A Time of Preparation
O dear Jesus, my precious Savior and Lord, as I enter into Your house for worship this Advent Season, I am overcome by the grace You have bestowed upon me. You came into this world taking on my humanity, so that You might rescue me from sin and from death—the results of my own rebellion. You bore my burdens and assumed my cares in order to relieve me of the just judgment I deserve. How can I ever thank you enough? Please, accept my praises! Open my mind to Your instructions! Fill my heart with Your loving presence, so that I may serve You with faithfulness all my days. Amen.
Description of the events that lead up to Jesus' birth.
Text: Isaiah 40:1-3
“Comfort, yes, comfort My people!” says your God.
“Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
The voice of one crying in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God."
In Christ Jesus, who is preparing a place for us in heaven even as we worship Him here on earth, dear fellow redeemed:
Advent is a time of preparation for many things. This coming Saturday at the Nolting residence, for instance, it is Christmas cookie baking day. That may seem like a relatively simple thing, but it involves a tremendous amount of preparation. It requires coordinating the ladies of four different households, the advance preparation of ten different cookie doughs, the collection and transportation of a variety of baking utensils to 208 Gull Path, the purchase of an assortment of sprinkles, and the collection of an assortment of containers to be equally divided at the end of the day. And, if that were not enough, there is the care, the entertainment, and the involvement of three eager granddaughters all under the age of six!
Now, I am sure that we could spend much more than the twenty minutes set aside for this meditation compiling a list of all of the things for which we collectively are preparing as Christmas approaches. However, that is not our purpose today. Rather, we want to turn to one of the most interesting and exciting chapters of the Bible, in which we find a prophecy uttered seven hundred years before the birth of Christ, which will allow us to consider A TIME OF PREPARATION much more important and universal than anything we might place on a list of things we are doing. This TIME OF PREPARATION speaks to the heart of God, the message of the church, and to the substance of our personal evangelism. Yes, let us today consider these powerful words recorded by the prophet Isaiah.
Isaiah begins with words immortalized by Handel in his masterpiece Messiah: “‘Comfort, yes, comfort My people!’ says your God.” In order to understand the import of these words, it is important to understand both the historical background and the basic outline of Isaiah’s book of prophecy. Isaiah carried out a lengthy prophetic ministry during the second half of the eighth century B.C. During his lifetime the ten northern tribes, which made up the nation of Israel, were taken into captivity by the Assyrians and lost to history. Isaiah’s own nation, Judah, lived under the shadow of opposing empires, and life was, therefore, always seemingly uncertain. Unfortunately, the people of Judah had for the most part drifted away from the Lord. They had compromised their beliefs. Oh, yes, they still worshiped the LORD in Solomon’s temple in Jerusalem, but they also worshiped false gods in temples built around Jerusalem and at times even practiced heathen rituals within the temple in Jerusalem. God sent Isaiah and other prophets to warn the people of Judah, but they were becoming hardened in their opposition to God’s truths. Consequently, in the first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah we find many prophecies of coming judgments both upon the nations surrounding Judah and Judah itself. If they refused to repent and turn back to the Lord, they would suffer the same fate suffered by their northern brethren in the former Israel.
A nation, however, is never spiritually one, for faith is an individual matter within each and every heart. While the majority of the people of Judah had turned away from the LORD, there was a remnant which had not. Sadly they too would also suffer when Jerusalem and its temple would later be destroyed, but their God did not want them to give up hope and question either His power to save or His fatherly desire for mercy. And so, in the midst of a troubled time with even greater troubles ahead, God revealed His heart! Chapter 40 begins the second half of Isaiah, in which God proclaims His grace. He cries out, “Comfort, yes, comfort My people!” God wanted His faithful children to know that He would not desert them, for they were His people. He is expressing what the Psalmist elsewhere acknowledges: “Know that the LORD, He is God; it is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; we are His people and the sheep of His pasture” (Ps. 100:3).
God is passionate in His love for us. When we stray He is pictured by Jesus in the Parable of the Lost Sons, as a father waiting, wondering, and watching for his son to repent and return, so that He might embrace us and welcome us home. When we are faithful but facing great and grave challenges, He is there. Isaiah states so powerfully just three chapters after our text: “Thus says the LORD, who created you, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel: ‘Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by your name; You are Mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned, nor shall the flame scorch you. For I am the LORD your God” (Is. 43:1-3a). My dear friends, Advent is A TIME OF PREPARATION, for in it God reveals a heart filled with compassion for us, ready and eager to comfort!
Yes, Advent is A TIME OF PREPARATION, for it also speaks to the message of the church! Isaiah goes on to record this message of the LORD: “Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” What is to be the primary message of the church? Many think it is a message about morality--the message of the church is to be all about goodness—to be good and to do good! That is, after all, the primary message of every other religion on earth. But that is not the primary message of the Christian church. A message about being good and doing good is a message of law, and a message of law will ultimately lead to condemnation, for no one even at his or her best can keep the law perfectly, which is God’s expectation. The law’s primary purpose is to reveal to us our sin (cf. Rom. 3:20), something absolutely necessary if it is to then serve its extended purpose of leading us to the cross of Christ (cf. Gal. 3:24).
When we as sinners come to recognize our sin as rebellion against God; when we are led by the Spirit to grieve over the fact that we have broken the heart of God by our harsh words and selfish actions; the message of the church is not to be one of punishment, but of comfort. That comfort springs from the love of God to be found in Jesus Christ. When seduced and misled by sin, we were at war with God, but repentant sinners are to be informed that the war is now over in view of the work of Jesus Christ. Our sins have been pardoned in the celestial courtroom of God, who declares us righteous for Jesus' sake. God does not give us the back of His hand in view of our sins, but rather grace and mercy pour forth from those hands, and we receive double forgiveness for our sins.
Unfortunately, not all Bible translators have understood the meaning of this verse. The New International Reader’s Version, which I have been using in our jail ministry, translates this verse in the following—most distressing way: “Tell them I have punished them enough for all of their sins.” God has not punished us for our sins, for as Isaiah proclaims so beautifully in his fifty-third chapter: “The LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all!” (Is.53:6c) Jesus, as our Substitute, bore our punishments for us. That is the heart of the gospel message the church is called upon to proclaim. This verse finds its parallel in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, when he says: “Where sin abounded, grace abounded much more!” (Romans 5:20b) Jesus cries out to penitent sinners everywhere, “Come to Me…and I will give you rest!” (Mt. 11:28) The church’s calling is preparatory as it proclaims a saving message anticipating our Lord’s second advent. Yes, Advent is A TIME OF PREPARATION, for it speaks to the message of the church—a message of grace and mercy to be found in Jesus Christ!
Finally, we see that Advent is A TIME OF PREPARATION, for it speaks to the substance of our personal evangelism! Isaiah ends this text with a prophetic statement pointing ahead to the coming of John the Baptizer: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness:‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” The Evangelist Mark begins his Gospel account of Jesus’ life and ministry by quoting these words of Isaiah together with words from the final chapter of Malachi. John was literally “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.” His message was one of preparation for the coming of Jesus. The reference to making “straight in the desert a highway for our God” is a call for genuine repentance and faith.
John, however, whom Jesus identified as the greatest man born of woman, is surpassed, Jesus says by the “least in the kingdom of heaven” (cf. Mt. 11:11). What could Jesus possibly mean by that statement? I believe that Jesus is suggesting this, that in view of the fact that John died prior to Jesus’ death and resurrection, even the smallest child in Jesus’ kingdom during our New Testament period has a fuller understanding of God’s plan of salvation than did he. Think of how our children will present the Christmas story in all its glory on Christmas Eve.
Consequently, the ministry of John—a ministry of preparation has become our New Testament ministry! We are surely crying out today in a spiritual wilderness in our world. In North Korea earlier this month eighty people were executed by machine gun in public sports stadiums for the "horrendous crime" of owning a Bible. In England attempts are currently being made to remove all symbols of Christianity from the public squares. This, of course, is also going on here in the United States as well. Should we despair? Of course not! Our Lord is returning to judge both the living and the dead! He will stand upon this earth for all to see! (cf. Job 19:25-27) It is not a time to be silent, but a time to speak and to do so with authority, calling upon men and women everywhere to repent of their sins and to turn to the One individual who has and can save—that individual being Jesus Christ!
My dear friends, let us not lose any opportunities to share the message of Christ with others this Advent Season! As the apostle Paul exhorts, “See then that you walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise, redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:15-16). The days are indeed evil, and while we want to treasure those times that we have with our loved ones this season, let us recognize that above all this is A TIME OF PREPARATION leading up to the second advent of our King! Let us strive truly to be prepared! Amen.
--Pastor Paul D. Nolting
To God alone be glory!