For those who want a change from the Gospel
Advent 2 – Isaiah 40:1-8
It is not surprising that when Mark wanted to find an OT reference for the ministry of John the Baptist he turned to this passage from Deutero-Isaiah (the second of three sections of the book which we call Isaiah). Like the exiles to whom Isaiah wrote, Mark’s contemporaries were under foreign domination and longing for a deliverer to set them free. Like Isaiah John came to announce the coming rescue. But there is so much more for us in the Isaiah passage, which we miss easily if we only ever think of John the Baptist.
Imagine you were a Jew living in Babylon, sent there, so the prophets had told you, because of your own sin and idolatry. Before it happened, you may have joined in with the crowd, nodding in the direction of Yahweh but not letting your religion get too carried away. There were all those annoying prophets who kept telling you that punishment was coming, but, well, nobody likes a killjoy, do they?
And then it happened. King Nebuchadnezzar swept into town, and suddenly you were a few hundred miles from home, hearing news that your city had been smashed to pieces, and even the Temple, the very place where people went to meet with God, had been destroyed.
At first it was tough, but the first ten years were the worst. Another prophet had told you to dig in for the long haul, and to work and pray for the welfare of your foreign oppressors. There was talk of home, of course, but little hope. After 60 years, it felt like this was the new normal. It was hard to keep believing in Yahweh: some turned to the Babylonian gods now that they were living in their patch. Others believed that if there was a Yahweh we had completely blown it this time. If only we had listened to the prophets! Surely any relationship between us and God was well and truly over.
No doubt all kinds of thoughts like this would have gone through your minds. Imagine your surprise, then, when a new prophet arrived in town. You were probably expecting more telling off – that’s what prophets are for – so imagine your shock when you first heard the words which came to be written down for us in Isaiah 40. In fact you would only have to have heard the first six words to get the entire message of the next 15 chapters: ‘Comfort my people says your God’. Great – we could all do with a bit of comfort – but actually the message was far more profound. The key words were ‘my’ and ‘your’, and the people would have heard them open-mouthed with shock.
Centuries ago God had appeared to Abraham, and set up a deal with him, a covenant, or relationship. The deal; is first spelt out in Genesis 17, and then reappears regularly throughout the OT: ‘You will be my people, and I will be your God’ – that was the deal. So imagine the surprise when the prophet used those very words to a bunch of people who thought they had gone beyond the pale with God, never to be welcomed back. He was saying, in effect, ‘The deal is still on!’ despite all you have done, and not done, it’s as though nothing had happened, nothing had come between us.
Amazing news though this is, there is another word which is really important. You may have wondered about it yourself. The word is ‘double’ in v.2. it reads as though God has punished them twice as much as they deserved, just to make his point. But the Hebrew word kiphlayim doesn’t mean double as in twice as much, like a double helping of pudding. It means the exact equivalent. In one church in which I worked in the past we had my double in the congregation. Poor chap, he looked so much like me that my toddler son used to run up to him for a cuddle thinking he was his dad. That’s what the prophet means here. You have received for your sins the exact amount appropriate as punishment, not twice as much as you really deserve. What incredible good news! Your sin has been paid for – exactly! Your punishment is over! There’s no more to pay.
As Christians we know about God’s forgiveness, of course – goodness knows we need to! But many of us go through times when we feel we’ve gone just one step too far this time, so that there’s no way back. Or we feel that we still deserve more punishment, which God is waiting for an opportune moment to smite us with. Like the returning Prodigal Son we call God ‘Father’ but actually mean ‘Boss’. We might be let into the servants’ quarters of heaven, but our place in the family has gone for ever. If you’ve been there, listen to Isaiah’s words once again – ‘Comfort my people, says your God’.
I absolutely love this setting of those words, but you may prefer the original: