The God who doesn't give up - Isaiah 48
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Have you ever been in a situation where you think that you have tried just about everything and then feel like giving up? Maybe it is a building project in the home. The idea of fitting a new kitchen seems appealing and easy enough and so you go down to B and Q and buy all that you need and then start to work. Things seem to go swimmingly at first and then you discover that you are just a few inches short oo the draining board. So you fix that. Then you find that the back wall is uneven and there is a two inch gap between the sink and the wall. So you patch that up. Then, lo and behold, if the pipe attachments to the spin dryer aren’t the right size! At this point my Dad would have been throwing his hammer in the direction of the window. Me? I just avoid DIY altogether. But it is when it comes to giving up on people that it becomes all the more painful. We know of a Christian couple who adopted two children from a difficult home. They did what they thought best in lavishing their love and care on them, bringing them up in the Christian faith. Then the teen years hit and the boy really went wild. Constantly in trouble with the police, expelled from school, stealing from his mother’s purse, lying, bringing friends into the house and messing it up when they were away; it simply broke their hearts. What do you do? Give up? The mother said to us in the midst of all this rebellion, “We now know how God feels when we treat him this way.” So you are forced to ask the question: what is it that makes God keep taking us back? Why doesn’t he simply give up? Well, we are going to find out the answer to those questions tonight as we turn to Isaiah 48.
The key verse is verse 20, ‘The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob.’ Although that redemption is future both in terms of the deliverance of Israel from Babylonian captivity and from their sins by the death of God’s servant which is described in chapter 53, it is so certain of happening that it is put in the past tense. But notice the name given by Isaiah to describe the people God has redeemed- it is Jacob. Jacob is the man from whom the Jews were descended. But we are talking about Jacob who was a cheat, Jacob the crook, Jacob the coward, Jacob the loser- in other words someone no respectable person would care to give the time of day - yet God chose him to be the father of this great nation and to be a blessing to the ends of the earth. And hundreds of years later, in Isaiah’s day in the 8th century right up to the release from Exile in the sixth century, that is how their character remained- crooked. And you then begin to ask the question; are they worth redeeming? Has God made a mistake? Are they worth all the pain and all the effort and all disappointment that God will experience? Whether they are worth it is open to question, the fact that God thinks it is worth it is quite undeniable as we shall see.
So lets’ take a look at the reality of God’s people-vv 1-8. And the reality is not a pleasant one and can be summed up in two words- hypocrisy and treachery.
The hypocrisy of God’s people is spelt out in verses 1 and 2. They have the right name- Israel, they have the right royal background-descended from Judah, they use the right language- making vows in God’s name, they worship at the right place- Zion, they claim the right faith- reliance upon the Lord Almighty-no pagan gods for them. So on the face of it these are the genuine article, you would look at all the externals and go ‘wow’ these people have really got it together! But then look at God’s verdict. For all their religiosity it is ‘not in truth or righteousness.’ In other words there is no sincerity about it, no authenticity or integrity- just a pride on being the right people but not having a right heart.
Add to this is the treachery of verses 3-8. Look at what God says in verse 3, ‘I foretold the former things long ago, my mouth announced them and I made them known; then suddenly I acted, and they came to pass. 4For I knew how stubborn you were; the sinews of your neck were iron, your forehead was bronze. 5Therefore I told you these things long ago; before they happened I announced them to you so that you could not say, `My idols did them; my wooden image and metal god ordained them.' What is the prophet getting at and what are these former things he speaks about? Well, when you read through the Old Testament you will see that time and time again God makes predictions about what will take place which he reveals to his people. So for example back in Genesis 15 God tells Abraham that his descendents were going to be captive in a country not their own for about 400 years before they would be brought into the promised land- and you know what? It happened. And Israel’s history is peppered with those kinds of things, the most amazing and specific predictions are made by God way ahead of time, and they take place. Now why did God do this? Well, for a very unflattering reason- because these people are stiff necked and spiritually thicker than two short planks- in fact with heads thicker than bronze-v4. God had these predictions down on record way ahead of time so that when they did happen, his people couldn’t shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Oh my idols did that.’ For that was their natural bent to ascribe glory to anything and anyone but God- that is, in the words of v8, God’s people are treacherous- disloyal.
And so ingrained is their treachery that God has to keep on doing the same thing-v 6, "From now on I will tell you of new things, of hidden things unknown to you. 7They are created now, and not long ago;
you have not heard of them before today. So you cannot say, `Yes, I knew of them.' What are the new things? They are things being predicted by Isaiah in around 700 BC. In chapter 39 he predicted the captivity in Babylon. In chapter 44 he speaks of a deliverer called Cyrus- 150 years before he was even born- how specific can you get? You try and get around that one as being mere chance. But as we shall see next week, he also speaks of a Suffering Servant whose prediction is so detailed that it is even said that he will be killed in the most hideous fashion imaginable alongside wicked men and assigned a grave with the rich man (singular). And you know that happened some 700 years later with Jesus of Nazareth, as he died with two thieves and was placed in the grave of a rich man called Joseph from Arimathea. That was a new thing when all of God’s redemptive purposes for the world came to a climax. But the point is God has to do this because he couldn’t trust his people to ascribe God his due.
Now perhaps we think this was simply a word for God’s people then and not for God’s people now? That it is inconceivable that anyone could accuse us of hypocrisy and treachery. If only that could be so. Maybe we think that everyone who carries a Bible is a real Christian? I certainly used to think so, but time and experience has taught me differently. And perhaps the most beguiling hypocrisy of all is evangelical hypocrisy. There is such a thing as the nominal evangelical- the nominal Bible believer. This is the one who loves to make all the pious statements, who speaks so much about mission and holiness, but would be the last person in the world to do anything about them. Who loves pride of place of being looked up to as the elder statesman, who gives large cheques to the church treasurer and seems so impressive with his long, earnest prayers rendered at the prayer meeting, quoting the Bible with ease-and yet- and yet for all of this, if the truth be known it is all but a pious mask worn to hide the spiritual barrenness of his own soul. Do you remember My Talkative in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress? He could talk for hours about spiritual things, he could quote the Bible backwards, and you could not have found a more impressive person. And Pilgrim was understandably taken in, until someone put him right by taking him to oneside and pointing out that it was a sure rule that the one who likes to talk the most about spiritual experiences is the one who has had them the least. Could I ask: is that you?
But there is also treachery-indeed, evangelical treachery. What more does God have to do to show us that he has our best interests at heart? He has given us a book full of promises and warnings; over and over again he has deigned to share with us his character as the faithful God, the all knowing, all wise, all saving God. And yet when we come across part of his word which cuts across the grain of our culture or some personal preference of ours, we decide at this point God can’t really mean what he says. 2 Corinthians 6:15 has the clear principle that a Christian should only marry another Christian, not a non-believer- but when we are besotted that one can so easily be set to oneside. You certainly aren’t going to get very far in the ranks of the Church of England if you hold to Acts 4:12, when speaking of Jesus the apostle Peter says, ‘Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which they must be saved.’ You see, as with these people Isaiah is addressing it is very easy to affirm with gusto that ‘We follow Christ and we believe the Bible’ up to the point when he calls us to do something we would prefer not to do. People ask me, ‘Are you an evangelical?’ (whatever that term means now). And if you are, what kind are you? Are you an ‘open evangelical, a conservative evangelical, a charismatic evangelical, a catholic evangelical’ and so on? Well, let me tell you what I want to be -and I so need your prayers for this- I want to be a consistent evangelical. I so want to practice what I preach and preach what I practice and I can’t do that without your help and supremely God’s help. And why can I be confident that God will help, even when, especially when, we find ourselves like this? Well, because of the next thing Isaiah tells us- the reality of God’s passion verses 9-11.
Just look at the intensity of what God is saying in verse 9, ‘For my own name’s sake I delay my wrath; for the sake of my praise I hold it back from you.’ Here is the answer to the question why doesn’t God give up on his people, why his anger doesn’t burn them to a crisp; it is because his reputation is bound up with it, he cannot do that which will diminish his glory. Sure, he has placed his people in a kind of furnace by allowing them to be taken off into a kind of slavery in Babylon, but not to incinerate them but to purify them-v10. And then he reiterates the motive for his faithfulness in v11, ‘For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this. How can I let myself be defamed? I will not yield my glory to another.’ Just what is it about God’s name, his praise, his glory, his own name’s sake, which God is so passionately concerned about that he is willing to endure the unendurable, that is, the repeated hurt and disappointment and frustration of his own people I order that they may be saved? Well, it is all to do with God being God. Perhaps we can think about it in this way: the nature of a star is to burn and so generate heat and light-that is part and parcel of what being a star is all about. Burning and giving of heat and light is part of the star’s ‘starness’. Now just supposing a star had consciousness and said to itself, ‘Well, I don’t want to burn, I don’t want to give off light and heat’, you would then have to say, ‘But then you wouldn’t be a star.’ Well, part of what it means for God to be God is that he is the supreme object of praise and delight, that he is glorified by all of his creatures and everything he has made. God must seek his own glory, for that is what being God means- to be the centre of the universe and so putting everything else in their rightful place. For God not to seek his glory would be sinful for him, ungodlike, like a star not wanting to shine. Do you see? The great American theologian Jonathan Edwards puts it like this: ‘God had to respect himself, as his last and highest end, in this work; because he is worthy in himself to be so, being infinitely the greatest and best of beings. All things else, with regard to worthiness, importance and excellence, are perfectly as nothing in comparison to him…. All that is ever spoken of in the Scriptures as an ultimate end of God’s works is included in that one phrase, the glory of God.’ As such he cannot allow anything to detract from his glory, or besmirch his name. And so if God has made a promise that he will take to himself a people- for better or for worse- then his name or glory would be brought into question on two counts as those people sin. The first is that if he ignores their sin then God’s righteousness would be impugned. People would point to Israel’s God or the church’s God and say, ‘Look he is not bothered about sin. Those folk engage in idolatry, they are as worldly and as materialistic as the rest of us, they tolerate immoral sexual behaviour like the rest of the world- what kind of God is that? How can we possibly take Christianity seriously?’ So what does God do? He has to act and discipline his people to show that he does care- and so he sends an Israel into exile or he disciplines his church by sending them poor leaders who starve them of the Word of God in the hope they will wake up and repent, which is what I believe he is doing with the Church in the West at the moment. But on the other hand, if God were to totally abandon his people, then his name would be maligned for a different reason, for then people would point to him and say, ‘What is the point of worshipping that God? He is rather impatient isn’t he? He is not very forgiving; he is more like the father who kicks the child out of the door for bad behaviour-what kind of relationship is that?’ And so God has to act to defend his reputation on that score. And that is what he is doing here. It is not because Israel has now changed and learnt her lesson that he acts to restore her- clearly she hasn’t in verse 22, ‘there is no rest for the wicked’- the essential character of the people hasn’t changed- but thankfully God hasn’t changed either, he is still faithful and patient and longsuffering; and to prove it he is going to rescue his people. And maybe you are here tonight and you know that there is a particular sin in your life that you are refusing to let go of, and yet God still seems to be blessing you- your ministry is showing fruit, your family and work life are good, if that is the case then whatever you do, don’t take that as a sign that God is approving of you. It simply means he is being patient with you, hoping that his kindness will shame you into mending your ways and come back to him. God will always act- make no mistake- not necessarily for our sake- but he will act for his sake. No matter what, God is sticking to his programme to save the unlovable.
And so we have the reality of God’s plan-vv12-16- that he is Lord over everything for the sake of his people. In v 12-13 he spells out his Lordship over the vast universe- ‘My own hand laid the foundations of the earth, and my right hand spread out the heavens; when I summon them, they all stand up together’ God called into being the stars and the planets- he speaks and- there they are. In verse 14-17 he spells out his Lordship over history- he has announced that the days of the Babylonian Empire are numbered, that he has his man waiting in the wings- the Persian King Cyrus- -v10. The point he is making is this: that every single event, every single item of existence, every single twist and turn of your history, our nation’s history, world history, is under the absolute, loving, purposeful guiding hand of God so that he can bring about his heartfelt desire of having a people saved for himself. When Isaiah speaks of God summoning the stars- that is also an affirmation of his rule over human events because the Babylonians were star worshippers; believing that they were the gods which controlled human destiny. No, God controls their destiny. It’s as if God is saying, ‘None of these astral deities have been able to predict the future let alone control it, but I do both.’ And when you think about it, our personal histories and human histories are so intertwined that God has to be in the detail of everything for this to work otherwise something might happen which could catch him unawares so we might slip through the cracks and be lost. But God won’t let that happen, because he can’t- he is the God who has a specific plan. He has a plan for you and he has a plan for me and it is all bound up with his great plan of bringing into being a new humanity which will bring him nothing but delight and glory. Isn’t that a plan worth being caught up in? Our lives are not trivial, although a lot of what we have to do is mundane- putting on your pyjamas at night, changing the baby’s nappy, emptying the bins- but in the grand scheme of things if you are a follower of this God you have a future (and a present) which counts for something- he has invested his whole being in you. So, doesn’t that make you feel at least a little special?
But we still might have our doubts. I know I can look into my heart and I don’t like what I see festering there and I can look around at the many temptations that surround me and there are times when I am just plain tired and that is when you can doubt whether you will get through to the end. Is that just my experience? Well, that is when I need to hear about the reality of God’s provision- vv16-21. The thing is, all that Israel ever needed was already there. Do you remember what Jesus said to Satan when he was tempted in the desert to turn stones into bread because he was hungry? ‘Man does not live by bread alone but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God.’ God makes promises to believe, God gives commands to obey and principles to follow, as well as his Spirit to strengthen- all of which make for a good and wholesome life. Jesus understood that. Sadly Israel- and indeed some of us- haven’t. Look at v 17 ‘This is what the LORD says-- your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: "I am the LORD your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go. 18If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river, your righteousness like the waves of the sea.’ The problem is not that God hadn’t spoken, but that God’s people hadn’t listened. We can’t expect God’s peace if we don’t attend God’s Word, why should we? And just as in the past God provided for his people in the desert as they made their way out of captivity under Moses he will do the same again- v2, ‘Leave Babylon, flee from the Babylonians! Announce this with shouts of joy and proclaim it. Send it out to the ends of the earth; say, "The LORD has redeemed his servant Jacob." 21They did not thirst when he led them through the deserts; he made water flow for them from the rock; he split the rock and water gushed out.’ And do you not think that as we Christians make our way out of this Babylonian world we live in on our way home to the Promised Land of heaven that the same provisions will not be made available to us? God gave his people a Scripture; he has given us the Bible. God gave his people a cloud to guide then during the day and a pillar of light to shine during the night- he has given us his Holy Spirit. He gave them a leader-Moses- he has given us Jesus.
As he lay dying, the great preacher and mentor of William Wilberforce, John Newton who wrote ‘Amazing Grace’, said this: ‘My memory is nearly gone but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Saviour.’ You couldn’t have a better summary of the message of Isaiah than that.
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