The Glory of the Messiah: Preaching George Frideric Handel

Yet throughout Isaiah, an unending cycle of Judgment and Promise pervade. Right on the heels of Hezekiah's disastrous decision and its consequences, Isaiah resounds with one of the most profound passages in all of Scripture. The scene is the Babylonian captivity itself. Isaiah stands before a heavenly council of God to receive a new set of prophecies for the exiled people. "Comfort my people," says "your God." This is covenant language. Though the Israelites would abandon their faith and suffer for it, God would remain faithful and respond with His redeeming grace.

"Speak tenderly to the heart of my people," says the Lord, "proclaim to her that her hard service, her term of bondage in Babylon has been completed and her sin has been paid for." Paid for? How? By whom? Under the Law of Moses, sin was paid for through the sacrifice of animals. But the Temple where proper atonement could have been made had been demolished by the Babylonians. How could Israel's sin be paid for now?

A voice emerges from the heavenly council: "Make way for the Lord! Make a straight highway through the desert wilderness for God. Raise those valleys! Lower the mountains! Level the rough ground! Flatten the rugged places! Remove every obstacle and obstruction that might hinder his coming. Prepare the way for the Lord!" Fast forward to Matthew's Gospel and these words reverberate as a preview to John the Baptist. The obstacles to be moved are those of human arrogance, fickleness, stubbornness, and sin. "Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is near," John said. Make way for the Lord. The Lord, of course, being Jesus. God's going to pay for the sins himself.

"The glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together." Yes, the Israelites would return from their captivity. Yes, they would rebuild their temple. And yes, their faithlessness, their inability to commit themselves to God alone would return. And yes, they would go into captivity again, this time to the Romans. And yes, their Temple would be destroyed again. But yes, God would again rebuild it, only this time using a carpenter whose work would last forever. "For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given: and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace."

In Isaiah, it's interesting that despite the great news of redemption God promises, Isaiah hedges on whether to tell the Israelites about it, despite the command to "cry out" in verse 6. Isaiah's response to God's command to "cry out" is not one of ignorance ("What do you want me to cry?"), but rather one of skepticism. "Cry out? What shall I cry? All these people are like grass and their glory, their loyalty is like wildflowers. It's all for show. Speaking to these stubborn people would be a waste of time. If the Lord were to blow his breath on them (breath being the Hebrew equivalent of spirit), these people would simply wither away."

The voice responds at the end of verse 7: "True, these people are grass. Their loyalty is like wildflowers. And sure enough, grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.

" Isaiah thinks the Israelites don't deserve God's mercy. He thinks their lack of faith makes them unworthy of forgiveness. He thinks their obstinacy precludes them from reconciliation with God. And he's right. But God's grace has never and will never depend upon the worthiness of mercy's recipients. Grace depends solely upon the word of God—the same word that brought creation into being, was incarnate in Christ, and rides in Revelation victory. The mouth of the Lord had spoken. The glory of the Lord, not the glory of Israel, not your glory, not my glory; the glory of the Lord would be revealed. God, by his grace, returns to his people and returns them to himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus.

And thus Messiah rightly ends with the triumphant praise of Revelation 5: "Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength—Blessing, and honor, glory and power, be unto Him that sits upon the throne, and unto the Lamb for ever and ever." Handel died the day before Easter, 1759, saying that he hoped "to meet his God, his sweet Lord and Savior, on the day of his Resurrection." And by God's grace he did.

8/28/2011 4:00:00 AM
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    About Daniel Harrell
    Daniel M. Harrell is Senior Minister of The Colonial Church, Edina, MN and author of How To Be Perfect: One Church's Audacious Experiment in Living the Old Testament Book of Leviticus (FaithWords, 2011). Follow him via Twitter, Facebook, or at his blog and website.
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