(This is an edited version of a sermon preached in the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge)
The Easter lilies this year were particularly lovely in their vases behind the Lord’s Table reminding us that it’s spring time. But within about a couple of weeks, they had to be taken out of the church because that’s about as long as they last.
I’m coming up to 52 this summer so have by God’s grace lasted longer than a lily but in the oceans of eternity even a long human life is a tiny drop. The word God spoke through the prophet Isaiah is surely true:
‘All people are like grass and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands for ever’ (Isaiah 40v6-8 – NIV).
The Word of our God in the Bible speaks to you and me of our eternal salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ. What could be more important?
Just to give the historical context of this important prophecy in Isaiah chapter 40 – in Isaiah 39, in around the year 702 BC, the prophet has warned the King of Judah, Hezekiah, that the foreign country, namely Babylon, to whose ambassadors Hezekiah has just shown off all his wealth and military hardware in Jerusalem, will one day invade Judah, destroy its capital city Jerusalem and haul the Jewish people off into exile with hooks through their noses. Some of Hezekiah’s royal descendants will be castrated and made to serve as eunuchs in the palace of the King of Babylon. Rather pathetically Hezekiah replies: ‘The word of the Lord you have spoken is good,’ for he thought; ‘There will be peace and security in my lifetime’ (Isaiah 39v8).
The terrible disaster Isaiah predicted fell in 587 BC, just over 100 years after the events of chapter 39 when the big superpower in the Ancient Near-East was the empire of Assyria. But Assyria was being overtaken by Babylon and would soon be absorbed into the Babylonian empire. In the year 702 Babylon was becoming the new superpower on the block and would in just over 100 years obliterate Judah as a nation. All these superpower manoeuvrings buffeting the tiny kingdom of Judah were taking place in what is now Iran and Iraq and Syria. That’s Isaiah 39.
Here in chapter 40, Isaiah’s prophetic telescope focuses beyond 587 BC and the Jewish exile in Babylon to the return of the Jews from Babylon, which began after 536 BC when the King of Persia, who had conquered the Babylonian empire, issued a decree allowing the Jews to return to their homeland. That was the decree of King Cyrus, which Isaiah predicted.
In Isaiah 40, God speaks a message of comfort to his people who are going to be exiled. I’ll quote verses 1-2 in the authorised version familiar from Handel’s Messiah: ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.’
The exile of the future will be like an animal sacrifice in the Jerusalem Temple, paying for the sins of the people. The exile is portrayed as a payment for the offence against God, which the people of Judah had committed before their exile in turning away from their God and choosing to worship the false gods, the disgusting idols, of the surrounding nations. This sin has been paid for by the exile and so now it’s time to go home, to travel through the desert from Babylon back to Jerusalem.
If you look at verse 3: ‘A voice of one calling, “In the desert prepare the way for the Lord, make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God”.’
The Lord God is taking his people home along a motorway he’s concreting through the valleys and hills of the terrain from Babylon to Judah. This is a wonderful prophecy of restoration for the people of God after their humiliation in Babylon.
But as we know from our New Testament Isaiah’s prophetic telescope peers even further into the future, more than 500 years beyond the return from Babylon and into the time of the Roman Empire. Isaiah is predicting the ministry in the desert of John the Baptist who prepared the way for the Lord. John’s was the voice calling in the desert: Prepare the way for the Lord, the Lord Jesus, God’s rescuing King, God’s Christ, coming to save people from all nations from the exile of universal human sin and its penalty, which is death.
Isaiah’s prophecy is quoted in that reading we had from Luke’s Gospel, chapter 3, applied to the preaching of John the Baptist in the desert of Judea: ‘A voice of one calling in the desert, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him. Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth. And all mankind will see God’s salvation”.’
This is God speaking through Isaiah promising a wonderful salvation from exile, for the Jews initially from their exile in Babylon but ultimately for any lost sinner in the world who puts their trust in God’s King, the Lord Jesus Christ. This promise in the Holy Scriptures is the everlasting Word of God for anybody who chooses to listen.