December 15, 2002

Isaiah 40:1-11

I am a self-professing Don Knotts addict. I’ve watched nearly every episode of the Andy Griffith show, particularly the earlier ones when Don Knotts played the incomparable Barney Fife. In an episode that I saw again just a month or so ago, Barney and Andy’s hometown of Mayberry was selected to host an international conference—negotiations of some sort between American and Russian diplomats. Barney, who was the first to hear the news, was of course beside himself, bouncing around uncontrollably. “This is an event of enormous significance,” he told anyone who would listen. “This conference could alter the entire flow of human history,” he said.

Andy, however, simply could not believe that such a conference would actually be held in his town. “Why Mayberry?” he wondered. “Why would high-ranking leaders even know that we exist?” “What do we have to offer?” Suddenly, a phone call came to the sheriff’s office, informing Barney and Andy that the delegates for the conference were at that very moment on their way to Mayberry. They would arrive, the caller announced, in less than 30 minutes. Now convinced of the conference’s legitimacy, Barney and Andy began scrambling to prepare.

In my mind, the setting here in Isaiah 40:1-11 is in some ways similar to that rather amusing scene in Mayberry. There are unmistakable elements of disbelief and anticipation, and they are in tension with each other. The dominant theme running throughout this passage centers on God’s coming to his banished and disoriented people. They had been defeated and taken captive by the Babylonians, as Isaiah had predicted years before (39:6-7). Now, word comes to these same people, living far away from their homeland, that God will come to them again, lead them out of their oppression, and take them back home. His arrival has already been determined. It is not up for debate. “Prepare the way of the Lord,” the prophet cries. “Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” God is on his way.

Apparently, however, the people have as much trouble believing this news as Andy did the news of that international conference in Mayberry. The news is simply too good to be true, too much to imagine. To begin with, they had concluded that their punishment, brought upon them by God because of their sins, was permanent or unending. As they were shuttled out of Jerusalem and led to a distant land, they thought to themselves: “This is it. We have done it now. God will have nothing more to do with us.” And what a crippling effect such a sense of unending punishment can bring. “There is no hope,” we sometimes think to ourselves. “The sins that we have committed—that I have committed—are too severe, too grotesque, too unloving, too unkind. “God will never forgive me for what I have done,” more than a few of us have surely said to ourselves and perhaps even to others. “Why cry, ‘Lord, tear open the heavens and come down?’ God won’t come.”
“Comfort, O comfort my people,” the prophet is instructed here (vv. 1-2). “Speak tenderly”—literally, speak “to the heart of Jerusalem.” Don’t just reason with her. Don’t just give her the facts. Don’t just rationalize and attempt to explain everything. “Speak to her heart. Cry with her. Wrap your arms around her. Tell her that she has served her term, and her punishment is over.” “Judgment,” the Lord insists, “is not my final word.”

But as we read on, we notice that the people had further trouble believing in the Lord’s arrival because they assumed that he had been defeated in battle along with them. Not only was the Babylonian army too powerful for Judah’s forces—it was too powerful for God himself! What a frightening thought. What a potentially paralyzing thought—God losing. Yet it appears that that is precisely what many of them had come to believe. Perhaps some of us have come to believe much the same thing. “God might forgive me or help me,” we think, “if he could. But he can’t. My situation is too complicated, my struggles to complex, my enemies too overwhelming. God,” bless his heart, “lacks the resources to make a significant difference in my life.”

Once again, a voice cries out. “All people are grass, their consistency is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever (vv. 6-8).” Contrary to what you may think, the people are told, God has not been defeated. His power has not been diminished, nor his authority threatened. Nothing and no one can compete with him.

Unfortunately, the people are still unable to accept the idea of God’s arrival. One difficult and troubling thought remains. Not only did these banished people believe that their punishment was unending and that their God had been defeated, but they also concluded that, even if he had somehow survived this catastrophe, he no longer cared at all about them. “The Lord has other interests, perhaps, other people somewhere that he might want to care for now. But he unfortunately doesn’t care about us anymore,” they seemingly believe. Again, what a hindrance to faith this burdensome sense of unworthiness can be—this notion that God, though perhaps long on strength, is short on compassion. “Who am I?” we might ask, “that God would care about me?”

“Get up to a high mountain. Lift up your voice with strength. Lift it up, do not fear. Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Here is your God!” And look carefully! He is not coming to further vent his anger. Instead, “He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep (vv. 9-11).” “God cares,” the prophet announces. “God deeply cares.”

A community of people, defeated by their enemy and exiled to a distant land. Recipients of good news—no, great news—but unable to believe. “Our punishment is unending,” they cry. “Comfort my people,” God replies, “and assure them that their penalty has more than been paid for.” “Our God was unable to protect us,” they shout. “The grass withers and the flower fades,” God responds, “but my word stands forever.” “God no longer cares about us,” the people continue. “I will feed you,” the Lord answers, “and gather you in my arms.”
Slowly but surely, the news begins to sink in. If the people had earlier cried, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” now the answer arrives: “See, the Lord comes.” “God, in spite of our seemingly overwhelming concerns, is really on his way!” Suddenly, like Barney and Andy, one can imagine the community springing to life. There is hope, and preparations need to be made. The imagery used here by the prophet (vv. 3-5) would not have been unfamiliar to the people of his day. In the same way that people today make special provisions—extra security, lights and other decorations—for a presidential motorcade, so too did people back then build special walkways or paths for kings to make their entrance. Rough places would be removed. Valleys and ruts would be filled in. Such a scene is what our prophet had in mind here. God is coming—that much is for sure—so we must cooperate and make his arrival as smooth as possible.

Once you and I are equally convinced of the Lord’s coming—that is, after all, what we are celebrating during this season of the year—how can we begin to prepare? Once you and I realize that he cares deeply for us and that he is willing and able to break through our misconceptions and sins and actually satisfy our deepest needs, how can we better welcome him into our lives? In the imagery of Isaiah 40, we can tear down and we can build up. Tearing down involves lowering the hills and removing the rough places. Building up involves raising the valleys. We take away and we add. Preparing for the Lord’s entrance this years involves both.

There are, to begin with, various mountains to be lowered and rough places to be removed. Several years ago, I confided to my wife that I had come to hate the Christmas season. It was actually my least favorite time of the year. There were so many things to do—the annual form letter to write, cards to send, presents to buy, parties to attend, and decorations to hang. There were the mounting pressures placed upon us by our culture—advertisements enticing all of us, and especially our children, to want everything in sight. People I cared a great deal about going deeply into debt. And it all began well before Thanksgiving! Did you know that Santa Clause arrived at the Capital City Mall early in November this year? And while all of this was going on, I found it increasingly difficult to preserve any distinctively “Christian” sense of Christmas. I felt like Luther Krank in John Grisham’s book entitled Skipping Christmas. I just wanted to do away with everything.

Soon, we started lowering the hills and removing the rough places. We delayed the news letter a few months. We chose presents carefully and tried to make our purchases earlier in the year. We helped our children process advertising gimmicks. We began, in other words, trying to smooth things off by removing what we perceived to be obstacles to our welcoming Christ into our hearts and lives.

At the same time, we started building. We tried to raise the valleys by adding new things that helped us focus on our coming Lord. We scheduled a family service project, such as assisting in a soup kitchen, because we had come to learn that we often saw the face of the Lord among the needy. We caroled with others from the church. We decorated our house almost entirely with items that conjured up images of spiritual significance. We used readings related to Advent in our family worship times, and we typically read a book together that helped us focus on the true meaning of Christmas.

One of the particularly fun and helpful traditions that we developed was entirely a family creation. We decided, since we did not have many traditions, to create one of our own. The five of us sat around the table and planned a meal that we would make on Christmas morning, a meal that we could hopefully recreate every Christmas morning. This is what we came up with. We begin with shredded wheat served with warm milk. The shredded wheat represents the hay around the manger. We next serve small pieces of sausage wrapped in homemade biscuit dough and eggs baked in sour cream. The sausage and biscuit dough represents the baby in swaddling clothes, and my oldest son—perhaps 11 or 12 years of age at the time—aptly named them “Nativity Wraps.” The eggs and sour cream represent the animals in the stable. To accompany this breakfast, we serve hot apple cider seasoned with cinnamon and clove. When we drink this cider, you know what comes to our minds. The various spices brought by visitors to Bethlehem. Every Christmas morning, the men in my household get up and prepare this breakfast for the family and any guests we may have. And we all know what everything means. Over recent years, Christmas has again become a remarkably renewing season for me.

When Andy finally accepted Barney’s report that an international conference would be held in Mayberry, he and Barney scrambled to locate the largest and fanciest facility to host the summit meeting. It had to be big and plush. When all such attempts fell through, however, they settled on Andy’s rather simple and ordinary house. Interestingly enough, it was precisely these humble surroundings—sitting around the kitchen table enjoying Aunt Bee’s home cooking—that ultimately appealed to the foreign diplomats and made the meeting an overwhelming success.

Jesus has come, and he wants to come into our lives again and again and again. It is wonderful news—life-changing news. Tear some things down this year that just get in the way, and build up some of the low places. Prepare for his coming, and work to regain some of the sanity and sanctity of this special season. In the humbleness and simplicity of our hearts and lives, Jesus might just find the perfect host.