Prepare the Way of the Lord II. The Four Herald Voices of Advent ...

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Prepare the Way of the Lord II. The Four Herald Voices of Advent ...

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Prepare the Way of the Lord

II. The Four Herald Voices of Advent

Isaiah 40:1-11

Dr. William P. Seel

December 9, 2012

Every now and then someone will forward to me a list of church bulletin bloopers. Most

of these are as old as Methuselah and have been circulated around the Internet since there was an

Internet. Now, the thing about church bloopers, at least to a pastor, is that while they are always

funny, sometimes they are also unintentionally very thought-provoking. For example, I saw this

one last week. In the calendar section of a church bulletin, listed for 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday

morning was the following: “No New Life.” What was meant, of course, was that a church

group known as the New Life Fellowship would not be meeting on that Tuesday. 1 But what a

terrible thing to come across in a church bulletin: “No New Life.” For the very heart of the

Gospel is God’s promise to us of new and abundant life in Jesus Christ our Savior.

This morning we encounter four herald voices of that new life in Jesus. A herald – as in

“Hark the Herald Angels Sing” – is someone who proclaims important news. And this morning

four different voices announce to us that most important of all news: that God is coming to us to

save us and to give us new life. The Four Herald Voices of Advent. And the first of these four

herald voices is none other than the voice of God Himself, calling down to the prophet from His

Heavenly Throne: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem

and say to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned.” “Comfort, comfort my

people.” My favorite line in all of our beloved Christmas carols comes from “O Little Town of

Bethlehem”: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” The great fear is

that God should let us perish in our sin; the great hope is that we should be rescued from death.

And the first herald voice of Advent, the voice of God, tells us that this is precisely what the

Child of Christmas means for us – God has chosen grace towards us, instead of abandonment;

that God has chosen hope to offer to us in the face of all our fears. “Comfort, comfort my


people, says your God.” Or, as Jesus Himself was to put it: “For God so loved the world, that

he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” 2

Grace, then, is what our religion is all about. Not good works, not a moral code to live

by, not even being spiritual – it is all about grace and grace alone. That in the fullness of time

God sent His Son to find us in our lostness, to forgive us in our sinfulness, to resurrect us from

our despair, and to comfort us in all our fears. God sent His Son to give us a new life that we

had done nothing to deserve – the abundance of which we have only yet begun to comprehend.

Grace. The great preacher, Paul Scherer, has a wonderful picture of grace, if we can draw open

our imaginations for just a moment. He tells us to imagine three concentric circles. The

innermost circle represents the Will of God, the place where we were created to live. But none

of us is able to stay in the Will of God by our own efforts – for we are sinners. Which means we

run out from that innermost circle, the Will of God, straight into the second circle, which is the

Judgment of God upon our sin. This is a fearful place to remain, and so this second circle

propels us even further outward to that last circle, the one most widely drawn. And that third

circle is the circle of God’s grace to sinners, the circle which enfolds us all:

It means that in and through, over and above, the will and

the judgment, there is a mighty, healing something at work in the

world; that when you and I have blundered about and come to the

end of our resources, there are still open to us great reservoirs of

pardon, and reservoirs of power . . . 3

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” The herald voice announcing the grace of God

towards us. No matter what is going on in your life today, hear the Good News of the first

Herald of Advent: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.”

Which leads immediately to the second herald voice of Advent. Now that God has

announced the nearness of His grace, the gift of new life, the second herald voice tells us to get

ready to receive this gift: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the

desert a highway for our God . . . [For] the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh

shall see it together.” This second herald voice of Advent is the voice of preparation – get

ready, it tells us. Historically, we know that this herald voice took flesh in the form of John the

Baptist, who came to prepare the way of the Lord. He was the voice crying in the wilderness

which Isaiah foretold. And John was pretty specific about what preparing the way of the Lord

required: it required repentance on the part of the people. 4 But repentance, as John describes it,

is not merely one thing, but actually two things. And I fear one of the reasons we seem to

struggle with repentance sometimes is because we only practice part of it.

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Now the word repentance, itself, means to “turn our minds” – and it is almost a physical

image. I am facing in this direction, but when I repent I turn and face in the opposite direction.

And, you see, that is two things, not one. I am turning away from this direction, but I am also

turning toward this direction. In Biblical terms, what this means is that not only is repentance

our turning away from our sins and bad habits and wrong values and so forth, but also it is our

turning toward what God is offering us in Jesus Christ – that grace-gift of new life. I think

sometimes we get so focused on the turning away from our sins that we forget the reason why we

are turning away from our sins. Not to avoid punishment, not because sin is not turning out to be

a particularly successful life strategy – but rather because God in Christ has come to us bearing

the pearl of great price 5 , the treasure hidden in a field 6 . He has come to us bearing that one thing

that is the one thing our hearts have been craving since our birth: the peace of Christ, peace with

Christ, peace that surpasses understanding. We repent not just because the bad stuff is killing us,

but because the Gospel Jesus is offering us promises to make us more alive than we have ever

been before.

Here is another way to think about this. Peter Gomes, the beloved Chaplain at Harvard,

was once asked for his definition of the good news of the Gospel. He answered, “You don’t have

to be as you are.”

We don’t have to be as we are . . . We can change, and we

can keep changing. We are not trapped in our histories or our

fears. We can set ourselves, and our communities, on a new

course. 7

In other words, because the grace of God is at hand, is coming into this world and into us, we can

repent. Turn away from what we have been and what we have done, and be born again into that

new life which the grace of God has made possible to us. “Prepare the way for this to happen,”

says the second herald voice of Advent – “In the wilderness of your life, your heart, your world

– prepare the way of the Lord.”

And then speaks the third herald. At first hearing, this herald sounds like a herald of bad

tidings: “All flesh is grass and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the

flower fades . . . surely the people are grass.” This reminder of our mortality hardly seems like

good news at all. But the good news that the herald is announcing comes at the very end of his

announcement: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand

forever.” The meaning is this: aside from our sin, the great problem of our lives is their

incompletion, their proclivity for brokenness, their mortality. But the good news the third herald

is bringing us is that the great problem of our fading and brokenness and dying shall be

overcome by this Word of grace God is about to speak into our lives. That this Word of grace is

a forever thing – and that nothing we experience here on earth, nor even in death, will be able to

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destroy the new life God’s grace is awakening in us. The grass withers, the flower fades – yes;

but we now live in and through the grace of the Word made flesh. And the Word of our God will

stand forever.

It is the same powerful reassurance Paul speaks of in his Letter to the Romans: “And we

know that for those who love God all things work together for good.” 8 And again: “For I am

sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor

powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from

the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 9 “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word

of our God will stand forever.” This grace God is working in us is a forever thing – and nothing

we encounter in this life can change that. Nothing can separate us from the new life God is

giving to us. Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Another Paul Scherer quote for you – I can’t tell you how much that great preacher has

fed me and inspired me through the years. He recounts a parable told by an ancient Chinese

philosopher about an old man and his son. An old man and his son lived in a farmhouse on a

hill, when one day their only horse ran away. The neighbors came to express their sympathy, but

the old man said to them, “How do you know this is bad luck?” Sure enough, a few days later

their horse returned, bringing with him a whole herd of wild horses. The neighbors came by to

congratulate the old man. But the old man said to them, “How do you know this is good luck?”

With all the horses around, the son began trying to tame them. He fell off one of the horses and

broke his leg. Again the neighbors came by to offer their sympathy. But the old man said,

“How do you know this is bad luck?” Two weeks later a conflict broke out between two

warlords in the region, but because of his broken leg the son was not forced to go off to battle.

That is the story, now here is Scherer’s comment on that story:

May I say it then once more? Nothing is good and nothing

is bad until God gets through with it! He does have the last word!

Even the pain you’ve suffered, the failure you’ve smashed into

head on, the loss you’ve encountered; not one of these things is a

complete story in itself; there’s always the sequel; and it’s the

sequel that matters most! . . .

There is always a last word; and it’s God’s! 10

Or, as the third herald of Advent puts it: the grass may wither, the flower may fade, but we have

been redeemed by the Word of our God. And the Word of our God will stand forever. And so,

therefore, will we.

Which brings us to the final herald of Advent: “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion,

herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Judah, herald of good news, lift it up,

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fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’” What the fourth herald of Advent is

announcing to us is simply this: that having heard and received the Good News of the grace of

God being given to us, our work is now to pass it on. The fourth herald of Advent tells us that

we are now to be the heralds of good news to others – until all the earth should hear and believe.

In other words, there is now a fifth herald of the Advent of God’s grace to this world – and that

fifth herald is you and me.

I came across an article about a young woman, a crack addict, who lives in the bus

terminal at the New York Port Authority. The article reveals that this young woman is twentysix-years-old,

has wasted a good education and lost several good jobs. She has lied, cheated, and

stolen to support her habit. Now she lives on the street. When she is asleep in her blanket on the

floor of the bus terminal, there is no way for a passerby to know whether or not she is trying to

kick her habit and better herself. Yet, according to the article, she constantly wakes to find that

the bus passengers have stooped down to put dollar bills, even occasionally a twenty-dollar bill,

into the folds of her blanket while she was sleeping. Grace – undeserved grace. 11

The great good news of the Gospel is that Jesus wants to save that wasted young woman

every bit as much as He has wanted to save you and me. There is not a soul on the face of this

earth who is so far gone that Jesus does not want to redeem him or her. There is not a soul on

this earth so lost that Jesus would be unable to save him or her. There is not a soul on this earth

who, somehow, down deep, is not truly desperate to hear the good news that we have already

received. That Jesus Christ is coming in love. That Jesus Christ is coming in power. That Jesus

Christ is coming to find His lost sheep, stooping down to them even on the floor of a bus

terminal in New York City – stooping down to them to pick them up in His strong arms and

carry them gently back to where they are supposed to be, safe in the fold of our Savior’s

redeeming love. In a world so full of bad news, as well as so full of lost souls just like that

young woman, how great is the privilege and joy that has been granted to us – that we should be

to this lost and longing world heralds of Advent, heralds of the coming of the saving grace of our

Savior’s love.

1

Fleming Rutledge, And God Spoke to Abraham (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), p. 267.

2

John 3:16.

3

Paul Scherer, Event In Eternity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945), p. 103.

4

Matthew 3:1-12.

5

Matthew 13:45-46.

6

Matthew 13:44.

7

Stephanie A. Paulsell, “Good news,” Christian Century, Vol. 125, No. 25 (December 16, 2008), p. 37.

8

Romans 8:28.

9

Romans *:38-39.

10

Paul Scherer, “God Has the Last Word,” in The Place Where Thou Standest (New York: Harper & Brothers,

1942), p. 165.

11

Rutledge, p. 274.

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