Summary: We all want comfort. And God offers it to us as he did to the exiled Israelites. We can take comfort that our sin has been paid in full, that God's word outlasts our problems, and that God is coming again. Forgiven, forever, for sure!
Handel’s “Messiah” begins the first phrase of today’s passage: “‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,’ saith your God.” The theme of “comfort” sounds good, doesn’t it? Especially when you just can’t quite get comfortable. Bones ache, thoughts ruminate, neighbors irritate, relatives agitate, enemies intimidate, savings liquidate, and holiday stresses incapacitate! Even when we find comfort, it seems temporary, elusive, here one moment and gone the next. Yet, today’s passage speaks of God’s lasting, eternal comfort.
When Isaiah penned these words from God, the people of Israel really needed to hear them. After King Solomon’s reign, Israel went through a terrible civil war and split into two: Israel to the north and Judah to the South. Isaiah lived in the southern kingdom and watched as the northern kingdom fell to the Assyrians in 722 BC. The first half of his book is dedicated mostly to this event. Around chapter 40, though, Isaiah shifts focus some 150 years into the future, when he predicts the falling of the southern kingdom of Judah to the Babylonians. This actually occurred in the year 586 BC. And in chapter 40, Isaiah speaks to the eventual return of the exiles to their homes as if all these events had already happened.
The fall of both kingdoms was terrible for God’s people, yet God allowed it to wake his people from their sins. Many were killed and the rest taken from their homelands, their temples and cities ransacked. They would not be able to return home for some 70 years, more than a lifetime for most. Yet, Isaiah communicates God’s forgiveness and comfort in advance.
The first 11 verses of chapter 40 express God’s comfort packaged in three ways: We can take comfort that our sins are forgiven, that God’s word endures beyond our problems, and that God is coming again. To borrow three words from Pastor Norman Seeger, we might remember we are “forgiven,” “forever,” “for sure!” [http://gswels.org/multimedia-archive/comfort-gods-people-isaiah-401-11-december-8-2013/]. First, we are forgiven. We can ...
1. Take comfort that our sin has been paid in full (vv. 1-2)
As Isaiah moves in today’s chapter from the fall of Israel to the future fall and return of Judah, his writing style changes so much that some scholars think a different person wrote the rest of the book. Perhaps they are uncomfortable with his ability to look so far into the future. Yet, the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of our oldest source documents, have a seamless transition between chapters 39 and 40. Personally, I’m fine with one writer, even as he shifts themes from judgment to restoration.
In fact, I find an amazing parallel between the number of chapters in Isaiah and the number of books in the Bible. For 39 chapters Isaiah speaks of God’s judgment against the nations of the earth for not upholding his law. There are 39 books in the Old Testament. And then, starting with our chapter today, Isaiah uses 27 chapters to speak of God’s mercy and grace and forgiveness. There are 27 chapters in the New Testament. Pretty cool, huh? Chapter markings were added to the scriptures later, to help us find our way around them, so don’t read too much into this. But it’s interesting, nonetheless.
After 39 chapters of judgment, Isaiah begins chapter 40 with God saying, “Comfort.” In fact, God says it twice: “Comfort, comfort my people.” Notice the personal pronoun: God says, “These are MY people.” He claims them as his own. They have wandered; the exile was a direct consequence of their sin. Yet, God says—150 years in advance—their sins are pain in full, even doubly so!
Old Testament saints were saved by looking forward to a Messiah. We who live on this side of the cross look back to the source of our salvation. We know our Messiah, and his name is Jesus. Our salvation was born at Christmas! We bring all our sins to God. One sin blocks any kind of relationship with him. Yet, when Jesus died on the cross, God took all our IOUs and declared, “Paid in full.” We can take comfort because at Christmas God brought us a Savior!
So please receive God’s comfort. Your sins have been paid. As you bring all your guilt and shame to Christ, God forgives you. Christmas tells us everything is new, as new as freshly fallen snow over San Antonio. This Christmas take comfort that your sins are paid for. You are forgiven. And #2, consider the word “forever:”
2. Take comfort that God’s word outlasts our problems (vv. 6-8)
There’s a strange group of verses tucked into the middle of our scripture today, and it speaks to the frailty of human life. Many scholars wonder why Isaiah put it there. Listen to the words again, beginning with the second half of verse 6: