Real redemption - Isaiah 51:1-12

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 6th March 2011.

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Let me read you something: ‘The truth of the matter is that all we have to do is live long enough and we will suffer. Our loved ones will die; we ourselves will be afflicted with some disease or other. Midlife often brings its own pressures- disappointments, sense of failure, decreasing physical strength, infidelity. Parents frequently go through enormous heartache in rearing their children. Even as I write this, I am aware that my mother, suffering from an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease, will never come home again. Live long enough and the infirmities of old age eventually catch up with you, compounded by the fact that all your friends are gone and you are left alone… In any and all these tragedies there is pain, where is God?’ So writes Dr Don Carson in his immensely helpful book, ‘How Long O Lord?’ Without being morbid, he is, of course, right. That is what life is like living this side of the Fall, as we make our way through this fractured and cursed world of ours. But Christians believe this isn’t simply our world, it is first and foremost God’s world. And that is where the main problem lies and which gives rise to the heartfelt cry which is the cry of the Psalmist and the title of Carson’s book- ‘How Long O Lord?’ That is not just the anguished plea of someone who wants to see an end to suffering, but it conceals a deep seated intuition that such things should not be, that from one point of view bad things happening to good people, and especially God’s people, somehow brings God’s name into disrepute. So why doesn’t he do something to stop that?  We know that this is when the non-Christian can have a field day in either questioning God’s goodness or his very existence. For if God is good surely he wouldn’t allow such things to happen, so maybe he is either not good or not really there at all. But you know, this is not a modern problem which the believer has had to wrestle with, it is there at the heart of the passage we are looking at together this morning in Isaiah 52: 5, ‘And all day long my name is constantly blasphemed’- not that God’s name is being taken in vain by swearing, but that his name is being derided and mocked, mainly because of the mess God’s people are in. Understandably, God’s people who will feel the chilly wind of his judgement as they are taken off into captivity as part of God’s punishment may feel sympathy with that view. If God loves them, why does he appear to have deserted them?  They feel like rubbish and the surrounding nations look on and ask: where is your God, is he uncaring, is he unloving, is he simply not powerful? And so his honour is besmirched. Have not those sorts of questions passed through your mind at some time or another?

Well, as we have been seeing, that is a thought that God has been trying to disabuse his people of since the beginning of chapter 49 and here it reaches a sub climax before the great climax of the next chapter. God is going is going to make it unmistakably clear that while he may discipline his followers he does not destroy them; that far from them being of no value they are of inestimable value to him, so much so that he himself is willing to die for them and at some point in the future will actually do that and so vindicating his name before the entire universe so no one can say, ‘God can’t be counted on to keep his promises.’ But rather they will say, ‘What a glorious God!’ So what does this redemption which clears God’s name involve? Three things:

First, prestige- verses 1-6. The first couple of verses indicate a new status for God’s people, ‘Awake, awake. O Zion, clothe yourself with strength. Put on your garments of splendour, O Jerusalem, the holy city.’ Then verse 2, ‘Shake off your dust, rise up, sit enthroned O Jerusalem. Free yourself from the chains on your neck, O captive daughter of Zion.’  Do you see what he is saying to them? They are to stop acting like a skivvy and to start acting like a queen. They are to stop sitting in the dirt and start sitting on a throne. It’s like one of those fairy tales where as a very young girl, no more than a toddler, a princess has been kidnapped by a grubby family of bandits. As she grows up into a fine looking young woman, the members of the family treat her like a slave, all the rotten jobs that need doing are given to her, so she slops out the toilet, clears the fire grate, washes the floor, mends the clothes, chops the wood in a never ending cycle of grind and toil. She is dressed like a slave too, and fed like one- she has nothing but leftovers. But then one day another king hears a rumour that there is a princess living in a hovel in his kingdom. He sends his prince son to investigate and he discovers it is true. She has the royal birthmark on her arm and to him she is the sweetest thing he has ever seen and so he tries to persuade her she is a princess, but she refuses to believe him, after all, just look at her! But he knows the truth and she can see he is in earnest and that he deeply loves her. And as he describes the home from which she was originally taken, half forgotten memories begin to be stirred, and she begins to remember a time when she was served and  not a servant, when her bed was made of silk not straw. Then she takes that step of faith to really believe that she is a princess and so she exchanges he life of poverty for what is hers by right a life of royalty. And God is saying something like that here to his people. They are to put off their sad rags and put on their glad rags, they are to don the garments of royalty for that is what they are. A change of clothes indicates a change of position. When Mr Smith steps out of his car and enters his court chambers and puts on his gown and wig, that is when he is no longer plain Mr Smith but the Right Honourable Judge Smith. So it I with God’s people, to him they are people of prestige and so they are to act accordingly. One of the most magnificent descriptions of the church we find in the Bible is that of ‘the Bride of Christ’. Can you even begin to imagine what that means? I am sure that Kate Middleton is quite taken with being the wife of William Windsor. But it is not just William Windsor; it is Prince William, future King of England which makes her a Queen! But we are betrothed to the one who is the King of Kings, whose genius conceived the universe, whose power keeps it in being, who for his bride goes to a wooden cross and seals his love for her by his own blood- so he says ‘You are mine.’ A number of years ago the great missionary speaker, Michael Griffiths wrote a book about the church which made a deep impact on me and in it he said this: ‘Christians collectively seem to be suffering from a strange amnesia. A high proportion of people who ‘go to church’ have forgotten what it is for. Week by week they attend services in a special building and go through their particular, time-honoured routine, but give little thought to the purpose of what they are doing... The Bible talks about ‘the bride of Christ’, but the church today seems like a ragged Cinderella, hideous among the ashes. She has forgotten that she is supposed to be growing up, as the soap advertisements used to have it, ‘to be a beautiful lady’! Many Christians can rattle off glibly the various biblical pictures of the church as ‘building’, and ‘body’ and bride’ but in their experiences these ideas have never got beyond a theoretical stage, and they continue to be disappointed with, and disillusioned by, the church as they know it.’ He called his book, ‘Cinderella with amnesia’. And when you think about it that is a pretty good description of the way many churches and Christians operate. The picture we conceive of ourselves and convey to others is that of an abandoned orphan, sitting by the fire grate amongst the cinders, looking puzzlingly at a glass slipper which seems to suggest that we are meant for so much more but not quite knowing what that ‘something more’ might be. Well, here God tells us what that something is- we are his beloved. A new status.

Then God promises his people a new security- v1b, ‘The uncircumcised and defiled will not enter you again.’ What is the prophet getting at? Well, he is talking about protection from foreign invaders. Now God acknowledges that has not always been the case, in verse 3 he admits, "You were sold for nothing, and without money you will be redeemed." That could be referring back to the constant trouble the Israelites have had since the entry into the promised land with the Philistines and others attacking them or a looking forward to what would happen with their Exile in Babylon. In verse 4 he is even more explicit- ‘At first my people went down to Egypt to live; lately, Assyria has oppressed them.’ That brackets the time from the trouble they had with Pharaoh in Egypt which led to the Exodus and then later with Assyria and King Sennacherib who laid siege to Jerusalem. And as this prophecy is read out to the people years later in Exile in Babylon it has happened again, v 5, "And now what do I have here?" declares the LORD. "For my people have been taken away for nothing, and those who rule them mock, declares the LORD. "And all day long my name is constantly blasphemed.’ Why is that? Because these conquering Kings where under the impression that they had beaten Israel because their gods were more powerful than Yahweh the God of Israel. It stood to reason because in a turf war you invoked the name of your god to give you victory and so, as they say, ‘the proof of the pudding is in the eating’- Marduk and the god’s of Babylon must be stronger than Yahweh because they had won. And God was not having any of that. It was God who gave his people into their hands to discipline them, they were not taken from him. But there comes a point when God has to act for the sake of his name, his holy reputation. He will not allow the pagan world to delude itself that there are other gods whom they are to worship- and so he promises to act in v 6, ‘Therefore, my people will know my name; therefore in that day they will know that it is I who foretold it. Yes, it is I." In chapter 45 Isaiah prophesies that God will bring down Babylon by a ruler called Cyrus, this is several hundred years before that King was even born, you can’t get any more precise than that- naming the man. God foretold it, and it happened in 539BC.

Who could have foretold the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, whose gods of dialectical materialism led to the slaughter of hundreds of millions of people, many of whom were Christians? But it happened, and do we not think God’s hand was in that? And what is going on now in North Africa, can we read a book like Isaiah who portrays God in such lofty terms who brings down a nation and raises another and say he is absent? And who knows what God is doing in the West, and the UK, as religious liberty and freedom of conscience is being sacrificed on the altar of alternative sexuality and self- centered materialism- do people really think God is going to sit back and do nothing? But let us not as Christians thinking that God has to act yesterday to get us out of our mess- these Jews spent 70 years in Exile before he rescued them and maybe the church in this country is due for a cleansing because perhaps we too have become to tolerant and lax to such an extent that we are indistinguishable from our culture, and because of the indifference of Christians God’s name is being blasphemed with the result that people are not taking Christianity seriously because some of us Christians are not taking it seriously. And so we too as church need to listen to God’s summons- ‘wake up’ be the people I want you to be- different.

The second thing God’s rescue involves is proclamation, vv 7-10. In verse 7 you have a picture of a messenger returning from a battle to announce victory. I think it was Churchill who after D day allowed church bells to be rung for the first time since the beginning of the war, because prior to that it was to be taken as a sign of an invasion, but now it was a victory. That is what is going on here. There is news of ‘peace’ which here is another term for victory, and ‘salvation’ that is relief from distress. And the news headline which sums it all up is -‘Your God reigns’. It is not Marduk or Marx or Max Factor it is the LORD who rules. Of course in one sense he has always ruled- nothing happens without his divine say so. But there is another sense in which his rule is acknowledged and embraced, it is that sphere of his loving reign  in which people find eternal life, life as it was meant to be as people are properly related to their Maker. That is what is being announced. And so the prophet unpacks what this means in reality. First God returns, v8, ‘When the LORD returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes.’ God in the midst of his people! Secondly God redeems, v 9, ‘Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.’ And thirdly God reveals, v10- ‘The LORD will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God.’ But you say, ‘Yes, but when will he do this? How long O Lord?’ And if Isaiah were here today he would say, ‘But he already has.’ Do you remember how Mark begins his Gospel by quoting this central section of Isaiah and Malachi, ‘It is written in Isaiah the prophet: "I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way"-"a voice of one calling in the desert, `Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.' "He is talking about God the LORD returning to his people. And then who do we see appearing? Jesus, the Servant who is the LORD. And straight away he sets about the redeeming process. He heals the sick, redeeming people from disease. He casts out the evil spirits, redeeming people from the demonic. He raises the synagogue ruler’s daughter from the dead- he redeems people from death. And he offers forgiveness of sins; he redeems people from the greatest curse of all- damnation. This is the kingdom of God that Jesus announced, that is, ‘Your God reigns’ and here in the person of the God-man Jesus he has already begun that reign and so fulfilling this prophecy.

Where do we see God’s supreme and final revelation, the baring of his holy arm? Again, we see it in Jesus. All that an infinite- holy God is which can be crammed into a human being- the God who has compassion for his people, the God who stoops down to lift up fallen people, the God who from eternity past seeks out those who are broken and despised people- has finally come and the whole world now knows it. And you can already taste and enjoy that reign now if you come to Jesus. And maybe that is the thing that has been lacking in your life until now. You have not been able to make sense of the world or what has been happening to you because you have not yet come to know the one who made you and redeems you; you are still like the princess in rags sitting in the dirt rather than the princess who now knows who she really is and is on a throne. Then perhaps this morning is the time for all that to change for you personally. Why don’t you in the quiet of your own heart surrender you life to this Lord Jesus, asking him to cleanse you, to forgive you and to make you his for ever? And do you know what? He will. And don’t think that is the end, it is just the beginning and he will be with you right to the end when you will experience unending bliss in his presence called heaven.

But we are not there yet are we? So what happens in the meantime? Well, that brings us to the third aspect of God’s redemption, it involved pilgrimage in which God promises to be with us as we travel from this world to the next- vv11-12, ‘Depart, depart, go out from there! Touch no unclean thing! Come out from it and be pure, you who carry the vessels of the LORD. 12But you will not leave in haste or go in flight; for the LORD will go before you, the God of Israel will be your rear guard.’ Historically this may refer to the return of the Exiles from Babylon bringing with them the holy vessels which had been taken from the Temple before it was destroyed by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar. And imagery is taken from the Exodus when God travelled with his people, going ahead of them like a pillar of fire and then protecting their rear from attack by the pursuing Egyptians. Then the Jews were told to make haste, it was a rushed job, but this is a more measured, steady journey. But it also stands as a picture of God’s promise to be with his people as they make their way out of this world in rebellion against God and in opposition to his people, to their true home which is heaven. There is a story of a plane flight involving only three passengers- a bishop, a student and a bank manager. It was a small plane on which they were travelling and everyone seemed to be getting along just fine when suddenly the pilot made the chilling announcement: ‘We have just developed a sever technical fault. I am going to have to ask you to bail out. The problem is that we only have two parachutes.’ Well this put the three travellers into something of a quandary: two parachutes for three people. The bank manager, a nervous flyer anyhow had been nursing his chute from take off and so he quickly put it on, said ‘goodbye’ and leapt out of the plane, leaving the Bishop and the poor student behind. The student, also a nervous flyer had been clutching tightly a piece of khaki coloured canvas when suddenly, the Bishop lost control and in a fit of blind panic, pulled it away from the student, strapped it on his back and out he went. This left the student wondering why on earth the bishop had jumped out of the plane with a haversack containing his sandwiches. Well, it is easy to panic and jump ship when things get tough isn’t it? Only to find ourselves in deeper trouble than if we had stayed and seen the journey through. And we can be tempted to do that when the going gets rough. But here is a promise, taken up by Jesus himself at the end of Matthew’s Gospel, ‘I am with you, always even to the end of the age.’

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