The Fourth Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11 (KJV), Psalm 77, Philippians 4:4-7, St. John 1:19-28
Her Iniquity Is Pardoned
London was treating its adopted luminary rather shabbily. George Frideric Handel had left his native Germany to study and work in Italy for five years. When he moved on to London, where he would spend most of his life, he packed his love of opera for the journey.
Already an accomplished composer, he found a warm welcome in England and the operas he wrote there played to large and enthusiastic audiences. In time, however, the English appetite for a foreign art form sung in an unfamiliar tongue began to wane.
They liked their bangers and mash and they liked lyrics in their own language. What’s more, they were weary of the low morals and all-too-public scandals of some of the foreign artists who seemed to lead steamier lives than the characters they portrayed. An opera house Handel had founded and supported went bankrupt.
So it was that Handel accepted readily the invitation of an Irish aristocrat to compose an oratorio for the Dublin stage. Handel had already begun to explore this new form, which used solo parts, chorus and orchestra to tell a tale without costumes or acting. Most importantly, it used English lyrics.
Most oratorios set to music an Old Testament story, and Handel, a Christian, would write a number of them based on the lives of Esther and Samson and other biblical characters. This one, though, would be different.
A librettist – one who writes the words for an extended musical composition – had assembled a number of Bible verses relating to Jesus Christ. This would not be another passion narrative, however, but a meditation on the life of Christ grounded in the Old Testament and particularly in the Book of Isaiah.
It would be called “Messiah.”
The first part foretells the birth of Jesus Christ; the second exalts His sacrifice for mankind, and the third heralds His Resurrection. The librettist, Charles Jennens, wrote to a friend, “I hope (Handel) will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject.”
It seems safe to say, lo these many years and thousands of performances later, that Handel lived up to that hope.
One reason he accepted the commission was that the debut would be a fund-raiser for Dublin hospitals. Handel was already wealthy and already deep in good causes. In London, he gave to hospitals, paid off the debts of those confined in debtors’ prisons and helped to establish the Fund for the Support of Decayed Musicians.
This altruistic impulse bears directly on his music, as we shall see.
In a furious spasm of three to four weeks during the summer of 1741, working daily from sunup to sundown, Handel composed the work for performance at the next Easter. When he got to the Hallelujah chorus, his assistant found him in tears saying, “I did think I saw heaven open, and saw the very face of God.”
“Messiah” opened on the stage of Musick Hall in Dublin on April 13, 1742, and attracted the largest audience ever in that auditorium, 700 patrons. Ladies had graciously heeded pleas by management to wear dresses “without Hoops” to save space.
Handel’s celebrity was not the only draw. Some came to gawk at the contralto, Susannah Cibber, who was embroiled in a salacious divorce. Near the midway point, she sang, “He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.”
The Rev. Patrick Delany was transported. He sprang from his seat and cried out: “Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!”
The oratorio opens with a mournful string overture. For 39 chapters, Isaiah has thundered judgment against the nations, and in particular against God’s rebellious people Israel, now in bondage in Babylon.
In chapter 40, the mood swings abruptly, beginning in the first 11 verses, our Old Testament lesson for today, to one of hope in the salvation God will deliver. Handel’s heart must have fluttered as rapidly as his hand as he set to music these thrilling verses, for his giving spirit flowed out of a deep love for God’s image-bearers.
His contemporary, Johann Sebastian Bach, wrote music that celebrated the majesty and glory of God; the philanthropist Handel focused on God’s magnificent grace upon His people and their response to Him.
Burning this passion for fuel, Handel ascended to such heights that, in the words of Ludwig van Beethoven, he became “the master of us all . . . the greatest composer who ever lived.” Beethoven said, “I would uncover my head and kneel before his tomb.”
In Dublin, the audience sits spellbound through the overture as in Babylon the exiled Jews strain to hear a word of hope from their God. It comes in the piercing opening line of His prophet Isaiah who, we now learn, is a tenor. Listen again to the opening verses:
THE FIRST PART (vv 1-3)
“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD’S hand double for all her sins. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
Perhaps Isaiah is a tenor because he is singing the song of salvation that will burst forth from the gospels in a brighter, higher key. The prophet introduces in these verses the themes he will weave into his message of restoration through the remainder of the book:
Atonement, the way of the Lord, the glory of the Lord, the power of the word of God, the city of God, the Savior’s strong arm for the defense of His people and His tender touch in caring for them.
And in the gospels, as we have heard already this day, John the Baptist will reach back into this passage to declare himself the embodiment of Isaiah’s message, the herald who proclaims the coming of the Savior.
The comfort of God’s touch begins in verse 1. He has afflicted Israel with banishment and bondage for their sins . . . but He has not abandoned them: “My people . . . your God.”
How is it that they remain under His watch and care? They have received pardon. “Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her . . . her iniquity is pardoned.”
Has Israel paid off the debt of her centuries-long rebellion against God with several decades in exile? Indeed not. Here commences a mystery which will not be resolved until chapter 53, where we learn that God Himself, the suffering Servant, is the One who satisfies the debt of sin.
For now it is enough to know: You have won the royal pardon! God has flung open the doors of your prison.
And the people of God will not be left to their own devices to make their way home through the wilderness. “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” His way is their way, for He shall be with them on their homeward journey to Zion.
THE SECOND PART (vv 4-5)
“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.”
“And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” He is Lord of all. The nations shall know Him as Savior, and not of Israel alone. “And all flesh shall see it together.” He performs His wondrous works of mercy that all peoples may know Him for who He is.
The next section is not included in Handel’s masterpiece. A voice commands Isaiah, “Cry!” The prophet is receiving his second commission. The first came in chapter 6, when God prepared him to deliver the oracle of judgment. Isaiah asked, “How long, Lord?”
God replied, “Until the cities be wasted without inhabitant, and the houses without man, and the land be utterly desolate . . .”
That curse has come to pass. God’s people have gone into bondage, have served their sentence. Now, Isaiah receives an anointing as a messenger of mercy. He asks, “What shall I cry?” The voice supplies the message of salvation, not for Israel alone but for the nations. “All flesh is grass . . . the grass witherith, the flower fadeth . . .”
Put not your trust in the flesh.
“But the word of our God shall stand forever.” Put your faith in God alone, God who shall save you by His word. His word is made of the same eternal stuff as its Author.
We return to “Messiah” for two of the final three verses.
Here are all three:
THIRD PART (vv 9-11)
“O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God! Behold, the Lord GOD will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him. He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.”
It is desolate Jerusalem who will hear first the glad tidings and proclaim the news to those who remain in the cities of Judah: “Behold your God!” Their Lord is returning to Zion!
“His arm shall rule for Him” – no enemies of His people will be able to resist Him. “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom and shall gently lead those that are with young.” He shall not leave the weak behind.
David’s illustrious Son, like His father before Him, is both a warrior-king who rules on Mount Zion, fiercely protecting His own by His strong arm, and a gentle shepherd, tenderly gathering His lambs to Him with that same arm.
His reward will be with Him, this gift of grace and love so great that the people’s torments in exile will shatter and drift away on the breeze, never to be thought of again.
Beloved, we, too, are His people, living in exile in a sin-wracked world, longing to go home with Him. And so we will, for He is come to save us, and our heavenly Father will remember our time of exile in sin no more.
Because of what our Lord Christ has done, He will look upon us as though we had never sinned. Sing hosanna to His name. Amen.
The First Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 28:14-22, Psalm 50, Romans 13:8-14, St. Matthew 21:1-13
A vast and inky blackness is coalescing over the people of God. Political forces are gathering and shifting. Power ebbs here and flows there. The people seek an omen, any sign that hints at their Lord’s presence with them.
The menace grows like a mythical dragon in the east, its tail ever lengthening and lashing, but this peril is as real as the plague. The enemy has already loosed cataclysm and tumult, and with every tribe and nation he swallows he grows more ravenous. It seems nothing will sate his lust for spoil.
Will God never reveal Himself? His people have His promise but not His presence. What is the former worth without the latter? A promise and a couple of coins might get you enough bread to tide you over. Without the coins, what have you got?
Wars and rumors of war rend the peace of a sunny afternoon. Women scream and men moan, dying. Children are sons and daughters in this instant, orphans in the next . . . those who survive. The enemy has sown his seed well.
Close the borders! Clamp on the curfews! News metastasizes: Terror will strike this city again, rampage through that one next. Chaos can skip over mountains, vault oceans, drill a hole through strong ramparts. No one is safe . . . no, not one.
Where is our God?
It is late in the eighth century B.C. Assyria is ascendant in the east and no force on earth can check her. The world has never known a horde as fearsome as this one. Among the ancients, savagery is a game and the Assyrians are all-stars.
Isaiah has held his prophetic office during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham and Ahaz, kings of Judah. Now Hezekiah sits upon the throne. The prophet has thundered against the unfaithfulness and disobedience of the covenant people, but he has not ceased to hold out hope: Even now, a repentant Israel can reclaim God’s favor.
The urgent matter is one of trust. The menace that is Assyria must be countered. Inaction is suicide. Will Judah place her trust in her own political skill and cunning and in alliance with a more powerful protector? Or will she invest her faith in Yahweh as her champion?
Recent history colors the decision. In 735 B.C., during the reign of Ahaz, the northern kingdom of Israel that broke away from Judah in the time of Solomon’s son Rehoboam addressed the Assyrian threat by entering a treaty with Syria.
Those two tried to coerce Judah into joining their pact. Isaiah counseled Ahaz to trust Yahweh to honor His commitment to preserve the Davidic throne in Jerusalem. The king instead made league with the Assyrians against his fellow Jews to the north and the Syrians.
In the process, he abandoned the sovereignty of the Davidic throne – on which Yahweh had declared that David’s successor the Ruler of all the nations would one day sit – to a nation hostile to Israel and to her God.
God’s anointed one placed the Davidic monarchy under pagan protection.
The anti-Assyria alliance buckled. Syria fell in 732 and Israel 10 years later. The Assyrians carried into bondage all of the Jews who might be of use to them and repopulated the territory with their own people, who intermarried with the Jews who remained, resulting in the race called the Samaritans.
By 701, the Assyrians, drunk with greater power still, have shredded their pact with Judah like yesterday’s newspaper. With Hezekiah now on the throne, the Jews again scorn the aid of their God – where is He? – and this time align themselves with Egypt to the west for protection.
Even after Hezekiah has handed over the wealth of Judah to the Assyrians, stripped the gold from the Jerusalem temple to appease them, Sennacharib king of Assyria lays siege to Jerusalem . . . and his official mocks the Jews for looking to Egypt for aid. He laughs them to scorn:
“Now look! You are trusting in the staff of this broken reed, Egypt, on which if a man leans, it will go into his hand and pierce it. So is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him” (2 Kings 18:21).
On that count, at least, he is right. When the people of God turn their backs on God for their protection, Pharaoh and his army will be of as much use as the Cub Scouts.
Now comes Isaiah again to call his people to account. “Hear the word of the LORD, you scornful men,” he tells Israel’s leaders. These are the scoffers, and the scoffers are the most to be reviled; scoffing is the opposite of faith. These have not ignored Yahweh’s counsel, they have despised it.
They have made “a covenant with death.” The term refers specifically to the pact with Egypt, which cannot save them . . . which can only bring them death. Having made lies their refuge, they court destruction by their delusion.
There was in the world then, there is in the world now, a covenant with death in a more expansive sense. Most of you have not seen it. I have seen it.
Oh, we have among us the depraved, the predators. They use the weak and the vulnerable for their own vile purposes without regret or remorse. But they are anomalies. We have among us the horror of abortion, the genocide of 55 million. Yet we have not erased our national conscience completely. Some continue to cry out for mercy for the unborn.
In the cultures of death I have seen, abortion is the standard means of birth control, undertaken as casually as a haircut. In the cultures of death I have seen, a woman suspected of holding hands with a suitor goes away into the mountains with her father and brothers, never to be seen again. In the cultures of death I have seen, disabled children are cast out to be constrained in straitjackets, some to be systematically starved to death.
A culture of death does not appear randomly. Men create it by covenant. Death is the choice of those who refuse to place their trust in the God of life.
Even now, even after all the idolatry and perversion in the nation, the bottomless patience of Israel’s God remains. Turn away from your scoffing and make a covenant with life:
“Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stone for a foundation, a tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation; whoever believes will not act hastily.
“Also I will make justice the measuring line, and righteousness the plummet; the hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters will overflow the hiding place. Your covenant with death will be annulled, and your agreement with Sheol will not stand . . .”
Judah’s diplomats scurry in haste between Jerusalem and Pharaoh’s court, frantically thatching together a treaty that will offer the protection of papyrus. They fling themselves into the frenzied negotiation of the moment.
Do you see them beaming, waving their treaty like party favors, celebrating their covenant with death in the city of life? Rather than trusting in the precious cornerstone that will remain eternally in place, the sure foundation that will never be shattered?
Do they see Christ in that cornerstone? They cannot. Their cornerstone is the promise of Yahweh, Father of Christ, and His faithfulness. This is the Lord who rose up and delivered victory over the Philistines to Israel at Mount Perazim, over the Amorites to His people in the Valley of Gibeon.
Where is the Lord? Where He has ever been, defending and protecting those who call on Him in faith.
And yet their cornerstone is more than that still; we shall return to it.
And what of us? Do we see Christ as a cornerstone? Indeed we do. St. Peter wrote:
“Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ
“Therefore it is also contained in the Scripture, ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a chief cornerstone, elect, precious, and he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame’” (1Peter 2:4-6).
A vast and inky blackness is coalescing over the people of God. Paris: An explosion shatters the still of an autumn afternoon, and another and another. Scornful men have made a covenant with death, and death they are reaping. Tumult tumbles out and engulfs them.
Too long have they chased after idols, sought after sordid pleasures, paraded their perversions. Now comes the reckoning. The day is far spent . . . but still time remains. Our God’s patience is like a rubber band . . . not yet quite to the point of snapping.
Where will we place our trust? In alliances with fickle friends? In secret pacts with suspect allies? Or in the precious cornerstone who will never be moved? Where will we turn for protection?
Where will our leaders lead us?
Every Sunday I urge you to pray for wisdom and strength for our leaders. We must have strong leadership to withstand the assaults of the enemy.
When the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, was an oil executive, he and his wife lived in Paris for five years. His affection for the city made the recent terrorist attacks there that killed 130 people especially painful for him.
Welby told a reporter for a BBC program called “Songs of Praise” that the jihadis’ brutality left him with a sense of profound sadness and with a question: Why?
“Saturday morning,” he said, “I was out and as I was walking I was praying and saying: ‘God, why – why is this happening? Where are you in all this?’ and then, engaging and talking to God, I concluded, ‘Yes, I doubt.’”
Here is the titular head of a body of tens of millions of Christians, scoffing at God.
In World War II, 60 million people –3 per cent of the world’s population – died. Among them were millions of defenseless Jews. The atrocities stimulated the wartime archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, to meet evil head-on.
“My chief protest,” he said at the time, “is against procrastination of any kind. The Jews are being slaughtered at the rate of tens of thousands a day on many days . . .
“It is always true that the obligations of decent men are decided for them by contingencies which they did not themselves create and very largely by the action of wicked men. The priest and the Levite in the parable were not in the least responsible for the traveller’s wounds as he lay there by the roadside and no doubt they had many other pressing things to attend to, but they stand as the picture of those who are condemned for neglecting the opportunity of showing mercy.
“We at this moment have upon us a tremendous responsibility. We stand at the bar of history, of humanity and of God.”
But the current archbishop, Justin Welby? All he can do is doubt. When the “Songs of Praise” reporter put the question to him directly, “Did you doubt God?” Welby answered, “Oh, gosh, yes.”
The Rev. Dr. Peter Mullen, a Church of England priest and as such one of Welby’s minions, considered that response.
“I confess that I sometimes doubt the existence of the Archbishop of Canterbury,” he wrote. “You may think this perverse of me for, after all, there is a great accumulation of evidence for his existence.
“He looks every inch an Archbishop. I mean, by the size of his cross and the spread of his grin, you can tell he is no rank and file clergyman. And the content of his speeches is so far up the Richter scale of inanity that any lingering doubts about his archi-episcopal credentials must be immediately dispelled.
“I admit it is feeble of me to continue to doubt, but I cannot stop sceptical thoughts from entering my head. For example, if there really is a genuine Archbishop of Canterbury, why is the Church of England in such a mess?
“And, when I see this Archbishop-like apparition opening and closing his mouth, why do I hear no concurrent theological sense? I am long past hoping that the Archbishop might be a competent theologian, but at least we might expect him to be of Sunday School standard?
“Alas, he is not even that. For example, he says today that the Paris massacres made him doubt God. But the youngest girl in Sunday school would have been able to tell him that the atrocities were not God’s fault and that the terrorists were entirely to blame for them.
“The question of where God was in all that suffering would be readily answered by your average Confirmation candidate: ‘God was suffering with the victims.’
“Given the massive religious incompetence of the Welby-like personage, when asked if I ever doubt the existence of the Archbishop of Canterbury, I have to say, ‘Oh gosh, yes!’”
Dr. Mullen is, I submit, an Isaiah for our day, uttering a primal scream welling up from the anguish of watching the leaders of God’s covenant people abdicate responsibility and desert their posts. The chief cornerstone rested solid as Gibraltar 29 centuries ago and He has not budged since.
No serious Christian can take seriously a caricature such as Justin Welby. I scoff at him, for he scoffs at my cornerstone.
On that subject I have one more thing to say.
The people of God of Isaiah’s day could not have known Jesus Christ as cornerstone. Even then, they had the pledge of the Seed of the woman who would crush the head of the seed of the serpent, but they could not have known Him as we know Him.
What could they have known?
They could have known the cornerstone as the entirety and the unity of God’s promises, of God’s faithfulness and His call upon them to answer His love with their faith.
They could have seen the devastation of the northern kingdom as the necessary condition of Yahweh’s rebuilding program, of His starting over once again to construct a community of people who would put their trust in Him.
Of an action that grieved His great heart but was mandated not by His wrath but by His people’s disaffection.
And they could have seen the cornerstone as that little knot of true believers who huddled round the prophet and believed the promise God offered through him. Who invested their faith not in the flimsy schemes of human ambassadors but in the solid rock of God’s covenant.
The Scriptures have a term for such as these: the faithful remnant. And they were indeed the cornerstone because it was from them the One St. Peter calls the “chief cornerstone” would come.
May that be us, beloved. Revival has swept across America before. I am no prophet; I know not what is to come. I do know that, on balance, Hezekiah was a righteous king in Judah and because he was Yahweh did not lift His judgment from Judah . . . but He did delay it. Our role is to be faithful; the Lord’s role is to pass judgment.
May we be the ones . . . the ones who shrug off the hasty designs of self-important men who have lived without the Lord so long they know not where to seek Him. May we be the ones who trample upon the covenant of death our culture has executed with the enemies of life.
May we be the ones who turn away in disgust from those kings and priests who, asked if they doubt, respond, “Oh, gosh, yes.” May we be the ones who fall to our knees and place all of our hope in the chief cornerstone who will never be shifted.
As the Psalmist sang, “Those who trust in the Lord are like Mount Zion, which cannot be moved, but abides forever” (125:1).
May we be the faithful remnant. Amen.