The Fourth Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 77, Philippians 4:4-7, St. John 1:19-28
I begin today with a trigger warning. I’ll be speaking on a subject that may make some uncomfortable: the Holy Bible.
You’ve had fair warning.
So far in this Advent season we have considered the superiority of God’s rule over man’s rule in the contexts of the church, the nation and the world. On this fourth and final Sunday in Advent, we turn to a subject that factors into all three: knowledge.
Whatever the context, whose knowledge is more reliable, God’s or man’s?
Our Old Testament lesson for today opens the second section of Isaiah’s book. Scholars have advanced a number of schemes for dividing it, but in the traditional division the chapters break out 1-39 and 40-66. It’s an easy thing to remember: The Old Testament has 39 books, the New Testament 27.
The first part is the book of judgment: God’s verdict on Israel for her sin and rebellion and, indeed, on all the nations for the great evil they have perpetrated. The second part is the book of restoration: God’s faithfulness in keeping His promises to His covenant people despite their rebellion against Him and, through them, His blessing upon all the peoples.
In a transition so sudden that you’ll need to check for whiplash, the prophet pivots from the former to the latter.
“’Comfort, yes, comfort, My people,’ says your God.” So begins chapter 40 and our text for today. Notice that the word of comfort is not only given but accelerated – not “the people,” as before, but “My” people; not “God” but “your God.”
What’s in the preceding chapter?
King Hezekiah has recovered from a serious illness. The son of the king of Babylon sends envoys with his best wishes and a gift. Hezekiah receives them gleefully and shows off all of his treasures to them – silver, gold, spices, precious oil and all of his armory.
Now, Babylon had become the great world power by overrunning and pillaging other nations; let’s be charitable and say Hezekiah was having a bad day. When Isaiah learns what he has done he tells the king: "Hear the word of the LORD of hosts: `Behold, the days are coming when all that is in your house, and what your fathers have accumulated until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the LORD.
“`And they shall take away some of your sons who will descend from you, whom you will beget; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon'" (39:5-7).
"The word of the LORD which you have spoken is good!" For (Hezekiah) said, "At least there will be peace and security (ESV) in my days” (39:8).
Putting aside the callousness in his attitude toward his own sons, the king in Jerusalem is God’s trustee of the throne of David. Hezekiah’s sacred duty, like that of those regents before him and after him, is to guard the palace until God’s Anointed One, the promised Messiah, appears to take up the throne on which He will rule forever.
Now, learning that by his pride he has forfeited the treasures of Israel and brought exile down upon the heads of his people, Hezekiah . . . celebrates: All hell’s not going to break loose on my watch.
Factor in that Hezekiah was among the best of the rulers of the southern kingdom and ask yourself: How much do I want to gamble on the knowledge of man? But now, in a blink, comes the prophet’s about-face: “Comfort, yes, comfort, My people, says your God.”
In what may they take comfort? “Her warfare is ended.” The time of punishment for their sin and rebellion is finished. He is after all a merciful God, and He will restore His remnant to their homeland and He will once again be their God, present in their midst.
For the people of God, there is no greater affliction than separation from God. They deserved their harsh sentence of exile, and more, but it has finally come to an end.
“. . . her iniquity is pardoned.” God is not forgetting but He is forgiving. He is wiping the slate clean. Only the ceremonially clean may enter the divine presence, and Yahweh is restoring His covenant people to a state of covenant purity.
“The grass withers, the flower fades. But the word of our God stands forever.”
All flesh is grass. Men come and go. The worst of them are evil incarnate, like the Babylonians; the best of them are inconstant, like Hezekiah. We have seen already how foolish King Ahaz, under threat from Syria, made league with the Assyrians and put the throne of David under pagan protection.
We have watched as Hezekiah followed suit. When the Assyrians turned on him, to our astonishment he turned to Egypt for help. Now he turns the Babylonians loose in the treasure house!
Will you trust in men? Forget your enemies! Your friends will do you in. Even when their motives are honorable their decisions may be fatal.
“But the word of our God stands forever.”
I couldn’t help smiling as I typed these lines . . . smiling because we’re getting this reminder of God’s steadfastness and man’s fecklessness during campaign season. As politicians’ promises dance through our heads like visions of sugar plums we remember all the seductive assurances that have gone before . . . and withered like grass.
God keeps His promises. Don’t trust in men. God is the nation’s only hope, and here we find Him again breaking into history to deliver on His solemn word and save His people. The day of their deliverance from captivity is not yet . . . but already, because Yahweh has proclaimed it.
The prophet demands that we search our souls for the answer to the question: Where does true wisdom reside, in man or in God? I conclude that if I insist I can sustain myself I will come to nothing . . . but if I confess that only God endures He will breathe His immortality onto me.
Whose knowledge is more reliable, God’s or man’s?
Hezekiah acted on his own understanding, without consulting God’s prophet. And what of us? Will we consult God’s word, that word of our God that stands forever?
We can be in no doubt as to where the culture around us turns for its understanding. Such august institutions as Harvard and Yale began with a mission of training young men for Christian service – not just in the pulpit but in business and government and the professions and the military as well.
And now? At her inauguration as president of Harvard, Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust observed that the Latin word Veritas, which adorns Harvard’s coat of arms “was originally intended to invoke the absolutes of divine revelation, the unassailable verities of Puritan religion.”
But times have changed.
“We understand it quite differently now,” she said. In the 21st century there is only the aspiration to truth; truth is not a “possession,” and there are certainly no “unassailable verities.”
University educators today “must commit ourselves to the uncomfortable position of doubt” leading to “the humility of always believing that there is more to know, more to teach, more to understand.”
That was in 2007. And doubt, frankly, seems to be in as short supply as mossy old truth. Professors appear resolute in their crusade to protect students from “microagressions,” in no small part by issuing “trigger warnings” to alert them whenever anything that might offend their tender sensibilities might heave into view.
This is the breeding ground for human knowledge in our place and time.
I know I am sounding flippant, so let me make one thing clear. Treatment of the syndrome now called “post-traumatic stress disorder” goes back as far as World War I. Soldiers, including very brave soldiers, have suffered from it and none of us would begrudge them treatment.
Likewise, none of us would want a young woman who has suffered sexual assault to be forced to endure a classroom experience that stirred horrific memories of that encounter for the sake of a psychology credit.
But we know very well – because we have ample evidence of it – that our political correctness has driven the university culture far beyond such reasonable precautions. I have more examples but I will content myself with this one:
In the last school year, deans and department chairs at the 10 University of California system campuses heard from administrators at faculty leader-training sessions examples of microaggressions. Among the offensive statements were: “America is the land of opportunity” and “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”
In the “Atlantic Monthly” Greg Lukianoff points out a vital difference in the political correctness that came into vogue in the 1980s and ‘90s and what we find on campuses today. Back then, some did attempt to limit speech . . . but there was a counter-balance in an effort to bring more viewpoints into the discussion.
What we’re seeing today is an overabundance of concern for students’ emotional health predicated on an understanding that that health is fragile indeed. It will shatter into a thousand pieces at the words, “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”
Underneath this culture of malignant defensiveness is something called “emotional reasoning,” which can be summed up this way: If I take offense at something you say, you are necessarily wrong for saying it because I took offense.
This is the way of our universities, the fount of knowledge for our society today.
Recall that a week ago I brought up that much of the knowledge that is recognized today is that which supports unlimited preferences. What does so in the social sciences realm is branded “scientific” or “objective” and pushes out the old “myth” and “superstition.”
In other words, what professors at Harvard taught 200 years ago.
The public school system that funnels students into this mind-bending machine is perfectly in synch with it. It assures its young wards that they inhabit a material world void of reason or purpose or hope. In this environment, what do they have of true value but self-esteem?
Esteeming themselves so highly – exalting themselves, in Biblespeak – they arrive on campus attuned to a culture that coddles them in the oh-so-warm reassurance that anything that offends them must be offensive to any right-thinking person.
Have we been blindsided? I think not. We will not get away with saying this cancer has crept up on us. The theologian A. A. Hodge wrote:
“It is capable of exact demonstration that if every party in the State has the right of excluding from the public schools whatever he does not believe to be true, then he that believes most must give way to him that believes least, and then he that believes least must give way to him that believes absolutely nothing, no matter how small a minority the atheists or the agnostics be.
“It is self-evident on this scheme . . . (that) the United States system of national popular education will be the most efficient and wide instrument for the propagation of atheism which the world has ever seen.
“I am as sure as I am of the fact of Christ’s reign that a comprehensive and centralized system of national education, separated from religion . . . will prove the most appalling (engine) for the propagation of anti-Christian and atheistic unbelief . . . this sin-rent world has ever seen.”
Those words were published in 1890, after Hodge’s death. Eleven years earlier, R. L. Dabney wrote: “The Redeemer said, ‘He that is not with me is against me.’ There cannot be moral neutrality. Man is born with an evil and ungodly tendency. Hence a non-religious training must be an anti-religious training. The more of this, the larger the curse.”
And on the fiction of neutrality in education, I would quote one contemporary writer, Curtis I. Crenshaw, formerly dean of Cranmer Theological House: “. . . education is inherently moral, as is all of life. There is nothing in the universe that is not moral; moral neutrality does not exist because God, who is infinitely moral, exists and has created all that exists.
“Thus He has indelibly stamped all creation with His morality . . . For one to put his children in public schools is to sacrifice them on the altar of immoral humanism . . .”
It is not man’s understanding but God’s promise that directs history. Where is comfort? Anyone seeking it in human knowledge these days must be desolate – which is not the same as unhappy.
I wonder – and it’s nothing more than that – if it’s mere coincidence that so many of the mass killings perpetrated in recent years have occurred in secular secondary schools and on college campuses, those institutions given over to the propagation of the knowledge of man.
God’s promise, on the other hand, cannot fail because He who gives it cannot fail. He told Hezekiah He would redeem His people. He makes the same promise to us. The Babylonians are not on our doorstep . . . yet.
But sin is. And it is in our living rooms and libraries and bedrooms. We will not destroy it . . . expunge it . . . atone for it . . . by man’s knowledge.
“Comfort, yes, comfort, My people, says your God.”
A note in closing:
Johannes Olearius, who wrote our sermon hymn, attended the University of Wittenburg. He joined the faculty there in 1637 and wrote a complete commentary on the Bible. He was also a pastor and author of hymns and devotional works.
He wrote this hymn in the wake of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the longest and most destructive war in European history – which followed hard on the heels of the Reformation Wars of the previous century. The scourge of war, with its concomitant famine and disease, decimated the German population. Thirty percent of the population died. To rub salt into that gaping gash, Germany almost dissolved into bankruptcy. She ceded territory and was divided into states. The hymnist’s homeland lay desolate. The knowledge of man had had its ghastly day.
And, finding strength in the knowledge of God and his familiarity with these chapters of Isaiah, he took up his pen and wrote, “Comfort, Comfort Ye My People.” No such calamity has befallen us. If it should descend on us or our progeny, may we and they be as faithful to our Lord’s unshakable truth as he. Amen.