Scripture: Isaiah 40:1-11
I love Christmas music. I’m one of those weird people who begins playing Christmas music around November 1. Like many of you, one of my favorite Christmas songs is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”… except… I hate that line, “Someday soon we all will be together/ If the Fates allow.” The Fates? Those are three goddesses in Greco-Roman mythology! Anyway, I’m relieved to know that that wasn’t what the songwriter, Hugh Martin, originally wrote. See, Martin was a Christian. And he originally wrote “if the Lord allows.” But the producers of the Judy Garland movie, Meet Me in St. Louis—where the song originated—didn’t want it to be too religious—heaven forbid!—so they made him change that line.
Anyway, turns out that wasn’t the only lyrical change that has happened to the song. Do you know what the very next line is? “Someday soon, we all will be together/ If the Fates allow/ Hang a shining star upon the highest bough”? We know it like the back of our hand, don’t we? Except that’s wrong!Go back and watch the movie Meet Me in St. Louis: Judy Garland sings, “Someday soon, we all will be together/ If the Fates allow/ Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”
We’ll have to muddle through somehow.
It turns out that when Frank Sinatra was recording his Christmas album in 1957, he asked Hugh Martin to change the lyric. Sinatra said, “The name of my album is A Jolly Christmas. Do you think you could jolly up that line for me?” And so Martin changed his song again… He “jollied it up.”
Well, between Isaiah chapter 39 and chapter 40, it’s almost as if someone said to the prophet, “Isaiah, you need to jolly up this book.” Because it’s been pretty bleak and depressing so far… Isaiah has told the story about the downfall of the northern kingdom of Israel—their idolatry, their faithlessness… He’s told the story about God’s judgment and wrath… And in the previous chapter, he warned King Hezekiah—an otherwise pretty righteous king, as far as kings go—that because of his sin, the southern kingdom of Israel was going to fall too—and the Jews will be taken into captivity in Babylon.
So, at the beginning of today’s scripture, that’s where the Israelites are: in exile in Babylon, a long way from home… and seemingly even farther away from their God.
“So please, Isaiah… Can you ‘jolly it up’ a little?”
Of course no one told him to do that, but they may as well… Listen to these words:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
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.
If you read the first 39 chapters of Isaiah, you’ll see that this represents an abrupt shift in tone…
Last week, in my sermon on the Second Coming, I talked about how prophecy works in the Bible. Remember how I said that Jesus blended together prophecy about the destruction of the Temple, which took place in the year 70, with prophecy the Second Coming? He blended them together so much that it was sometimes hard to tell one event from another? Jesus did that intentionally, I said… because that’s how prophets in the Bible often speak: There’s a near-term fulfillment of a prophecy and long-term fulfillment. There’s a partial fulfillment now and an ultimate fulfillment in the distant future. There’s a small event happening now that foreshadows a much larger event happening a long time from now.
Because that’s what’s going on in today’s scripture as well. Isaiah is prophesying 150 years in the future, when Jews would be living in exile in Babylon. And on the one hand he’s encouraging them with words about their eventual return home to Judea—which would take place 70 years later.
But Isaiah is talking about much more than that… he’s not only talking about God rescuing Israel from captivity in Babylon… He’s talking about God rescuing the world from its captivity to sin through God’s Son Jesus. That’s the meaning, for instance, of verse 5: “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” Not just Jews in this particular time and place—but everyone who’s ever lived!
In fact, we know from the four gospels that that “voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,’” was none other than the voice of John the Baptist. Jesus says so!
So all the promises of today’s scripture to Israel, in this particular time and place in which they were living, also apply to all of us Christians who have been grafted in to God’s people Israel through faith in Christ.
So let’s try to figure out what this scripture is saying to us…
Look at verses 1 and 2: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare [or hardship] is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned…”
Her iniquity is pardoned… Let’s pay attention to that word “pardon.”
Speaking of pardons…That sounds like it was ripped from today’s headlines. I saw something in the news last week about presidential pardons or impending pardons. I’m not passing judgment on it. I’m not making a political statement one way or another. But it’s true that a president has total authority to pardon anyone he wants. And it’s often controversial. Historians say that President Ford likely lost his election in part because he pardoned President Nixon.
But when a president issues a pardon, people often say, “It’s not fair!” But I think that misses the point…
Of course it’s not fair—not usually. Because receiving a pardon has nothing to do with fairness. You’re not pardoned because you earned a pardon. Being pardoned means that you first were found guilty under the law… a judge or jury found you guilty… but a pardon wipes the slate clean. You’re now innocent under the law.
And that’s what God says has now happened to his people Israel: They were guilty under God’s Law because of their sins. They deserved punishment. And yet… they received a pardon. Their sins were forgiven.
But Isaiah says that they received more than just a pardon… Look at the rest of v. 2: God’s people not only received a pardon, but “she”—Jerusalem—which represents Israel—“has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” Most people read this verse and think, “Oh, that means that God punished his people twice as much as they deserved.” But Isaiah doesn’t say she received “double the punishment”—only that she received “double for all her sins.”
That means more like double payment for her sins. In other words, God’s people received more than just a pardon for sins… more than just forgiveness of sins… more than just God’s decision not to punish them any longer for their sins…
Let’s say I go to jail for stealing from my employer. And I receive a pardon. It’s true I’m no longer guilty under the law… It’s true I’m not in jail anymore… It’s true I may not have a criminal record anymore… But guess what? I’m probably not going to be able to get my old job back! My former employer is not going to trust me enough to let me work there again. And probably other employers are not going to be able to trust me, either. See what I mean?
If my relationship with with my former employer is going to be completely restored, I need more than just a pardon…
And this is where the gospel comes in: What Christ accomplished for us through his life of perfect obedience to his heavenly Father and his atoning death on the cross goes way beyond a pardon.
Think of his parable of the Prodigal Son. This guy who took his father’s money and squandered it on wine, women, and song—until he’s broke and starving in a distant land… When he decides to go home, he wants one thing from his father: He wants the bare minimum from his father. Even though he’s certain that his father is justifiably angry at him, even though he knows he can never be a member of the family again, even though he knows that there’s no chance his father will ever trust him again, he just wants his father not to punish him… and let him work as a servant, so at least he can eat and not starve.
But what happens when he returns home? His father is not only not angry, he’s overjoyed. He gives his son the royal treatment: “Bring my best robe and put it on him. Give him my ring. Kill the fattened calf. We’re going to throw the biggest party ever!”
This is more than just a pardon… this is more than just forgiveness of sin… This is something better… something deeper… something far more profound.
And the theological word for this “something” is imputation. And there are two parts to imputation. First our sins are imputed to Christ—or transferred to Christ on the cross. Our sins no longer count against us, they count against him. And he suffers the penalty for them. This imputation of our sins to Christ is what makes forgiveness possible. Isaiah himself describes the imputation of sins better than anyone in Isaiah 53. Listen to these words:
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
That’s the first part… But there’s more… Christ didn’t just suffer and die the death we deserved to suffer and die on account of our sins. He lived the life of perfect, sinless obedience to God that we were unable to live ourselves. And it’s as if his record of perfect obedience gets credited to our account—or imputed to us—as well. 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake, [God] made him [Christ] to be sin, who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” That means that when God our Father looks at us who are Christians, he no longer sees our sins; he sees the righteousness of his Son. We stand before God perfectly holy, perfectly righteous. And as a result, our Father loves us—as hard as it is to imagine—he loves us exactly as much as he loves his only begotten Son Jesus.
And why not? Through faith in Christ—and the new birth that he gives us through the Holy Spirit—we now become God’s “sons” and “daughters” through adoption.
Speaking of which, many of you know that I was adopted. But I only learned, not long before Mom died, this experience she had… She told me that for about two years after she and Dad took me home, she lived in fear. She was afraid that someone from the adoption agency was going to show up at the door and say, “I’m sorry, Mrs. White, there’s been a mistake. We’re going to have to take Brent back and give him to someone else.”
Can you imagine? Maybe some of you adoptive parents have experienced similar feelings…?
But Mom went on to tell me: “I don’t know why I was afraid that someone was going to take you away… because I would never let that happen. No one was going to take you away from me! They would have had to fight me if they tried. Because that’s how much I loved you.”
That’s one of the sweetest, most loving things that Mom ever said to me!
Now consider today’s scripture. Verse 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!”
Isaiah is describing a “herald,” a messenger, who watches his mighty king win a war over the enemy. And the messenger’s job is to go up on a hill and shout the news of the king’s victory to everyone else. But listen to the next verse:
Behold, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
So this describes God our victorious king bringing back the spoils from the war he’s just fought and won. In the ancient world this would normally mean that the king brings back the enemy’s gold and silver, and livestock; he brings back shackled enemy soldiers that he’s captured, who will now be his slaves. That’s what words like “reward” and “recompense” usually refer to.
So… you get the picture: Isaiah says that the Lord God our King has fought and won a victory in war, and he’s bringing home his “reward.”
And what is God’s reward?
The next verse tells us. Verse 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.
The imagery has shifted… The king is no longer a mighty warrior… Now he’s a gentle shepherd. And his “reward” is this flock of sheep that he’s leading home. He has rescued his lambs, Isaiah says. He’s gathered them up in his arms and is carrying them in his bosom.
Does that ring a bell? I’m thinking of Jesus the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep in order to find the one lost sheep. “And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he goes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’”
We are the Lord’s “reward and recompense”! We are the sheep that he carries on his shoulders! We are the people for whom the Lord fought and won a war against sin, against Satan, and against death! We are the ones who bring him such great joy!
Listen to Jesus’ words in John 10:11: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” Christ our good shepherd fought and even died for us.
Because that’s how much God loves us! “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8.
Remember at the top of the sermon I was talking about the original words of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”? “Someday soon we all will be together/ If the Fates allow/ Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.”
Listen: I suspect I’m talking to some people right now who feel like they’re “muddling through” this holiday season… In fact, maybe you even feel like you’re muddling through life.
Today’s scripture demonstrates the great lengths to which our Lord Jesus went to rescue you. He’s pictured as a mighty warrior who fought a war in order to win you—to make you part of his family forever. Suffering and dying on the cross is the hardest thing imaginable, but you were worth it to him! You were his reward for suffering and dying on the cross. Your life brings joy to Jesus Christ! And the Lord Jesus is also a shepherd who holds you in his arms and carries you in his bosom.
Do you think that such an all-powerful Lord who loves you like that, who cares for you like that, who is guiding your life at every moment and in every circumstance—who makes you lie down in green pastures and leads you beside still waters… Do you think the Lord wants you to just “muddle through”?
Sure, it may feel like you’re “muddling through” right now, but the Bible says that God is working at every moment and in all circumstances for your good. The Bible says in fact that everything happening in the universe is working in your best interest. If it feels like you’re muddling through right now—because your life isn’t working out according to your plans—hold on! It’s only because God’s got a better plan for your life than you’re able to imagine. It’s only because God hasn’t finished working his plan for your life! It’s only because you’re somewhere in the middle of God’s story for your life, and you haven’t seen the ending yet! But God has written the ending. And when you see it… when you see how that plan works out, you’ll see the blessing! You’ll see the glory! You’ll see the love! It’ll all make sense! So hold on! Don’t give up yet! That was Isaiah’s message to his fellow Israelites in captivity in Babylon, and it’s God’s message to us Christians today!
If we’re Christians, we’re never simply “muddling through”; we’re “more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
Do you believe it? Amen.