The Christmas season can be a difficult time for a lot of people. Often it is depressing because of the reminder of loved ones who have passed away. Sometimes it is hard because it reinforces feelings of loneliness or the sense that few people care about you. Yet the coming of Christ is a message of both comfort and joy. Charles Jennens, who selected the words used in Handel’s English-language oratorio Messiah, must have thought that Isaiah 40 figured prominently in the prophecies about the Messiah coming. Part 1, Scene 1 of Handel’s Messiah is Isaiah 40:1-5 and Isaiah 40:9 is found in the scene in the middle of Part 1 and Isaiah 40:11 near the end of the last scene of Part 1. In fact, Jennens is simply following the lead of the New Testament. All four of the Gospels in the New Testament quote Isaiah 40:3 within the first few chapters. John the Baptist was the voice crying in the wilderness for the people to prepare the way of the Lord. For the message of the arrival of the Messiah is tidings of comfort and joy for sinners.
The good news of the coming of the Messiah may seem like old news to you, but just because it is familiar don’t miss the tidings of comfort and joy.
Isaiah wrote to believers who longed to hear those tidings after having heard how their nation would be exiled and her wealth plundered. The natural question for those hearing the bad news of the exile would be, “Does this mean we will be separated from our God forevermore?” Knowing that there was nothing that they could do to reverse this course toward death—for exile from God is the very definition of death—they would be tempted to despair. Therefore, God tells Isaiah to share these tidings of comfort and joy. He says, “Comfort, comfort my people…speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned.” He says, “Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news.” To those believers dead in their sins and hence helpless to help themselves God promises tidings of comfort – the forgiveness of sins. To those believers separated from God and wandering like sheep without a shepherd, He sends tidings of joy. To the people of Judah who believed in the word of God, these were most welcome tidings of comfort and joy.
Indeed, these are tidings of comfort and joy that have been proclaimed not only to the people of Judah but also to us. These are tidings of comfort and joy to the believers among and around us who feel all alone, to those believers who grieve because of sin and death, to believers who are struggling with depression or anxiety, to believers who sometimes wonder if anyone cares. These are tidings of comfort and joy for all of us who are longing to hear that this age will come to an end with all of its suffering, pain, crying, and death. These are tidings of comfort and joy for all of us who know that we are sinners helpless to save ourselves and longing for the day when we will sin no more.
Thus take comfort and rejoice for the coming of the Messiah is the arrival of God-with-us and for us.
Isaiah foresaw the coming of the Messiah Jesus as God-with-us and for us. He saw back in Isaiah 7:14 that the virgin would conceive and bear a son and His name shall be called Immanuel, meaning God-with-us. He then saw in Isaiah 9:6 this Immanuel would be a child born to us and a son given to us and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Then here in Isaiah 40, he continues to unpack this vision of how the Messiah would be God-with-us and for us. So just as we saw last Sunday that each of those four titles in Isaiah 9:6 unpack what it means to say that the Messiah is God-with-us, so too many of these eleven verses unpack what it means to say that the Messiah is God-with-us, Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. It is sin that always caused problems for Israel when God was with them, but the good news of the Messiah is a king who is God in the flesh with us forevermore and who pronounces the forgiveness of sins and proclaims peace. Moreover, the Messiah is the glory of the Lord and speaks the word of the Lord that stands forever. Indeed, Isaiah wants to see Zion and all Jerusalem herald to the cities of Judah: “Behold your God!” This was how he wanted them to respond to the coming of their Messiah and how they would respond if they were prepared. Isaiah also sees this Messiah as a champion king who comes with might (v.10) to usher in the kingdom rule of God but also a shepherd king (v.11) who takes care of His people like a shepherd cares for his flock or a father cares for his children. Thus in these verses Isaiah continues to unpack this vision that he sees of the coming of the Messiah as God-with-us and for us.
So today we take comfort and rejoice for the coming of the Messiah in the person of Jesus. John the Baptist was the voice that cried in the wilderness for the people to prepare the way of the Messiah who is God-with-us. He was preparing the way of the LORD—the name of God—and making straight in the desert a highway for our God. Unfortunately, the people of Jerusalem were not all that ready for the coming of the Messiah as God-with-us and were less than enthusiastically heralding the good news from the mountain tops. Nevertheless, many believers in Israel did receive it and proclaim it after the resurrection of this Messiah Jesus from the dead and the good news went from Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria, and unto the ends of the earth. Therefore, today you hear the good news that Jesus is God-with-us and for us so take comfort and rejoice. Allow me then to encourage you to take this good news to others and so prepare the way of the Lord for Jesus is coming again. Maybe you invite friends without family nearby or those you know do not have plans to join you for Christmas dinner and you take comfort and rejoice in this good news together. Or maybe you simply invite some people you know from work or your neighborhood to come to the Living Nativity and to come inside for food and fellowship and music. You might not feel like you are in the mood to share this good news because you are having a hard time rejoicing in all the American cultural trappings of Christmas and you are wrestling with loss and loneliness. But you will find that others don’t want you to pretend like you have it all together. Share how you find comfort and joy in the gospel even while you are feeling pain and suffering in many ways. Such is a witness that will glorify God. Such are true tidings of comfort and joy.