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.

The Invitation

(Isaiah 55:1-5John 4:7-14John 6:32-40)

Salvation has come. The Servant of the Lord has come to be God’s covenant with his people and the light of his salvation to all the world, and he has accomplished his purpose; he has submitted to death in order to win his victory over it by his resurrection, and there is no enemy that can overcome him or undo what he has done. He has won his victory, bringing reconciliation for those estranged from God, and now he extends that victory to all who will accept it and follow him. What remains to be done?

What remains is for Israel and the nations to respond; and so from proclamation of God’s great victory and its blessings, the prophet turns to invitation. He doesn’t actually begin there, though; that first “come” is something of a mistranslation. The best translation I can think of—Caroline, would you do the honors?—Thanks, that’s it. Of course, you can’t put Caroline’s whistle on the printed page, but something like “Hey, you!” would also work decently well. Isaiah doesn’t actually start with the invitation, because he has to get people’s attention first, and as we’ve seen, the people of Israel were past masters at missing the point. If there were such a thing as a Ph.D. in being oblivious, if you could get a doctorate in ignoring the obvious, these folks would have earned it with honors. After all this time, they still didn’t pay enough attention or listen carefully enough to God to understand their true situation and what was really missing in their lives, or what God was doing about it; they’re like people walking through a street market so focused on the guy down the way selling fake Rolexes cheap that they miss the person who’s selling what they really, actually need.

And so Isaiah begins by tapping his people on the shoulder and shouting in their collective ear: “Listen to me! Look up, and pay attention! Each and every one of you who thirsts—yes, that means you—come to the waters. You don’t have any money, but that’s all right—come, buy and eat.” It’s an extraordinary appeal. Some of those to whom the prophet called knew their need; more, no doubt, did not—but Isaiah doesn’t trim his message to suit them. That’s a mistake a lot of churches make—as deliberate strategy, not by accident; it’s a very popular way to build a church—of tailoring the message of the church to what people think they need, and what they’ve been trained by the culture to want and to expect. That way, you may give people good ideas, but you won’t give them good news; you might bring a lot of people in, but you’ll send them right back out unchanged. The true gospel message, as Jesus himself noted, winnows its audience, because it’s for those who have ears to hear—which is to say, for those who recognize their true need: their thirst for his living water, and their hunger for the bread of life. Those who aren’t willing to admit their thirst, whether to others or even to themselves, hear the prophet’s call and walk on by. That’s well enough with him; those who are willing to listen will stay, and they are his proper audience.

What he offers them is remarkable. In the first place, you’ll note, he doesn’t say “Come take,” as if all this were simply being given away; that might stir suspicion that they aren’t worth the price, or else that they come with significant strings attached, but that isn’t the case. Indeed, this food and drink must be purchased, for they come at a very real price—it’s just that that price has already been paid by someone else. What remains is for people to complete the purchase by accepting the price paid, and to receive in return everything that’s necessary for life: not even just water to drink—significant as that was by itself in the arid Near East—but also wine and milk, and though this doesn’t come through in our English translations, that word “buy” was in fact a specific word for the purchase of grain or bread, so food is included here as well.

Now, that’s quite an offer—everything you need has already been purchased for you; you just need to pick it up at the checkout!—so why would you turn it down? In particular, why would you reject such an offer in order to go spend real money, which you’ve earned by your own hard work, on something that isn’t real and won’t satisfy? That’s Isaiah’s question, and it doesn’t have a good answer. Which isn’t to say that it doesn’t have any answer; there are reasons why we do that, they just aren’t good ones. A lot of it, I think, is that we want what we want, and we don’t want to believe that what we want isn’t what’s best for us. It takes both trust and humility to accept that what we want really isn’t bread, that it really won’t nourish our lives, and that we need to learn to want what God gives us instead; and both trust and humility come hard for us. But they are, I think, the two keys to the Christian life, to living a life that pleases God; they’re the two first lessons we have to learn.

Thus Isaiah says, “Give ear”—literally, “incline your ear”; we might say, “dig the wax out of your ears and listen”—“and come to me; hear, that your soul may live.” That word “soul” is the Hebrew nefesh—oddly enough, the most basic meaning of it is the neck—and it doesn’t mean “soul” in the sense that we use that word; rather, it denotes the whole person, body and spirit both. The idea here is that what the world gives us is essentially junk food, and hurts us both spiritually and physically, while if we go to God, he becomes our food, and he gives us what we need and what is good for us—physically as well as spiritually. As you can see, Isaiah’s drawing a bright line here: the only way to find real life is in God, which requires listening carefully to his prophet and doing what you hear. Anything else is “not bread,” it’s false food, and ultimately will not satisfy because it cannot give real life.

For those who will listen and come, God promises an eternal covenant, “my faithful love promised to David.” Now, “faithful love” is again the word hesed, which we’ve talked about a number of times, including last week; of particular significance in this case is the fact that hesed is a covenant word. God is saying, in essence, I made a covenant of love with David, I made a commitment to love him and to bless him and his descendants, and if you’ll answer my invitation, I’ll include you in that.

How? Well, here we have the fusion—it’s the first time this is made explicit—of the Servant of the Lord with the Messiah, the Son of David. You see, in verse 4, there’s the reference back to David himself, the declaration, “I have made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander of the peoples”; but how has that happened? The key to understanding this is that in verse 5, the “you” is singular—this verse isn’t addressed to the same people as verses 1-3, it’s addressed to one person. Specifically, it’s addressed to the Messiah, the Son of David—who is, in this context, the Servant of the Lord. It’s to the Servant that God says, “Surely you will summon nations you don’t know, and peoples who don’t know you will run to you, because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has endowed you with splendor.” It’s in the Servant, the heir and fulfillment of God’s covenant promises to David, that we are brought into God’s covenant with David, that the covenant relationship God had with him and the promises that go along with that become available to all of us.

Now, the interesting thing about this is that this invitation and this promise are offered to people who were already outwardly members of the people of God. The nations aren’t excluded here, to be sure—the invitation is given to all who are thirsty—but there’s no explicit summons to them, either, and the invitation is framed in terms of what God did in and for David. The point, one which Isaiah’s been making all along, is clear: though Israel has heard the law, and has heard the prophets, and they have all kinds of head knowledge about God, that hasn’t translated for them into any kind of real relationship with God. They consider him their God because they’re Israelites and he’s the God of Israel, and doesn’t everybody in this country worship God?—but many of them haven’t answered his invitation, and maybe haven’t even really heard it before. They haven’t learned that there’s more to their faith than just being a faithful templegoer.

Indeed, there’s far more. The challenge to us of Isaiah’s expansive invitation is—do we still need to hear it? Have we really accepted it, or are we no different than the Israelites? I’m not coming to this as a Baptist who thinks you need an altar call every week so that the saved stay saved; you only need to accept the invitation once, and then get along about living it out. But in this country, it’s very easy to be a Christian, and that means there are a lot of folks who are outwardly Christian for all the wrong reasons, with no inward reality, no real faith in Christ. The church has to shoulder a lot of the blame for that, of course, because there are a lot of churches in this country that don’t give people God’s invitation, that don’t challenge people with the call of the gospel; it’s easier not to, after all, easier just to give people what they already know they want to hear. Even for the church, it’s easier to serve junk food. But underneath and through it all, God’s invitation still goes out: “Come, all of you who hunger and thirst; come to me, that you may live.” And we need to ask ourselves: have we really done that, are we really living in God? Or do we still need to accept it?

The Victory of the Servant

(Isaiah 54, Matthew 28:1-10)

From the beginning, God’s plan has been to rescue the whole world. He chose a man, Abraham, and gave him a family, which would become a nation to worship him and honor his name. At least, that was the idea—that Israel would be a light to the nations to draw them to the worship of the one true God. But there was one small problem: Israel didn’t live like that, and didn’t really want to; and if they didn’t, who had more reason than anyone else to trust God, what hope was there for the rest of the world? Why would the other nations be drawn to worship God if even his own people wouldn’t stay faithful?

In the place of his servant Israel, then, to carry out the task they had refused, God raised up a new Servant, to be his covenant to his people and a light to the nations, that he might be God’s salvation to the very ends of the earth, establishing justice in the world and freeing those held captive in the darkness of sin. He was to be God’s answer to the problem of the evil and sin in this world, not by explaining it or overpowering it—which are the sort of answers the world thinks it wants—but by an entirely different way. God chose to offer us, not the answer for which we were looking, but the answer we actually needed: he offered us himself. He came down to live our life, to identify with us, to endure the darkness of our fallen world with us, and to defeat that darkness, not with its own weapons, but with light.

People sometimes ask, “Where’s God when it hurts—in the tragedies we see so often, and the large-scale injustices of this world?” and often they assume the answer must be “Nowhere”; after all, if there really is a God out there, and he actually heard our suffering, wouldn’t he do something about it? But the truth is, as Easter shows us, God has heard our suffering—he has heard every cry of anguish, felt every blow and every betrayal, and caught every tear in the palm of his hand—and in Jesus Christ, he has done everything about it. In Jesus, he came down to share our suffering with us, drinking that cup to the very dregs. He took the weight of all our sin on his shoulders—the entirety of human evil and human suffering, of all the brokenness and wrongness of the world—and he carried it to the cross, its cruel thorns digging into his forehead, its sharp splinters shredding his back; and there, for the guilt of all the crimes he never committed, he died.

He died for us. He died to pay the price for all the sins we’ve ever committed and ever will commit, for all the pain we’ve endured and all the pain we’ve caused, for all the darkness and brokenness and agony and grief in our poor misshapen world. Our sins deserved death, and more—even our death wouldn’t be enough punishment; not only could we never do enough in this life to make up for them, we couldn’t even die enough to even the balance. Morally, we were in the same position as so many mortgages these days: we were under water, owing more than we were worth. Only Jesus’ death—the death of one whose life was of infinite value and infinite goodness, the life of God himself—only his death could be enough to pay that price, to satisfy the demands of justice for the sins of the world, so that salvation could come to all the nations.

But if his death was sufficient to pay the price of redemption, it still wasn’t enough to accomplish the work; nor was it enough to satisfy God’s promise to his servant. “See my servant,” God says in Isaiah 52: “he shall accomplish his purpose; he will rise and be lifted up, and be exalted most high.” And again in chapter 53, “If you make his life an offering for sin, then he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days; . . . Because of his anguish, he shall see and be satisfied. . . . Therefore I will give him the many, and he shall divide the strong as the spoils of his victory.” Justice for the Servant, the fulfillment of God’s promises to him, demanded that his death not be the end; and indeed, for his great work to end in victory at all rather than defeat required something more. If his story had come to its conclusion in that tomb, if he had died and stayed dead like any other man, then in the end, it would have been just another victory for the powers of evil; the price would have been paid for our redemption, but there would have been no redeemer left to complete the deal, and the sacrifice would have been for nothing.

And so, though the powers of evil capered and celebrated across that black, black Saturday, thinking they had won—thinking they had tricked the God of the universe into taking a bridge too far—God’s resounding answer to evil came on Easter morning. The Creed tells us Jesus descended into Hell, and I believe it; and after spending a couple nights there, that morning he got up, reached out his hands, and tore the gates of Hell from their very hinges. He stretched out his carpenter’s hands, those hands that could be so gentle to the weak and the suffering, and his shoulders flexed, and he tore the wall of Death apart. He heaved, and the grave burst open in a soundless explosion that shook the universe from one end to the other, a blinding flash of light that lit the sky from horizon to horizon; and he who had been dead got up, and was dead no more, never again to die.

And in that, you see, is the victory; in that, and nothing else. In that moment, the price that had been paid for our redemption was realized, and we were stripped from the power and control of the prince of darkness. That’s why Isaiah bursts out into song, calling out to his people that their redemption has been accomplished, that God’s salvation has come. God in his love has chosen to direct his anger at sin against his Servant—which is to say, against himself—and to take on himself the punishment that justice demanded; all that remains is for his people to accept the gift and revel in the love of God.

Isaiah 54 uses two different images to express this. In verses 1-10, the prophet pictures the people of God as a childless woman, abandoned by her husband; verses 11-17 portray them as a city that needs to be rebuilt. In both cases, he addresses them in the midst of difficult circumstances—poor, desolate, lonely, wracked by the storms of life—with the promise that the Servant’s victory has been won, and that the fruits of that victory are coming. With the first image, we see the fruits of restored relationships, beginning with the healing of their relationship with God. The exile of the people of Israel was the political realization of their spiritual reality—they had been alienated from the land God gave them to reflect the deeper truth that their sin, their rebellious disobedience, had alienated them from him spiritually, had broken their relationship with him.

That’s why Jewish leaders of later years have taught that the exile didn’t really end with the return to Israel, because their hardness of heart, their spiritual exile, continued; and it’s why the words of the prophets are as relevant today as they were in their own time, because while we no longer share the physical circumstances of the Israelite exiles in Babylon, their spiritual circumstances are our own. All of us begin life estranged from God; just growing up in the church, or even formally joining the church and being active in it, isn’t enough to change that, either. There are many in the church in this country, and perhaps even here this morning, who are still in exile and don’t know it, because they have no real relationship with God; like the people of Isaiah’s time, all the outward conformity is there, but the inner reality of faith is absent. What God wants from us is not good works, be it church attendance, volunteering, giving money, or any of that; those are all good things, but in and of themselves they aren’t enough. What he wants is for us to love him and trust him, to put him first in our hearts and minds.

This is the reason for the language we see in verses 7-10: “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will gather you; in a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but out of my hesed—my everlasting kindness, my unchanging faithful love, my covenant commitment to you—I have had compassion on you. . . . Though the mountains be shaken and the hills disappear, my hesed, my unfailing love, will not be shaken, nor will my covenant of peace disappear.” It’s a promise of enduring love, and an enduring close relationship, founded on the committed faithfulness of God; this is the fundamental promise from which all the others flow.

Thus the one who has been shamed and humiliated before the world will be set free from her humiliation. To understand this, you need to remember that in that time, not having kids wasn’t a lifestyle choice; the common view in that day and age, as Asbury Seminary’s John Oswalt sums it up, was that “a childless woman was a failure, someone who had apparently committed some sin, or had been at least judged unworthy of bearing a child.” Thus being childless brought terrible shame and humiliation. It also meant economic difficulties—back then, you didn’t have a 401(k) or Social Security; your retirement plan was that your children would take care of you in your old age, as you had done for your parents—and the certainty that your influence would end with your death. Similarly, Israel had been shamed and humiliated before the nations by the failure of her God to deliver her, and left with no apparent future; but God says, “Don’t fear, and don’t be humiliated, because I have wiped away your shame. Shout for joy, sing songs of praise, because I’m going to undo your disaster; step out in faith, because I’m going to give you a future—and a brighter one than you ever imagined.”

Thus as well God promises his people peace, prosperity, and security. He will rebuild his city out of precious stones, so that its walls will be not merely strong but also beautiful. Incidentally, where the NIV has “I will build you with stones of turquoise,” the literal reading there is “I will lay your stones in mascara”; the NIV translators apparently weren’t sure what to make of that, but I suspect it means that even the mortar used to lay the stones will be beautifully colored, to highlight the colors in the stones. The point is, God will make his people glorious; the outer glory of the walls will reflect the inner glory of their character and spiritual life. “All your children will be disciples of the LORD, and great will be their peace.” You could preach an entire sermon on that, on God’s concern that our children are not merely kept quiet and happy while the adults do the business of the church, but are seriously discipled as members of the people of God. “You will be established in righteousness, and so you will have nothing to fear; yes, there will be those who will attack you, but it won’t be my doing, and you will prevail against them.”

And then look at verse 17—this is the victory of the Servant of the Lord extended to his people. “No weapon forged against you will prevail, and no charge raised against you will be sustained”; this goes back to what we talked about a couple weeks ago, that God has both the might and the right to deliver his people. This is not to say that there won’t be attacks on his people—we know that God doesn’t insulate us from the troubles of this world—but it is to say that they will always fail of their purpose in the end. There is no one who has the power to overcome God’s protection over us; even the destroyers of our world were created by God, and even their weapons are the work of his hands, and so even they must ultimately serve his purpose. They may be able to harm us along the way, but only as he allows. And there is no argument that can stand against him, because there is no one who can sustain a claim that he is unjust; if we’re following him, there will be times that we’ll be accused of injustice by those who reject his ways, but we’ll always be vindicated in the end.

Why? Because this is the inheritance of the servants of the Lord. This is the promise of God to his Servant and the victory he has won, which he has passed on to us. Notice the progression: first Israel was the servant, then God raised up his perfect Servant, who brought many from the nations into his people, and now all of us are his servants, disciples and followers of his great Servant; as his followers, we share in his victory. All we have to do is trust him for it and accept it with gratitude, to celebrate his victory and his gift of that victory to us, and then to live in his victory. That’s all the Christian life is, really: you’ve been redeemed, you have the victory in Jesus—now go live that, live like you believe it. Live out the truth of what we celebrate this morning, that we serve a living Savior who has forever shattered the power of sin and death by dying for our sin and rising again from the dead for our redemption. Christ is risen!

The Arm of the Lord Revealed

(Isaiah 52:13-53:12; Luke 22-23)

(Note:  this sermon was delivered in sections over the course of our Good Friday service, as a series of brief reflections.)

Isaiah builds to this point with a crescendo of commands, like a mighty surge in the ocean building toward the shore, rising as the land rises: “Listen, look, listen, hear me, awake, awake.” “Listen, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord; hear me, you who have my law in your hearts. Awake, awake—rise up, O Jerusalem; awake, awake, and put on your strength.” Something has happened, something has changed—wake up, listen, and pay attention. But listen to what—look at what? What has happened? And then the crescendo reaches its climax, the great wave crashes on the shore: “See. See my servant.”

See my servant who was so disfigured, people were devastated at his appearance and wondered if he was even human; see my servant who sprinkled many nations with his blood to purify them from their sin. See my servant, who shall act wisely, and because of his wisdom shall prosper—despite everything that happens to him, through everything they do to him, he will accomplish his purpose, and for that he will be honored; he shall rise, he shall be carried up, and he shall be exalted most high. This is language which belongs to God himself—how does this make sense? Even the kings of the earth will be stopped in their tracks, dumbfounded and speechless, by this bizarre turn of fortune, confronted by a reality they never saw coming, and never could have seen coming. How can this be? How can this possibly be? What on Earth is God doing here?

And yet, they should have believed—they’d been told, they’d been warned, they should have seen it coming. But who did? Did anyone? . . . No, no one did—not even us; not even us.

The arm of the LORD? We’d heard the promises—“The LORD has bared his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God”—and his justice, too, don’t forget that. We knew what that would mean: God would reveal his power and glory and bring down his justice on the world to obliterate evil and sweep away the unrighteous. He would crush our enemies, and we would be vindicated in the eyes of the whole world.

But this . . . who saw this coming? When the arm of the LORD was revealed, who would ever have thought it would look like that? We expected his arm to be revealed in power, and instead it was revealed in weakness; we expected it to be impressive, and instead, we were unimpressed. The Lord himself came in all his power and authority—as nobody special, a mere ordinary man, nothing more. There wasn’t even anything impressive about him—he wasn’t handsome or imposing—no sense of majesty about him at all. He was just . . . ordinary. If he had won dazzling victories, achieved stunning successes, we could have respected that, but no—he had no great achievements, no great triumphs, only great suffering, which he took and bore with all the patient acceptance of a slave; he didn’t show us mighty strength, he showed us weakness. His life was meaningless, of no value, or so we thought—how could he be the Servant of God? How could we possibly have gotten it so wrong? How far from God must we be to look at his chosen one, whose life was worth everything, and think he was worth nothing? What does this say about us? If we could miss what God was doing that badly, there’s no hope for us. Not on our own, anyway.

What we didn’t realize is that his sorrows, his griefs, his pains, his weakness, weren’t his own—they were ours. We stood back and watched him suffer, we watched him die, and we didn’t lift a finger even to help, let alone to save him, nor did we utter even the smallest sound in protest, because we figured he must have had it coming. We left him alone in his agony, never even realizing that everything he suffered was for us; never realizing that we were the ones causing his suffering, for it was our sins crushing him under their weight. We just watched, and we let him die alone.

He took our sorrows, and he loaded our suffering on his back, and he carried them. He took all our guilt and all our shame, he took everything that’s wrong and twisted and distorted and broken in us, and he carried it all. Was he disfigured? Was he marred? Was he cracked and striped and scarred by our abuse, by the blows we gave him? Yes, and it was nothing more than our disfigurement, the marred state of our souls, visible on his face. He took all our darkness, and he paid the price for it. We didn’t have to bear the punishment for our sins—he did. We didn’t have to pay the penalty for all we’ve done wrong—he paid it. He dealt with everything that’s wrong in our lives so that we could have peace with God, and so that we could be healed.

All of us turned away from God, wandering off like sheep to seek our own paths; and by God’s will, he paid the price for all our wandering, for all our wrong thoughts and deeds. Each of our sins was like an arrow aimed at his heart; and they all found their mark, and he bore them all. He was the voluntary sacrifice for our sin—for all of it—so that we might be, truly, well.

It was all by his choice. It was all his decision. The authorities thought they were in control, the soldiers thought he was in their power, they all thought they were imposing their will on him, but they were all wrong. He did nothing, he said nothing, he made no protest and put up no resistance—but he could have; he could have stopped it, at any time, and he didn’t. He chose everything that happened to him, it happened only because he allowed it; he accepted the injustice, he willingly submitted to suffering and death, so that he might bring us life. The sacrifice of animals could never be enough because they couldn’t really substitute for a person; they couldn’t willingly choose to die on our behalf. Only another person, only someone like us, who was truly one of us, could do that.

Don’t you see? It’s the essence of our sin that it’s willful. It’s not just that we fail in what we try to do—we’re limited beings, God never made us able to do everything; even if we didn’t sin, we’d probably still fail at things. It’s not just that we’re flawed; we are, certainly, but we didn’t choose our flaws, and you could argue that we aren’t responsible for what weaknesses we have. But what we do about them—ah! that’s another matter. Granted our limitations, granted that we’re all tempted differently and in different ways, that we have different weaknesses, the bottom line is that we sin because, at some level, we want to. We wander away from God because we want to make our own way—just because he tells us that he leads us to the best pastures, beside quiet streams, doesn’t mean we believe it; like any sheep, we remain convinced that the grass must be greener on the other side of that hill over there. And that willfulness is the thing God can’t just overlook; it requires punishment.

Which means that either we have to bear that punishment ourselves, or someone has to bear it for us; and to bear it for us, it must be a completely voluntary self-sacrifice. What’s more, no ordinary human being could offer it; any of us would simply be voluntarily accepting the punishment we’re already due for our own sins. It had to be someone who didn’t deserve to die, but willingly accepted death anyway for us, without once objecting or resisting; but no one thought of this. He died for us, and no one understood.

But though he suffered for us freely, he didn’t do it on his own—he suffered as the Servant of the LORD; God did this through him. All of this happened because it was the LORD’s idea, because it was the LORD’s will. He gave up his life as an offering for sin, and God accepted it, because he was completely blameless, completely without sin, and because he offered his life freely for us. And so, despite his suffering—no, because of his suffering—he shall prosper, for he has accomplished his purpose; though he was of no value in human eyes, yet he shall rise, he shall be lifted up, and he shall be exalted as high as it is possible to be. Even kings, even the mighty of this earth, shall stand speechless in awe before him, as they see his glory; the one they thought they had crushed, they shall see rise up in triumph over them, taking them as the fruits of his conquest, and they will struggle to understand how this happened.

They will struggle because they don’t understand that God doesn’t do things the way they do, or they way they would have expected; he doesn’t do things the way we would have expected. He doesn’t use his power to crush the unrighteous—he reaches out in love to win them back. The Servant didn’t use his power to defeat anyone, but rather to surrender, to give himself up as an offering for our sin; in so doing, he made us right-eous, he gave us his righteousness, and so he won us as his children, as his people. He voluntarily identified himself with us and gave up his life for us so that we might live for him.

The Herald of Salvation

(Isaiah 51:1-52:12; John 12:12-16)

“Listen to me,” says the Lord. “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek me; listen and look.” If you’ve been here through this series, you’ll note that this appeal is new. In chapters 40 through 48 we read, several times, “Listen to me, O Jacob, O Israel”; with chapter 49, that changes, as the Servant of the Lord begins his speech by saying, “Listen to me, you nations.” With the shift that comes in chapter 49, the audience has changed. Now it’s changed again, to the faithful remnant within Israel—the people who are still seeking God and pursuing his righteousness, who have neither turned their backs on him nor rejected his servant. These are the ones who are willing to trust God—but even for them, it’s hard.

Indeed, maybe for them it’s especially hard, despite their faith, because they see their people’s dire situation much more clearly than their more secular friends and relatives. They can see beyond Israel’s physical exile to their much deeper and more serious spiritual exile, the distance of the people’s hearts from God, and their consequent spiritual barrenness and deadness; they can see past the obvious difficulty of Israel’s deliverance to the real difficulty that underlies it, and so they worry—not that God is unable to deliver his people, or that he doesn’t care enough to do so, as other Israelites do, but that the faithlessness of their people will somehow sabotage everything in the end anyway. They trust God, but they know better than to trust his people.

To them, God says, “Listen to me: look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn.” A quarry is not a place of life; nothing comes out of it but dead stone. This is an apt metaphor to describe Abraham and Sarah, the father and mother of their people, for Sarah was barren, and both were far past childbearing age; even now, with our advanced technology, we don’t see 90-year-olds having children. When God says, “When I called Abraham, he was but one,” he’s not kidding; and yet, as God points out, “I blessed him and made him many.” The very foundation story of the family that became the nation of Israel is a story of God bringing life out of barrenness and deadness; that sort of miraculous birth is at the core of their national identity. “Trust me even in this,” God is saying, “because I’ve done even this for my people before.” What is now a wasteland, he will make “like Eden”—and this doesn’t just mean physical life, but also spiritual life, for Eden isn’t merely a physical paradise, it’s the place before sin, and before the curse of God that fell on us because of our sin.

“Listen to me,” says the Lord. “Listen, my people; hear me, my nation.” Is God once again addressing all the Israelites? Perhaps, but probably not; this isn’t a return to the “Listen, O Jacob, hear, O Israel” formula of earlier in the book. Given the context, what we’re probably seeing here is yet another step in God’s redefinition of his people. His nation isn’t defined by ethnicity or by borders, but rather consists of all those who pursue righteousness and seek his face, wherever they may come from; and so he promises, “The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations. My righteousness draws near swiftly; my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations.” To emphasize the enduring nature of his salvation, he declares that even when the earth has worn out from old age and the heavens have faded away like smoke, yet his salvation will still endure, and his righteousness will never fail. The Lord is offering a gift to outlast the very stars, to anyone who will accept it.

“Hear me,” says the Lord; “hear me, you who know righteousness, you people who have my law in your hearts”—and note well, this isn’t the same as saying, “you Jews.” As Paul says in Romans 2, there are many who have the law in their heads because they were taught it, but don’t have it in their hearts because they’ve never lived it; on the other hand, there are also those who’ve never heard the law of God but nevertheless show by the way they live that they have his law in their hearts. To those who know and live out the righteous life of God, he says, “Don’t be afraid of the mockery and scorn of others; don’t be terrified by their hostility and attacks.” As with the heavens and the earth, so with the power of the wicked: it looks too big to conquer, too vast to overcome, and too endless to endure, but in truth it’s merely temporary, and far more fragile than it appears. They will not last, but God’s righteousness will. “The moth will eat them up like a garment, the worm will devour them like wool; but my righteousness will last forever, my salvation through all generations.”

God’s promises to his people, rooted in his miraculous promise to Abraham, are promises for the whole world, for all who will believe, for all who seek the Lord and pursue his righteousness, for all who want to be a part of his people; and they are promises you can bank on—more than you can bank on many banks, these days—because there is no power that can prevent the Lord from fulfilling his righteous and saving purposes. Those who would set themselves against him put their trust in the things of this world—but this world is passing, it will in time wear out and fade away, and God will still be there, and still faithfully keeping his promises. Not even our faithlessness can overcome his faithfulness to us; and so the prophet cries out to the people of Israel, “Awake, awake! Rise up, O Jerusalem, you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord the cup of his wrath . . . this is what your Sovereign Lord says: ‘See, I have taken out of your hand the cup that made you stagger; from that cup, the goblet of my wrath, you will never drink again. Instead, I will put it into the hands of your tormenters.’”

Awake, for you have slept through what God has been doing; awake, for he has removed your punishment. Awake, rise up, and put on new strength; shake off the dust of your humiliation, shake off the chains of your slavery, for all that is past, and put on the garments of the glory of the priestly people of the King of kings. This is what God says to his people—and note this: “the uncircumcised and defiled will not enter you again.” The Lord is not only redeeming his people, he is purifying them; they will be pruned of their unholiness and unfaithfulness, and he will make them worthy of the promises he has given them. This is an echo of the promises he gave through Jeremiah and Ezekiel to put a new heart and a new spirit within his people and write his law on their hearts; it’s all a part of his plan to make them in reality who he called them to be.

But how? Look at 52:3: “For this is what the Lord says: ‘You were sold for nothing, and without money you will be redeemed.’” Money had not yet changed hands, so the sale had not been finalized, and the Lord could reclaim his people; reclaim them he would, and just as the seller made no profit in the transaction, so the redeemer would pay no money to reverse it. But he must pay something; what could it be? How would he redeem his people?

The answer to that isn’t spelled out in this passage, of course, but it builds toward that answer. What we do get is that the Lord will redeem his people by the power of his mighty arm. Look back up to 51:9, where we have one other call to awake—but this one directed not to the people of God, but to the arm of the Lord. The prophet evokes the mighty things that the arm of the Lord has done in the past as a reason for confidence that the Lord will deliver his people as he has done so many times before, and God speaks words of comfort to Zion, to the captives in Babylon, and to the Servant. He will reveal his power, and his arm will bring justice to the nations, and hope to the peoples of the earth, as he declares in 51:5; he will show his power and his glory in a new way, rolling up his sleeves and laying bare his holy arm before all the nations, so that people to the farthest reaches of the world shall experience his salvation.

With that last statement, something new enters the picture, because it’s the close of a paragraph that’s one of the loveliest passages in all of Scripture, I think. Look at 52:7: “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news.” The NIV’s trying to be inclusive here, and I understand the impulse, but I think in this verse it’s a mistake; I think it needs to be “him,” because I think there’s a very particular him in view here. Remember, the Servant will not merely bring God’s salvation to the nations, he will be God’s salvation to the nations, and I think that’s what Isaiah’s talking about. “How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who proclaims peace, who brings good tidings, who proclaims salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’ Your watchmen lift up your voices, and together they shout for joy—when the LORD returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes. Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem. The LORD has bared his holy arm”—I think “has bared” is better there than the NIV’s future tense—“the LORD has bared his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.”

Now, as I read that, that paragraph is tight. It’s tightly woven and closely connected, and I think we’re talking about one thing there, one event. We have here the herald of God’s salvation, but it seems to me that the one who is announcing good news is in fact the LORD returning to Zion; the one who comes to proclaim peace and good tidings is the one who has brought them about, who has redeemed Jerusalem. He is, in fact, the arm of the LORD revealed, in whom all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of God. With his arrival in Jerusalem would come the revelation of God’s plan to redeem his people without money and extend his salvation to all the world.

And so it was, on that day when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, that day which we remember today as Palm Sunday. The Lord returned, and the whole city saw it with their own eyes, and crowds burst out into song; they cried out “Hosanna!” which means “Save us now!” and their faith that he would do so, though ephemeral, was well placed, for he would indeed do just that; in him, the Lord had bared his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth would see God’s salvation. In him, through him, God would redeem his people without money. Through him, God would purify his people, giving them a new heart and a new spirit, writing his law within them. Through him, in him, God would extend his salvation beyond Israel to all the nations, even to the farthest parts of the earth.

The Word that Sustains the Weary

(Isaiah 49:14-50:11Romans 9:6-8)

I said last week that in the first part of this chapter, which is the second of the Servant Songs, I believe we see God accept Israel’s rejection of him and respond by sending the Servant beyond Israel to the nations; rather than trying to force his people to accept their part in his plan, this is the point at which he simply incorporates their refusal to do so into his plan and moves forward despite them. I noted that this isn’t the common reading of that passage, but it is what the passage says, and there’s really no good reason to reject it, while there are a number of good reasons not to.

One good reason is the way Israel responds, beginning in verse 14—which, granted, could be just another ridiculous complaint, since we’ve seen a few of those from them already; but it fits. God tells the Servant, “Don’t worry that Israel has refused to respond to you—that’s too small a job for you anyway; I will make you a light for the Gentiles and my salvation for all people,” and Israel complains, “The LORD has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.” You can see where they’re coming from, right? It is, again, the same concern that Paul wrestles with in Romans: if God broke the branches from the olive tree that he might graft the Gentiles in, does that mean that he’s replaced his people? Has he simply written off the Jews and dropped them from his plan?

As we saw last week, Paul says, “no,” and for good reason; here, God says the same thing. He has allowed his people to reject the work he had prepared for them, he has given that work to the Servant instead, but that doesn’t mean he’s rejected them in turn. His care and concern for them isn’t just for what he can get them to do—he didn’t choose them merely as a tool to accomplish his purposes; his love for them is real and sincere and unfailing, and he will never forget them. “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast, and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Not likely, but even if she does, I won’t,” declares the Lord. Take the highest and greatest example of human devotion and faithfulness you can think of, and God still exceeds it—and it isn’t close.

Note what he says. He’s been promising his people that he would bring them back to their own land, the land he had given them, and that they would be blessed on the way; now he promises them great blessing in the land. Note the blessing he offers, and how he describes it—not material wealth, not power or conquest, but family. The Lord will gather his people, his children, home to Jerusalem, and they will see far more people gathered than there were in the nation before the exile—so many more, in fact, that there won’t be enough room for everyone. The nation that seemed to be in danger of disappearing from the face of the earth will be larger than before; the family that was afraid it would die out will instead find children returning—so many, in fact, as to raise the question, “Where did they all come from?”

Where did they come from? This is what God says: they came from the nations. They came from the Gentiles, from all those folks out there who aren’t Jews—from us; we are part of the fulfillment of this promise. The terms of his blessing haven’t changed, because his heart hasn’t changed. He loves the Israelites, yes, but not exclusively; he loves everyone else, too, and his blessing on them involves all the nations, as it always has, going all the way back to the beginning. What they need to understand, what Isaiah is moving them towards, is what Paul’s talking about: God’s promise isn’t just for those who are descended from Abraham, and it isn’t automatically for everyone descended from Abraham regardless of their faithfulness to God (or lack thereof); God’s promise to Abraham is greater and broader than that. What matters most isn’t whether you have Abraham’s DNA, but whether you have his heart for God and his willingness to follow.

As such, in order to accept God’s blessing, the Israelites have to let go of the idea that they alone are God’s people, that his blessings are for them and no one else, that they are somehow superior to and favored above all others, and let the nations join them. It’s important to note, God isn’t asking Israel to take a secondary place; quite the contrary, the nations will honor them and bow before them in recognition of how much they owe the people of Israel. That said, it can be hard to forgive your enemies, and even harder to welcome them into your home as friends, let alone as family, and that’s what God is inviting Israel to do—making it clear in the process that he isn’t giving them the option of returning his blessing and asking for another one. But then, God never does give us blessings that are just for us—he blesses us so that we can use them to bless others. We aren’t merely recipients of his blessings, we’re conduits. That’s just how God works.

For all his reassurances, Israel still wonders: is it really possible? Can plunder really be taken away from mighty warriors? With the second line, I think we’re better off following the Hebrew rather than changing it: can captives be rescued from the righteous? Which is to say, can lawfully-taken captives, captives whose fate was just and right, really be set free? Can a warrior who has both might and right on his side really be deprived of his captives? This is the situation for Israel: the country that conquered them is a great power, and their conquest of Israel was just, for it was ordained by God as his judgment on his people for their faithlessness.

In response, God makes it clear that he both can and will set them free. He has the power to overthrow the fierce warriors, to strip them of their plunder and free their captives; and he has the force of right to make his case against them. The word the NIV translates “contend” is a legal term; those who hold Israel captive can make their case that they have the right to do so, but God will make his own case against them, and as we’ve seen several times in Isaiah already, he’s unstoppable in a courtroom. His action in setting his people free is entirely righteous, and no claim to the contrary will stand before him.

Of course, this won’t happen gently, for those who conquered Israel are fierce, greedy, rapacious, and bloodthirsty; they’re very like the greedy python in the classic children’s picture book by Richard Buckley and Eric Carle: “Half hidden in the jungle green, the biggest snake there’s ever been wound back and forth and in between. The giant snake was very strong and very, very, very long. He had a monstrous appetite, his stomach stretched from left to right.” In the book, the python proceeds to eat everything in his path, from a mouse to a porcupine to a leopard to an elephant, before his greed becomes too much for him: “And when they all began to kick, the snake began to feel quite sick. He coughed the whole lot up again—each one of them—and there were ten.” 

Now listen to the ending here: “He soon felt better, and what’s more was hungrier than just before. He hadn’t learned a single thing: his greed was quite astonishing. He saw his own tail, long and curved, and thought that lunch was being served. He closed his jaws on his own rear, then swallowed hard . . . and disappeared!” His greed was so far out of control that when there was no one else he could turn on, he turned on himself, and destroyed himself. That’s the Babylonians: their sin is self-destructive in the end, as in truth all sin is; the appetite that drove them to empire will ultimately drive them to ruin.

Despite all this, Israel still feels forsaken and forgotten; and so God asks, “When I sent you into exile, was there anything to seal that and make it permanent? When I sent your mother away, was there a certificate to finalize the divorce?” Implicitly, the answer is “no”; and then the Lord turns the tables on them. Who was it who created this separation? Was it God? Did he fail to answer when his people called on him? No: when he answered their cries and came to them, there was no one to answer—not a single response—and so he asks them the question, “Why? Did you not believe I could answer you, or that I have the strength to save you? I can do things far greater than this; I can dry up the sea and turn the rivers to desert—remember all the things I did for you to lead you out of slavery in Egypt—why do you not trust me?” In the end, the separation of which Israel complains is their own doing—they blame God for what is their own fault, and accuse him for the consequences of their own insistence.

And here again, into God’s grief at his people’s refusal to understand, the Servant speaks—this time, with a new sense of the cost of his mission. “The Sovereign LORD has opened my ears,” he says, “and I have not been rebellious; I have not drawn back.” He has heard, and he has listened “like one being taught,” which is to say, like a disciple, with close and careful attention—and not just occasionally, but “morning by morning,” day by day, beginning each day by listening to God, and then following through by living as God teaches him to live. And look at the consequences: “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.” This is the obedience God required from his Servant? Well, yes, in part because that tended—and tends—to be the lot of a true prophet. A prophet who stood at the center of power and told the powerful that they were OK would be either unnecessary or lying—and given human nature, rather more of the latter than of the former. True prophets stood, and stand, on the edges, challenging godless behavior, challenging society’s comfortable assumptions, challenging people’s unwillingness to change and to deny themselves; and that’s never a popular message, and so it brings retribution.

More than that, however, the Servant must accept suffering without even trying to avoid it; he’s called to trust God to vindicate him in the end, to hold fast to God’s promise that he will not end in disgrace, but will be found righteous and will see his victory at the last, and set his face like flint to take the mockery and the beatings. He is confident that his trust in God will be justified and his message and mission will be proven true and right, and so he accepts the abuse and the punishment that his enemies hand out without fighting back, knowing that their end will come in due time.

And his reward for this? Because he listened as a disciple, he has the tongue of a disciple, to know the word that sustains the weary. This is a precious gift, and a gift the world cannot match. You can’t get that from the world’s conventional wisdom, or from self-help books; you can’t get it from anything the world has to offer, because the world really doesn’t do grace, and isn’t half so good at love as it thinks it is. The world is impatient with human weakness, intolerant of human frailty—of any frailty it takes seriously as such, anyway—and it’s afraid of death, so anything to do with death, dying, and loss, it just wants to put out of its mind as quickly as possible. Its advice is always about doing this or that—“Just do it,” “Just work harder,” or perhaps “Work smarter, not harder,” as the case might be—and tends to be of the sort that only burdens the weary, rather than sustaining them. Or perhaps I might say, us?

No, the word that sustains the weary is a word from God, and can only come from one who has not bowed the knee to the way of the world and its expectations, and who has accepted the world’s abuse and not fought back. It can only come from one who trusts in God, not in human strength, and so is able to see clearly just how limited human strength really is, and how little it really counts for in the end. Ultimately, it’s a word that can only come from Jesus Christ, though he gives his followers the privilege of speaking it through us to those who need to hear it. It’s a word of grace and mercy, of forgiveness and healing—that says that it’s OK if we can’t suck it up and “just do it” in our own strength, because that’s not what God asks of us anyway. It’s God saying to us, “Just trust me—it’ll be all right. I’ll take care of you, I’ll provide for you, I’ll guide and protect you if you’ll follow me—just trust me.”

The Servant for the World

(Isaiah 49:1-13Romans 11:11-21)

Isaiah 48 ends in a difficult place, with a real conundrum. God is not abandoning his plan for the world, nor is he willing to turn away from his people; but they’ve rejected the part he had prepared for them, and he’s conceding their refusal to change, and to play that part. He’ll still deliver them from Babylon and return them to Jerusalem, but he will no longer depend on them, or entrust his mission to the nations to them. Chapter 48 brings their corporate part in that mission to a close. Which raises the question: if Plan A is dead, then what’s Plan B? What does God do now?

The answer to that question begins in chapter 49 with the reintroduction of the Servant of the LORD. We’ve seen the Servant just once so far, in chapter 42, where he was already associated with God’s mission to the Gentiles, but not in a way that ruled out Israel’s involvement in that mission. Here, however, things have shifted, and the Servant has clearly replaced Israel; God’s promises to his people will still be fulfilled, but they will be fulfilled in a different way than they might have been.

Some things, however, haven’t shifted at all. One is that God still has no intention of reaching the nations by force of conquest. Thus the Servant says of himself, “The LORD . . . made my mouth like a sharp sword.” Now, it’s true that anyone who says “The pen is mightier than the sword” has probably never been stabbed with either, but words do have power, and the word of God most of all; God himself promises in Isaiah 55:11, which we’ll read in a few weeks, that “my word . . . will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” The Servant would speak that word which pierces until it divides soul from spirit and joints from marrow—which, in other words, is so sharp it can separate even the inseparable—and which judges our innermost thoughts and intentions, and that would be all he needed to carry out God’s mission; but bear in mind that the power of words is not a power which protects those who wield it. That’s why the First Amendment enshrines freedom of speech and freedom of the press, because those who stab with the pen tend to end up skewered by the sword. Such people also often don’t see the fruit of their labor, which is left to later generations to pick and enjoy.

Clearly this is the case for the Servant. God says to him, “You are my servant—you are the ideal Israel—in you I will glorify myself”; but the Servant looks around and thinks, “That’s not what I’m seeing.” He sees no result from anything he has done, except that he has become “deeply despised and abhorred by the nation”; all his efforts have brought him no reward, only suffering. In a world that measures us by our success, he is a clear failure, and so he says to himself, “I have labored to no purpose; I have spent my strength in vain and for nothing.”

And yet . . . and yet. The Servant knows God is with him, and he knows that God’s word carries with it his power. He knows that the Lord will always accomplish his purpose, and that he takes care of those who follow him, and so the Servant says, “But—the justice due me is with the LORD, and my reward is with my God.” I may be done wrong now, I may have to suffer injustice—but the justice due me is with the LORD, and this injustice won’t stand. I may suffer now for speaking the word of God and doing what he calls me to do—but the justice due me is with the LORD, and all will be made right in the end. I may be attacked and persecuted for the sake of the truth, but my reward is with my God, and in the end this will seem a small price to pay. My faithful service may go ignored and unappreciated in this life, but my reward is with my God, and he doesn’t miss a thing. All my efforts may seem to get me nowhere, but if I speak his word, whether I see any results or not, that is enough, because his word carries his power and it never fails of its purpose. Regardless of what I see around me today, the justice due me is with the LORD, and my reward is with my God—and he never fails to accomplish what he sets out to do.

That is the Servant’s consolation in the face of his apparent failure; and after all, isn’t it backed up by his own life and ministry? God established Israel for a purpose, to be his faithful servant to be his salvation to the whole earth, but Israel was a faithless servant and failed in that purpose; now, not only has God’s plan not been carried out, but Israel itself has gone so far off the rails that it has been carried off into exile. God’s people have become part of the problem, not part of the solution. But even if Israel has derailed itself, that doesn’t mean God’s plan has been derailed; rather, he has raised up a new, ideal Israel, a new Servant who will be faithful to follow God’s will, and the plan goes forward. God always accomplishes his purposes.

But does this mean that God is settling for second-best? Is the Servant merely Plan B? Did Israel’s disobedience force God to come up with a backup plan?

Yes and no; but mostly no. There’s something very interesting going on in verses 5 and 6, but our English translations treat it as a mistake that must be corrected; that’s the reason the NIV’s translation of verse 5 is so choppy. You see, what we have in verse 5 isn’t the Hebrew text as it stands—it’s an amended version. A straightforward reading of verses 5 and 6 runs like this:

Now the LORD, the one who made me from the womb 
                     to serve him,
             resolved to turn Jacob to him,
                     but Israel would not be gathered;
      yet I am honored in the eyes of the Lord,
             for my God has been my strength.
He said, “It is too small that you should be my servant
             to raise up the tribes of Jacob
             and to restore the survivors of Israel;
      I will make you a light to the nations,
             to be my salvation to the end of the earth.”

In other words, the Servant sees himself as a failure, because he’s been sent to turn the hearts of the Israelites back to God, and they’ve rejected him—they’ve refused to be gathered; and God says in response, “It’s OK—that’s too small a task for you anyway. We’ll move on with the mission: I will make you my light to the nations and my salvation to all the world.”

Now, later generations of Jewish scholars really didn’t like that, and so they looked for ways to amend it. They came up with a couple that are pretty iffy by normal standards, but when the alternative is unacceptable, you take the best you can get—and so they did. They decided that the word meaning “not”—in the Hebrew, it’s “lo”—should be read as another “lo” (which is actually spelled differently), which means “to him.” Reading the text that way requires making a preposition or two behave in an unusual fashion, and it gives you a passage that doesn’t really fit together very well—but it makes the meaning of the text much more palatable, and so they went with it, leaving a note in the margin to indicate that this is how this verse should be understood. Our English translations follow that note, and so we end up with the reading we have.

If you don’t follow that note, however, if you don’t try to explain away the Hebrew text but take it straightforwardly as written, this passage makes perfect sense; it fits better with the rest of what’s going on in this part of Isaiah, and it helps us to see connections to other parts of Scripture. In particular, it reveals a link between this passage and Romans 11. In Romans 9-11, Paul deals with the question of the future of the Jews in God’s plan; he struggles with the fact that so many of his own people had hardened their hearts and refused to accept the Messiah, and builds an argument that in the end, Israel will be redeemed. In our passage this morning, he argues that even the Jewish rejection of Jesus served a purpose, because it provided an opportunity for Gentiles to come into the people of God. Though Paul doesn’t base his argument on Isaiah 49, it seems that Isaiah was looking forward to that same point: Israel’s refusal to be gathered back to God created the opportunity for the Servant to be the light to the nations.

This is not, of course, to say that all Israel rejected God, which is clearly not the case; nor is it to say that God has rejected Israel—an idea which Paul refutes at length in Romans 11, finally making the statement in 11:26 that “all Israel will be saved.” It is, however, to say that even when the Jewish leaders and people failed to turn as a whole and accept Jesus as the Messiah, God had included that refusal in his plan and made it an occasion of blessing for the Gentiles—for us. Israel’s earlier disobedience, refusing to be a faithful servant, Israel’s later rejection of the Messiah—these may appear to have forced God to Plan B; but in truth, God already knew they were coming. That’s not what he wanted to happen, but he knew they would, and he allowed for it in his plan.

This is an important point: God’s sovereignty is such that we can’t prevent him from accomplishing his purposes. He allows us freedom to choose, and he uses whatever we do, whether we choose to obey him or not. When we disobey him, obviously that’s not part of his perfect will and plan for us, but it doesn’t disrupt what he’s doing or force him to change plans, because he knew what we would do before we did; and though it isn’t best, he’ll use it for good. There is no failure he cannot redeem, no sinner he cannot restore, because in everything and everyone, he is still Lord, and he is the God who grows white flowers from even the blackest roots. He will work through our obedience or through our disobedience; if we obey, that’s better for us and for all concerned, but whether we do or don’t, none of it catches him off guard. Even his Plan B is Plan A.

And in this case, his plan was to bring his people back to himself—not just Jews, but people from all the nations. Thus God’s word to the Servant in verse 6, which the NIV mistranslates a little: “I will make you a light for the Gentiles, to be my salvation to the ends of the earth.” The Servant will not be merely the messenger announcing God’s salvation, he will be the one in and through whom God will extend his salvation to all people everywhere. Thus he says in verse 8—and don’t be misled by the NIV’s heading there, this section is addressed to the Servant, and talking about more than just the exiles in Babylon—“I will give you as a covenant to the people.” God’s people had broken his covenant with them in pretty much every way imaginable, but he wasn’t willing to give up on it, and so he would offer it in a new form—the form of his Servant. Only this time, the covenant would extend beyond the descendants of Abraham; it would involve the re-turn of the Jews, yes, but it would also draw people from every point of the compass. Look at verse 12—“from afar” denotes the east, then around the compass—from the north, from the west (literally “the sea,” the Mediterranean), and from the south—“Sinim,” at the southern edge of Egypt, the southern border of the known civilized world.

From every direction, God promises his Servant, from every tribe, nation and language of the earth, people will come home to me because of what you have done. My mountains will become a highway for them, and my blessing will be so abundant that even the barren places will provide them enough food to keep going; they will have food and water, and they will be protected from the heat of the desert. This is the imagery and the promise of Isaiah 40, now opened to all nations, including us, by the work of the Servant, Jesus the Messiah; Jesus, whom he gave to us to be his salvation for the whole world. By the power of his word, through his faithfulness, through his suffering, Jesus became the salvation of God for us and the covenant of God with us, so that we too might be called children of God.

The Stubborn Faithfulness of God

(Isaiah 48Matthew 23:37-39)

In these passages, we see the grief of God.  If ever there was a people who had reason to trust God, it was the Israelites. Just look at all the miracles and mighty works God did for their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and then for them as a nation. They were a slave race, being worked to death—literally—by the Egyptians, and God broke them out, and led them through the Red Sea to get the army off their trail; you’d think they’d respond with unstinting gratitude and trust. Nope. Before they’ve even halfway escaped, they’re already complaining and reminiscing about the good old days—when, sure, the Egyptians worked them to exhaustion every day from morning until night, and if they ever slacked off, the overseers would whip them back to work—but hey! they had onions!

Things didn’t get better from there, either; God would keep raising up leaders, and for a while, the people would follow, but as soon as they got the chance they were off chasing after other gods again. Finally, things got so bad that God allowed his people to be conquered and dragged off to Mesopotamia; but they didn’t learn their lesson. Indeed, his proclamation of deliverance, of an end to their exile and a return home, was met with distrust, complaints, and resistance, as we’ve seen over the past number of weeks. In consequence, Isaiah has responded alternately with frustration and anger at his people’s stubborn disbelief and by pleading with them to trust God for all he’s done for them, and for what he’s going to do.

Both of these things reach their peak in this chapter. As we’ve been reading through Isaiah 40-55, what’s commonly called Second Isaiah, I’ve talked about it as one section of the larger book, and it is; but in its turn, it’s most definitely divided into two parts. This chapter is the end of the first part; with chapter 49, something new begins, and we’ll talk about that next week. What we can see here is a clear statement of the problem Israel presents—their stubborn refusal to be faithful to God, and his equally stubborn determination to be faithful to them anyway.

Look how this chapter begins. Remember, we’ve had God’s repeated promise to bring his people back out of exile, and his repeated statements that he will do so by raising up Cyrus, king of the Medes and the Persians, to conquer Babylon and carry out his purposes. We’ve just had, in the passage we read last week, an extended description of the judgment God will visit on Babylon through Cyrus, bringing them down from their pride and arrogance to a point of utter defeat and humiliation. All this should be good news—but as far as response from God’s people, we’ve seen disbelief that he can actually do what he promises, refusal to turn away from their idols to put their trust in him alone, and nationalistic whining that God would use yet another pagan to set them free rather than enabling them to free themselves. What we haven’t seen any sign of is faithful obedience to the commands and will of God.

As a consequence, God begins by addressing his people through his prophet, and he piles on the descriptions: “Listen to this, O house of Jacob, you who are called by the name of Israel”—the name which God had given to Jacob—“and come from the line of Judah, you who take oaths in the name of the LORD and invoke the God of Israel.” All this marks them as the people who belong to him: he’s the one who chose them, he’s the one who named them, he’s the God with whom their nation is identified and in whose name they take their oaths. He is, we might say, the God of their civil religion, in the same way as our public officials and witnesses in our courts swear on the Bible and end their oaths of office with the words, “so help me God.” But just as we have a lot of people who say those words and mean nothing by them, so Israel’s outward participation in the rituals of their faith said little for the reality of their beliefs; and so God says, “Though you call upon me and take oaths in my name, it’s neither in truth nor in righteousness.” Their faith, he says, is false, because it’s not based in real knowledge of him nor does it produce any real willingness to live as he wants them to live.

This is a pretty strong charge. In contemporary terms, he’s saying that the faith of the nation as a whole—not of everyone in it, of course, but of the nation as a whole—is nominal. It’s a matter of outward show with no inward reality, of religious exercise without any real faith. This wasn’t an issue which was unique to them, of course; if we want to be honest, looking around at the church in this country, we’d have to wonder if God would say much the same sort of thing to us, if Isaiah were alive in our day. There certainly are other voices saying this; one is Michael Spencer, who had a column in the Christian Science Monitor this week—you might have seen it—in which he predicted the complete collapse of American evangelicalism within the next ten years, to be followed by “an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West” in which “public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity” and we’ll see actual persecution of believers in this country. His reason for this conclusion, though he doesn’t put it in the terms Isaiah uses, boils down to pretty much the same thing: American Christians invoke the name of the God of Israel, but not in truth or righteousness. As a consequence, he argues, the church in this country is as hollow as a soufflé rising in the oven; all it will take is one slam of a door to bring it down.

Now, I happen to think, and have argued elsewhere, that Spencer’s conclusions are overstated; I also think he’s left the Holy Spirit out of the equation altogether. That said, I think he’s called attention to a real problem in much of the American church; I think we need to realize that Isaiah’s words to Israel here hit a lot closer to home than we might like to think. It seems to me that verse 2 offers us something of a clue as to why. At first glance, this might seem like an odd follow-up to verse 1; but consider the description of the people of Israel here: “you who call yourselves citizens of the holy city and rely on the God of Israel.” Here as in verse 1, God is identified as the God of Israel; and what does the prophet say in response: “The LORD Almighty is his name.”

That’s subtle, but I think it’s a rebuke to the parochialism of Israel. Their concern is only for themselves, and they see their God as just “an amiable local deity who exists to keep track of Israel’s interests,” as John Oswalt puts it. Instead of seeing themselves as a nation formed by the only God of all time and space for the purpose of bringing all the nations to the worship of that God, they see themselves as a nation like any other nation, with a god like any other nation, out for their own best interests like any other nation; and since they’re a small nation, they must have a small god, and thus they keep running after the gods of the bigger, more powerful nations in hopes of improving their geopolitical standing. What God wants them to see is that the nation ought to be only of secondary importance; he’s promised to return them to their homeland, yes, but not because their political independence or political power are of any significance whatsoever. It is, rather, for his own sake, for the sake of his reputation and his glory. What matters is God’s plan for the world, and their faithfulness to serve him by doing their part in it.

Of course, they don’t get this, and they don’t particularly want to; but God keeps working on them. He reminds his people of the many times in the past that he had told them what would happen, and then brought about what he predicted; and look at verses 4-5. Why did he do this? “Because I knew how stubborn you are”! If God had simply done good things for them, would they have given him the credit? No, they would have given the credit as they saw fit, to the idols they themselves had made. God told them what he was going to do before he did it so that they would know who was truly responsible. They could always refuse to admit that knowledge—and sometimes they did; that’s why God has to say, “You’ve heard these things. Won’t you admit them?”—but they would have no excuse and no justification for their refusal.

This is also why he says, “From now on I will tell you of new things, of hidden things unknown to you. They are created now, not long ago; you have not heard of them before today, and so you cannot say, ‘Yes, I knew of them.’” This is the reason, or part of the reason, why God chose to use Cyrus to return the Jews to Israel: because it was a new thing, something he hadn’t done before, and that his people couldn’t and wouldn’t have predicted. It also gave him the opportunity to predict—by name—the appearance and success of someone from a pagan nation, someone who didn’t worship him or even know of his existence, and thus to demonstrate in a new way that he truly is the God of the whole world, the LORD Almighty, not just the God of Israel.

And he does all this despite Israel’s willful refusal to listen. “See,” he says, “I have refined you, but not as silver.” During Advent, we looked at Malachi 3, where the prophet says that the Lord will sit as a refiner of silver, and we talked a little about what that meant; we talked about the fact that the refiner of silver burns away all the dross, all the impurities, until only the silver is left, and in its absolute purity he can see his face reflected in it. Here, the Lord is giving up on that, at least where Israel is concerned. Their time in exile hasn’t brought them around to repentance, it hasn’t brought them to a spirit of true faithfulness—but there’s no point in leaving them in the fire; there’s no point in refining them further, because it wouldn’t accomplish anything. To try to refine them as silver would leave nothing of them at all, because everything would burn away, and so God declares, “I delay my wrath . . . I hold it back from you,” simply for the sake of his own reputation and his own praise.

There is, I said, a sad tone to this chapter. After all God has done for his people and all the promises he’s made them, and even after the promise to bring them back from their exile in Babylon, they remain obstinate, unwilling to open their hearts, unwilling to seek him first; and so here, it seems to me, we have God conceding that that isn’t going to change. Their neck remains unbending iron, their forehead remains obdurate bronze, and their ears remain insistently closed, refusing to hear what God would tell them; and so he says, “I am the LORD your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go”—the very thing his people refused to believe, because they thought they had a better idea what was best for them, and which way they should go.

They thought they knew best, and they refused to accept his correction, and so all God can do is cry out, “If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your righteousness like the waves of the sea. Your descendants would have been like the sand, your children like its numberless grains; their name would never be cut off nor destroyed from before me.” If only . . . if only. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem,” Jesus cried out, “how often I have longed to gather your children together as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings; but you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate, and you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

And yet, despite it all, God remains faithful. He delivers his people from Babylon, bringing them back to Jerusalem, even though it won’t be the deliverance he desires, even though he knows it won’t bring them his peace because their hearts remain wicked; he delivers them because he has promised, because his nature requires it, because who he is is to be faithful and to keep his word. He remains faithful and delivers his people because even though they don’t believe in him, even though they don’t listen to him, even though they don’t trust him, yet he is who he says he is; he is faithful even when his people don’t expect him to be, don’t trust him to be, maybe at some level don’t want him to be, and even when they will never respond to his faithfulness with faithfulness of their own.

You cannot outrun God, and you cannot go beyond his faithfulness; no matter how far you may go in your sin, repentance isn’t about turning around and trying to find your way back to God, because he’s already there—repentance is simply about accepting being found. No matter what may come and how far you may push it, you cannot go beyond the faithfulness of God until you’re dead—and maybe, somehow, not even then. You just can’t. If you don’t believe that, just look at Jesus; just look at how far God has already gone, and think about it for a while.

So what does God ask from us? To trust him. To trust in his faithfulness, and to live out of that trust. Being faithful to God isn’t a matter of doing certain things, or living in a certain way; that’s what results from faithfulness. The faithfulness God desires is a matter of trusting him enough that we live as he calls us to live, not out of duty, but because we really believe that he teaches us what’s best for us, and because we trust him that he truly is directing us in the way in which we should go.

Arrogance Judged

(Isaiah 47; Revelation 18:1-8)

If you look in your bulletin or up on the screen, you can see that I titled this brief message “Arrogance Judged,” because that’s what our passages this morning are about—God’s judgment on the arrogance of Babylon. I might have called this message “The Other Side of the Coin,” because that too is what it’s about: the other side of the coin to God’s promise of deliverance. For God’s people to return to Israel, they must first leave Babylon; after the Babylonians went to all the trouble to drag them away from Israel to begin with, they aren’t going to say, “Sorry about that, never mind, we shouldn’t have done that, we’ll just send you all back home now.” Babylon is arrogant in its power, confident in its mastery, and sees no reason to accommodate the wishes of one of its subject peoples. The Jews existed to accommodate them, not the other way around. Daniel and his friends had an effect on Nebuchadnezzar, but not enough to change that mindset. As such, Israel’s deliverance wasn’t going to come as part of a win-win situation—it was going to come together with God’s judgment on Babylon their oppressor.

And isn’t that usually the way it goes? The oppressor, the abuser, the manipulator, the evil people and movements and governments of this world, don’t generally stop doing what they do and start doing what’s right just because somebody says “pretty please.” Most of the time, his deliverance of the oppressed means his judgment on the oppressor; his love requires his wrath. There are those who complain about the book of Revelation, or about the Old Testament prophets, because they use the language of war and blood and fire; but the truth is, the prophets are just realistic. They know that God’s deliverance isn’t going to come at no cost to anybody—and they know that it shouldn’t; those on whom God’s judgment falls have earned that judgment by their actions and attitudes. The message of the prophets is that the judgment the wicked have earned is coming—not necessarily quickly, for God shows his mercy and his patience even with the worst of us, but it is coming, as sure as sunrise and as utterly unstoppable.

There is in this both a warning and a promise. The warning is that we aren’t exempt; and indeed, it may be that the more sure we become that we have nothing to worry about, the more reason we have in truth to be concerned. After all, part of the indictment against Babylon was that Babylon was oblivious to the judgment she was storing up by her actions; her leaders and her people thought they’d earned their success and that it would continue indefinitely. The problem was, they’d built their nation and their culture on the wrong foundation, and put their faith in gods of their own invention, gods who could not save; their confidence in themselves was misplaced, because it lacked the necessary support to hold up. They thought judgment would never come, that they would never pay the price for their actions; but it came anyway, and Babylon fell.

The promise is that God’s justice will come. It may not come as swiftly as we wish—after all, we want God to show his mercy and patience to us, while we’re usually not as keen for him to do so to those who make our lives miserable—but it will come. It may come as it came upon Babylon, or it may come in other ways; it’s instructive that in the Psalms, when David is praying that God would take care of his enemies, he tends to ask God to destroy them either by killing them or by bringing them to repentance. Sometimes that’s the result of God’s patience with our enemies—sometimes they bring themselves to their knees and come to ask our forgiveness. That can be a hard thing for us to think about; it’s easy to be like Jonah and really want God to blast our enemies and the people who do us wrong. But as we see in Jonah and as we see in the words of Christ on the cross, even the Ninevites, even the Babylonians, even the Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus, are not beyond his love and redemption; even for them, Christ died. It’s his desire to destroy his enemies by making them his children; it’s his desire to destroy the evildoer and the wicked by humbling their pride in repentance. But if they will not, then the time will come when they will reap the whirlwind they have sown, as Babylon did.

This means, finally, that we must be careful; this is why the warning comes in Revelation 18:4: “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues.” The Israelites of the exile had been dragged into captivity, but they weren’t in prison; they were part of Babylonian society, and they had the very real option to go native, if you will, to just become Babylonians themselves. This can be a powerful temptation, even in extreme situations—the most extreme form of this is what we call “Stockholm syndrome,” which some of you may remember from the case of Patty Hearst, who went from terrorized kidnapping victim of the SLA to an active participant in their crimes. Under more normal circumstances, we see it in the temptation to go along to get along, to go with the flow, to compromise with the world; it’s easier to just not fight it. This is a temptation we need to resist. This isn’t to say that we need to separate ourselves from the world—I don’t say that no one’s called to that, but most people aren’t; rather, we need to differentiate ourselves from the world even as we live in it. We need to separate ourselves from the ways of the world and to live the Jesus way in the midst of everything the world is doing.

A God Who Hides?

(Isaiah 45:14-46:13Romans 11:33-36)

I said last week that Isaiah 45 is a hard chapter, that it digs into things that are neither easy to understand nor easy for us to accept; it deals with truths that are hard like granite, sharp-edged and unyielding as stone. There is comfort in these truths, but not comfort that comes to us on our own terms; it isn’t the comfort of an overstuffed easy chair in a warm room, but rather of the great stone wall that holds out the storm. It’s a comfort that does not promise to give us what we want, but rather asks us to trust God for what he will give; which is, I believe, a better thing in the end, but the truth of that is not always obvious. Indeed, it’s sometimes far from obvious.

Which fact, I think, sets up the last of the really hard statements in chapter 45. We begin this section of the book with another prophecy of the nations coming to Israel—focused this time on the peoples of northern Africa, where Israel had once been enslaved; now, those nations will come and voluntarily submit themselves to Israel, even to the point of making themselves slaves. Why? Because they recognize that the God of Israel is the only true god, and they’re willing to do anything—whatever it takes—in order to get in on Israel’s worship.

And then comes this statement: “Truly you are a God who hides yourself, O God of Israel, the Savior.” “Truly you are a God who hides yourself.” What are we supposed to make of that? It’s hard to say, because we don’t even know who’s speaking here. It’s just been the nations who were talking; is it still? Is this the response of the people of Israel to the promise God has just made? Is it the prophet? We don’t know. There are scholars who argue for each of those possibilities, but none of their arguments are all that strong; the simplest reading is that this is still the people of the nations talking, but that’s really not a great reason all by itself to come to that conclusion. In the end, I think we just have to accept that we don’t know who’s speaking here; it’s obviously not God, but it could be just about anyone else.

And in the end, perhaps it really doesn’t matter all that much. One of the reasons we don’t know who’s speaking in verse 15 is that nobody else argues with this statement—Isaiah doesn’t, Israel doesn’t, the nations don’t; whoever says it, it stands unchallenged. Which means that we should probably read this as a statement they all agree with, one that makes sense from all their perspectives, and see why that might be—and particularly, why it makes sense in this context. Taken by themselves, these words might seem bitter and cynical, but they clearly aren’t; they’re a response to a very good thing, to the nations discovering and coming to faith in the God of all creation, the Lord of the world. These words might be taken to mean that God plays games with people for some negative purpose, but that’s clearly not true either; God himself disclaims that in verse 19: “I have not spoken in secret, from somewhere in a land of darkness; I have not said to Jacob’s descendants, ‘Seek me in vain.’”

What then does this statement mean? I suspect there are three truths in view here. First, God could be said to hide himself in that he’s often not to be found where we look for him, in the ways in which we expect to find him. From the perspective of the nations, this is the most basic meaning here: they didn’t find the true God working in any of the great nations of the world, playing the game of conquest. According to the way they understood things, that was how you knew which gods were greater than others; thus, for instance, when the expanding Babylonian empire conquered Assyria, that was understood as a victory not just for the emperor of Babylon over the Assyrian emperor, but also for Marduk, Bel, and Nebo, the gods of the Babylonians, over the gods of the Assyrians; by their conquest, they had proven themselves more powerful gods. The idea that there might be only one God, and that that God might be found not with one of the mighty empires of the world but with one of the small nations they had conquered, was a radically strange idea for the peoples of the world. Indeed, that idea was even a strange one to the people of Israel, to God’s own people, which is why God keeps having to make his case even to them, as he does again in this passage, that only he, not the idols of the nations, is to be worshiped and obeyed.

The problem is, Israel kept buying into the world’s conventional wisdom, that the power of God is with the strong, and worldly success is proof of divine favor; as a consequence, they kept concluding that the logical thing to do, the logical way to improve their situation, was to worship the gods of other nations as well as their own. This is a problem because God is not to be found in our conventional wisdom; he doesn’t do things in the ways that we expect, according to what makes sense to us, because he isn’t limited by our knowledge and understanding. That’s why the gifts he gives aren’t limited by our knowledge and understanding, either; that’s why he kept trying to give Israel something so much bigger than they wanted—he kept trying to give them the gift of being the ones through whom he would redeem the nations, when they just wanted him to help them conquer the nations. That’s why the late singer-songwriter Rich Mullins spoke truth when he said, “If you want a religion that makes sense, go somewhere else. But if you want a religion that makes life, choose Christianity.” Because that’s so often the problem, that we’re looking for a god who makes sense to us on our terms; it’s not really that God is hiding from us, but that our expectations and assumptions are blocking our eyes and ears.

What this means is that God is not found by those who are unwilling to find him; he isn’t found by the proud and the haughty, by those who have all the answers, by those who are confident in their own strength to conquer life on their own terms. He isn’t found by those who aren’t really seeking him, who aren’t willing to surrender their lives to him; he isn’t found by the assertive and the self-sufficient. God is found by the humble and the contrite, by those who know they need him. This is why it’s said at times that he hides his face from Israel in judgment—Israel knows he’s there, not because they sought him and found him but because someone else did, but too often, they aren’t really seeking him at all, they’re only seeking his benefits. They want him to give them what they want while they disregard his commands, and so he hides his face from them, he turns away and leaves them in the silence until they will humble themselves and truly seek, not their own best interest, but his face.

There’s another aspect to this as well, that in the ancient world, all the other gods had their statues; only the God of Israel, as far as I know, went without physical images for his people to worship. The nations around Israel expected to be able to walk into a temple and see the god—but in this, too, the Lord was (and is) a God who hides. And while this might seem like a minor thing, it’s really anything but. The gods of the world can be represented, can be seen; the one true God can’t. In theological terms, he is transcendent—he’s so far above and beyond us that, as he tells Moses in Exodus 33, no frail, sinful human being can see him and survive the experience. He is too bright to see; that’s why the hymn we sang last week calls him “immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.” That’s why the poet Henry Vaughan, in one of his finest moments, wrote, “There is in God—some say—a deep but dazzling darkness”: God’s light is so bright that it overwhelms our ability to perceive it, and becomes to us instead the deepest of darkness. He is too bright, too big, too great, to be seen.

And here, then, is the wonder, and here is the miracle, to which Isaiah has already pointed in chapter 42: this God who was hidden from us in unapproachable light, this God whom no one could see and live, crossed that divide in his own power and revealed himself to us as Jesus Christ. This God who forbade us to make any image of him, who would not allow us to imagine our own version of him, gave us more than just an image of himself—he gave us himself, becoming fully human and living a full human life.

When we talk about Jesus coming, we tend to focus on his death and resurrection—especially in this season of Lent—and there’s certainly good reason for that; and we focus too on all the things he taught, and that’s also completely appropriate. But I think we lose sight, sometimes, of the fact that those aren’t the only reasons he came; and that one of the reasons he came is simply that we might know him in a new way and be able to relate to him more closely. God will always be beyond our ability to fully understand, certainly, as Paul says in Romans 11, quoting from Isaiah 40; and there will always be times when his face seems hidden to us. That’s just the way it is in this broken, sin-haunted, pain-darkened world of ours. But at the same time, even as it remains true that no one in this world has ever seen God in all his glory, yet it’s no longer true that no one has ever seen God: for as John 1:18 says, God the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, has made him known. The divide we could never cross, he crossed for us, out of love for us; in Jesus, the hidden face of God has been forever revealed.