Comfort, comfort my people - Prepare the way for the Lord - His glory will be revealed - The word of the Lord endures for ever - The Lord comes with power, and cares tenderly. These are the voices calling out in Isaiah 40. Like an echo chamber the sentences bounce around in verses 1 - 11.
On a technical note these first 11 verses form a chiastic ring structure (Isaiah is full of these), with the glory of the Lord the main point sandwiched in the middle. So it is saying 'God is up to something' (recall the key question from last week), so be prepared, it will be glorious! On another technical note the book of Isaiah historically spans over 200 years, suggesting there was not just one prophet but three. Chapter 40 is in '2nd Isaiah', the time of Judah being in exile in Babylon. Scholars also observe 4 main 'voices' through the book: the ambassador, disciple, poet and preacher. So perhaps it is a compilation? No matter the number of original contributors the book however shows a unity - being about God, His people and the surrounding world.
The voices in chapter 40 call out, calling people back to God and His purposes. The original context is 'in the wilderness' (exile), hence the voice 'be comforted': God is up to something, so get yourself back on track and be ready, live in His purposes. Now spring forward over 500 years to a strange guy called John, recorded in Matthew 3. He chooses to go out to the wilderness, and preaches 'Turn to God, the Kingdom has come near, come and be baptised'. In other words the same call to get ready and live in His purposes.
John says 'I will baptise with water, but one after me will baptise with the Spirit and fire!'. The thing on baptism relates to the Jewish practice at the time of ritual washing - people would take a physical bath and also understood it as a spiritual act. But John knew it wasn't about the physical water or becoming less smelly! He knew now it would be a move of God, with God doing the washing. The correct response for people was to submit to that, to ready themselves and be embraced by all that God would do. In Isaiah 4:4 it says 'The Lord will wash away the filth and the stains'. And reading on - 'He will cleanse with the Spirit of judgement and with Fire'. This is what John is picking up on, not a minor cosmetic thing by but a big deal, God on the move!
Note the 'Spirit of Judgement'. The Spirit will show wrong for what it is. Yes the Spirit energises us but also refines us. So the Spirit has a separating effect - between those that allow themselves to be embraced and energised in the grace of God, and those who insist and persist in staying outside of God's ways. Let us ensure we are always prepared, open and ready for God - desiring to be in His purposes and not out.
Into that controversial message steps the man Jesus - the one John was expecting, the one John knew would do the baptising with Spirit and fire! Yet to John's surprise Jesus said to him 'John, you baptise me'. That throws John, but it is God's way. Jesus comes with the full force of Almighty God behind him, but comes as a common everyday man or woman. This is the All-vulnerable God, and so he is baptised. As he re-emerges from the water the Spirit was seen to come down, in the form of a dove. Its a lovely image with the dove resting on Jesus - the Spirit resting, settled, stable, not going anywhere. In Isaiah 11:2 it says 'A shoot will come from the stump of Jesse ... the Spirit of the Lord will rest on Him'.
I can describe at least 2 occasions of the Spirit resting. One dates back to the mid-90s when I went to a Christian meeting and watched from the balcony. After the message the speaker invited the Spirit to come and prayer ministry commenced. It was clear the Spirit was working as I observed from upstairs. Yet after I while I felt moved to pray, seeking God. I then went downstairs and asked for prayer ministry. The praying person prayed nothing special, but what happened to me was intense. I started shaking and then collapsed face first on the ground bawling my eyes out for probably the next 20 minutes!
Another occasion was just last term in one of our Gifts Workshops. A group of us sat quietly inviting the Spirit to rest on us. We had a common experience that was intense - not with anything physically noticeable but for sure a palpable sense of God with us. Both occasions had a desire, both a degree of expectation, both I would say with the Spirit resting, albeit with quite different physical/outward expressions.
As well as the Spirit resting on Jesus there was a voice 'This is my Son whom I love, with Him I am well pleased'. This is the voice of affirmation that set Jesus up for His ministry. Each of us should know that the roots of your ministry come from knowing who you are in Christ. In Isaiah 42:1 it says 'Here is my servant in whom I delight - I will put my Spirit on him'.
The time of Jesus and His Kingdom were predicted long before by the voices in Isaiah - God is up to something. The correct response for ordinary folk in the time of John is the same as it is for us today: to prepare ourselves, to be ready for Him, to be okay with being embraced by any and all that God wants to give. So let the Spirit rest, let us be found in Him, that will enable you and I to minister, for Kingdom life to be seen across the city. God is up to something - still unfolding His plans and working today.