The words of comfort our text offers today cannot be understood properly unless we see them in their immediate context from Isaiah 39:5-7. Without the proper background we may proclaim words of comfort without correctly understanding the source of Isaiah’s distress. Simply put, the sermon could do damage textually by offering a band aid for a bullet wound. This would only rob our listeners of the true comfort found in the Gospel which this text means to bring to bear.
Our text (40:1-11) follows immediately after a prophecy of disaster. Isaiah had spoken of the coming Babylonian exile (39:5-7) and Hezekiah misunderstands the message. It is as if he hears only the part of the message he wants to hear. He thinks the words of the prophet are good news when they are clearly disaster. God’s people will be taken away to Babylon for their sins. Only then does our text come in, speaking of the liberation for the Judeans and comfort for God’s people. They were not victims needing rescuing, they were sinners being punished who needed mercy and deliverance.
This comfort and deliverance of God in our text is only further confusing because later we will find out God has chosen Cyrus (44:28; 45:1) to return God’s people to the land. Cyrus is a non-Israelite ruler who is as odd of a choice as Marvin the Martian would be. This is certainly a strange salvation for them. Who would have expected an outsider to be their liberator?
This is a hard message to hear, especially if you think Cyrus was the fulfillment of this message. Isaiah was speaking our text in the dark days of the Babylonian exile. Isaiah in the eighth century was speaking to sixth century Israel who had lost all hope. So, God would send an unexpected deliverer in an unexpected way. But that deliverer (Cyrus) would not be the Messiah for which they had hoped. No, Cyrus was part of the plan but not the fulfillment of Isaiah’s full message. Cyrus’ presence in the plan taught the people of God to look for an unlikely ruler in an unlikely spot, to watch for one outside of themselves for deliverance and to look to God’s plan and not their politicking. Cyrus was not the fulfillment of the message. He was only a small part of a plan which would eventually have a much larger fulfillment. Later, there would be a day when God would send the One who would give us the rest of the prophetic message, the long-awaited fulfillment of all God’s promises to His people. Jesus the Messiah, Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant,” would come and bring these words of comfort to its greatest fulfillment for all peoples. He is sent not just to a people living in fear under foreign rule but to all of those who look to God for deliverance.
Jesus the Messiah, Isaiah’s “Suffering Servant,” would come and bring these words of comfort to its greatest fulfillment for all peoples.
It would be wise to develop the tension for your hearers between the “now and not yet.” What does it mean to live between the word of promise and its fulfillment? How do you convey the idea from our text, that it was only part of the message? How do you illustrate the importance of the context as the key to understanding the problem in our world and in our text while also showing that rulers and political systems like Cyrus and/or today are not the full message either? For this I think a historical event dealing with the conclusion to the Battle of Waterloo might suffice. It will show the Word of God has its fulfillment in only one place. It will illustrate how although we live in the tenuous moments between the “now and not yet,” we have hope and victory through God alone in Christ.
“History buffs, especially of naval battles, will recall that one of the most decisive battles of the Napoleonic Wars, Waterloo, was fought in a small area on the main road leading south from Brussels. It was the first clash of the Titans, Napoleon Bonaparte versus the Duke of Wellington. It was a win-all/lose-all scenario.
As the battle played out, the British forces, aided by the Prussians, were successful in driving back and defeating Napoleon’s forces.
As can be imagined, England anxiously awaited word of the outcome of the war. One story tells of a sailor on a sailing ship crossing the English Channel and approaching England’s southern coast picking up his semaphore flags and sending a message: WELLINGTON DEFEATED.
Suddenly, dense fog swirled across the deck, engulfing the ship. The sad, heart-wrenching news of the incomplete message was sent to London and swept the nation with gloom and despair, but after long hours of waiting, the thick fog lifted.
Again, the sailor on deck picked up the semaphore flags and signaled. He then began spelling out the complete message of the battle: WELLINGTON DEFEATED THE ENEMY. British hearts were lifted with joy.”
Isaiah’s context (39:5-7) illustrated a misunderstanding Hezekiah had of the message. Babylonian exile left the people of God in a state of defeat and misery. However, the fog would lift when Cyrus liberated Isarel back to their land. But that was not the victory. The victory would be much later, when one greater than Cyrus would come to bring God’s word to its total and complete fulfillment. When Jesus died and rose again, that was the victory over the enemy we needed, not just temporal victory over the temporary powers of this world. Jesus is Israel’s hope and the salvation of God for all people. Jesus’ death and resurrection is the true historical event which was the decisive battle to shape your salvation and eternal life in Christ. Jesus fought this battle for you on a small area off the main road leading to Jerusalem called Calvary. It was the clash between God and our sins which the Devil would use to hold us captive in death and judgment forever. All would be lost if we only had half of the story: JESUS DIED. If we leave a fog between the Old Testament and the New Testament we will stay at Calvary and not hear the rest of the good news today. But when the sun/Son rose on the third day, the fog of grief from the disciples was lifted as they learned the rest of the Easter message: JESUS IS ALIVE. The message we proclaim will and must always be that Jesus died and rose again. This is the full good news we need.
Here is the true comfort we find in Isaiah’s words. When Isaiah’s prophecies are fulfilled for us in Jesus, we have true comfort. God brought us from exile for sin to deliverance in Jesus who brings us a righteousness outside of us that we could never earn or deserve. It is an alien righteousness, which is the righteousness of another, given from without. This is the righteousness of Christ by which He justifies through faith, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:30: “Whom God made our wisdom, our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.”
The best structure to get at the Gospel proclamation in our text is likely a Text Application Structure:
“This structure organizes the sermon on the basis of two experiences most parishioners have as they open up the Scriptures: a desire to understand what the text is speaking of in its own historical context and a desire to hear how God speaks through this text to shape the lives of His people today. With an eye toward these two experiences, the preacher shapes the sermon with a text-application structure.
The preacher divides the progression of the sermon into two portions. After an introduction that raises interest in the text or in a life situation for which the hearers desire a word from God, the first part of the sermon offers textual exposition for the hearers; the second part of the sermon applies the text to the hearers.
In the first section of the sermon, the preacher spends time with the text. As the preacher develops the text, he is careful to focus upon those details that are important for later application of this text to the lives of his hearers. Often, the preacher will be identifying teachings of the faith within his exposition of the text that will later be used in application to the lives of the hearers.
In the second section of the sermon, the preacher examines God’s present work in the lives of the contemporary hearers. In doing this, he could be working with the teaching of the text, the function of the text, or the intention of the writer. Any of these approaches can yield fruitful results in terms of how this text functions among the hearers today. Sometimes, preachers may find it helpful to move sequentially through the four types of discourse in the tapestry of preaching as they move from text to application: Textual Exposition, Theological Confession that names a teaching in the text, Evangelical Proclamation that centers the teaching in Christ for us, and Hearer Interpretation that names our lives in relation to the teaching.
The biggest challenges in this sermon structure are finding an appropriate balance between textual exposition and hearer application (for example, avoiding a sermon which is long on textual study and short on application) and maintaining hearer attention during a prolonged section of textual study or application.”
Craft of Preaching-Check out out 1517’s resources on Isaiah 40:1-11.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Isaiah 40:1-11.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Isaiah 40:1-11.
Lectionary Kick-Start-Check out this fantastic podcast from Craft of Preaching authors Peter Nafzger and David Schmitt as they dig into the texts for this Sunday!
 The Telegram, (St. John's) (30 Mar 2013), by Major David Braye https://www.pressreader.com/canada/the-telegram-st-johns/20130330/282553015696594