Several weeks ago, our staff blocked off a couple of hours to explore the reality of ministry burnout. Why is it on the rise? What are the symptoms? How can we live and serve in a way that renews rather than depletes? According to Barna Research, two out of five senior pastors thought about leaving the ministry within the past year, and what is most surprising is the recent spike in these stats. Let me show you one example. When asked “Have you given real serious consideration to quitting being in full-time ministry within the last year,” look at the blue — January 2021. Twenty-nine percent said “yes.” That’s still a high number. Just over a year later, March 2022, 42% said “yes,” that they have given real, serious consideration to quitting being in the ministry.
These kinds of spikes are not limited to people in the ministry. A worldwide study done in over two hundred countries published in the Lancet, October 2021, revealed a rise in anxiety and depressive disorders among men and women 25-28%, a 25-28% rise. Most alarming, as many of you know, it’s hit the news a lot lately, are the trends among teenagers. A year and a half ago, the U.S. surgeon general warned of a, in his words, “devastating” mental health crisis among adolescents. Some medical experts are calling it a national emergency. Candice Odgers, a psychologist at the University of California Irvine, said,
“Young people are more educated; less likely to get pregnant, use drugs; less likely to die of accident or injury…. By many markers, kids are doing fantastic and thriving. But there are these really important trends in anxiety, depression, and suicide that stop us in our tracks. We need to figure it out because it’s life or death for these kids.”
So, what is the culprit? Many suggest the pandemic, the lockdowns that went along with it. No doubt all of that amplified the problem greatly. But look at these pre-pandemic trends. This is from 2008 to 2018 — emergency room visits for self-inflicted injuries among 10-19 year olds. And if you can read that, the spikes are significant. A sixty percent rise. These are self-inflicted injuries among 10-19 year olds, and this is pre-pandemic according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What are the factors? Many point to things like the breakdown of marriage and family. Marriage, for example, has dropped in our nation by 50% in the last fifty years, and at one time that was a huge means of social/relational stability. Social media — most of these trends begin to move upward during the first decade of the 2000s, which is when the smartphones became more prevalent. That factor cannot be ignored. How about political strife and division? When you can’t go to a ball game, eat a burger, drink a beer, or go to church without making a political statement, you know you are in a political pandemic. Politics have taken over everything. Many people choose churches not even based on theology anymore, but based on politics. And the big one — loss of meaning, purpose. As we turn from God, we are turning from meaning toward despair.
Now, when we talk about things like self-harm, anxiety, depression, burnout, the causes are generally multifactorial, which simply means lots of different causes and, therefore, lots of different sources of help, depending on the cause. For some of us, we might simply need to change eating habits, sleep more, learn how to rest and de-stress, get off the couch and exercise, get a physical and explore are there physiological causes, or perhaps meet with a counselor and explore underlying root causes. We are, and this is true of Christians, holistic beings. Body and soul are inseparably linked.
But over the next month and a half, we are going to explore a cause of discomfort, anxiety, depression, despair, relational and spiritual exhaustion that you will never hear talked about in any psych class or on any talk show. Isaiah 40 is a giant renewal sandwich. By sandwich, I mean look at verse 1.
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.”
That’s one side of the sandwich. Now, look at verse 31, the very famous passage at the end of the chapter.
“But they who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”
So, the outside of the sandwich — comfort, renewal, but everything in between, seemingly when you’re reading it, is not about us at all. It’s actually all about the greatness and goodness of God. Now, this is mind blowingly countercultural because when you’re struggling today and you seek help in our culture, the solution typically has to do with thinking more about yourself. And Isaiah 40 is actually saying “maybe the solution is to think more about God. Maybe your God is too small.” And that’s why we’ve titled this series God’s Greatness Meets Our Weariness. God’s greatness meets, transforms, and renews our weariness.
So, as we begin this series, and today as we simply introduce it, let’s pray, ask the Spirit to meet us with the greatness of God in the midst of our weariness. Father, some of us are in dark places today. Some of us are in very bright places. But wherever we are, you are calling us away from fake comfort and the kinds of escapisms and distractions we try to seek out toward true comfort, real renewal. Please, over the next few minutes, melt away our resistances to your true comfort and renew our souls. Thank you, Jesus, that you have done everything we need for this to be real in us today. And we thank you in Jesus’s name. Amen.
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” God is commissioning. Think about how that phrased. God is commissioning voices to speak comfort, not delusional coziness, cushiness. But in this context, the word “comfort” refers to relief, reassurance, renewal, revitalization. As we will see next week, God is calling on three voices. Look at verse 2,
“A voice cries,”
“a voice says,”
“lift up your voice.”
So, why do God’s people need to hear these comforting voices? And to answer that question, I have to do something that some of you will consider tedious and others of you, three of you, will enjoy. I need to talk about context. So, let me say, yes, one person enjoys it.
So, we call what we do here, if you’re visiting, we call this expository preaching or expository teaching. And generally we work through books of the Bible, chapter by chapter, verse by verse. That’s what we think of as expository preaching. So, what is it when we drop into a chapter like we’re doing in this little mini-series. Is that topical? Maybe. What do I mean “maybe”? It depends because expository preaching, as I’ve said before, is more of a mindset than a method. You can actually preach verse by verse and not preach expositorily. Why? Because when we approach the text, are we exposing what the text says in its context? Or are we imposing what our assumptions are, what we want the text to say? That’s the difference. Do you see that? That’s the difference between expository preaching and imposatory. You’re imposing our cultural context. Every culture has certain assumptions on the text. So, the goal of expository preaching and one of the reasons we generally work chapter by chapter is you want to let the text arise and confront us by the Spirit of God so that we’re truly hearing what God is saying within the context. So, what what happens when we drop in on Isaiah 40? Well, you can preach it expositorily, but you have to be aware of the context and make sure the message of the text is being exposed. Does that make sense?
So, in light of that, let’s talk first broader context. Isaiah was a prophet in Judah, the southern kingdom of Israel. And that’s the one in the yellow or orange, whatever color that is. And you’ll see there Jerusalem is the capital. If you look a little north in the blue area, you’ll see Samaria is the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Isaiah’s prophetic call was from 740 BC to around 695. And during his ministry in Judah, Assyria conquered Samaria around 722. So, that means Samaria and the Northern Kingdom were eliminated. The people were displaced and replaced in order for them to be controlled by Assyria. Now, God miraculously protected Judah from Assyria. But Isaiah predicted that Babylon will defeat Assyria. You’ll see that in 614. So, Babylon becomes the next superpower. And eventually Jerusalem will fall to Babylon, which came in waves but climaxed in 586. So, that’s the broader historical context.
Now, look at the immediate context of our passage. Long before Babylon was a threat, Hezekiah, king of Judah, entertained a delegation from Marodach-Baladan, who was king of Babylon. They were a minor force at the time, and King Hezekiah showed this delegation all the treasures in his storehouse. He was strutting. He was flaunting. He felt really good. And his heart was lifted up in pride. And so, Isaiah confronted him. In Isaiah 39:5-7, you’ll see it, the passage immediately before Isaiah 40.
“Isaiah said to Hezekiah, ‘Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: “Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left,” says the Lord. “And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father [he’s talking about his children and grandchildren and great grandchildren] shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”‘”
Now, look again at the timeline. Isaiah ministered over one hundred years before the fall of Jerusalem. So, Isaiah is warning Hezekiah of something that’s coming several generations away, and Hezekiah’s response was disheartening, a vivid example of someone trying to find false comfort. He said in verse 8, this immediately before chapter 40,
“Then Hezekiah said to Isaiah, ‘The word of the Lord that you have spoken is good.’ For he thought, ‘There will be peace and security in my days.’”
So, as long as we’re safe today, as long as our refrigerator is full and cars are running and bank is full of money, we don’t care what happens to our grandchildren or great grandchildren. And so, there is over one hundred years between Isaiah 39 and Isaiah 40. And to tie it to our 2 Peter series, you can see God is shaping the memories of his people with a kind of comfort that he knows they need before they know they need it. This is way ahead of the exile and then the return and the rebuilding of the temple. Long ahead of that, he is speaking these words to shape their memory so they will seek true comfort, not fake comfort. Chapter 40 then is a significant shift in the whole book of Isaiah.
Let’s take a quick look at the book. This is a very simple outline. Theme of Isaiah — The Holy One of Israel. Isaiah is all about God. And that title, by the way, only appears thirty-one times in the whole Old Testament and twenty-five of them are in Isaiah. So, it is one of Isaiah’s favorite descriptions of God — the Holy One of Israel. You could break it down in three parts — Judgment, chapters 1-39, what are the terrible consequences for rejecting the Holy One of Israel? And then Comfort and Renewal in chapters 40-55, which highlights the extent the Holy One of Israel will go to redeem and restore his people through his servant. And then Joy, 56-66, what is it like to enjoy the Holy One of Israel forever “when the oil of gladness and the garments praise replace mourning and fainting”?
Now, of course, this outline is too stark because if you read Isaiah carefully, you will see expressions of grace and predictions of the Messiah sprinkled throughout the book, as well as the title Holy One of Israel appears in the whole book, which is contrary to the assumptions of skeptics, which try to divide the book into multiple different books.
So, how does God comfort his fearing, despairing people? Let’s cover today verses 1 and 2, just introduce the chapter. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” What is he doing there? God is commissioning voices to do three things — speak to their hearts about their suffering and about their sin. Let’s walk through those.
Number 1 — he commissions voices to speak to their hearts. Look closely at verse 2.
“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.”
That word “tenderly” in the Hebrew is literally “to their hearts.” It’s the word “leb,” which is the Hebrew word for heart, and it carries the idea of tenderness, but also persuasiveness in the sense of God is calling these voices to address the whole person at the core of their being.
Let me give you another example in the Old Testament. In Genesis 53, when Jacob died, his sons feared that their brother Joseph, whom they had abused and sold into slavery when he was a teenager and now has risen to the second most powerful man in Egypt … Jacob dies, their father dies. The brothers, who did all this horrible stuff to Joseph, now assume Joseph is going to seek revenge. And so, Joseph, contrary, says chapter 50:19,
“‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, [notice he doesn’t minimize the horror of what they did] but God meant it for good.’ Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.”
Same exact wording. He literally spoke to the heart of them. We would say he had a heart-to-heart talk with his brothers to assure them of his kind intentions.
Notice he’s not just addressing their head. He could have said, “Dudes, if I wanted to kill you, I would have already killed you.” Might not have been as reassuring. He could have texted them a thumbs-up emoji. “It’s okay.” But the text emphasizes no, if he’s going to have an ongoing relationship with his brothers, in light of the fact that when they had all the power, they did horrible things to him and now he has all the power and you would assume he’s going to do horrible things to them. But he says, “no, no, no, I’m not going to play God and pretend like I’m the one who’s supposed to get revenge. I’m actually (he explains in that chapter) going to take care of you and your little ones.” And to communicate that in a way they would believe, he speaks to their hearts. He goes for their hearts. And this is the way God is commissioning these voices to speak.
By the way, this is so different from the way care is often provided in our culture. You’ve heard me mention, I think this originally comes from Dr. Powlison, today in most psychological circles, people are viewed as doughnuts — lots on the outside, nothing on the inside. We talk a lot about nature, talk a lot about nurture. Those things are very, very important. But rarely do we go for the heart. The heart includes many of those things, but a biblical view of the heart goes even deeper. All of us have active hearts. And what we mean by “the heart” is that’s the source of where we love, what we love. That’s what we fear, what we hate, what we really want, what makes us angry, what makes us happy. God is going for that.
“Speak to their hearts.”
“about their suffering.”
Speak to their hearts. Go to the core of their being and speak specifically, first of all, about their suffering. Verse 2,
“and cry to her that her warfare is ended.”
That word “warfare,” tsaba, could be translated “war, army, host, hardship.” The NIV translates it there “hard service,” which is actually a really good translation. ESV translates that same word in Job 7:1,”Has not man a hard service on earth?” There are a couple elements to that. There’s the hardship piece, but there’s also a sense of purpose to this work. The misery is not random. It is a holy calling of hardship. It is a designed discomfort, peril with a purpose, sovereign sorrow.
Let me give you an example — Psalm 66:11. The psalmist says to God,
“You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; you let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.”
Do you see that? “You brought us into…. You brought us out.”
Now, some of us really struggle with this, especially if you’ve experienced horrific injustice or abuse. We generally want to distance God from our suffering to protect him. But we end up shrinking him, and a little God only gives little comfort. A big God, even if we don’t totally understand his ways, provides big comfort.
That’s what Isaiah 40 is saying. Talk to them. Their hardship is ended. And that implies it had a beginning, it has a purpose, it has an end. God is big enough to oversee, not just our happy times, but our really hard times. God is not distancing himself from their suffering. Yes, he is saying your suffering had a start, your suffering has an end, you might not understand it, you most likely won’t, but I’m using your suffering for a good purpose. Speak to their hearts about their suffering.
Third, speak to their hearts about their suffering and about their sin. Verse 2,
“That her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”
Now at first read, that seems quite unfair. Is God saying that God will punish them double what their sin deserves? No, the word double here is literally “the double,” as in “the replica, the equivalent.” You take a piece of paper, and you fold it in half, this half is the double of this half.
And this is the language of covenant blessings and covenant curses. I was recently reading in Deuteronomy, where God’s people confirmed the blessings and the curses. So, this is God’s people Israel affirming these blessings, these curses. They will take your breath away. Let me just give you a short example.
“If you are not careful to do all the words of this law that are written in this book, that you may fear this glorious and awesome name, the Lord your God, then the Lord will bring on you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions … And the Lord will scatter you among all peoples, from one end of the earth to the other.”
That’s exactly what happens in Isaiah.
“And among these nations you shall find no respite, and there shall be no resting place for the sole of your foot, but the Lord will give you there a trembling heart and failing eyes and a languishing soul.”
It’s so interesting. That word “languishing” is often translated “fainting.” Think how Isaiah 40 ends. “A languishing soul. Your life shall hang in doubt before you. Night and day you shall be in dread and have no assurance of your life. In the morning you shall say, ‘If only it were evening!’ and at evening you shall say, ‘If only it were morning!’” You can just feel the discomfort, the languishing, the weariness, tossing and turning. Well, Israel has entered a covenant, and they have vowed to Yahweh, God’s covenant name, Yahweh, that if we do not keep your words, these words will be given to us. That is the double, the blessings and the curses. But here in Isaiah 40, God is commissioning voices to speak comfort and renewal.
Some of you may remember last Christmas when Ryan was talking about comfort. He emphasized that biblical comfort is always personal. It usually comes in the form of a person. This is exactly what God does. John 1:14, “The Voice” or
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
This is exactly what Isaiah was predicting in Isaiah 53, same section as we’re in in Isaiah 40.
“Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
What he’s saying there is these voices of comfort will not be believed apart from divine revelation.
“For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of a dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.”
In other words, Jesus didn’t come to impress.
“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief…. Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.”
Notice he’s carrying our sorrows and our sins, the two things the voices are supposed to address in Isaiah 40.
“But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned — every one — to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”
God is commissioning voices to speak to their hearts about their suffering — yes, you’ve suffered — and about their sin — yes, you’ve sinned. But I have sent my son to bear your sufferings and your sin so that I can provide true comfort.
On January 28, 1940, C.S. Lewis wrote a letter to his brother, and in that letter he said this.
“I begin to suspect that the world is divided not only into the happy and the unhappy, but into those who like happiness and those who, odd as it seems, really don’t.”
Now, remember, Lewis knew what it was like to be in despair, to experience loss and to live in darkness. His mother died when he was ten. He was sent away to a boarding school, where he experienced some horrific things. And then he went and fought in World War I in the trenches and saw things no one should see. He spent many years as an atheist. He knew what it was like to be without joy before becoming a Christian.
But he is saying here that some of us have embraced a way of looking at the world that not only leads to unhappiness, but reinforces a dislike of happiness. We actually develop an allergic reaction to happiness, an autoimmune recoiling. Happiness seems superficial, fake. Happy people are fake people. Sad, angry people are real.
What started me thinking about Lewis’s statement here is God’s persistence to comfort his people. Look again at verse 1. Notice the word “comfort” appears twice. And what God is saying there … He doesn’t have a stutter. It’s a Hebraic way of saying that something is to keep happening. Motyer translates this
“Bring comfort to my people, your God keeps saying.”
Do you feel the persistence there? He is trying to overcome our allergic reaction to happiness. He is trying to bypass our resistance. We don’t want to be comforted. And God is saying to these voices, “Keep speaking comfort to my comfort-resistant people.” “Doggone it! You’re going to be comforted!” That’s a loose translation.
If you rework Lewis’s quote, you could say, “I begin to suspect that the world is divided not only into the comforted and the discomforted, but into those who like to be comforted and those who, odd as it seems, really don’t.” They don’t want to really be encouraged, don’t want to be forgiven, don’t want to be renewed.
So, here’s the question we want to wrestle with as we just briefly introduce this chapter. If God is persistently commissioning voices to comfort and renew you, what’s holding you back? Now, I understand all of us go through seasons of sorrow, and Christians should not feel guilty about that. And there are times where we have to address real wrong, injustice, abuse. That’s not fun. But some of us have gone beyond that, and we have taken on an identity of sadness, misery. Some of us have absorbed the mindset of our culture that it seems more powerful to be a victim.
There’s a fascinating article in the Scientific American entitled “Unraveling the Mindset of Victimhood.” It feels more moral to be miserable, right? There is a certain moral elitism to being miserable. “I know I’m more moral than you because you’re happy. That means you’re superficial. I’m angry; therefore I’m moral.” Follow the logic? “I’m better because I take things seriously.” It’s safer to have thorns. People don’t hug barbed wire. So, many of us have learned to keep people at a distance. You have to be prickly. It’s reasonable to be irritable. “Life is hard; so, I need to be harder.” And it’s less disappointing, right? If you never try to be happy, you can’t ever lose your joy because you never had it. You just get used to being miserable.
Or for many of us, we just have a deep conviction that everything this is saying is true for other kinds of people, but not for me. “Because of things done to me or things done by me, these promises … nice for others, not for me.” And so, we wallow in our miseries, and we cling to our injuries, and we refuse to be forgiven for our iniquities, and we are weighed down, and it’s no wonder we’re not resilient.
And all of this flows from, in many cases, a tiny view of God. We really think we know better than God. Think about the statement that’s often made. “You know, I know God is forgiving, but I can’t forgive myself.” Talk about a haughty statement. God sent his Son! His justice is fulfilled! Jesus bore all your sin! “But I know better than him, and I think I’m still guilty.” Wow. Wow! That resistance! We all know what it’s like to be pummeled by those lies, to run to God for truth.
This is what Isaiah is doing. He’s commissioning voices to work past that resistance, to speak comfort to people who genuinely, desperately need the real thing. “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Or in the words of Jesus in Matthew 11:28,
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, [and you could translate that ‘kind.’ my yoke is kind,] and my burden is light.”
I hope you’ll come to him today. I’ve asked Gary Kagel to come just share a bit of his story in this area and then to pray for us and for this series in Isaiah 40. And I would encourage you, if you think about it this week, to try to read this chapter, maybe daily. Let it become part of you. And then in a few minutes, after he prays, we’re going to respond as we just adore God. And as we’re doing that, for some of you, you may just want to get on your face at your chair, or come up here and pray, or grab one of us to pray with you. Let’s turn our eyes, and let’s at least ask the Lord, “Lord, would you please break down my resistance to your joy, to your comfort? I still believe I know better than you, or I’m believing lies as if you’re not more powerful, to give me the comfort I desperately need.”