Covered with Comfort - Isaiah 51:1-8
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Those of you who are old enough might remember ‘Listen with Mother’. I was of the later TV generation and so for me it was ‘Watch with Mother.’ At some point in the programme a motherly type figure would appear to tell a story and she would say, ‘Children, are you listening and sitting comfortably? Then I will begin.’ And so would flow the story of ‘Goldilocks and the three bears’ or whatever. That gentle invitation to listen is quite different to the urgent, compelling demand for someone to listen as you find on some TV dramas like ‘Casualty’ or ‘The Third Watch’, where someone is the victim of a trauma and it looks like they are slipping away into a coma or indeed, death, and after administering some drug to resuscitate them, they slap them around the face and shout ‘Listen! Stay with me.’ When God speaks to his people in Isaiah 51 and three times he says, ‘Listen to me’- verses 1, 4 and 7- it is more like ‘Casualty’ than ‘Watch with Mother.’ You see his people are traumatised and are in danger of slipping into a spiritual comatose state, because they feel life is so tough and the future is so bleak they are not sure they can go on any more. You see they are no longer in their beloved homeland, worshipping in Zion, they are by the Rivers of pagan Babylon, weeping. And the people to whom God is addressing are not even what we might today call ‘nominal believers’ the fringe members -those who were Jewish by birth but not committed in belief. God is addressing hard core believers, those who had not abandoned the faith although they felt like God had abandoned them. These are those who ‘pursue righteousness and seek the LORD’ verse1, who ‘know what is right and have the law in their hearts’ verse 7. These are the people who feel like throwing in the towel and they are the good guys. ‘Ah’ you say, ‘Surely if they were real believers and had real faith they wouldn’t have any doubts, they would keep on trusting.’ Really? Well, let me tell you about Joseph Parker who was the minister of the City Temple in London, from 1874 until his death in 1902. He said that up to the age of 68 he had never had a religious doubt, but then his wife died and his faith all but collapsed. He wrote: `In that dark hour, I became almost an atheist. For God had set his foot upon my prayers and treated my petitions with contempt. If I had seen a dog in such agony as mine, I would have pitied and helped the dumb beast; yet God spat upon me and cast me out as an offence - out into the waste wilderness and the night black and starless." You see we are rather fragile creatures and God recognises that which is why he speaks to reassure us that he is not a callous God, but a caring Father. And so here he speaks to his troubled people by way of three poems – love songs if you like-so that as we go through the mill we might be ‘covered with comfort’.
First, don’t forget vv 1-3: ‘Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. When I called him he was but one and I blessed him and made him many.’ We might well say that the LORD is the God of lost causes. If Israel felt that is what they were, banished in Exile, then all they needed to do was to remember how it all began to put a check on their pessimism that all was lost. How did it all begin? It began 1500 years earlier with a nondescript moon worshipping Arab who came from the very place they now found themselves- Mesopotamia. He wasn’t much to look at and certainly had no potential, he was 75 years old and his wife was not that much younger and they were childless. And apart from some kind of miracle that is exactly how they would remain. So to describe him as a ‘rock’ in v1 is not a flattering description denoting strength and stability, but a pejorative term speaking of inertness and infertility. In the Letter to the Hebrews he is described as ‘good as dead.’ There wasn’t much to be expected from him any more than you might expect a lump of stone to suddenly become alive. His name was Abraham and his wife was Sarah. You read all about them towards the beginning of the Bible in Genesis 11 and 12. If ever there was a lost cause- here it was- ‘Derby and Joan’ wasn’t in it. And it was this wizened old pagan that God spoke to one day and said: ‘You are the one. From you I am going to make a great nation, from you will come a descendent who will be a blessing to the entire world. All my plans to restore a world on the run from me will eventually be achieved through him, but it begins here with you.’ And you know what? God did what he promised- he achieved the impossible. Isaac was born and the rest- as they say- is history. The very existence of the Jewish people was itself a testimony that God specializes in lost causes, how else did they come into being in the first place? And they were to ponder that fact and draw comfort from that fact and work through the implications: If God could bring about a great nation from two folk who are well past it- then of course he can rekindle the good fortune of a nation which is still in the running.
But God encouraged them to go even further back into their history, in fact back to the very beginning of the history of the human race when everything was thrown out of joint on a cosmic scale- back in the Garden of Eden. This is where the whole sorry mess started resulting not only in the perversity of Israel with its constant idolatry, but the corruption of the entire human race resulting in God’s curse and the withdrawal of the blessing of his presence. It is all there in Genesis 3. Can you think of a more sorry and demeaning episode than that? Well, ponder that, says God, think of the exchange of a gorgeous garden for a desolated desert which is what you humans have exchanged it for, and your experience as I rescue you will be like a return back to Eden, back into my glorious presence cascading with joy and blessing- v3, ‘The LORD will surely comfort Zion and will look upon her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the LORD. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing.’
And so what about our lost causes and the wastelands as we look around at our world? The UN says there are 100 million abandoned children on the city’s streets in the world. In certain parts of South America there are death squads whose sole reason for being is to exterminate such children as if they were vermin. The percentage of child prostitutes in places like Bogota has quadrupled since 1987. Nearer home one in three 17-30 year old women in England are now classed as heavy drinkers-binging on 4 or more drinks at least once a fortnight. One in Six 16-64 year old women are addicted or ill as a result of alcohol. I am sure I don’t have to unpack for you all the social ills which beset us as a society. And so as Christians we might well identify ourselves with these folk being described as those who genuinely do pursue righteousness and seek the Lord and we feel the situation to be simply overwhelming.
And so perhaps we too need to look back from the quarry from which we have been hewn as a church in this land, considering what God has done in the past and plead that he will do it again. So let us do just that for a moment. In 1684 527,000 gallons of spirits were distilled in England. By 1750 the consumption of spirits had risen to 11,000,000 gallons. One eighth of deaths in London were due to excessive drinking. Prison conditions were deplorable, overflowing with debtors, murderers, children and rapists all thrown together. Public executions provided mass entertainment as did bull baiting as the animals were often tortured with acid to keep them lively. There was a yob culture then too. Young men would pounce upon older men and women, bundle them into barrels and roll them down the street- they weren’t called ‘hoodies’ but ‘Mohawks’ . On top of that you had the terror of highwaymen which were a far cry from the romantic figures cut by Hollywood. It was a very dangerous thing to travel at night- you feared for your life. You know, many farm labourers sold their wives by auction at a cattle market, you take a look at some of the baptism registers of the rural churches at that time and you will see how rampant such immorality was. Then there was the treatment of children. Many parish churches set up special institutions to ‘care’ for orphans, especially the unwanted offspring of prostitutes. It sounds so kind doesn’t it? That is until surveys carried out at the time showed that the vast majority placed into such care died by the age of 12 months. Some were deliberately murdered and thrown onto the local rubbish tip. Some of the men and women, running these places, decided to send children out to beg, and in order to ensure greater pity and so more cash, forcibly maimed them, amputating a limb or blinding an eye. Dr Samuel Johnson commentated that he had never met a clergyman in the Church of England who was religious. This was a time, at the beginning of the 18th century when it was being taught that if there is a God at all he was remote and uninterested and that reason was the answer to all our problems and the satisfaction of the senses was the important thing. This was Britain -the moral wasteland of Europe. What possibility was there that this should be transformed into any kind of garden, let alone one like an Eden?
Humanly speaking the answer is -not that much. But we are not just speaking humanly, at least Isaiah isn’t. And so in 1739 God raised up an extraordinary evangelist in Britain, a young man called George Whitefield, and then a year or two later two brothers called John and Charles Wesley and through the preaching and prayers of these men and soon, hundreds more like them the spiritual landscape was gradually transformed and very slowly life became liveable once again. What reason have we to doubt that God has the ability to do that again? Don’t forget.
Secondly, don’t falter -vv 4-6. Just take a look at verse 4, "Listen to me, my people; hear me, my nation: The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations. 5My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations. The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm.”’ The prophet is still addressing the faithful remnant of the Jews- ‘my people, my nation.’ And he is assuring them that they still have a significant place in his saving purposes for the world. What is that? Well, it is from these people that his ‘teaching’ which is a better translation than ‘law’ -which we tend to associate with simple commands-will go out to all the other people groups. He is going to bring about his saving rule in this world which has treated him and others so badly, which is what he means when he talks about his ‘justice will become a light to the nations’ The ‘justice’ he speaks of isn’t a sort of egalitarian justice, so everyone get’s their rights- it is a word which is linked to ‘righteousness’ which in turn is linked to God’s salvation, so the two sometimes run in parallel as in verse 5, ‘My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way.’ So what he is saying is this: ‘In line with my promise to Abraham, in order to work out my plan to fill the universe with my glory which I devised before the world was even formed, I have a great missionary aim of gathering in people from every kind of background, class and culture into a proper- righteous relationship with myself, so they come under my saving rule- and the epicentre of this great movement is Jerusalem.’ And that this rule is universal in scope going beyond the borders of Israel is underscored by the second half of verse 5, ‘ The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arms (plural).’ So why does God speak of his ‘arm’ (singular) and then ‘arms’ plural? Well, it might be an indication as to how he is going to do this. The ‘arm of the LORD’ denotes his strength- his right arm. But later on in chapter 53 he specifically says that a certain person is his arm, someone we have already come across in chapter 49 known as ‘the Servant of the LORD.’ So further down the years, from these Jewish people who come back from Exile, God is going to raise up someone who is a descendant of Abraham and yet much more, someone who can be identified as God himself- his ‘arm’ who will rescue people from their bondage to sin and restore them back to himself. How he will do that is the subject of Isaiah 53, which involves offering himself as a sacrifice for sin. So this second poem looks backwards and forwards to God’s provision of himself in the form of a servant who will bring about his saving reign. And it happened- in the person of Jesus- the suffering servant. The Jews had to be brought back so that a descendant of Abraham and King David could be born in Bethlehem and have a people to rule. He was the one who gave God’s teaching, fulfilled the law and the prophets, gathering around himself a nucleus of people who also pursued righteousness and had the teaching written on their hearts. After all, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, ‘Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled,’ that is Isaiah 51 language. And then having gone to the cross, having been raised from the dead so that ‘All authority in heaven and earth’ has been given to him, he ascended to reign at his Father’s right hand side- the side of his ‘arm’ of rule, and sending the Holy Spirit upon his followers, his teaching-the Gospel- spread out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. And the amazing miracle is that from such small, inauspicious beginnings, 2,000 years later there is a group of people in Hull who are living witnesses to the fact that God has fulfilled his promise here in Isaiah 51.
Of course there is much more to come. While this world is fragile and passing away, that will not be the case with God’s new world of righteousness which will last for ever- v6, ‘Lift up your eyes to the heavens, look at the earth beneath; the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies. But my salvation will last forever, my righteousness will never fail.’ It was the American comedian Woody Allen who said, ‘Its not that I am afraid of death, it’s just that I don’t want to be around when it happens to me.’ But in one of his more sober moments he said this: ‘The fundamental thing behind all motivation and all activity is the constant struggle against annihilation and against death. It’s absolutely stupefying in its terror, and it renders anyone’s accomplishments meaningless….. its not only that he the individual dies, or that man as a whole dies, but that you struggle to do a work of art that will last and then you realise that the universe itself is not going to exist after a period of time.’ Of course he is right- speaking for most people, but not for the Christian. Our life is like a breath, but our lives can count for something and go on into a future that will never end if we come to this Servant and experience his wonderful salvation. So don’t falter.
Finally don’t fear, vv 7-8, ‘Hear me, you who know what is right, you people who have my law in your hearts: Do not fear the reproach of men or be terrified by their insults. 8For 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.’ The fact that our future is ultimately secure doesn’t mean that we won’t face opposition. If we belong to the Servant we can expect to suffer like the Servant, some of which we saw last week in chapter 50- the mocking and spitting, the beatings and disgrace. I have already told you about the amazing thing God did in this country in the 18th century, but we are not to be all dewy eyed and romantic about it. When we pray for revival (which I hope you are doing), we need to know exactly what it is we are praying for. Bishop Warburton warned everyone that John Wesley was ‘a wily and malignant hypocrite’- that would have hurt and done more than its fair share of damage. It was also put about that Wesley was expelled from Oxford for gross immorality, that Whitefield was an anarchist plotting a bloody revolution- very dangerous stuff that was when the whole country was on awash with plots of the Pretender. Some of the Methodist preachers had glass ground into their eyes, their houses burnt down. Of course the opposition could be more subtle and even more difficult to cope with. So John Berridge of Everton, another evangelical, was called to appear before his Bishop who had received so many complaints from fellow clergy that he had been preaching outside his own parish-would you believe? And so the Bishop threatened him. When that failed he changed tack and began to entreat him. ‘Berridge’ he said, ‘you know how I have long been your friend and I wish to be so still. I am continually teased with the complaints of the clergyman around you. Only assure me that you will keep to your own parish; you may do as you please there. I have but a little time to live; do not bring down my grey hairs with sorrow to the grave.’ Do you know what Berridge said after this ordeal? ‘I could bear the threatening, but knew not how to withstand entreaty, especially the entreaty of a respectable old man.’ So expect to be treated badly, to be open to abuse, having your name dragged through the mud, even by church people- it is part of the territory. So how will we cope? Well, by seeing those who oppose God and his people as they really are-here today and gone tomorrow-v8, ‘For the moth will eat them up like a garment; the worm will devour them like wool.’ Is there anyone here today who has heard of ‘Bishop Warburton’? No, but more or less everyone has heard of Wesley. More importantly everyone is aware of the work of Wesley- the thousands saved and the lives lifted up out of the gutter. Goodness knows what Warburton did- maybe confirm a few people- big deal!
Of course God knows that we get afraid, we don’t like conflict and confrontation-I don’t. But the way God covers us with comfort is to remind us of the kind of God he is, that he is the God who takes a hopeless situation and does the impossible- so don’t forget that; who even as we speak is bringing thousands to himself through the Gospel, so don’t falter, and who cuts down to size all those who oppose him, so don’t fear.
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