Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Psalm 98 - “The Metrical Paraphrasers are at the Door”

Christmas Day
Sunday, December 25, 2005

(little toy plays “Joy to the World”)

I don’t think Isaac Watts would be impressed. Isaac Watts wrote “Joy to the World” in 1719, and I’m not sure he’d be impressed with a toy Santa playing the congas to his hymn. I’m ready to get rid of this little toy, but unfortunately, our son, Samuel, loves to watch it and dance to the songs. Some Christmas I’ll have to explain to Samuel why Daddy’s not a fan of this toy that goes on and on and on.

So Isaac Watts who wrote “Joy to the World,” one of the most triumphant Christmas hymns, wouldn’t be impressed by this little toy, but the truth is, when Watts wrote his hymn, there were a lot of people who weren’t impressed with his hymn. . .even when it was played on an organ.

Watts received a lot of criticism. Living in England at the turn of the 18th century, Watts was a Calvinist Christian. The Calvinists only allowed metrical settings of the psalms for use in worship. That means all songs sung in church had to be very close translations of the psalms, including every line in very similar phrasing. What Watts had done with “Joy to the World” is a metrical paraphrase. “Paraphrase” means to rewrite something in the spirit of the original but using your own phrases to give the sense and meaning of the original but not having to reproduce it word-for-word. “Joy to the World” is based on Psalm 98, verses 4-9, but it doesn’t completely match the phrases in that psalm.

So if some carolers show up at your door singing “Joy to the World,” tell everyone in the house that the metrical paraphrasers are at the door. I know, it doesn’t sound as quaint as calling them carolers, but calling them metrical paraphrasers will help you remember that “Joy to the World” is a paraphrase of Psalm 98.

Isaac Watts had complained as a teen that no one seemed to be showing their faith while they were singing the psalms. He started writing hymns, because he wanted to find ways to put words on people’s lips that were true to Scripture but also were words that people would understand. He wanted their hymns and songs to use words from their daily lives.

This was very controversial. It’s hard for us to imagine Christmas Day without “Joy to the World,” and yet, that’s what some leaders at the time of Isaac Watts wanted. They didn’t want anyone singing hymns by Watts.

That’s like slamming the door on the Christmas carolers. Saying that Isaac Watts was all wrong, that’s like slamming the door on those carolers. Could you imagine slamming the door on carolers?

The RYMS, our youth, and others who were with us a few years ago caroling in the neighborhood don’t have to imagine someone slamming the door on carolers; it happened to our group. Our eager youth rang a doorbell to sing a carol, perhaps even ready to sing “Joy to the World,” and someone opened the door, heard the song, and quickly shut the door again. Some people just didn’t want to hear any Christmas carols, didn’t want to hear about Jesus.

But now, could you imagine someone slamming the door because they didn’t think that “Joy to the World” was an appropriate Christmas hymn? That’s what people were doing to Isaac Watts and others who were writing hymns that paraphrased the psalms, hymns that were their own creations. The metrical paraphrasers are at the door, singing “Joy to the World,” proclaiming the love of God and the promise of salvation, and there were some ready to slam the door.

Yet, the people who spent so much time on saying that his hymns were no good, they missed out on what “Joy to the World” teaches us, how this hymn reminds us of the words of Psalm 98, how these words we’ve grown to love reflect the truth of God’s Word.

Let’s look at Psalm 98. Open your hymnals (Lutheran Worship) to page 338 in the front of the hymnal, that’s the small numbers on the bottom of the page. On page 338 you’ll find Psalm 98. We’ll look at how Psalm 98 inspired Isaac Watts to write the words of “Joy to the World.”

Now, first of all, the hymn Watts wrote for Psalm 98 has two parts. We only know the second part, “Joy to the World.” Part 1 of his hymn is based on verses 1-3, and actually works very nicely with the same melody. Click here to see Part 1 via the Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

The second thing I should mention is that while we sing “Joy to the World” and other metrical paraphrases, and we sing hymns that are simply creations of hymn writers, this in no way means that we consider hymns to be more important than Scripture itself. Hymns are tools to teach the truth of Scripture. Just as we use plain language in sermons, Bible studies, Sunday School classes, and everyday conversation in order to teach other about Jesus, so our hymns try to speak freely about Jesus. Yet, just because “Joy to the World” teaches us about Jesus doesn’t mean that the hymn is more important that Psalm 98 itself.

Now, “Joy to the World,” part 2 of his hymn, is based on verses 4-9. Verse 4, there on page 339 in your hymnals, says, “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,/Burst into jubilant song with music.” When Watts wrote that first line of his hymn, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” that’s his way of giving us that shout for joy. Remember Watts grew up hearing his fellow churchgoers singing Psalm 98 in a version that said, “All earthly creatures, praise the Lord God/And sing for joy at His behest.” The singing for joy gets swallowed up in the awkward English phrases, buried there in how the psalm is translated. While those words remain true to Scripture, Watts instead puts the “shout for joy” on our lips as we sing those four first big notes, “Joy to the world.”

And why not give us a hymn that truly shouts for joy? Psalm 98 declares the marvelous things that God has done. When Psalm 98 was written, the writer could look back and see God’s power in creating the world, saving His people from slavery in Egypt, and being with His people in the Temple. Yet, now that Christ has come, now that Christ was born this day, our shouts for joy take on an even more triumphant tone. The Savior is here. God has sent His Son to save His people from sin and death. Isaac Watts gives us this full shout for joy with those four notes, “Joy to the world!” By criticizing Watts, people were missing out on the sermon he was preaching just with those four victorious notes. The world can sing and shout with full joy, because Christ the Lord has come!

Watts was changing up how the words of Psalm 98 were translated for singing in order to help the people sing out the meaning of Scripture. Jump down to verses 7-8 of Psalm 98 where it says, “Let the sea resound, and all that is in it;/The world, and all who live in it./Let the rivers clap their hands,/Let the mountains sing together for joy.” These words match the idea in many psalms that all of creation praises God.

What Watts does with these verses is a wonderfully poetic way of driving home the point that the whole Creation celebrates the Savior. Watts takes these different parts of the created world, puts them all together in that one line in stanza 2 of “Joy to the World,” “While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains,/Repeat the sounding joy.” Fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains. Watts the poet puts all of that together to really emphasize that every portion of God’s Creation is celebrating today. It’s a truth based on Psalm 98, put into different words in poetry, in order to remind us today as we’re out and about on Christmas Day that every field, every body of water, every rock, every hill, every plain that we see praises God for sending His Son into the world.

Back now to this little toy Santa playing “Joy to the World” with a conga beat. Isaac Watts might not have been very impressed by this version of his hymn, but I guess, even if this little toy annoys me, I still catch myself singing along with it while Samuel dances. It still gets me singing those words which are inspired by Psalm 98. And that’s exactly what Watts left room for with his hymn—our praises to God can use any kind of music.

Look at verses 5 and 6 of Psalm 98. “Make music to the Lord with the harp,/With the harp and the song of singing,/With trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn.” The psalm offers up examples of instruments that the people might use to make music to God. The psalm isn’t meant to say that worship songs only could use harps and trumpets and ram’s horns. It’s a way of saying, “Grab whatever you have, and use those instruments to praise God.”

Well, Watts, I think, felt funny that the church kept singing about harps and ram’s horns when the church wasn’t using harps and ram’s horns. The church was mainly using the organ. So that’s why in stanza 2 of “Joy to the World,” Watts wrote, “Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!/Let all their songs employ.” In other words, use all of the songs, all of the music, all of the instruments you can find to praise God. When Watts wrote “let all their songs employ,” I doubt he could’ve imagined it, but he opened the door to letting his hymn, his words of praise to God be sung while accompanied by piano, orchestras, concert bands, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, marching bands, keyboards, banjos, fiddles, jazz bands, DJ’s mixing on the turntable, and even little toys. Watts might not have imagined all of those kinds of instruments, but his words carry the spirit of Psalm 98. Let all our songs employ, let us use all of our instruments and music makers to praise God.

This morning we’ve used the organ, the piano, handbells, solo voices, all of our voices. Later Kylie and Mara will use their violins. Why are we using all of these different kinds of music makers? Why raise our songs in so many different ways? Because we’re shouting for joy to the Lord using whatever we’ve got to praise His Name. Just like the fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains are celebrating God with the noises they make, we’re making a joyful noise to the Lord.

We’re making this joyful noise, because Jesus Christ is born this day. Jesus came from His eternal place in heaven, was born as a child, lived as a man, suffered, died, and was buried, and then rose again from the dead. Jesus did this in order “to save us all from Satan’s power when we had gone astray,” to save us from sin and death, to give us life after death. That’s why we’re singing today. That’s why at the close of the service we’ll sing “Joy to the World” written by Isaac Watts. We’re shouting for joy today, because God sent His Savior. We don’t have to fear death anymore; we don’t have to worry that He’ll judge us to death for our sins. We have songs of joy on our lips this morning, because salvation is here.

During the offering, the handbells will play “Sing We Now of Christmas,” and the reason we sing of Christmas, the reason that the bells ring of Christmas, the reason that Bowmans play the organ and piano and violins of Christmas, the reason we all sing of Christmas today is because Jesus has come to save us! Joy to the world, the Lord is come!

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Isaiah 7:10-14 - “Are We Like Ahaz?”

Midweek Advent Service
Wednesday, December 7, 2005

I’m going to tell you the history behind the reading from Isaiah chapter 7. Knowing the history is how we start to see how this passage applies to our relationship with Jesus. At some point, you may find yourself asking, “What does this have to do with me?” I’m glad when you ask that question, and I promise that we’ll get there. For now, listen to the history of God working in the world, and if you’re still having trouble waiting and wondering what this has to do with us today, you can start by asking yourself this question, “Am I Ahaz?” This history is about King Ahaz of Judah, and we have to wonder in hearing about him, “Are we like Ahaz?”

King Ahaz of Judah gets this incredible opportunity. Isaiah the prophet of God comes and says that Ahaz can ask God for a sign. A sign would be very helpful at this point in the career of Ahaz. It looked like Ahaz and the kingdom of Judah were going to be conquered by two kingdoms called Rezin and Pekah. Isaiah 7:2 says that “the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.” Ahaz was afraid that Rezin and Pekah, these two kingdoms, would come and conquer him. He needed a sign from God to show that this wasn’t going to happen.

So God sends Isaiah to Ahaz. Isaiah tells Ahaz not to worry about Rezin and Pekah. Rezin and Pekah will not conquer Judah. Rezin and Pekah themselves will be conquered. And from world history, we know this is true. Rezin and Pekah were conquered before they could harm Judah, and so that’s why most of us have never heard of Rezin and Pekah.

Except Ahaz didn’t believe Isaiah. Ahaz still thought he needed to make a plan of his own to protect his kingdom. Ahaz didn’t believe that God was going to save them. So tonight when we hear Isaiah say, “Ask the Lord for a sign,” he’s essentially saying that Ahaz could ask God for a sign to prove this message. Ahaz might not have believed that Rezin and Pekah wouldn’t be a threat, but to help Ahaz believe, God was going to give him a sign.

Ahaz refuses. Who turns down an opportunity like that? You get this good news from God, your kingdom won’t be conquered, and better than that, God said he’d give you a sign to back up this message. Who turns that down? Ahaz does, because Ahaz thinks he can handle this on his own. It looks like he’s being humble, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test,” but really, Ahaz is slamming the door on God.

So Isaiah tells Ahaz that God will give a sign anyway, the sign of a virgin giving birth to a child who will be called Immanuel. This is the sign of the Messiah, the Christ, who would be born to save God’s people. This is a sign that points to Jesus. And really, it doesn’t have anything to do with Ahaz and his problems. Ahaz refuses God’s sign, and so God decides that instead of giving a sign for Ahaz, He’ll give a sign for the whole world.

Imagine it this way: Ahaz is like someone driving down the road, not quite sure where he’s going. God’s offer of a sign is like giving the driver a GPS or Magellan or OnStar, one of those things in your car that gives you an interactive map, tells you where to turn, and gives you directions. God’s offer to give Ahaz a sign is like offering to give a driver something that would give him directions all the way to his destination. Ahaz refuses. Like a typical guy, Ahaz doesn’t want to ask for directions. He decides he can figure it out on his own, decides he already knows what’s going to happen so he’ll take care of it by himself. The sign God would’ve given to Ahaz was for Ahaz alone, but since Ahaz refused the opportunity, God decides to use this situation to give the sign to everyone.

So now instead of a GPS telling that one driver how to get to his destination, it would be like changing all of the highway signs to electronic message boards. Those electronic message boards would give directions to everyone. Those directions don’t lead to the same place the original driver was going; instead, those directions lead to someplace even better. When Isaiah gives the sign of God, “a virgin will give birth,” this no longer has much to do with Ahaz. God is giving a sign on all of the electronic message boards, telling all of the drivers to head towards the Messiah, the Christ, the Savior of the world. Ahaz didn’t want the GPS, didn’t want the sign, didn’t want God’s help, so God just changes the message so that now it’s a message for all people, for anyone who will listen to Him.

OK, now we’re ready for that “what does this have to do with me” question. Now let’s try to figure out the answer, “Are we like Ahaz?” No, we are not like Ahaz. I mean, I suppose you already know that you’re not kings with kingdoms, but also God hasn’t given us the opportunity to ask Him for a sign.

Sometimes we’d like to ask God for a sign to confirm our actions, thoughts, or beliefs. We’d like a direct sign to show us whether we’re right or wrong, to show us what the future holds. We’d like to ask God for a sign, but this passage in Isaiah chapter 7 doesn’t mean that God is telling us we can ask for a direct sign like Ahaz could’ve. God went to Ahaz specifically with the opportunity to ask for a sign. We’re not Ahaz; God doesn’t promise to give us this opportunity; God doesn’t promise to give us a GPS for our lives where He’ll give us directions about every decision we make.

We’re not Ahaz getting the GPS; instead, we’re everyone, the whole world, all of the other drivers seeing those electronic message boards. When Ahaz doesn’t receive a sign from God, we’re the ones who benefit because instead of Ahaz getting some message just for him, we get a message that tells us that the Savior of the world will be born to a virgin and be named Immanuel. We get a message which points to Jesus as the One who saves us from sin and death. We get a message that we celebrate every Advent, waiting for the Child to be born.

So we aren’t Ahaz, and we don’t need to be. We don’t need any specific, direct signs from God, because we have the biggest, best sign we could possibly hope for in Jesus Christ. When Jesus is born to a virgin fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah, when God comes and takes flesh in the person of Jesus, we have the ultimate sign of hope and love and peace. While I’d like a sign to help me figure out how to make a decision, while I’d like it if God gave me a GPS that told me the right answer every time, I don’t need such signs. You don’t need those kinds of signs. We have Jesus. We have the Good News of Jesus which helps us to understand how to live in this world as we wait for eternal life.

And yet, sometimes we’re like Ahaz, because we have trouble trusting the message. Ahaz had trouble walking in trust with God. Ahaz thought he needed to do something about those kingdoms, Rezin and Pekah, and while he had heard the message of God, Ahaz still decided he needed to take matters into his own hands. Spiritually, sometimes we still think we have to take matters into our own hands.

If we try to take control of our own spiritual lives, we’ll miss the sign that God has given us. God has offered His Son, Jesus, as a sign to us, reminding us that we will be saved from eternal death. God is flashing this sign on all of the electronic message boards along the spiritual highways of life, and if we decide to ignore those directions and go our own way, well, then we’re going to find ourselves down a dead end, an eternal dead end.

While the sinful part of me would love to take credit for my own salvation, I’d be fooling myself if I thought I could really save myself. I’d be lost.

Instead, listen to the message of God. God has given us the message that He will save us through His Son. This salvation is a gift, a free gift from God that we haven’t earned. Jesus was born to save all people from their sins. When we admit that we’re sinful, when we admit that we can’t save ourselves, it’s not the end of our story. Instead, by admitting how lost we are, that’s when we realize that God’s given us this incredibly wonderful gift of salvation.

God has saved us; God has promised us forgiveness, love, salvation, eternal life, and peace. The sign of the virgin giving birth to a child is the sign for us. Our Savior is born! We do not have to wait for another sign, because God has announced this sign to the whole world—the child is Savior of the world.

Just in case the birth of a child doesn’t always seem like a sign that’s powerful enough, remember the night that Jesus was born. His birth wasn’t a small affair. The angels showed up in multitudes, calling out to the shepherds, making sure people knew that the sign was fulfilled, the Savior had been born. This is your sign tonight, the sign that you have been saved by God:

8“And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; 11for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”

15When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”


Make haste this Advent season to see this one sign that the Lord has given us, the only sign that we need: the Savior was born, the child of a virgin.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Isaiah 40:1-11 - “Preparing the Way: The Literal, Triumphal, Historical, Prophetic, and Spiritual Highways of Our God”

Second Sunday in Advent (Year B - LCMS Readings)
Saturday, December 4, and Sunday, December 5, 2005

Isaiah in chapter 40 speaks words from God about preparing the way for the Lord and making straight a highway for our God. Seeing all of this picture language about leveling out the rough ground to put that road in got me wondering what it takes to make a road. So I asked one of our construction people in the congregation, Howard Hamann, to explain the steps of road construction to me.

First, Howard said, the engineers have to survey the land and lay out the plan. Bulldozers and scrapers are then used to remove the grass and brush. Fill is used to even out the low spots; the earthmovers break down the high spots. Even in this modern age of large machinery, it’s no small feat to make a highway.

There are five different ways of looking at that image in Isaiah 40, the highway of our God. There’s the literal, triumphal, historical, prophetic, and spiritual highways. At every level of the image, no matter how you look at this passage, there’s more depth for our understanding of God. The insert in your bulletin has these five different ways of looking at the highway of our God. And if you listen for the phrases that fill in the blanks on the insert, at the end of this sermon you’ll see how all five help us to see the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

First of all, the literal highway was the road from Babylon to Israel. This is a reminder that God has a plan. God has a plan. It’s a plan of hope and restoration, a plan to save His people. God would bring His people back from exile, lead them back on a road to their homeland, the land of Israel, Judah, and Jerusalem.

Isaiah had been given the unpleasant task of telling the people of God that they would be sent into exile for their sins. God was going to let Jerusalem be conquered by the Babylonians, because God’s people had been worshipping idols.

When we get to chapter 40, though, Isaiah is also given the message of comfort and hope. Yes, God would send His people into exile; they would lose their land and their way of life. However, God also promised that one day they would return to Jerusalem; God would bring them back to live again in peace and security. The people couldn’t see it yet, all they could see was that soon they would be conquered by the Babylonians, but God here is promising that one day they’d literally be on that highway, a highway prepared by God, a highway from Babylon to Israel. God would bring them back.


The literal highway is a reminder that God had a plan to save His people. I put a picture of an earthmover there, because God had a plan to clear a path for His people to return to Jerusalem. Isaiah uses the image of building a road to describe the literal highway, the return path the people would take after the exile.

The second way of looking at the highway of our God in Isaiah 40 is as the triumphal highway. Yahweh is the personal name of our God, and when He says He’s going to bring the people back from Babylon, He’s saying that the people should be ready for the triumphal march of Yahweh, the march of triumph of the true God. Like a victorious king, Yahweh will lead His people. The triumphal highway is a reminder of God’s victory, a reminder of God’s victory. When the people return from exile, it won’t be about them congratulating themselves for getting out of exile; it’s going to be about celebrating what God did to free them.

That’s where the phrase “make straight the highways” really comes into play. Most roads from place to place in the time of Isaiah were crooked paths, switchbacks over mountains, small paths for people to walk on or maybe donkeys. It took a lot longer to get somewhere than if you had a straight path, but it also took a lot of work to make a straight road. You needed a reason to make a straight, wide road; you needed an important reason to work that hard on making a highway.

A king’s march of victory. . .that was a reason to make a highway. When Isaiah talks about making straight a highway for our God, He’s using that image of the triumphal march of a king. The triumphal highway is a reminder that this is God’s victory. A reminder that it is God’s victory when His people are saved.


In this section, you’ve got pictures of a presidential motorcade, preparing the way for the president. First, police escorts go ahead clearing the road, blocking off entrances, making sure that nothing gets in the way of the president Then the presidential cars come, a series of limousines and Chevy Suburbans, all of which carry Secret Service, staff, other officials, and somewhere in there, the president. No other traffic is allowed on the road; no other traffic is allowed to cross that road. The highway is prepared for the president.


In that same way, God calls on the people to prepare the way for Him. The people of God will literally walk on the highway from Babylon to Israel, and the whole way they will be celebrating the victory of God. The people will stop any other gods or any other things from crossing that path. The triumphal march, God’s motorcade, is about God’s victory. Flashing lights, sirens, blocking traffic, blocking any distractions, the people would turn their attention on paving the way for God.

And now the third way of looking at that highway. When the people heard about “making straight in the wilderness the highway for our God,” they would’ve also thought about the historical highway, the path of the Exodus, the wanderings in the desert. The historical highway is a reminder that this time it’s going to be different. This time it’s going to be different.

Before the people were in exile in Babylon waiting to return to Israel, they were in exile in Egypt. God brought them out of Egypt through Moses and the plagues. He led them into the desert, the wilderness, where the path was anything but straight. They were supposed to be headed to Israel, the Promised Land, but instead, they wandered for 40 years. Their path wandered all over the place.


Here in Isaiah 40 it’s clear that this time it’s going to be different. The path is going to be straight. God’s going to be like the bulldozer you’ve got pictured there. He’s going to lead His people straight back to Israel. He’s going to make them a path that is clear.

The historical highway is a reminder that it’s going to be different this time, but this is where there starts to be hints of the spiritual truths here. The reason the people wandered in the Exodus wasn’t because they weren’t good at reading a map; it was because they wandered in their relationship with God, didn’t always trust Him. If the people were going to take the literal highway from Babylon to Israel and it was going to be different than that historical highway of the Exodus, then it seems that God is talking about a spiritual change. Isaiah chapter 40, we see, goes beyond just a road. It’s about a relationship with God, and when Isaiah says, “The glory of the Lord will be revealed,” we start to see that’s it’s more than getting the people back to Jerusalem. This is about bringing the people back to God Himself.

So turn your insert over. Let’s start to see where this passage goes beyond the people of Isaiah’s day. The words of God in Isaiah chapter 40 look ahead to a day when He’d be building the road to eternal life. The fourth way of looking at the highway of our God is as the prophetic highway. The one who would be out there preparing the way for God would be John the Baptist, and the prophetic highway is a reminder that the Savior was coming. A reminder that the Savior was coming.

John the Baptist was an earthmover. He went out into the desert to preach about God, to tell the people to turn away from their sins, asking God for mercy and forgiveness. That kind of message cuts to the heart. That kind of message moves the heart like an earthmover flattening the hills.

I suppose I could’ve put a presidential motorcade picture here at John the Baptist, too, because John the Baptist was kind of like the motorcade of Jesus. John the Baptist told the people the Savior was coming. Flashing lights, sirens, clearing the highways, alerting the people that the motorcade was coming. Then when Jesus appeared, John the Baptist pointed to Him, identified Jesus as the Savior.

As much as Isaiah 40 is about the literal highway, the triumphal march of God’s people back to Israel, when the people got back to Jerusalem, it wasn’t really as good as chapter 40 makes it sound like. Not all mankind knew God. Not all of the people remained faithful to God. So Isaiah 40 has to be about something more than that historical event. It has to be a prophetic highway, a reminder that the Savior was coming.

That’s a lot like Advent. We’ve got the historical part of Advent—waiting for the birth of Jesus, looking back on the days that led up to the birth of the Savior. Yet, more than that, Advent is a prophetic time of the year, a reminder that the Savior is coming again. Reading about John the Baptist is still like seeing the motorcade of Jesus coming down the road, alerting us to prepare the way, because the Savior is coming.

The fifth way of looking at that highway of our God is as a spiritual highway, the highway of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. The spiritual highway is a reminder that the hills of sin have to be cleared away. A reminder that the hills of sin have to be cleared away. That bulldozer you’ve got pictured there on the insert, think of that as the Holy Spirit making inroads into your heart. You’ve got all of this sin piled up. It’s rough ground—your heart and mine. It’s a rugged place—your heart and mine. Folk singer Greg Brown wrote a song about the dark places our hearts are. He sings, “Lord, I have made you a place in my heart/among the rags and the bones and the dirt./Oh Lord, I have made you a place in my heart, but I don't reckon you're gonna come.” Isn’t that true? When you think about what’s in your heart, it doesn’t really seem like a place where God would want to be.

Yet, God’s Holy Spirit levels out that rough ground. God turns that rugged ground into a plain. God’s Holy Spirit is working in your heart to remove the extra dirt, to fill in the low spots, to make a highway for God.

Knowing how much God did to put His people on the literal highway from Babylon to Israel shows me that God cares for His people. Yet, talking about making a straight highway for a triumphant king, making it possible for the people to go back to Jerusalem, that’s only a picture for what it took for Him to make a spiritual highway in our hearts.

When you think of what it must’ve taken to build a highway during the days of Isaiah, the days before modern machinery, the days of doing the heavy lifting by human labor and animals, then when God describes saving His people as being like building a highway, we can see that this is truly a reminder that God will do a great deal to clear the way to save His people. It’s more than just the literal highway from Babylon to Israel; Isaiah’s message is for us to understand that God has cleared the way to bring us to eternal life.


Yet, there’s still road work ahead, as the sign says. There’s road work ahead in two different ways. First of all, we continue to need the bulldozer of the Spirit. We continue to need the bulldozer of the Spirit. As much as it is true that God has made a spiritual highway in your heart through the Holy Spirit, we’re not perfect yet.

Ever since first moving here over five years ago and driving to Madison periodically, I keep imaging that they’ll be done with construction around Fond du Lac. They aren’t. More than that, it’s amazing how long the Marquette Interchange project will go on in Milwaukee. Road construction seems to be a never-ending process.

Unfortunately, there’s no quick way to build a spiritual highway in our hearts either. We will continue to need the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts, to convict us of our sin, to help us to see that we need God’s victory and salvation, to help us to believe in Jesus. The road work that’s ahead is road work for our souls. Perhaps we should make t-shirts that have a “Road Work Ahead” sign on them, and instead of the sign saying “Road Work Ahead Next 5 Miles,” the shirts could say, “Road Work Ahead For Life.” We will continue to need the Holy Spirit to work in our hearts.

The second way that’s there’s road work ahead is that we are asked to be part of God’s road crew. We are asked to be part of God’s road crew. Sure, the Holy Spirit is the one driving the bulldozer into our hearts, pushing out sin and bringing in faith, but God is hiring. He’s asking us to be part of the road crew that goes out to build roads into the hearts of the people around us. Just as God asked John the Baptist to drive that earthmover, to be someone who would help to prepare the way for Jesus, so God is asking us to be on the crew. Whether you’re sharing His Word with your words, your actions, your support, your behind-the-scenes duties, your out-front duties, you are part of the crew.

There’s another t-shirt for someone to make for the church: “God’s Road Crew.” In fact, maybe it would make sense to have that on the back of the other shirt. On the one hand, we’re under construction. On the other hand, God’s using us to do the construction. “Road Word Ahead” for our hearts, and yet, we’re “God’s Road Crew.”

Well, anyway, I said that if we’d put together the phrases that fill in the blanks, we’d see the Gospel of Jesus. Going back to the beginning, then, we see that in Jesus, God has a plan of hope and restoration. God has victory. It’s going to be different this time with Jesus, because the victory is over eternal death. The Savior was coming, and the Savior is coming again. The hills of sin still have to be cleared away; we continue to need the bulldozer of the Spirit. Yet, we are asked to be part of God’s road crew. That’s five different ways of looking at the highway of our God, the literal, triumphal, historical, prophetic, and spiritual highways of our God, and yet, the image all leads to knowing that God comes into our hearts to bring His salvation. Let the construction continue!