Lectionary Guide: Epiphany 2024

February 2 | Fifth Sunday after Epiphany | Year B

Isaiah 40:21-31

Psalm 147:1-11, 20c | 1 Corinthians 9:16-23 | Mark 1:29-39

Summary of the Text

Jeff Volkmer

Context: A Dire Warning

All the way back in the Pentateuch God warned the people of Israel that their residency in the promised land was predicated upon their obedience to the Torah. This can be seen many places throughout the Pentateuch and is even foreshadowed in the beginning of Genesis, but it is perhaps most explicit in the book of Deuteronomy. Here, Moses’ exposition of the Torah is bookended by two warnings concerning the people’s place on the land should they stray into disobedience.

Prior to Moses discussing any command of Torah in the book of Deuteronomy (Deut 1.5), he issues the following warning:

When you father children and children’s children, and have grown old in the land, if you act corruptly by making a carved image in the form of anything, and by doing what is evil in the sight of the Lordyour God, so as to provoke him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess. You will not live long in it, but will be utterly destroyed. (Deut. 4:25-26, ESV)

Then, after his treatment of Torah is complete, Moses dedicates an extended warning to Israel against disobedience in Deut. 28, which includes a threat of removal from the land that had been promised them:

The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, a hard-faced nation who shall not respect the old or show mercy to the young. It shall eat the offspring of your cattle and the fruit of your ground, until you are destroyed; it also shall not leave you grain, wine, or oil, the increase of your herds or the young of your flock, until they have caused you to perish. They shall besiege you in all your towns, until your high and fortified walls, in which you trusted, come down throughout all your land. And they shall besiege you in all your towns throughout all your land, which the Lord your God has given you. (Deut. 28:49-52, ESV, see also Lev. 26)

Thus, that the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered and besieged by the Assyrians in 722 BC followed by the deportation of the residents of the southern kingdom of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BC are consequences for failure to heed these warnings. Israel’s history as told in the Old Testament was one marked by stubbornness, disobedience, and the chasing after other gods, behaviors in direct opposition to the commands of Torah, thus inviting the judgment of God in the form outlined in the book of Deuteronomy.

Context: Isaiah’s Parts

This context is important for today’s lectionary passage because it helps makes sense of the book of Isaiah as a whole and our passage in particular. Roughly speaking, Isaiah can be divided into two equal halves, with the first comprising chapters 1-39 and the second, chapters 40-66. The former part of Isaiah focuses on God’s case against His people that justifies their judgment by way of the Babylonians, while the latter details God’s promise of deliverance from judgment and His plans for a glorious restoration of His people and nation. 

As today’s passage occurs in Isaiah 40, the first chapter of the second half of the book, it is no surprise that it is concerned with the themes of comfort and salvation, arising as they do from God’s covenantal relationship with His people that establishes their unique place as God’s elect nation (see Gen. 15, Ex. 6:6-7, Lev. 26:11-12, cf., Jer. 30:22).

Comfort and Majesty

Chapter 40 of Isaiah, the point in the book that shifts focus from judgement to restoration, is concerned with two major themes: comfort and the matchless majesty of God.

In this way, the two sections of the chapter are an “effect – cause” relationship whereby the comfort and deliverance promised in the first half of the chapter are predicated upon the Lord’s knowledge and supremacy detailed in the second. Only a god with the matchless wisdom, strength, and sovereignty of the Lord, the true God of the universe, is able to save His people.

Isaiah 40:21-31 is a section of Scripture that is breathtaking in its beauty and one that is better simply ingested than exposited. Some might find a color analysis of a painting by Monet interesting, but as is often the case with such exquisite works of art, it is better simply to stand back in awe to truly take in their beauty.

This is true of the passage of Scripture before us today. Such a lofty and exalted praise of our God’s incomparability and sovereignty cannot be read without goosebumps and is a hymn of praise that simply deserves to be basked in.

Structure and Logic

Nevertheless, it is possible to detect a structure and logic in Is. 40:21-31, with verses 21-26 emphasizing God as a wholly unique ruler, while 27-31 offers reassurance that God hears the prayers and plight of His children who are captive in Babylon. Both of these provide the basis for the promise that:

but they who wait for 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. (Is 40:31, ESV)

Encouragement for Today

While the context of Is. 40.21-31 establishes its primary meaning as that of God’s ability to save His people from the Babylonian captivity, it should nevertheless encourage us today.

 This is especially true in light of the thematic continuity between the slavery in Babylonian captivity that resulted from the disobedience of God’s people with the slavery to sin that Jesus describes in John 8:34 (ESV): “Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” (see also Rom. 6:17-18). 

Just as it was unfathomable that Israel could be redeemed from such a mighty power as Babylon, so also it is just as seemingly hopeless to be rescued from the slavery of sin. However, the character and attributes of God so richly and beautifully portrayed in Is. 40.21-31 give us the confidence to know that the Lord to accomplish what would otherwise seem hopeless.

Sermon resources

Key Quote

Lord of all being! Thou alone canst affirm I AM THAT I AM; yet we who are made in Thine image may each one repeat “I am,” so confessing that we derive from Thee and that our words are but an echo of Thine own. We acknowledge Thee to be the great Original of which we through Thy goodness are grateful if imperfect copies. We worship Thee, O Father Everlasting. Amen.

A. W. Tozer, Knowledge of the Holy (HarperOne, [1961] 2009)

Key Illustration

Easy with Knowledge and the Right Tool

As a former bike mechanic, it was not uncommon for customers to come to me completely exasperated and at the end of their wits. Oftentimes this would be due to the fact that there was some piece of their bike that they had tried in vain for hours to remove, and then, out of sheer hopelessness, they would come to see me.

After all of this, you can imagine the shock on their faces when I would nonchalantly walk over to my wall of tools, pick one up, and then solve their issue in only a minute.

What had seemed hopeless to them was quite easy for me, because I had two things that they didn’t: knowledge that certain parts on a bike are reverse threaded to counteract the direction of pedaling, and secondly, I had precisely the right and unique tool to fit on the fastener they had tried in vain to remove.

This is in many ways like out passage out of Is. 40:21-31. God is the unique, incomparable sovereign of the universe who alone has the knowledge and strength to fix what is most badly damaged in us.

Many things might seem hopeless. Certainly bearing held captive by the mighty Babylonians did. However, we serve a God whose matchless wisdom, power, and authority is able to deliver and fix us in a manner that only He is uniquely able and qualified to do.

—Jeff Volkmer

 

Discussion Questions

  • Take some time to read Isaiah 40:21-31 several times slowly. Take some time to reflect in silence in what God is speaking to you through it?
  • Is there something right now in your life that seems impossible? What would it look like to have the unique and incomparable God deliver you?
  • We worship the same God who delivered the Israelites from the bonds of Babylonian slavery. Can you recall a time in your life where God did the impossible/improbale to rescue you?

Liturgical resources

Opening Prayer

Sovereign God. your power and your glory are beyond our understanding; your mercy is vast and your tenderness without end. Look in love upon us assembled in this house of prayer, and show your mercy and loving-kindness to all throughout the world who are united with us in thanksgiving and praise. Yours is the gory, and the power, and the honor, now and for all ages.

—Armenian Liturgy

Prayer of Confession

Pastor: God our Redeemer, you have saved your people through Jesus Christ, your Son. You have delivered your people out of slavery to sin and have freed us into new life. Yet, we still wander through the wilderness of our sins. 

All: How quickly we forget who you are. How quickly we forget all our blessings. How quickly we forget all your good commandments that guide our new lives in Jesus Christ. Forgive us of our sins.

Pastor: Renew our hearts and minds that we may understand the Gospel. Give us ears to hear and eyes to see the sweet hope of faith in Christ.

All: Return us to the covenant that you swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. Continue to establish us as your people. Free us from the idols that ensnare us, and bind us to your grace.

—Dustin Ray 

Assurance of Pardon

Inspired by John 6:51-58

Brothers and sisters, God does not leave us in our distress. He does not abandon us to our devilish decisions. While we choose to starve ourselves on a diet of our own making and choosing that leads to spiritual atrophy and deterioration, God provides us with the Bread of Life. Pursuing us, those who have rejected the wisdom of God, Jesus declares of himself in John 6:51, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, [they] will live forever” (WEB). The bread that he gives is for the life of the world, for you and me. It is his very body pierced and broken which reunites us to the wisdom, truth, life and light of God. In Him and through Him, we are forgiven. Amen.

—Scott Bullock

Benediction

Ephesians 3:20-21

Now to him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to him be the glory in the [Church] and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. 

Amen.

(WEB)

A painting of two eagles flying together in front of a cloudy sky.
Eagles by Bruno Liljefors, 1905. Painting. Thiel Gallery, Stockholm.
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

More Quotes: Epiphany 5

More Illustrations: Epiphany 5

Jeff Volkmer

Lisa Degrenia

Jeff Volkmer has served in a wide variety of both academic and pastoral positions over his 25-year career in ministry, with most of these spent as a professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages.

Jeff has a passion to help others see the wonder and beauty of the Scriptures in a way that allows them to know the Lord more fully and love Him more deeply, and simply put, to help make the Bible make sense to believers and non-believers alike. He holds a ThM in Old Testament from Dallas Theological Seminary and is in the final stages of a doctorate in Semitic Linguistics from the University of Oxford.