Sermon for Advent 4 - Isaiah 40.1-8 - December 21, 2014
1) Who is this man that stands on the banks of the Jordan, preaching and baptizing? This is the question that the Jews is Jerusalem want to know. They send their interrogators to the Jordan to decipher John’s true identity. John tells them that he is not the Christ. “Well, who are you then? Elijah?” Again John denies. “Are you The Prophet prophesied by Moses?” Again John denies. Exhausted and frustrated, they beg him, “Who are you then?” John’s answer is not to point to his identity at all. For John it matters not who he is. He, as a man, is unworthy of all things, especially to serve his Lord by untying his Lord’s sandal strap. He is the voice of Isaiah 40. For St. John, it matters not who he is. It matters what He is called to do. What matters is the Office the Lord has given him to fulfill. And that office is ‘the voice’ or ‘the preacher.’ He says, “I am ‘the voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Make straight the ways of the Lord, as the prophet Isaiah said.’” This certainly fits John’s public ministry. John preaches repentance from sins. He preaches that sinners turn from their sinful ways, habits, ideas, and imaginations and turn to the Lord, beseeching Him for mercy and the forgiveness of their sins. By quoting part of Isaiah 40 John invites his hearers to go back through that chapter and apply all of it to his preaching, since what is important is the office of being “the voice” that is important. Isaiah proclaims, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the LORD; Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places shall be made straight And the rough places smooth; The glory of the LORD shall be revealed, And all flesh shall see it together; For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:3-5)
2) Since the glory of the Lord is to be revealed very shortly, sinners are to prepare a highway for the Lord’s coming. This is not a physical highway of course. These pictures of changing landscape are impossible to accomplish literally, for humanity at least. Leveling mountains, filling in valleys with pea gravel, and straightening state highways are small things compared to what the voice actually bids us to do. These are all conditions of the heart which must be dealt with, for it they are not dealt with, the Lord will not travel those paths. How do we exalt every valley? By removing from our hearts the base and low sins with which we have grown comfortable. How do we bring low every mountain and hill? By repenting of pride, avarice, greed, and every sin of that kind that contradicts the humility which we are to have. How do we straighten crooked paths of the heart and mind? By stopping our mouths to the deceits we tell others and the lies we tell ourselves. How do we make rough places smooth? In the same way. Valleys, mountains, hills, crooked and rough paths, these need not be labeled as specific sins that cling to us. They are any sins that we harbor in our heart, for any sin obstructs the way of the Lord as He seeks to come into our hearts with His Gospel. Make straight paths in the wilderness of your heart says the voice.
3) As if this were too abstract for us, St. John the Baptist elaborates on Isaiah’s illustration of how we are to prepare for the Lord’s arrival. In Luke 3 someone responds out loud to John’s preaching, “What then shall we do?” He answers, “"He who has two tunics, let him give to him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise." Then tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, "Teacher, what shall we do?" And he said to them, "Collect no more than what is appointed for you." Likewise the soldiers asked him, saying, "And what shall we do?" So he said to them, "Do not intimidate anyone or accuse falsely, and be content with your wages.” (Luke 3:11-14) His message was repent. Stop doing the sins you are doing and walk instead in the paths of righteousness. Where previously you were lazy, repent and be industrious. Where previously you have been unfaithful, repent and take your duties up with vigor. Where previously you have been lustful, repent and live chastely towards yourself and with true love toward your neighbor. Whereas previous you have been wrathful, repent and in your anger sin not, being patient with all men as God has been patient with you. Repent of your sin. Turn away from your sin. When you turn away, it will follow you. It may even chase you as you turn from it, for sin does not give up as easily as we might like. So repent as often as is necessary. In fact, make a habit of it and repent daily of your sins, for daily the paths of the heart become overgrown with the weeds and bramble of sin and its warped way of seeing yourself and the world.
4) The voice bids us prepare the highway of our hearts in this way so that we might receive what the Lord brings with Him at His advent. That is comfort, so much comfort, in fact, that the prophet is commanded to preach it twice! “Comfort, yes comfort my people!” The prophet is told to speak tenderly to Jerusalem, to her heart, and tell God’s people that their warfare is ended. The hard service Jerusalem has endured because of her sins is completed. Her iniquity, disgusting as it was deep, is pardoned. They are no longer responsible for the debt of their sin, they have been released from their guilt. The Lord says His people will receive double for all her sins, not double punishment for their sins, but double comfort. This is what St. John means when he writes in His Gospel, “of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace.” (John 1:16) It is why the prophet is commanded to preach “comfort” twice. When your Lord comes He comes to speak tenderly to sinners, forgiving their sins, removing their guilt, and cleansing their souls. This is why we look forward to all of Christ’s advents, it is not? We anticipate the yearly celebration and remembrance of Christ’s nativity because in His first advent He comes in gentleness and humility, bearing our flesh to be our savior from sin. His comfort is that in His atoning sacrifice, God’s fierce wrath against sin and sinners is abated, for that wrath is fully meted out on Christ so that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus by faith. It is comfort that your sins have been atoned for and there is no work required of you for your justification before God.
5) This same comfort is delivered to you weekly as Christ advents yet again and again in this place through His Word and Sacraments. Since Christ comes to us truly in the preaching of the Word, the Absolution, Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper, we must do as the voice bids us do and always be examining our hearts and so preparing them through repentance to meet Christ in His means of grace. These means are how He gives each of you individually the comfort of sins forgiven, iniquity pardoned, and guilt removed. It is in these blessed means and these means alone that the Lord advents among us to give us the blessings of His atoning death on the cross. In the absolution is true comfort that the sins which bother your conscience are truly forgiven and removed that they are gone. In the Lord’s Supper Christ unites with you in His true, real body and blood to give you forgiveness and through that forgiveness, the very life that He has eternally. In Baptism He washes sinners once for all, bestowing upon us so many great and precious promises that we can look to and cling to every day in spite of what goes on in the world around us and in our own hearts. In His preaching, Christ gives us His gospel so that we know over and again the comfort He brings through His means of grace, so that we might always believe and not doubt His gracious, tender comfort that He desires to give to you.
6) This is why John baptized at the Jordan. His interrogators asked him, “Whey then do you baptize if you are not the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” (John 1:25) Because it is part of the office of the ministry, it is the way God saves sinners who repent. John’s baptism, the baptism of the apostles after the ascension, they are the same, for both were for the remission of sins. Baptism by John was how the Lord forgave His penitent people gathered at the Jordan. The Lord did not only want John to preach repentance, but the Gospel as well. As St. Paul tells Bishop Titus, “But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit.” (Titus 3:4-5) So John bids his penitents to be baptized and have the Lord wash away the sins they had just beforehand confessed. In those waters, just as it is with water combined with God’s Word today, Christ gives His comforting promises to those who sorrow over their sins. Those words of promise spoken to you in Holy Baptism remain forever, always present to be used by faith. For “the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40:8) God’s promises in Holy Baptism stand forever, He will not cancel them or ignore them, for He cannot deny Himself and He will not deny His Word.
7) Repentance and receiving God’s promises in confidence. This is how valleys are raised, mountains and hills leveled, the crooked paths of the heart straightened, and the rough places of the soul are smoothed. This was the message of the voice in Isaiah 40. It was the message of the forerunner to the Messiah, St. John the Baptist. It is the message of all faithful Bishops, pastors, and deacons until the end of the age. For it matters not who John is, or was, in his person, just as it matters not who the prophet Isaiah was in his person or who the pastor is in his person. What matters is the office to which they called, for that office must prepare the way of the Lord so that when He comes weekly in His means of grace, He fights hearts prepared. With hearts prepared for Christ’s advent in Word and Sacrament, we then look forward to His final Advent, the day in which Christ will return to judge the quick and dead. We look forward to that day because Jesus tells us in Luke 21:28, that when He returns “your redemption draws near.” Even in judgment, the Lord will not forsake those whom He has baptized and made His sons and daughters through Water and Spirit. Rejoice, beloved of God, that God the Son becomes incarnate to earn your salvation. Rejoice in this heavenly comfort, dear saints, that Your Lord advents among you in His Word and Sacraments to forgive your sins and give you the salvation earned for you. Rejoice that your Lord will come again to fulfill all His promises made to you. Rejoice that He gives you repentance and faith, that He raises valleys and levels mountains to come to you for you and your salvation. Amen.