First United Methodist Church
February 26, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
Grace for the Despairing: Isaiah of Babylon
Have you ever despaired? Has there ever been a time when meaningless and hopelessness seem to pervade your spirit, and where you cannot find light beyond the darkness? If so, you are not alone. Many, indeed most, of the faithful have gone through such times, along with the vast multitudes of humanity.
But we are also not alone in such times because God is with us. And God’s promising word to us in such times speaks a message of hope.
Slide 1: “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. (40:1)
A time would come for the people of Israel when the glory days of their kingdom would be a distant memory. There would be no more boasting of the great city of Jerusalem or its great temple, for these would be leveled in ruins. And the only ones to rule over them were kings of foreign lands. This would be the time of exile.
To make matters worse, they knew that they deserved their exile because of the sins they had committed. The prophets of Israel warned that a day of judgment was coming when they would be held accountable for their injustices against the poor and the marginalized, for their false worship of other gods, and for their vain boasting in their own superiority. Even though these prophets were ignored and ridiculed, this day of judgment came, and the exile marked their own guilt. Now the scars of their exile weighed heavily upon their spirits. Their days were filled with emptiness. Their faith in God grew cold and faint. And their hearts were filled with despair.
But then, God would bring a new message to them through the prophet Isaiah. Unlike other prophetic messages of the past, there was no warning or judgment. Instead, God proclaimed an enlivening message of amazing grace and abundant good news!
In the next few minutes we are going to breeze through a number of key scriptures in Isaiah, beginning with chapter 40, where we not only discover a new kind of hope, but also hear the prophetic voice pointing to Jesus. This chapter begins with a message of comfort and redemption and is designed to take our attention away from everything else in order to consider God as Sovereign. It points to the coming of Chris and then directs us to consider
the immensity and wisdom of a God who will do all that God promises to do.
Everything mentioned is to persuade you to trust God, and who doesn’t welcome a message of comfort when we find our own spirits weighed down heavily by anxiety and despair? Who among us, especially when we know the depth of our own sins and the guilt of our conscience, would not value the precious grace of God sharing words of comfort and consolation—where God seeks us out, not to judge us, but to “speak tenderly” to us, to nurture us back to wholeness and life, to set us upon a new path of righteousness and hope?
Slide 2: “The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” (40:8)
God does not leave his people in despair, and judgment and death is never the last word. The last Word is always God’s word of enduring grace. And Isaiah directs us to count on the everlasting promise of that saving Word.
God’s promising word speaks hope. God’s Word declares an end to the chains of exile, and declares instead that all prisoners of despair and judgment are now set free. Moreover, God’s Word declares that their journey to freedom will be seen before the eyes of all of humanity, as a testimony for all of God’s enduring and glorious grace.
Slide 3: “prepare the way of the LORD…”
Isaiah 40:3-5 says, “A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’”
Isaiah describes how the wilderness itself will become transformed before their very eyes. Instead of a land of dryness and loneliness, God will make of it a place of welcoming beauty and streaming rivers. Isaiah 43:19-21 says:
Slide 4: “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert…, to give drink to my chosen people. … For the Lord will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places, and will make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the voice of song.”
The Israelite’s land has been destroyed by the invading armies, and they have been exiled to the most remote and barren areas. God is promising to restore them to their homes and to their former glory. And when this joyous journey across the wilderness reaches its destination, and home is in sight, then the people will raise their voices in praise to the God who fulfills their gracious journey.
Slide 5: “‘Here is your God!’ See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. 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.” (40:9&11)
We know of another prophetic voice who cried out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” John the Baptist pointed to Jesus the Christ as our liberator. “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” Jesus Christ would fulfill Isaiah’s prophesy. Jesus would bring forth righteousness and hope for all who are despairing.
We hear this in 43:6-7:
Slide 6: “Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench.”
Jesus, the living Word of God, will comfort all who are desperate and defeated, and shine his light upon the darkness.
Slide 7: Isaiah 42:6-7: “A light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.”
Jesus, the living Word of God, casts out all our fear, and forgives us all our sins.
Slide 8: Isaiah 43:1: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…. I, I am He who blots out your transgressions
for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”
Jesus, the living Word of God, sits at table with disgraced sinners, welcoming and befriending them, even as he freely hosts us with his forgiveness at his own table of grace.
Slide 9: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” (55:1)
Do you see the pattern here? First comfort, then prophesy, then invitation and promise? Yet such promise for us does not come cheaply. Jesus, the living Word of God, not only accompanies us through the wilderness of our own sin, but also follows the path that will lead him to the cross and all its shame.
Slide 10: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.”
The Bible never describes Jesus’ physical appearance while He walked on this planet. The only passage in the Bible that refers to Jesus’ physical appearance while He was on this planet is this reference in Isaiah 53:2.
The passage tells us that Jesus “had no stately form or majesty” and no “appearance that we should be attracted to Him.” In short, Jesus was not a handsome man. We have no earthly reason to follow him – not looks, nor wealth, nor strength, nor super powers.
We follow this suffering Servant Jesus to the cross so that we might behold his saving grace. We trust that he was willing to pay a great price for our sakes, in order that we all might be made whole in his righteousness and healed from all our despair.
Slide 11: Isaiah 53:4-5: “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.”
At such great cost, God desires that all of humanity should be saved, and that none should perish.
To be sure, in our own lives we may experience the despairing wilderness. We may come to suffer the truth of our guilt and shame, the disgrace of remorse and defeat, and even fear and anxiety in the shadows of death. But over all of that wilderness, when we dare to trust that Jesus, the living Word of God, brings new grace for our lives.
Slide 12: Behold, I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
Jesus, the living Word of God, is with us in our journey through the wilderness, and sees us through to the very promising end. We will be brought home in peace and joy.
Slide 13 (Isaiah 55:10-11):“So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace.”
Whenever our thoughts become dark and we are dying in the wilderness of chaos; whenever we are caught in the depths of despair and the harsh isolation of exile; whenever we cannot imagine anything possibly good for our lives and all our plans go to waste—there God comes in Jesus the Christ to shine light on our darkness. Do not despair! All is not lost; you are called to live, and you can come to know the fullness of God’s grace and promise through Jesus Christ! When we look toward Christ, our darkened imaginations give way to God’s own brilliant light.
Slide 14: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”
Instead of seeing only defeat and despair, there are sure and certain signs of comfort and joy, healing and hope. We lay hold of this through our faith in Christ. Through faith, we get to declare the everlasting promises of God as though they are our very own to proclaim—even as they were for the prophet Isaiah. For we are witnesses of God’s living Word, Jesus Christ; and through that Word we become vessels of love and are blessed to be messengers of his good news!
Slide 15: Isaiah 52:7: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’”
We are going to close today by singing Amazing Grace, which was written by John Newton, who was an English slave trader turned minister. During his early years at sea, Newton mocked religion. But a near-death experience changed his views.
While caught in a violent storm off the coast of Buncrana in 1748, Newton prayed that the ship and crew would be saved. Although he did lose one member of his crew, everyone else was saved. This sparked a spiritual awakening.
Although he continued to work in the slave trade for a few more years, he eventually left it behind and studied theology. It was during this time that he became an outspoken abolitionist, actively writing to the English parliament in an effort to end slavery. The words to the song reflect his spiritual journey.