Good News Bad New
There’s a humorous story of a teenager who comes home and tells his dad: “Dad, I have some good news and some bad news about your car.
The good news is—the air bags work.”
What makes that story humorous is the fact that imbedded in the good news is the bad news.
Our text today in Isaiah 40 in some ways begins like that.
We hear God saying, “Comfort, O comfort my people.”
The pronouncement of comfort is indeed good news, but imbedded in this pronouncement is the fact that there must be something uncomfortable at hand.
You don’t need to be comforted by good news if you are not experiencing any bad news.
The words of Isaiah 40 are speaking into a very disturbing deliverance of bad news.
This bad news is recorded one chapter prior to our text today. The news in chapter 39 is so bad that the book of Isaiah is often divided at chapter 40 as a “second Isaiah,” and some scholars even attribute the writing of chapters 40 onwards to a different author.
Have you ever had news so bad that everything changes so dramatically that you don’t even feel like the same person anymore?
We will let the scholars sort out the literary changes, but for you and me, we may need a dramatic switch from bad news to good news like we see from chapter 39 to chapter 40. But first, let’s deal with the bad news.
In chapter 39, Isaiah speaks of a future day when Jerusalem would be destroyed.
This took place about a hundred years later, in 586 BC.
Ten years before this destruction, Judah was crushed by the Babylonians.
The city was captured, A mere decade later, Judah was again attacked by the Babylonians, but this time the invaders utterly destroyed Jerusalem.
The walls were pulled down and the temple was burned.
If you want to get a better sense of the bad news Isaiah is proclaiming, you can read the book of Lamentations, After reading Lamentations, you would read Isaiah 40 as the good news that this horrible nightmare would come to an end.
God was going to deliver and restore his people.
As we read this good news, we can bring our own bad news to mind.
We may not be dealing with such atrocities as recorded in Lamentations, but we too are only one chapter removed from bad news.
For some, it seems the entire past year has been a year of bad news.
For others, it may be some bad news you received last year or last month.
Or perhaps you were given some bad news this week.
If you happened to listen to the news or watch it on TV recently, no doubt you were given a heavy dose of bad news in some form or another.
Bad news seems to speak to us at every turn.
But God chose in chapter 40 not to remain silent and to share his good news of comfort, and he has chosen today to speak to us words of comfort to help you face whatever challenge lies before us.
So, let’s look at this good news recorded in the first 11 verses in chapter 40.
The first thing we notice is that God is telling messengers to speak his words of comfort.
And that message hasn’t changed. When one is called to speak God’s words to God’s people, he is called to speak good news. This doesn’t mean that we have to ignore all the bad news and pretend it doesn’t exist, but it does mean we bring a message of comfort and hope in the midst of it.
The good news in Isaiah 40 does not dismiss Israel’s sins, which have landed them in exile, but it reminds us that sin is not God’s focus; deliverance and restoration is the focus of his good news. The text begins with God’s voice of comfort.
Then we have three other voices enter the scene to “preach” this message in their own words. Each messenger has something to contribute to the overall message of good news the Lord is delivering.
Clearly God wants this message to be heard.
He is not content to just say it once. He keeps speaking to us by sending different voices to deliver the same message—like a lover who uses many forms of communication to “speak tenderly” to his beloved who is estranged.
It doesn’t matter if it’s a letter, a phone call, a text, a Facebook post, a pigeon, a poem, or a smoke signal.
He or she will keep speaking through chosen instruments until he or she hears his words wooing her back to him.
As we examine each of these three voices that God speaks through, we tune our ears to hear the voice of the Father speaking to us personally, deliberately, and passionately.
The Lord will not rest until the good news of his love for us becomes the final word over all the bad news we are facing.
So, let’s examine each of these three voices to hear what he has to say today.
Voice 1: A Royal Revelation and Restoration
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 40:3-5 NRSV)
These verses pick up on some royal themes by using cultural terminology.
The imagery used of preparing a highway in the desert probably draws from the Babylonian religion that would build special processional roads where they could display their gods before the people.
It was a sort of parade of the gods, you might say.
But the highway Isaiah is talking about is to lead away from Babylon across the desert back to the promised land.
It’s the Exodus all over again.
In this procession we have on display the true God of Israel, who delivered them from Egypt.
The phrase “prepare the way of the Lord” also tells us the king is returning to the throne.
This returning Lord and King is depicted as doing two things. First, he engages in a major restoration of the landscape.
“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.”
This is metaphorical language and doesn’t mean he is talking about changing Jerusalem’s topography.
In using images of making things smooth and level, he is letting us know that this King will set things right.
It’s another way to speak of the proud being humbled and the lowly being exalted.
Things will be put back into proper balance and the rough edges will be smoothed out.
This text is picked up in the Gospels to point to Jesus as the ultimate new king who comes with a royal restoration.
Jesus is the king who fixes things the way they should be.
Jesus is recorded in his ministry as healing the sick, restoring the blind, feeding the hungry, forgiving sinners and raising the dead. When King Jesus embarks on his royal projects of restoration, it is on a scale best depicted as earth shattering. The second thing depicted in this passage is that this returning King will bring a Royal Revelation.
“Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
To speak of God’s glory is to speak of his true essence—to see him for who he is.
Jesus, the true King, is the one in whom we see the glory of God. In Jesus we come face to face with who God is, and he is glorious indeed, a God full of grace and truth, a God who loves us with his dying breath.
This revelation leads us from the bad news of bondage that might indicate that God is against us or means us harm.
God is for us even when our sins plunge us into the bondage and exile we deserve.
He doesn’t leave us there; he reveals and restores and brings us home.
Voice 2: Unfailing Faithfulness
A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:6-8 NRSV)
These verses deliver some wonderful good news that at first may seem a bit insulting.
Basically, it says that it is not up to us.
Now, if all your efforts have landed you in the horrid situation of exile that Isaiah has proclaimed, this comes as a welcomed announcement.
What wonderful news to know that God is not leaving our salvation up to us.
You know we would mess that up in a hurry.
The poetic language of flowers and grass contrast the frail, fading and fleeting nature of our faith with the sure and unfailing faithfulness of God’s word in Jesus Christ.
Jesus is God’s promise kept.
Jesus as God’s Word is the last Word, and it is never taken back. We can count on it with our whole being, as it “will stand forever.”
Voice 3: It’s Personal
Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “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. (Isaiah 11:9-10 NRSV)
The sweeping pronouncement of good news that “all people shall see” is marvelous to behold.
The first two voices speak of this good news with tremendous global and national implications.
But this third voice lets us know that we do not get lost in a crowd.
This good news is for us personally.
You will never hear God say, “It’s not personal, it’s only business!”
God is a personal God as Father, Son, and Spirit.
His good news is to you as a particular person in relationship with this tri-person God.
This final voice moves closer to speak to the people of Jerusalem in personal ways.
Listen to this voice, not as a voice to the world or to the nation of Israel, but to you personally:
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. (Isaiah 40:11 NRSV)
God chooses in this passage to speak to you tenderly today.
He is not coming with a booming voice of judgment or power.
He comes as a caring Shepherd full of humility and tenderness. He comes with a gentle touch for those who have tender wounds. He knows you personally and particularly.
He knows the bad news you are facing, and he knows the heaviness of your heart.
He carries you in his arms to heal and lift you up.
Jesus is this Good Shepherd.
Jesus is the good news that the Father wants you to hear today. The bad news is coming to an end. The good news has arrived in Jesus. And this is a word of comfort indeed!