The Three Heralds

Text: Isaiah 49:1-11
Date: Advent II + 12/4/11

The number three is in the air today. At three-thirty this afternoon we look forward to having three musical stars lead us in our Third Annual Christmas Concert, flutists Alexander Zonjic and Ervin Monroe and acclaimed tenor Drake Danzler. This morning the prophet Isaiah speaks of three more stars. Not Plácido Domingo, José Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti, however, not three tenors but three preachers: God’s prophet Isaiah, John the Baptist and the Christian Church. These are The Three Heralds of Isaiah 40. On this Second Sunday of Advent the Good News of God’s coming is proclaimed loudly and clearly as any herald worth his salt should do. For God’s coming does not mean wrath and destruction but, in a word, comfort, the comfort of a God who comes to save us from sin and death, who comes to tend and carry us like a shepherd. The Prophet, the Baptist and the Church are the heralds, the preachers and proclaimers of this comforting Good News. And all this is in the inspired verses from Isaiah’s gospel.

The first voice is God’s, God’s voice through his prophet Isaiah. And the first word is “comfort.” In Hebrew the word literally means to breathe again. It’s a “revival” word. “Comfort, comfort” God repeats Himself in almost a CPR[1] rhythm, as if to breathe new life into dying souls. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” He speaks to those who belong to Him as their God. The tender message is the promised forgiveness of sins. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, her iniquity is pardoned.” That forgiveness, peace and pardon begins in the loving, merciful heart of God. It comes as a wonderful gift, not as something earned or deserved, to those who have known the oppression, the anxiety, the fear and sadness of the warfare of sin. And sin is warfare, a life-and-death struggle, a force causing all sorts of anxiety and unhappiness all along the way.

The record of sin extends all the way back to that first one, the desire to rebel, to replace God, to exalt self. And how that separation from God, that rebellion contaminates every word and thought and act of every human being, no one excluded but One. Sin, rebellion against the one, true God is at the root of every false religion. It is behind every expression of anger, every selfish motivation that uses and abuses others, even those closest to us. “Each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death” (James 1:13-15).

Since this promised forgiveness and salvation means to save us from death, it needs to be proclaimed by the second herald as a call to repentance of sin. “A voice cries/heralds: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’” John the Baptist fulfilled this prophecy most literally as he “appeared, baptizing in the wilderness and proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Mark 1:4).

The Christian faith does not promise a life free from anxiety, and certainly not a life of financial success. That’s why true faith does not begin with a massage or a lay-away program down payment. It begins where it is to end, with the confession of your sins because that’s what is killing you, and that’s what is being taken away. Sin and forgiveness is the issue, always, every day.

God’s deliverance comes by way of the wilderness, the desert. It was through the desert that God went to redeem Israel out of Egyptian bondage, and there also to reveal Himself and His holy Law on Mt. Sinai as Psalm 68 recounts, “Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides through the deserts…. O God, when you went out before your people, when you marched through the wilderness, the earth quaked, the heavens poured down rain, before God, the One of Sinai, before God, the God of Israel” (Psalm 68:4, 7-8). So John is God’s voice in the desert calling to repentance. And so was the beginning act of Jesus, God’s Son, being tempted in the desert and then victoriously proclaiming the same message of John before Him, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Our comfort begins in repentance. Repentance is pictured as valleys being filled in and mountains and hills being shaved down. We could say repentance is “leveling” with God. No excuses. No blaming others, not even the devil. Sin is personal. As we sing in the Lenten hymn speaking of our crucified Lord,

I caused Your grief and sighing
By evils multiplying
As countless as the sands.
I caused the woes unnumbered
With which Your soul is cumbered,
Your sorrows raised by wicked hands. (LSB 453:4)

There is another voice in our text which is really the same voice. It proclaims the perishable nature of all flesh and the imperishable nature of God’s mighty Word. “All flesh is grass,” it withers and fades, “but the word of our God will stand forever.” The Word of forgiveness, of new breath and life is certain and eternal. Sin is temporal and to be taken away.

Between verses 8 and 9 of our text you must fix the coming of Jesus our Savior remembering all his vicarious, saving acts we recount in the liturgical year as the hymn says,

For us baptized, for us He bore
His holy fast and hungered sore;
For us temptation sharp He knew;
For us the tempter overthrew.

For us He prayed; for us He taught;
For us His daily works He wrought….

For us by wickedness betrayed,
For us, in crown of thorns arrayed,
He bore the shameful cross and death;
For us He gave His dying breath.

For us He rose from death again;
For us He went on high to reign;
For us He sent His Spirit here
To guide, to strengthen, and to cheer. (LSB 544:3-6)

Having received faith in Christ and the forgiveness of our sins the Church is summoned as the third herald of Isaiah 40, “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not.” The Church is called, literally, “evangelist Zion.” And what are we to proclaim but the same message of repentance and faith. “Behold your God! Behold, the Lord God comes with might…his arm rules…his reward is with him.” Since God is in our midst once again, the breach healed, the separation and warfare ended, we are to lift up our voice with joyful confidence as the messenger of glad tidings to all, even as our Lord commanded us to make disciples of all nations, baptizing and teaching—joyfully!

In this community of the baptized God Himself tends his flock like a shepherd. The comfort comes as he gathers us in his arms, carries us in his bosom and gently leads us. With this loving image Isaiah’s gospel sermon comes to a close. And so does ours.

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Cry to Jerusalem that her warfare is ended. A voice cries in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord. Get you up O evangelist Zion; lift up your voice and say, “Behold your God comes.” And He will tend his flock, gather the lambs and gently lead.

Savior, like a shepherd lead us;
Much we need Your tender care.
In Your pleasant pastures feed us,
For our use Your fold prepare.
Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus,
You have bought us; we are Yours.
Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus,
You have bought us; we are Yours. (LSB 711:1)

[1] Cardiopulmonary resuscitation.