We have a brief Scripture reading from Isaiah 40 and we’re going to read from verse 9; Isaiah 40:9.
“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!’ See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. 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.” Amen.
You may want to keep your Bible open there as we’re going to turn to it now, following a brief prayer.
And now, O God, open our eyes so that we may behold wonderful things in your word; and that what we see, we might believe; and that what we believe, we might live; and that we might live so that this joyful shout may reverberate through the communities of Cleveland and indeed around the world. Accomplish your purposes, gracious God, we humbly pray. In Christ’s name. Amen.
You almost took me aback there; that was pretty good. I thought I just went to another church. That’s terrific.
Well, I downloaded to my iPod Handel’s Messiah. I don’t expect you to be impressed by that, but I want to tell you that I did it and why I did it. Actually I’m not sure I did it properly, to tell you the honest truth, because it seemed to me that it took forever, and then what I ended up with only seemed to be part of what I thought I had, but that’s for later on today for me to worry about it. Suffice it to say that the reason I did this was to set myself another marker that might help me to focus on the person and work of Jesus during these final weeks of Advent; that I might be able to play it pretty routinely now throughout the days of these coming weeks, and in doing so, be turned again and again to Jesus Christ, the Messiah; to be reminded of what I seek to remind you routinely, and myself in the process, of the fact that the Bible is ultimately a book about Jesus. And that when, particularly in reading the Old Testament, we may be tempted to be bewildered by its sheer size and variety, we can navigate our way around by keeping our eyes on Jesus, and just as a compass points to the north, so the Bible ultimately points to Jesus. And indeed, in large measure the story of the Old Testament, part of which we have in our reading, the story of the Old Testament is the story of a people who are looking for, waiting for, God’s promise of a Messiah to be fulfilled. And in chapter 40, by the time that Isaiah is writing as he does, the people of God are in exile. They have been taken away into foreign territory. They have, by their testimony, hanged their harps up on the willow trees, no longer, by their own testimony, able to sing the songs of the Lord because they are impoverished in a foreign land.
And it is while they are in that state of exile that the word of God comes to his people through the prophet Isaiah, and you will notice in Isaiah 40:1, it is first of all a word of comfort. A word of comfort. And again you will remember in the Messiah that great and striking beginning, “Comfort ye, comfort ye,” and coming here from this opening verse of Isaiah 40.
The comfort, of course, is to be found in the fact that God is fulfilling his promise. And in verse 5, the glory of the Lord is going to be revealed, and not only will these people of God, the people of Israel, see this, but through them and beyond them, all mankind together will see it, and the reason that this is guaranteed as happening is there at the end of the verse, “for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” God’s word is fixed in the heavens. What he has determined, he will accomplish. No one will be able to gainsay it.
And the promise there in verse 5 of the glory of the Lord being revealed is ultimately the promise of God himself becoming visible; of God manifesting himself, revealing himself, establishing his presence among us. And of course this is the nature of the incarnation: that by the time John writes his gospel, looking back on a scene towards which Isaiah was looking forward, John you will remember wrote, “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory.” You will notice the same word as in verse 5 there— “we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,” full of grace and peace. In other words, John was able to reflect upon the work completed; Isaiah is describing the preparation for the completion of that work.
And so you have in verse 3 this voice calling in the desert, preparing the way for the Lord, making straight paths in the wilderness. And we have on Pettibone Road here a little bit of an illustration to help us in this regard in that what you have already encountered this morning is about to get worse before it gets better, because all down Pettibone Road we see evidences of preparation. There’s going to be road widening, and there are going to be significant obstacles that need to be overcome before that which is being presently prepared reaches its fulfillment.
And so it is that the prophet Isaiah speaks of the one who will come. And if you know anything of the New Testament, you will be able to put pieces together and say, surely Isaiah then, without knowing it himself, has in mind the great herald who walked before Jesus of Nazareth, namely John the Baptist who is described as the Elijah to come, who bridges Elijah from the Old Testament and himself as a forerunner in the New, and who stands on the stage of history preparing the way for Jesus of Nazareth, for the Messiah.
And so it is that out of Zion’s hill salvation will come. So, “You (verse 9) who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain,” so that out of the hill of Zion may come the provision of God himself. It is an event, says the prophet, that is to be proclaimed, as it were, from the rooftops and indeed we have the relatively well-known song, “Go Tell It On The Mountain,” which comes here from Isaiah 40:9.
Now what I’d like to do in the interests of your patience and of time is summarize our study under three simple headings: number one, good tidings; number two, sovereign Lord; number three, gentle shepherd. All right? And each of these you’ll be able to find in the text in front of you.
“You who bring good tidings,” you who bring good tidings. There is nothing to be timid or diffident about. This is to be a shout. It is to be a triumphal shout, it is to be a voice which arrests, if you like, the passing crowds. And I have in my notes, observe two things.
First of all, that it is a refreshing shout. It is a refreshing shout. Because you will remember from Isaiah 9, perhaps, that the people who were walking in darkness had seen a great light. On those living in the land of the valley of the shadow of death, a light had dawned. And the picture that runs all the way through not only Isaiah but through the Bible, is the distinction between the darkness of men and the light of God: men and women dark as a result of the exile in the nation of Israel, but dark as a result of their disinterest in God, their rebellion against him, their unwillingness to do what he says. And the Bible says it is a picture of our hearts, that they are darkened before him. And so a message of good news about the light that is dawned is in itself a refreshing message. It’s tedious to go through a whole host of references, I know. I’ll just give you one more, and that is Isaiah 60. If you want to go there and read it, you will find that the same message rings out from the beginning of that chapter, “Arise and shine for your light has come.” Arise and shine for the light has come. And the message which refreshes the hearts and minds of men and women is in four words, “Here is your God.” Here is your God. Four words, at least in English, here is your God.
You’ll notice that the Bible doesn’t give an argument for the existence of God. Some of you may be here and you say that you don’t believe in God. Well I want to take you at your word, but I want you to really think seriously about your affirmation or your assertion, because the Bible actually begins with the conviction that God exists. Indeed it, it begins, “In the beginning God …” It assumes the existence of God, and it also assumes that all of creation knows of God’s existence, and it also assumes that man in his rebellion chooses darkness instead of light, chooses to worship what has been created rather than the creator, and as a result of that has a vested interest in affirming that he doesn’t believe in God, that he doesn’t think there is a God there in whom he or she is supposed to believe.
You will notice the message that is a refreshing story of good tidings and joy is to go out into the community and say, “Now I want to tell you, here is your God.” And we saw last time, didn’t we, that when Paul went into Athens, he didn’t get involved in an apologetic for the existence of God. He didn’t start and give arguments for the existence of God. He didn’t take out the equivalent of his watch, as it were, and explain that, “You know, somebody had to wind this watch up, and somebody had to start the watch,” and so on. No, no, no, no. Here, remember what he said. He said, “I want to talk to you about God. I know you have various views of God and you even have a temple and a statue to an unknown god. The God that you don’t know anything about, I want to tell you about.” Who is he? He’s the creator, he’s the sustainer, he’s the ruler, he’s the Father, he’s the judge. A refreshing shout.
It is also a relevant shout. A relevant shout. “Here is your God.” It is relevant to the people then, and it is relevant to the people now. Those people in exile were presumably saying to one another, “Do we really have a God anymore? And if we have a God, why are we here? Surely if we had a God who loved us and cared for us, he would never have allowed us to be carried away into exile like this. He would never have taken away our song as he has apparently done.” It’s a similar refrain as one hears routinely today, and you may even have given voice to it this week. If there is a God, why are we in this predicament in which we find ourselves? If there is a God, why are these things unfolding as they are? And so on? The dreadful consequences of war and of discord, of hatred, of greed have run through the pages of our newspapers every day of this past week. Indeed they circumscribe the mournful history of humanity.
The Bible is not taken by surprise. Indeed the Bible is able to explain this condition and does so by pointing out in various ways and places that there are three things that are true of men and women without God. Let me tell you what they are. In fact, I’ll give you an acronym or an acrostic. I can never remember which is which. SAG, SAG which stands for the Screen Actors Guild if that helps you to remember it. But you don’t need to worry about that, just get a mirror and you will remember SAG. OK? So here are the three things.
Number one, men and women without God are sad men and women. They are sad. Oh I’m not suggesting that all the time they go around with their faces tripping them, that their chins are down in their chest, that everybody this week is just inevitably sad, no. But what the Bible says is that man as man looks for happiness in what is uncertain and what is unsatisfying. And because he looks for happiness in what is uncertain and unsatisfying, he remains confused and unsatisfied, and as a result of that he is sad. And furthermore, that which he looks for to satisfy and to grant security he knows in his heart of hearts that he must inevitably and finally be separated from it. So whatever it is that represents significance, whatever it is that represents happiness, whatever it is that represents potential security, man inside of himself—men and women, teenagers—know that there is nothing that can ultimately, in this world, satisfy our deepest longings. That is why our graduation from high school was not as good as we thought it would be. That is why our achievement in academics has not yielded the hopes that we had for it. That is why our success in business or in interpersonal relationships eventually, no matter what joy it brings to us, still cannot satisfy our deepest longings. And the dust of death settles even on our proudest moments, our highest achievements, and our greatest encouragements. That’s why you can feel sad in the middle of the most wonderful Thanksgiving celebration, and suddenly from nowhere, a cloud envelopes you and you realize in that instant, “I may never see this group again. I may never see this time again.” Why am I thinking all these things? Because all of this represents something for which I long: family forever, food forever, friendship forever, no goodbyes, no discord, no hatred, no jealousy. And it can’t be found in that room.
Now why is that? C. S. Lewis asks the very question, doesn’t he, in some of his writings. He says if there is no experience in the world that can satisfy our deepest desires, does this prove that the universe is a fraud? That we’ve just been put here as a big joke? That God just teases us and dangles things before us? No, says C. S. Lewis. The probable explanation, he says, is that if I have desires which no experience in this world can satisfy, it is because I was made for another world. See that? You take all of this financial hoo-ha, we’re still arguably the richest nation in the world. Our lifestyle exceeds, on our worst day, two-thirds of the universe, on our worst day. And yet every single moment we turn around, from yesterday’s Wall Street explaining how old you’ll have to be, if you don’t die first, to have enough money to go to Burger King, you know, every second Thursday. Eventually, I just threw the newspaper on the floor; I said, “To pot with it, who cares?” If I run out of money, I run out of money. Who even cares? I’m not dependent on this, and neither are you unless you made it your god. Unless you have a substitute god.
Sad, and I must go on from these because otherwise you’ll be here till 3:00 this afternoon. The other two words are alienated and guilty. Alienated and guilty. Alienated from God—that’s what the Bible says. [It] says that we’ve turned our backs on God and that we’re guilty on account of this. We’ve sinned. We haven’t kept his Law. We haven’t loved him with all of our hearts. We haven’t even lived up to our own standards. There’s no one who’d stand up in this room and say, “I have never sinned in my life.” And you see that’s the explanation the Bible gives for our sadness. It’s not because superficial things have not come our way; the reason for the deep-seated sadness of humanity is found in the fact of our alienation and in the fact of our guilt. And we know, and we know because God has made us as moral beings, that things must be sorted out.
Good tidings. Secondly, sovereign Lord. Spent too long on the first. I’ll catch up now. Sovereign Lord. “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, don’t be afraid. Say to the towns of Judah, here is your God. See, here he is, the sovereign Lord. The sovereign Lord comes with power.”
Now notice the contrast on two fronts. The contrast in verses 6–8 with the frailty of men and women. We are like grass and the springtime flowers, they fall and they wither, and in contrast the word of God stands forever. Here is the sovereign Lord. He’s not at all like you folks, dust to dust and ashes to ashes, no. And look at this sovereign Lord. He’s in contrast to the frailty of humanity, and he is in contrast to the futility of idols. Verse 19 of the same chapter: “As for an idol, a craftsman casts it, [and] a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it. A man too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot. He looks for a skilled craftsman to set up an idol that will not topple.” What a pathetic picture.
And don’t let’s kid ourselves about idolatry and that we could go around the world and take a plane ride somewhere and find idolatry. No, we have our own little toppling idols. You see the picture of futility that is represented in it? When men and women turn their backs on the creator God who sustains the universe, who rules over the nations, who’s Father of humanity, and who’s judge of all the earth, when men and women turn their back on God as he has made himself known, then they don’t turn to nothing, they turn to everything. So they call in the craftsman, “Could you make it for me in walnut perhaps? I’d like to make sure that it lasts. Could you put little chains on it, maybe at the four corners? Just hook it up behind its ears and somewhere else and just put it on a plinth for me. I’d hate for it to fall over in the night.” Listen and listen carefully. The reason America is chasing its tail right now is because the great idol of materialism fell over like Dagon’s god. The idol has fallen on its face, and all who worship at that plinth find themselves riddled with uncertainty, fear, animosity, and greed.
God is the sovereign Lord. In contrast to man’s finite nature, in contrast to the futility of the idols who are created, it is then an amazing contrast and it is also—in the second half of verse 10—an amazing conquest. An amazing conquest. You may look at that little part of the sentence and wonder about it. “See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.” That’s the kind of thing that gets a home Bible study group completely stalled for about an hour and a half. Somebody says, “Well I think I know what it is,” and someone else says, “Well I don’t know if I know what it is, but I know what I would like it to mean,” and then before you know where you are, you’re all gone absolutely … you just go off for coffee and fold the whole thing up.
My best attempt at it is that the “reward” here is the reward of God himself. The reward, if you like, of his victory. What is his victory? His victory is over sin and death and hell. His victory is found in the fact that he, in the immensity of his wisdom, the lawgiver, comes in the person of Jesus and submits to the very law that he gave, keeping it in perfection so that it might be ascribed to the sinner’s account. That he who in his perfection kept every detail of the law died in the place of sinners, and as a result of that great conquest, he brings his reward with him. He brings those who are the product of his redemption. He brings those whose lives were held in the fear of death, who have been set free. He brings those who were sad and alienated and guilty, and he brings them with him and he says, “Here, here are my people. Here are the ones, Father.” In fact, you can read it in John 17. He says, “Not one of those you gave me is missing. None of them are lost. There’s only one that went out and that’s the son of perdition. But that was as planned, Father, (John 17), he went by his own choosing—didn’t take us by surprise. But here they are, Father. Glorify them with the same glory that I knew when I was with you.” It’s this just tremendous picture.
Remember in the ’60s we used to sing, “Therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return and come with singing unto Zion. And everlasting joy shall be upon our heads.” I think three of you remember that, I can tell by looking at you, but anyway we did sing that. Who are these people then, who are the redeemed of the Lord who come with singing unto Zion? They’re the reward and the recompense of the sovereign Lord who has executed a great conquest in direct contrast to the finitude of man and the futility of idol worship. The sovereign Lord comes bringing with him his reward. He is the sovereign King. He is the sovereign King.
This is one of the reasons I think that men and women turn away from him, because we don’t like the idea of sovereignty. American is not strong on sovereignty, let’s just be honest about it. We’re not good on sovereigns or on sovereignty. We want, if you like, a god who is manageable, a god who does not control us, but whom we can control; someone that we can put in position and call upon as necessary and ignore when we choose. A god of our own creation. A toppling god.
Well there is no such god in the Bible. Remember in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe—I guess this is C. S. Lewis month—but in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, when Lucy is being confronted by Aslan the lion, who of course represents Christ, she has a conversation with Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. And she comes and she says of Aslan,
“Is, is he a man?” “Aslan a man?” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Aslan is a lion, THE lion. The great lion.” “Is he quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous meeting a lion.” “That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver. “If there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.” “Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy. “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he is good. He’s the king, I tell you.”
No, he’s not safe. He’ll take your life from you. But he’s good. He’ll give you back better than what he took.
Good tidings, sovereign Lord, and finally gentle shepherd. The shepherd actually comes with his reward and his recompense. He comes, if you like, bearing his lambs with him. And look at this wonderful picture of tenderness, of gentleness, “He tends his flock like a shepherd.” He doesn’t come like some great general onto a field of battle. He gathers the lambs in his arms, he carries them up close to him; he gently leads those that have young.
Why would he ever do this? Because after all we, like sheep, we went astray. Every one of us turned to his own way. This is good news, this is unbelievable news, that we who deserve to be banished, we who deserve on account of our desire to live our lives with our toppling idols and rejection of God, we who deserve for God just to say, “Well, you know, frankly, if that’s the way you want it, why don’t you go and chase yourself? I really don’t care about you at all. I’m only interested in people who are interested in me and religious people,” and so on. But you read your Bible and you find that’s not the case, because God seeks. He’s a shepherd who goes out onto the highways and byways and he seeks and he brings in people, and he brings the lost people in, that’s why he told the story. There were ninety-nine of the sheep all in the fold but there was one missing, and the shepherd goes out onto the hillsides looking for the one that’s missing. It’s a picture of who God is. Oh this is good tidings. Yes he is a sovereign Lord, but he is a gentle shepherd.
And my friends, listen and listen carefully to me. Although our hearts are hard, and they are—so hard that even the events of life often do not soften them but harden them—the only hope we have for our hard, tough hearts is that our hard, tough hearts would be melted by the wonder of the shepherd’s love. And in order for that to come home to us we would need to understand what the boy understood when he sat down and said to himself, “I absolutely flat out ignored my father, I wasted all his stuff, I made a royal mess of everything, I don’t deserve to be called his son. I think I’ll ask him if I can just become one of his hired servants.” And as he made his way up the road, his father saw him when he was a long way off, and he ran and he fell on his neck and he kissed him and he said, “It is time for a party.” Why? Because he is not only the sovereign Lord who by his mighty arm executes his rightful place but who, as a gentle shepherd, comes to where people are.
Bunyan, on one occasion, who gave us this more so than anyone in all of literature, who gave us a picture of sin as a huge burden on Pilgrim’s back, remember? The picture of Pilgrim is bearing that burden, and Bunyan has put that in the history of literature for time immemorial. But it was Bunyan who, on one occasion, said “It is not the over–heavy load of sin but the discovery of mercy... that makes a person come to Christ.” Not the over–heavy load of sin, because if we’re honest we’re going to say, “Yeah, of course I’m a mess. Of course I fouled it up. Of course my life is not an exercise book that’s a blank sheet. Of course I’ve got all kinds of crosses and marks and messes on it. I know what I deserve.” But here’s the thing, in Jesus you don’t get what you deserve. You get what you don’t deserve. Did you ever hear of such love? Did you? Did you ever respond to that love? Did you ever say, “Loving Jesus, Lord shepherd, sovereign Lord, bearer of the best good news I could ever have heard, will you be my Savior and my friend? Will you take my mess? Will you answer my longings?”
Good tidings. Sovereign Lord. Gentle shepherd. That’s it. My part is now over. My part is now over; that came across very forcibly to me in the last couple of days. I was talking with two men. I thought it was in a party, I said in the first service, but I was in error; it was actually in a garage … or a gar-age. And one man in the garage said to the other man, “Here comes Alistair. Let’s see if he can convert you.” And then he said to me, he said this, “You’ll never convert this one.” And I said, “I can absolutely guarantee it,” I said, “because in thirty-three years of pastoral ministry I’ve never converted anyone, ever.” And he looked at me; he was just a little bit crestfallen. I think he thought I’d given up on the task, you know, “What? You …” I said, “But the good news is that what I am totally unable to do, God is actually in the business of doing.”
That’s why I say to you right now that my business is over. I wanted just to tell you this because it says something about the nature of preaching, and it says something about the nature of responding. My task is to deliver the message. I’ve tried to do that, to join with others, as it were, going up on the mountain and shouting out, “This is good news. Here’s a sovereign Lord. He is your King. He’s not safe, but he is good. He’s a gentle shepherd. Trust him.” But having done that, there’s nothing more I can do. Sunday by Sunday, I stand like Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones. Now that may not sound very appealing to you. You may not like that. You take that as an insult, but let me just tell you, it’s true. Remember Ezekiel was taken into the valley of dry bones, and God said to him, “Can these bones live?” Every Sunday when you preach, preach, preach, you preach to dry bones.
Only God can breathe life into dry bones.
When God is at work by his Spirit through his word, there is a voice that speaks that the deaf and the dead can hear. When God is at work by his Spirit through his word, there is a light that shines into the darkened mind that exposes our predicament and reveals our solution and calls us to bow before this sovereign Lord, to be humble enough, childlike enough, to be gathered up to the heart of this gentle shepherd.
So I say to you today, last day of November 2008, “if you hear his voice, do not harden your heart.” Do not.
Just a brief prayer. Look upon us in your mercy, O gracious God. Shine into the darkness of our lives your glorious good tidings. Speak to our deaf ears and grant us grace that we might trust you and love you. For Jesus’ sake, we pray. Amen.
 Psalm 137:2–4 (paraphrased).
 John 1:14 (KJV).
 John 1:14 (KJV; paraphrased).
 Isaiah 9:2 (paraphrased).
 Isaiah 60:1 (NIV 1984).
 Genesis 1:1 (NIV 1984).
 See William Paley, Natural Theology, vol. 1 (London: Charles Knight, 1836), 1–20.
 Acts 17:22–31 (paraphrased).
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: HarperOne, 2001), 136–137 (paraphrased).
 Isaiah 40:19–20 (NIV 1984).
 1 Samuel 5:3 (paraphrased).
 Ruth Lake, “Therefore the Redeemed of the Lord Shall Return” (Integrity Music, 1972).
 Isaiah 53:6 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 18:12–13 (paraphrased).
 Luke 15:17–24 (paraphrased).
 John Bunyan, The Works of That Eminent Servant of Christ, John Bunyan, Minister of the Gospel (Philadelphia: Bradley & Co., 1871), 611.
 Ezekiel 37:1–3 (paraphrased).
 Hebrews 3:7–8 (NIV 1984).