Isaiah 40:1-11 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice of one calling: "In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. 5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken." 6 A voice says, "Cry out." And I said, "What shall I cry?" "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. 7 The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever." 9 You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, "Here is your God!" 10 See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. 11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.
“Don’t stir the pot!” “Live and let live.” “You go your way, and I’ll go mine.” You’ve heard those things. Maybe even said them a time or two. We want to be left alone. “Don’t bother me, I’m fine!” And especially when it comes to religion … people even get a bit more stern: “Don’t impose your religion on me!” Which for many these days means: “Don’t even bring it up for discussion; don’t say something is wrong; don’t talk about sin; don’t do anything that might get people upset. Don’t go there. Stay superficial. Stay where it is safe, so we can all just feel good about ourselves.”
This week, as he does every Second Sunday in Advent, John the Baptist comes on the scene, and to all that says: “Phooey!” John is the divinely appointed “pot stirrer!” He will not leave you alone. He will not let you go your own way and remain in your sins. And he’s going to impose his religion on you, whether you like it or not!
He’s going to be that voice in the wilderness – that voice that you try to ignore, but can’t. That voice that keeps speaking, keeps proclaiming, keeps calling you to repentance. He doesn’t have time to worry about his wardrobe (clothed with camel’s hair and a crude leather belt); or what he eats (locusts and wild honey), to make himself look respectable and attractive to you. There are more important things at hand.
And so John is here again today in answer to our prayer. What prayer? The one you said “Amen” to earlier: “Stir up our hearts, O Lord, to prepare the way for your only Son” (Prayer of the Day).
Perhaps you didn’t really understand the depth of what you were praying. Maybe you weren’t paying too much attention to the wording of the prayer. John is here anyway, and so we have to deal with him. John is good at what he does – stirring up hearts and preaching repentance. Actually, he is very good. Because he doesn’t stop at the easy sins; the obvious sins; the sins that everybody knows are sins; because that’s not stirring the pot. That is letting things settle and cool. That kind of preaching only makes comfortable, confident sinners … and Pharisees.
The phrase, “stirring the pot” is often used as a negative. For example, Michael Brown’s stepfather, the media and some of the St. Louis Rams football players are all accused of “stirring the pot” in Ferguson. Stirring the pot can mean being deliberately provocative. Picture a pot of soup. A lot of ingredients have settled to the bottom, out of sight, until stirred. The soup must be stirred to bring all of the ingredients and spices into contact with each other. Stirring allows the heat to penetrate the entire soup.
Stirring the pot can also be a positive. It can create awareness and effect a change when everyone has become complacent and settled.
John arrives on the scene to stir up all those sins that have settled to the bottom of your heart. The ones that can’t be seen; that are out of sight so they are out of mind. They are the sins that may have been in your heart so long that you don’t even realize they are there anymore. The sins you like; that you are comfortable with; that you don’t want stirred up. Your laziness that allows your spouse to do the majority of the housework. Your boredom with God’s Word that causes you to stay away from worship and Bible study. Your hard feelings that permits you to withhold forgiveness from someone. Your apathy over God’s commandments that sanctions your life of sin. Your easy silence that keeps your lips pursed instead of praying and your mouth shut instead of evangelizing. Your evil desires, your dark thoughts, your greed, your lust, and your other hidden secrets.
What else is down there, in the deep recesses of your soul, in the nooks and crannies of your heart, that need stirring up? What sins are you ashamed of and don’t like to think about? What sins are you comfortable with that you would like to hold onto?
John wants to stir it all up today. He wants you to see that your heart is not so clean. In fact, it is quite the opposite. He won’t leave you alone because salvation is at stake – your salvation.
There is only one reason why John does that. We heard that reason prophesied by Isaiah. It is to comfort us.
That sounds rather strange, doesn’t it? In order to be comforted, we must first be made uncomfortable. In order to appreciate the glories of heaven, we must first feel the flames of hell licking at our feet. Martin Luther put it like this, “Only those who are afflicted have comfort … because comfort means nothing unless there is a malady.”
Isaiah first preached these words to the nation of Israel. They were a rebellious and disobedient people. They were heading towards a hopeless situation of their own making. Because of their ungodly arrogance and idolatry, God was going to punish them. They would very soon be exiled, taken captive, literally stripped of their dignity, land, and possessions.
In spite of their sins – or more accurately, because of their sinfulness – God promised His people comfort. In fact, the Hebrew way of driving home a point was by repeating it. So Isaiah prophesies: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.”
The Israelites had become comfortable with their sins. So God would make them uncomfortable by sending them into exile. He would stir things up for them. Then they would be willing to receive God’s comfort – a double comfort because they would receive twice as much forgiveness for their sins.
So John comes into our lives to stir the pot, not leaving us alone, and imposing his religion on us. He knows that we have become comfortable with our sinfulness. He is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.”
On your own, you are in the exile of your sins; caught in the wilderness of desolation; stuck in the valleys of despair; stranded on the mountaintops of depression; helpless on the rough ground of desperation. John comes to get rid of all these valleys and mountains and deserts where we try to hide and neatly tuck away our sin. He comes to stir it all up and lay it bare. In so doing, he prepares the way of the Lord.
For if all that sin and evil stays tucked away and hidden in our hearts, we will not welcome the Lord when He comes. Instead, we will try to hide from Him! In shame and fear like Adam and Eve. But with our sin stirred up and laid bare, with no place to hide, then when the Lord comes there is only one thing to do – repent. To confess our sin. To admit it. All of it. Even the hidden sins. Even the fun sins. Even the comfortable sins. To agree with John. “Yes, it’s mine. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Then John has us right where he wants us! For with confession and repentance comes double comfort. Then John’s fiery speech gives way to speaking tenderly. What is often translated as “speaking tenderly” is literally “speaking to the heart.” The heart is where sin resides, so God wants to speak to your heart. The power of the voice of our Good Shepherd has an impact on our thoughts, feelings and will. His voice brings low the mountains of sinful pride with sobering words of justice. It raises up the valleys of despair with the good news of our Good Shepherd who carries his lambs close to his heart.
The flames of our sin are doused with the water of baptism. The hunger felt in exile is filled with the Lord’s Supper. Our loneliness in the desert is broken when we hear Christ’s voice in absolution. It is the voice that promises: “He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”
What we deserve is trumped by grace. What we have earned is doubled with forgiveness. Then the Lord comes not as Judge but as Savior. Not as Tyrant but as Shepherd. Not as Accuser, but as Forgiver. Not to pin your sins on you, but to take them away from you by pinning them on Himself. That you may know the double comfort of His love. This double comfort will come when the Lord breaks into history and comes to the aid of His people.
There is only one way to silence the accusing voice of John the Baptist. The Pharisees objecting to him couldn’t do it. King Herod throwing him in prison and then beheading him couldn’t do it. Only death can silence John’s voice. And not John’s death (Herod tried that!). No, there is only one death that can silence John’s accusing, pot-stirring voice – and that is through the death of Jesus on the cross. It is the death of Jesus that swallows up our sin, crushes the devil, and defeats death. This then comforts us with a message greater than John’s – the message of forgiveness. The sheep know the voice of their Shepherd. This voice comforts them by repeating: “[our] hard service has been completed, [our] sin has been paid for, that [we have] received from the LORD's hand double for all [our] sins.”
Isaiah promised: “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” The breath or Spirit of the Lord is normally a life-giving breath. However, here it brings death. It’s like the hot, dry desert winds that come upon Israel in May to turn the lush, green countryside into a brown, desert-like land in less than 48 hours.
John promised: “I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit is the breath of the Lord. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, the Holy Spirit brings new life. A new life not like the old life that was full of sin. But a new life full of grace and truth. A new life of righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. A new life of faith. A new life that comes though Baptism – by water and the spirit. Through Baptism, the Holy Spirit has created pure hearts within us – hearts not with sin hidden, but with sin forgiven.
This is what God wants. He uses people like Isaiah, like John, like your pastor – to stir the pot and make you uncomfortable with your sin. That way, instead of being comfortable with your sin, you may receive the double comfort of forgiveness for your sins in Christ Jesus. The comfort of the Son of God whose flesh and blood are in the manger, on the cross, and at the Lord’s Table. We gladly stir the pot so that when Christ comes again, we will not be hiding. We will be waiting. … And we will be ready. Amen.