Third Sunday in Advent (Gaudete)—16 December 2018

5212053Our text is from Isaiah 40:1-2:   1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  2  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.  (ESV)  

In Isaiah’s day, God’s people desperately needed a word of comfort. You see, God’s prophets often spoke words of judgment, judgment which the people richly deserved because of their sins. In the chapter preceding today’s Old Testament lesson, Isaiah had spoken such a word of judgment: the Babylonians would one day come and conquer Jerusalem, tearing down the city, carrying off all her wealth, taking her people into exile, and even taking captive the king’s sons. And with the capture of the king’s sons, it would appear that God’s promise to King David would be broken. God had said to David: your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever (2 Samuel 7:16). But now the prophets were saying that David’s dynasty would be overthrown. And God’s people did not know what to think.

Imagine that you were there on the day King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army defeated Jerusalem. Judah’s king has been captured; the grand buildings of Jerusalem, even the temple, are in flames. And you, along with the other survivors, are being herded like cattle for the long march to your home in exile, in Babylon. Can you imagine how crushed the survivors must feel? They are thinking: “well, either our God Yahweh was no match for Nebuchadnezzar’s gods or the God of Israel has turned His back upon us forever because of our sins.” Either way, the exiles see a future without hope. The only reasonable thing for them to do is to face the facts. They are totally defeated, and the messianic promise of David’s eternal kingdom lies broken in the dust. It would seem that Israel’s trust in Yahweh has all been in vain—perhaps He does not even exist—and so they may as well forget about Yahweh and deal with life as best they can.

But Yahweh, the one true God of heaven and earth, is not finished with His people. And so He speaks a word of comfort long before that day of defeat and exile arrives: Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. To a crushed and defeated people, God speaks a double comfort. This double comfort points to the people’s great need for comfort, but even more to God’s greater desire to give comfort to sinners. The comfort is double, meaning that it is God’s firm intention to be gracious to sinners. The historical context of this passage is looking beyond the day of defeat to the day when Israel’s enemies will be destroyed and God will bring Israel out of her captivity and back home to Jerusalem. 

But this passage is not just about God’s mighty acts for Israel in the past. This word of comfort from Isaiah is also for you and for me and for all Christians. Oh, we are not experiencing an exile in Babylon, but we are displaced from paradise and we are scattered throughout the world. And we are sinners to whom God greatly desires to speak a double word of comfort. Yes, God speaks to us a comforting word as, in Christ, we journey on our way home to the paradise of heaven.

Comfort, comfort—these are not empty words of sympathy telling us to look for the silver lining behind the dark cloud of our broken lives. When God speaks His comfort to you, it does not means that your earthly circumstances will suddenly improve. And God’s comfort is not based at all on your sincerity of faith. Rather, God’s comfort flows from His great initiative to make new life possible for sinners. No matter how dismal your lot in life may be and in spite of your unworthiness, God comes to you to comfort you with His gift of new life.

And in our text, God’s gift of new life consists of two things. First, God speaks tenderly to you to tell you that [your] warfare is ended. The Hebrew word for warfare can also refer to forced labour, servitude. The historical context of these words refer to Israel being set free from her servitude when her enemy, Babylon, was destroyed seventy years after taking Israel captive. But for you and me, these words refer to an even greater victory and deliverance, when Christ set us free from sin, death, and the devil through His dying and His rising from the dead. 

God’s gift of new life also consists of our iniquity being pardoned. Through our Lord’s death and resurrection, we [have] received from the LORD’s hand double for all [our] sins. Thanks be to God that receiving double for all our sins refers not to a double punishment but to a double pardon. Now, we truly deserve a punishment that is twice as great as our sins, and that is what hell is—a double serving of shame and dishonour for all eternity. But what we actually receive is a double serving of good things from the Lord’s hand. As Isaiah proclaims in chapter 61: Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion; instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot; therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion; they shall have everlasting joy (v. 7).

The first two Sundays in Advent are rather somber, with their focus on preparing for the Lord’s return, but this Third Sunday in Advent has a theme of joy, the great joy which is ours through God’s pardoning of our sins for the sake of Christ our Saviour. This theme of joy and pardon is picked up in today’s introit: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.…LORD, …You forgave the iniquity of your people; you covered all their sin.

Today, we celebrate the Good News that God is tender-hearted toward sinners, for the sake of Christ. In today’s Gospel, when John sends his disciples to ask Jesus, Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?, Jesus does not rebuke John with a harsh word. Rather, He speaks a tender word of encouragement: Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.

There is a lesson here for us. We are tempted to deal with our problems on our own, but John directs us to Jesus. And when we do bring our troubles and doubts to God, we find that He always speak a tender word of encouragement. Oh, He may sometimes rebuke us for our unbelief and say “O you of little faith”, but He will always point us to Christ, to trust in His words and His works by which sinners are saved. In Christ, God proclaims to you a double comfort, that God’s desire to forgive you is truly greater than your sins. In Christ, God proclaims to you that your servitude to sin, death, and and devil is now over, and that you have been set free as God’s dear children and as heirs of heaven. In Christ, God proclaims to you that [your] iniquity is pardoned, that [you] has received from the LORD’s hand double for all [your] sins. And make note of this: God’s tender word of comfort is more than a mere message of hope; it is a messaged wrapped up in a Person. Yes, God’s tender word of comfort is always connected to the Person of Jesus Christ and His work of living and dying and rising again to save sinners.

Jesus always has more forgiveness than we have sins. And so, Jerusalem is to be comforted. God’s people are to be comforted. You are to be comforted. Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. To a people crushed by sin, God speaks a word of double comfort to show His firm intention to be gracious to sinners. And this comfort, which is greater than your sin, is wrapped up in the Person of Jesus Christ. Your Lord and Saviour Jesus has called you out of this world, washed your sins away in Holy Baptism, and delivered to you the sacrifice for your sins, the sacrifice of His death in your place on the Good Friday cross.

And in the victory of Good Friday and Easter, Jesus says: ”Tell Jerusalem, tell my Church, she has received DOUBLE for all her sins.” Jesus’ death on the Cross did not just cover some of your sins. His death did not cover most of your sins, leaving you something small to do now, as if you could tidy up the mess made by even a single sin. No, the Lord forgave all your sins. There is not a sin that you have committed that Jesus did not die for, and not a debt that you had that Jesus did not pay on the Cross. Even with all your sins, there is not one that Jesus missed, not one that He did not wash away in your Baptism, not one that Jesus does not take away in Holy Absolution and the Lord’s Supper.

The only sin that is unforgiven is the sin that we grab onto and want to keep for ourselves. The sins we hide, the sins we refuse to repent of. What separates us from God is not that Jesus missed a sin, but that we so hold on to our sins that we do not want forgiveness for them, that we do not go to Jesus for the forgiveness that only He can give.

On this Third Sunday in Advent, then, it is good for us to remember to confess our sins and to go to Jesus for forgiveness. Yes, let us remember that repentance is God’s gift to us by which we receive His amazing forgiveness. The Lord makes straight paths in our lives, leveling the hills and raising the valleys. He levels us with His Law, showing us our sin, in order to fill us with the Gospel of salvation through Christ alone, that we may live in His forgiveness. God would not have us be terrified about our sins anymore—not after the Cross and the resurrection of Jesus. He died to bring comfort and to speak kindly to us.

Today, Christ is among us to speak His tender word of double pardon. And so, by God’s grace, turn from your sins. Confess them to God. And if your conscience is troubled by particular sins, then come to your pastor for a personal word of forgiveness. God is faithful and just. He will cleanse you from all unrighteousness. He knows you are a real sinner. He knows the real sins that you commit. He has delivered to you a place to receive comfort, the place where His Word is preached and His Supper celebrated with repentant joy. Nothing that you have done cannot be forgiven! No sin is too big, no transgression too great, no iniquity too shameful for the Lord’s forgiveness.

You could never pay for your own sins, nor could you ever pay off the debt you owe to God because of your iniquity. But in Christ, God has reconciled you to Himself, so that your servitude to sin is truly over, your exile is ended. And now you are a child of God on your way home to the paradise of heaven. This new life of freedom and pardon in God’s kingdom of grace comes at a great cost, a cost paid entirely by Jesus Christ. Through His blood shed on Good Friday, Jesus purchased the forgiveness of sins for all sinners. For all who believe in Christ, the sentence of exile from God is now ended, and you are now on your way home as forgiven children of God.

“Tell Jerusalem that she has received double from the Lord’s hand for all her sins.” Jesus truly does have more forgiveness than you have sins! Praise be to God! Amen.