Make a Straight Highway

Text: Isaiah 40:1-8

Bulletin: 12-17-2017 the Third Sunday in Advent

Last Sunday we sang the hymn, “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You,” during the distribution of the Lord’s Supper. The hymn is in the Advent section of our hymnal, but it could also very well be in the Confession and Absolution section. This hymn praises our Lord for His coming to us, humble and mounted on a donkey, which we heard about two weeks ago. Yet, the hymn takes a turn when it also talks about why Christ became flesh. Pastor Gerhardt writes, “I lay in fetters, groaning; You came to set me free; I stood, my shame bemoaning; You came to honor me.”[1]

The hymn recognizes that Christ’s Incarnation was not just for fun. Christ, the eternal Lord, took on our human flesh to suffer and die for us, poor, miserable sinners. Because we are so wrapped up in our own sinfulness, by which we have created a vast chasm between us and our God, Christ became flesh. No one else could bridge that divide. He suffered and died on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. That forgiveness, He freely gives those who repent of their sins and look to Him in faith. Our text today is from our Isaiah reading, where we hear that we have received from the Lord’s hand double forgiveness for our sins. Since, therefore, our Lord comes to bring pardon to our iniquity, let the valleys and mountains of our hearts be made straight, that we may meet Him with joy at His appearing.

I.

With this service, we are now three weeks into the Advent season. Advent is a season of joyful expectation. We celebrated the First Sunday in Advent by hearing of the Triumphal Entry of our king into Jerusalem. Just as He entered humbly then, He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. For that day, we are joyfully waiting. Yet, in this this in-between time, we are also aware of what prompted our Lord’s visitation, our sinfulness. Advent is a season of expectation, but also one of repentance. This theme started coming out in last week’s readings. Our Lord encouraged us to watch ourselves, lest we be weighed down by the cares of the world. In the Old Testament text, John the Baptist was promised. He would be the one to come and prepare the way of the Lord.

John prepared the way of the Lord by preaching repentance and faith. You know John’s words to the Pharisees, that they were like a brood of vipers only seeking to escape the wrath to come. But, to others, John preached repentance and faith in the One who was yet to come. He preached that the axe is now at the root of the tree, and that every branch that doesn’t bear good fruit will be cut down. When the people asked him what to do, he said, “Bear fruit in keeping with repentance.”[2]

John’s preaching consisted of pointing out to people their sinfulness, and then pointing them to the Christ. Though their sins were like scarlet, they would be made white as snow through the blood of the cross. Those who mourned and confessed their sins, were baptized in the hope of the forgiveness that was yet to be revealed. John was the one who prepared the way of the Lord by preaching repentance. Or, in the words of Isaiah, lifting up every valley and making every mountain and hill low.

II.

The ministry of John the Baptist carries on even today through pastors, and our own Christian selves, when we encourage each other toward repentance. The first of the 95 Theses is very good. It says, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent”, He willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”[3] The goal of all Christian preaching is repentance of sin and faith in Jesus Christ as the Lamb of God. This is carried out by the preaching of both Law and Gospel. We know that Jesus Christ came to defeat the devil and take away the sin of the world. He made full payment for all sin by His perfect life and death. The forgiveness which He won, He gives freely to all through faith. Faith receives the forgiveness of sins. The one who receives forgiveness, is the one who first acknowledges their own sinfulness.

So that we might acknowledge our sinfulness, Jesus sends pastors to preach His Law. When the Law is preached, it’s not the pastor – or whoever – being mean; the preacher is simply helping to us understand how things are and where we really stand before God. The preaching of the Law goes like this: God has revealed to us His will for human life in Scripture, and we have not done it. We have not kept God’s Law, and we fully deserve the punishment due. There is one punishment for sin – death and eternal separation from all things good. The preaching of the Law is not being mean; it is simply speaking the truth of where we stand before God.

And, to be honest, I think the Law that needs to be preached today is what St. Paul said a few weeks back, “The hour has come…to wake from sleep…Let us walk properly as in the daytime…not in quarreling and jealousy.”[4] This is something we have all struggled with. Satan has planted seeds of jealousy and quarreling in our hearts, and we have not treated each other as we should. We have not explained everything in the kindest way, we have assumed the worst. We have not forgiven each others’ faults. We have despaired of what the future holds for us. We have been sinful, and we have deserved eternal condemnation.

III.

Let us mourn our wretched bands and, in the words of Paul Gerhardt, bemoan our shame. But, let us do so in faith. It is true that we are sinners. Of that, we can be sure. But, true, also, are these words from the Lord, “Comfort, comfort My people, says your God. 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.”[5]

We are sinners, as were the people in Isaiah’s day. Yet, His words to us here are not words of condemnation, but comfort. God called Isaiah to comfort His people, for they have received pardon for their iniquity. Israel has received double grace for all her sins, through the eternal sacrifice of Christ. The forgiveness He won stretched back to them and forward to us through faith. There is no sin too bad nor sinner too sinful for His forgiveness and pardon. There is no heart of stone that He cannot turn to flesh, nor dead person that He cannot raise to life in Baptism. In Christ, there is free and full forgiveness and pardon from iniquity, and He gives it freely through faith.

Let us then, in this Advent season and especially as we see the Day drawing near, make straight the valleys and mountains of our hearts. We have treated others poorly and thought more highly of ourselves than we should. Let us confess our sins, be forgiven, and by the Holy Spirit seek to bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Acknowledging that, by faith in Christ’s blood, we have received twice the forgiveness for all of our sins, let us care for one another and build each other up in love. Then, when Christ comes, we may meet Him with joy and a clean conscience. “Comfort, comfort My people, says your God. 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.”


[1] “O Lord, How Shall I Meet You?” Lutheran Service Book, 334.

[2] Lk. 3:8.

[3] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 31: Career of the Reformer I, ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann, vol. 31 (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 25.

[4] Rom. 13:11-13.

[5] Is. 40:1-2.

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