Isaiah 40: 1-11
In high school and in college, our sons and their classmates were in the habit of standing for the entire basketball game to support their team. I think that may have stopped now that they are college graduated adults! Maybe you don’t stand for an entire game, but everyone knows the roar of the crowd getting to its feet at the sight of a homerun or an important 1st down. Some of you may even stand in your own living room as you watch your favorite sport on tv.
We are all accustomed to participating in a standing ovation after a particularly good theatrical or musical performance, as we clap loudly in appreciation for what we have seen and heard. Some Christian traditions always stand when the gospel is read, others stand for the entire service of worship as a way to express honor and gratitude for the good news of Jesus Christ, and as a way to give glory to God.
What else is worth standing for? The prophet Isaiah describes the announcements to be shouted from the top of a mountain, with the people of Jerusalem standing as high as possible to get the word out that the Babylonian exile was indeed going to end, that the people had done their time as punishment for abandoning God and living la vida loca back in Judah. The exciting news was that the people were finally going to be able to return to Jerusalem.
Isaiah’s words of comfort and encouragement to a people in exile mark a huge shift in this prophetic book. Up until the end of chapter 39, the prophet was speaking to the people of Judah prior to the exile in Babylon, warning them of the consequences of their sins against God and against one another. Our passage this morning is the turning point in the book. From chapter 40 through the end of the book, the setting is quite different. Here the people are actually in exile in Babylon, and have been for some time. Based on historical knowledge, most scholars assign this section of the book, called deutero Isaiah or 2nd Isaiah, to have been written somewhere between the fall of Jerusalem in 587 bce and the fall of the Babylonian empire in 539 bce. The period of the exile is approximately 48 years. It seems to me that the words of Isaiah are written to the people after they have been in Babylon for some years, as Isaiah offers comfort to them and assures them that they have more than paid the penalty for their sins against God.
Some people have described the entire book of Isaiah as a “mini Bible”– the first 39 chapters focus on sin, mirroring the 39 books of the Old Testament. Then the next 27 chapters focus on salvation, on the gift of God’s grace and forgiveness, mirroring the 27 books of the New Testament. Those who preserved the words of the prophet could not have known about the New Testament at all, much less how many books there would be in it. But Isaiah’s mini-Bible serves as a good way for us to get a handle on this long, long prophetic book. And besides, surely God knew how God’s word was going to turn out!
What brings comfort and hope to the exiled people are Isaiah’s announcement of the coming of a king. Not the king of a nation, but the king of the hearts of his people. He imagines the creation of a road in the desert, a highway from Babylon back to Jerusalem. It is a road with the bumpy spots leveled out, with the ruts filled in; a straight road cutting through the hills, all in order to get ready for the coming of the new king, the Lord. Basically, Isaiah describes preparations that would have been made for the arrival of a human king.
The king comes with might, with a strong arm used to protect and shelter the people. And he also comes as a shepherd, feeding his flock, gathering the little ones in his arms, and leading the new mothers. This would have been easily understood by the people of Israel. Any good king would be both a shepherd and a mighty ruler. When you think about it, a shepherd/pastor/king is responsible for those in his or her care, right? Good shepherds ward off threats of animals, provide food and water, and keep their flock together as a unit. So do good pastors of congregations. So do good leaders of nations, whether kings or queens or presidents.
For many of us, these words of deutero-Isaiah immediately bring to mind the words penned by Charles Jennens in the mid 1700’s as he reflected on the message of Jesus as the Messiah using language from the King James Version of the Bible. The familiar words come to mind mostly because they are attached to the music written by George Handel, music that we call Handel’s “Messiah”. Handel’s work ends with the Hallelujah chorus– perhaps you have participated in an audience which automatically stands when this music begins, out of respect, appreciation, and thanksgiving for what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, and probably for the quality of the music being sung. The story goes that the first person to stand in appreciation of the Hallelujah chorus was King George II, at the London premiere of the Handel’s work in the spring of 1743. He stood up (in excitement, in support, in respect, and maybe with joy), so therefore, everyone in attendance was expected to stand out of respect and support for the king. However the practice started, audiences all over the world have decided this is something worth standing for.
What kinds of things, causes, people, do you find are worth standing for? People around our country have decided in the last couple of weeks to stand with their arms above their heads, not in excitement for the free throw, but in protest over the police treatment of young black men, not just in Ferguson or New York or Cleveland, but anywhere. Why? Because they want to make a statement, to make it clear to the rest of our society, that this unequal treatment based on race, cultural background or economic position has got to stop.
Perhaps you are willing to stand for change in the community. I decided a couple of weeks ago that I was willing to stand for our environment in Baltimore and called the mayor and our city councilwoman to share my support of removing plastic bags from stores in the city for good. It may not be something you are going to stand for, but it is important to me. Some of you know how much of a stickler I am about the recycling efforts in this building, so you are probably not surprised. What is worth standing for in your book?
And if you will stand for it, will you speak for it? Will you get up on a mountain (not literally) and shout good news? That is not the same as getting up on a pedestal and condemning people for their errant ways. Isaiah’s words have shifted from focusing on Israel’s sins to focusing on the salvation God offers. And so should our words. I pray that your words are advocating for a better life, a better community, a better church, a better nation or world. Perhaps others will see that as worth standing for as well. How do you think any movements start? One person has to stand up. It could be you. Or two or ten of you together. Someone has to stand up. Amen.