"Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."
That is the task of every sermon because the word of God is a double edge sword, it comforts those afflicted by guilt and suffering and it afflicts those comfortable with unconfessed sin and lukewarm Christianity.
Some days you walk out of church, when we had a church building to walk out of, thrilled over your assurance in Christ, over the moon that God will remember your sin no more and other days you walk out convicted of sin, broken and contrite, knowing you are presuming on the grace of God.
Comfort those who are afflicted. Afflict those who are comfortable in their sin. That is what Isaiah is about, Chapter 1-39, God afflicted Israel who were comfortable in their sin, Chapter 40 opens with a word of comfort to a people who felt God had forgotten them.
“My way is hidden from the Lord; my cause is disregarded by my God”? ~Isaiah 40:27b (NIV)
God had abandoned them in their suffering. Maybe that is where you’re at today…One journalist said that this is the year God forgot, with Bushfires, Drought and COVID-19. The word of Comfort verses 1-2, in a sense God recommissions Isaiah to comfort his people.
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, 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. 40:1-2 (NIV)
The God who engraved his peoples name on the palm of his hand had not forgotten her. Comfort, comfort my people. The word Comfort means God stands with his people to strengthen them. So important it is repeated, comfort, comfort. Notice God is saying you are still ‘My people’. I am still your God.” I'm going no where.
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. ~Isaiah 40:1a (NIV)
The 70 years of exile was not permanent rejection, but temporary discipline. It is a word of comfort - spoken with tenderness, lit into the heart, to be felt. God did not wake up one morning in a good mood and said ‘I think I will change my mind and end the exile.’
Let’s take a step back, in exile Israel lost her land, her king, her temple, her wealth, her fame and for 70 years living under foreign rule. But now her sins were paid for she was coming home, the jail term was up, the sentence has been served.
We need to be careful here. It’s not that anyone can fully pay for their sin on earth. For example, a person can spend 20 years in jail for a murder and we may even say the criminal has paid his debt to society, he has served his sentence, he is free to go, but he has not paid his debt to God and neither have we.
Each of us accumulates a debt to God for a life lived in sin but that is ultimately only paid in one of two places, either at the cross by Jesus, once and for all or in hell by any who reject Jesus for ever.
Friends from another angle, this exile was a time of discipline and the discipline is over. Don’t confuse the discipline for the Lord and the ultimate punishment of the Lord. Don’t confuse the pain of discipline with the idea that God is punishing or rejecting you. We must keep the same principle when we discipline our own kids or kids in our program.
Discipline your children, for in that there is hope; do not be a willing party to their death. ~Proverbs 19:18 (NIV)
If you don’t discipline you are telling your kids and that don’t matter. You set them up to suffer much more later in life. The first time some kids find out about consequence is when they are being crashed tackled by a policeman.
But keep in mind that as parents:
If you discipline in anger then all it will do is produce resentment.
Israel's time of discipline is over, it’s time to come home. We have three voices of Comfort. The first voice calls out, God is leading his people home.
1. Glory of God
A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” ~Isaiah 40:3-5 (NIV)
God is bringing his people home, He is leading them back to the promised land, though the wilderness. So, the voice is saying get ready everybody - clear the decks - and God himself will do it.
You take the highway up to the north coast, you appreciate the language of levelling mountains and raising up valleys. The world that laughed at the God of Israel when they were sent into Exile is the world that will SEE his splendor in saving his people.
The voice here is ultimately that of John the Baptist, the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets, who came 400 years after the exile. Which reminds us that Israel returned from exile but she remained in a kind of spiritual exile, until John the Baptist turns up and he calls on Israel to prepare the way for Lord. By getting Israel to start again, confess her sins and welcome Jesus. It would be Jesus who would lead his people out of judgment and into comfort, into eternal life, where sins are forgiven and the Spirit given and the blessing of new creation.
Brothers and sisters, we need more voices of comfort to a world that is lost. With all the down side of Covid-19 we have never seen more people access the Christian online message.
2. Word of God
But words are cheap, there is too much over promising and under delivering. This 2nd word of comfort can look very limp in the face of the Babylonian empire, so Isaiah remind them that God's word is certain and all humans are fragile.
A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever. ~Isaiah 40:6-8 (NIV)
It’s so easy to be intimidated in your time, whether you’re an Israelite in exile in Babylon or when you’re in a lock down with Covid-19 for 6 months. God's word stands forever just like God. Jesus is clear.
Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. ~Mark 13:31 (NIV)
And as surely as God's people went into exile so they will go home and so will you. This good news must not be kept to oneself.
3. Arm of the Lord
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 your God!” ~Isaiah 40:9 (NIV)
So, the 3rd voice of comfort calls on the good news (gospel) of the exiles return to be preached, not just to preach it but preach it loud, shout it out! Say to the towns of Judah who saw God's glory leave, say to them “Here is your God” This is such good news, the towns and city are no longer under judgment.
God is bringing his people back. What joy it must evoke. I think our Sudanese or Liberian brothers and sisters caught in bloody civil war, on the run from rebels. They find temporary peace at a UN refugee camp, only to wait for years and then you hear the news…There is a home waiting for you in Australia. The God who promises comes with power.
See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, is reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. ~Isaiah 40:10 (NIV)
Bruce Springsteen wrote in his biography that he believed in love of Jesus but not his power. Love without power are empty words. Power without love is oppression. Power and love together is a beautiful mix.
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. ~Isaiah 40:11 (NIV)
When God leads his people out of exile there will be no fall out, the weak will not be left behind in the dust of the strong and the sick will not be left behind in the wake of the healthy. Each one is carried close to God’s heart:
God doesn’t comfort the afflicted for themselves alone
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. ~2 Corinthians 1:3-4 (NIV)
God comforts us in our troubles so that we can comfort others in their troubles. It’s not supposed to end with us, there is the overflow principle. Have you ever seen champagne glasses stacked high in the form of a pyramid? as the top cup is filled up it overflows to the others.
God's comfort overflows from our cup of suffering into other cups. The reason: Gods comfort for us is always greater than the afflictions we suffer. Whether it’s the pain of persecution, broken relationships, the sickness the anxiety and depression.
God has voiced his comfort to us so that we can offer a voice of comfort to others. God wants to take us on a journey out of ourselves to bless others. It’s not supposed to end with us.
We must reflect on how God’s grace meets us in our brokenness. For example, the comfort of knowing that Jesus weeps with those of us who weep, overflows so that we can weep with those who weep.
It’s not supposed to stay with you. God who has forgiven us for everything overflows into us forgiving others for everything they have done to us.
It’s not supposed to stay with you. God who will not count our sins against us overflows in us telling others that God will not count their sins against them.
It’s not supposed to stay with you. Knowing God's tenderness with us in our anxiety or depression overflows to those whose souls carry splinters.
It’s not supposed to stay with you.
Oh, that MBM would be a community that not only is comforted but comforts others with the same comfort we have received.
Thank you for comforting us at this time with the love of Christ who weeps with those who weep, who does not hold our sins against us, who promises to be with us during this journey.
May your comfort for us overflow to others, that we would weep with those who weep.
We would both forgive others and share the forgiveness that Jesus brings. That we would be there for others in Jesus name.