comfort and renewal through the Holy Spirit.