Imagine how hard it would have been to be John the Baptist. Raised according to God’s promise to be the forerunner of the Savior – as you grew, grappling with whatever that would mean, how it would go. To start your career – presumably by God’s call – in the desert, preaching. No plush uniform but scratchy camel hair. People confusing you with the one still coming. That’s not even to mention the internal issues…To wonder if the One you’d prophesied about had really come…even though the skies had torn open as you baptized that One in the river…no matter, your sinful mind just wouldn’t stop nagging and faltering. To have to send your disciples because you couldn’t go yourself. To be the Forerunner of the long-promised Messiah sitting in prison and to have to ask, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
That’s really just the same kind of difficulty Jews had experienced for ages. Long before John they had sat in exile, waiting for the same long-promised Savior. Going about life and work in a foreign land with strange customs – making it harder to be a “true” Jew – not spiritually to defile yourself in food or culture. All of God’s promises to them had seemed to be attached to this Mediterranean real-estate called Israel – but that’s not where they were. “Will we ever go home? Has God forgotten us? Have our enemies won? Will our God ever come?”
In prophesying to fearful people, Isaiah uses three pictures this morning: feeble hands, weak knees, and fearful hearts. Doesn’t that well describe the fearful? Hands slack with dumbfounded, confused, fear? Knees too weak and quivering to take a single step? Heart beating so rapidly it might seize-up? How well does it describe your Advent? You know, of course, that in America it’s really all Christmas – front to back – Thanksgiving on. Kind of a twisted Christmas though – one in which we have to try hard to keep our focus. Schedules press with work and trips, so many gifts to give and plan, so many people yet so alone, homework and the urge to not have anymore, illnesses and hospital visits and procedures, and the year-end realization that there just isn’t enough time, money, energy, love, fun, joy – you-name-it, we’re-running-out-of-it. Isaiah’s “fearful hearts” is literally “rushed hearts” – and isn’t that fitting? That’s one way our fear is expressed…isn’t it? So caught up, and weak, and feeble from business and life and with everything else that we don’t even think about His coming? Maybe we think about true Christmas, probably much less about world-ending advent. And if we do, it’s usually after we’ve made a big mess of it all and we can only shout out, “Are you really coming? Really? Am I going to be lost? Because I’m afraid…”
So listen to the prophet this morning. He’s teaching an Advent lesson in poetry. And he starts with an attention-getter: “Behold!” Do Not Fear; Your God Will Come…He will come with vengeance. He’s not forgotten anyone from least to greatest. And he’s coming with vengeance to destroy his enemies once and for all – no “unclean” and no God-mockers where he will be. Wouldn’t that be nice? With all the anti-God everything going on, to join our voices with Israel’s and wait for the victory? “[The wicked] crush Your people, O Lord, and afflict Your heritage. They slay the widow and the stranger and murder the orphans (Ps 94).” Come and bring vengeance! Or Isaiah also called it “recompense” – payback – that God will give to each one what he or she deserves – for their sins and their mockeries and their fears – sinners to death and life for those who trust in him.
As the prophet teaches, consider: do you remember those classroom revelation moments? You know, where it all seems to fall together of a sudden? “Mr. Isaiah? You said not to fear – that God is coming, bringing vengeance – am I supposed to be happy about that? Because I’m looking at my Advent season track record here and it looks like I’ve not been trusting a lot lately. In fact, last week I was pretty angry at God and in a rush I did say some things I shouldn’t have to my mother; I did end Tuesday night in despair, just lost – I couldn’t figure out a way out…” What kind of recompense do I deserve? Why shouldn’t I be sore afraid because of my fear, because I didn’t trust, because I didn’t think God was actually coming?
Right then Isaiah would point ahead like prophets do to someplace far away. To a cold, dry hillside to listen to a choir – an angelic one. If there was a time to be afraid it might be there – bright wings, loud voice, divine light – but one angel says, as they all sing, “Don’t be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy.” Then a hurry with the shepherds to this dark cave, low and dirty, and a road-weary couple, and a baby in a box of hay…the Son of God. And Isaiah would break the moment and say, “We’re in Advent, dear friends. Do Not Fear; Your God Will Come. Yes, there’s vengeance wrapped up in that baby-flesh…all the vengeance God has to pour out, BUT that’s only part of why he will come. He will come to save you.
And that’s a striking turn – it’s meant to be. Isaiah might even point it out in our Advent poetry – how wrong it sounds. The blossom explosion in the desert, the grass in the dry spaces, the water where soil’s been dry for years; the blind see, the mute speak, the lame leap for joy… This is nice, but wrong – when does this happen? Our lives aren’t like this…this world’s just a mess: a collection of failures tossed about by the laws of nature and weighted down by sin – blind to what God wants, and mute to say what he might wish, and lame to do anything about it at all. That’s the point. When do these things happen? When God comes – as a baby: a beautiful expression of life, when the blind began to see, and he loosed the tongue of the mute, and he made the lame to walk – physically conquered the problems of sin. When God comes – as a baby: sacrificed because sin so thoroughly corrupts all things, all the vengeance of God on one person in place of all to make blossom the desert heart by faith and to open the way to heaven – free and clear.
What you and I receive, as we turn from our fears, by faith, is this highway of the holy. It’s holy because Jesus makes those who walk it holy. Isaiah called us the redeemed – the ones Jesus bought back from the righteous punishment of sin with his holy blood. He bought us to be his holy Church – all who believe in him as the Savior who came, who will come again. And St. Paul draws the same conclusion of promising comfort that Isaiah does: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword (Ro 8:35)?” Shall the hurry and trouble in my heart? Shall any of the fears of this life or my worst day ever? Isaiah says, “No lion will be there, nor will any ferocious beast get up on it; they will not be found there.” That’s what God’s Church finds on the highway – that fear is inconsequential – because the things that bring it cannot stand against the one who bought us. Instead, he sets us on the way to our final home in Zion. Better than any Mediterranean real-estate to which Jews returned as God promised. It’s our home in heaven to which we’re headed. And on this highway we’ll say goodbye to sighing and sadness. And as they recede into the fading horizon, we meet up with joy and gladness instead – two partners that will fill every moment to come. Because, finally, your God will come and he will come to save you – with joy that conquers sin; the kind that will last forever.
Isaiah says with confidence: Your God Will Come. He will come with vengeance right and true on the last day. But first, we’ll rejoice again that he comes at Christmas. That he lived and he died and received our payback – and paid out to us his love instead. He continues to come to his people, across the millennia, in revelation through his Word and in care for our lives – and finally on the last day when he will come to save you. By faith in him we walk a way of security, blessing, glory and joy – we can’t see them fully now, but one day our hardest days will be gone and in their place an explosion of God’s love like we’ve never seen. That will happen because Your God Will Come Again. So don’t be afraid.