Not What You Expect

(Isaiah 55:6-13John 3:5-17)

John Piper made the point early in his plenary message at GCNC that there’s a difference between the main point of a text and the most important point in that text, and that we need to be careful to keep them straight.  That’s an important thing to keep in mind in reading this passage from Isaiah, because the prophet here makes several very, very large points and draws on some huge and important truths, but he does so in the service of one very clear main point:  the call to his hearers to seek the Lord.

Seek the Lord. This is the point to which Isaiah has been building across fifteen-plus chapters, and the message he’s been trying to get across all along the way. In the beginning of this chapter, God issues the invitation, first in metaphorical terms—“Come, all who are thirsty”—and then in more direct language: “Incline your ear and come to me; hear me, so that your soul may live.” God is inviting his people to be his people in earnest; all that remains is for them to answer the invitation, and so Isaiah lays out the imperative as bluntly as it’s possible to do: seek the Lord, call on his name.

There are a few important things to note about this. First, there’s a time limit—the offer won’t be good forever, and the expiration date isn’t specified. Indeed, it can’t be, because whenever the final expiration might be, the offer is guaranteed to expire for each individual person at their death—and none of us knows when that will be. The point Isaiah is trying to make here is that this isn’t only a critically important invitation to answer, it’s also an urgent one, because none of us knows how long it will last; the future isn’t guaranteed, as death could come at any time, for anyone. Isaiah tells anyone who will listen that the only time to respond to God’s invitation, the only time to seek his face, is now, while he has your attention, while you’re thinking of it; after all, you won’t respond while you’re not thinking of it, and you can never be sure that you’ll get another chance. Seek the Lord while he may be found, before it’s too late.

Second, the offer is open now, for everyone; there is no one alive for whom it’s already too late, regardless of what they may have done. I was thinking about this at the conference, talking with a woman I ran into at one of the publishers’ tables. This woman was looking for materials to help her minister to a friend who was in the throes of despair, convinced that she had fallen so far from God that she was beyond hope—that she was so bad that God no longer wanted to save her. She believed that for her, the invitation had been withdrawn; she understood the reality and weight of her sin, but not the reality and power of God’s grace. Granted, that’s not an easy balance to keep, especially since the Devil’s always trying to knock us off one way or the other—which way doesn’t really matter, but if we get to the point where we see our sin and God’s grace as they really are, he loses. Yes, we should take our sin seriously, no question—God certainly does—but that’s why he sent his Servant, to deal with it. Now is the acceptable time; now is the year of the Lord’s favor.

Three, this invitation isn’t about being good enough. God doesn’t say, “Come, all of you who’re doing great and have everything you need, and I’ll give you even more,” he says, “Come, all who are thirsty.” Come, you whose lives are a mess, you who are struggling, you who don’t have it all together, you who aren’t even sure where all of it is. The call of God isn’t to those who think they’re doing just fine, it’s to those who know they need him; as Jesus said, it’s the sick who need a doctor, and he came for those who know they’re sick. That’s one reason we confess our sins together every Sunday, to prod ourselves into admitting—to God, to each other, but most basically to ourselves—that yes, we do still have sin and darkness in our hearts, and yes, we do still need the gospel, because we still aren’t good enough on our own. It’s to help us remember, week after week, that we still live only by God’s grace, and that we still need that grace—that we still need God—because for most of us, that’s something the Devil is always trying to make us forget.

What we need to remember is that this invitation, the invitation to seek the Lord, is an invitation to change. To seek the Lord isn’t just to learn things about him or to make sure he’s actually there, but to focus our lives on him, to seek to live every moment in his presence, before his face; and to do that, we need to turn from our thoughts and our ways. God calls us to come to him just as we are, because he loves us just as we are—but he loves us too much to let us stay this way, and so seeking him means opening ourselves up for him to transform us from the inside out. He will show us mercy, and he will pardon us freely, because of what his Servant has done for us—but we need to accept that, to accept that we need his mercy.

This is true for everyone, even the best of us. Notice that combination of “thoughts” and “ways,” because both are important. There are a lot of folks who think they’re doing just fine, because they’re doing all the right things—well, most of the right things, anyway—but they’re doing them for a lot of the wrong reasons, and their thoughts and beliefs aren’t right before God; outwardly, their lives look good, but the inside doesn’t match up. At the same time, we’ve all known people who can say all the right things about God, but the way they live doesn’t match. As James tells us, faith in God that doesn’t produce a life like God’s life is no true faith at all; but at the same time, as Hebrews says, it’s impossible to live such a life that pleases God except by faith. As Asbury’s John Oswalt puts it, “Sin is ultimately a matter of attitude. However superficially ‘righteous’ a person may be, if one persists in imagining that one can live independently from God, then that person is profoundly unrighteous.”

The bottom line is that God wants us to turn aside from our own thoughts and our own ways to seek his thoughts and his ways—no exceptions, no excuses, no ifs, ands, or buts—because his thoughts and ways are better, because he has something better to offer us. We tend to resist this because we’ve learned to want what the world trains us to want and expect what it teaches us to expect, but God doesn’t restrict himself to fulfilling our expectations; he’s on about something far bigger and far grander and far more wonderful than that. I don’t think anyone’s ever captured this better than C. S. Lewis in his essay “The Weight of Glory”—in my book, the best thing he ever produced—when he wrote,

If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires, not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

The gap between us and God—in holiness, in wisdom, in goodness, in understanding, in love, in knowledge, in faithfulness, in power, in joy, in everything—is beyond our ability to imagine, let alone cross; we can’t even fully conceive of how much greater God is than we are, or how much more good he is, or how much more he sees and knows and understands.  That’s why God says through Isaiah, “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts”—a statement which means even more to us than it did to his first hearers, because we know that much more about just how far up the heavens go.  We can’t even measure how far above us God is, and how great the gap is between us and him.  But the thing is, we don’t have to, because we don’t have to cross that gap; God took care of that for us. We just have to trust him that if we will forsake our own ways and our own thoughts, he’ll teach us something better, and give us blessings that surpass anything we could come up with on our own.

Now, this doesn’t come naturally. Giving up our own thoughts and our own ways, giving them over to God and letting him change us, is hard—we have to fight ourselves to do it; and God’s blessings on our lives have a way of including things like suffering that don’t really feel like blessings. He answers our prayers, but often not according to our expectations, in the ways that we would plan out if we had the chance. He just asks us to trust him that he is at work for what is best for us—that he knows what that is and has the ability to bring it about—in the midst of our broken, fallen world; and he promises us that we have good reason to trust him, for he never fails to do what he says he will do; he never fails to accomplish his purposes. God speaks his word—such as the call to repent and to seek him, and the promise that if we do so, we will find in him the true life that this world cannot offer—and his word carries with it his power to effectively and unfailingly bring about what he has promised.

Thus, Isaiah says, surely all creation will burst forth in praise at the Lord’s redemptive work; the extravagant imagery here makes it clear that he’s moved far beyond talking about the return from Babylon to Jerusalem, and is envisioning God gathering his people home from their spiritual exile. We do not yet see the creation rejoice in this way, because the time has not yet come for it to experience its own redemption—that will not come until the end of times when all the world is made new; this promise waits to be fulfilled with the completion of God’s redemptive work in us, when his kingdom comes at last in the fullness of his power, and all things are finally made right. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord and their vindication from me, declares our God.

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