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A fantastic future - Isaiah 54

This is a sermon by Melvin Tinker from the morning service on 20th March 2011.

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There are all sorts of reasons why people rejoice. Of course some folk, who might be described as ‘party animals’, need only the slightest excuse to get the celebrations going. But I guess that the most heartfelt celebrations are the ones which mark a change in fortune from disaster to deliverance. A few weeks ago I was watching a colour film newsreel of the VE- Victory in Europe- Celebrations in London in 1945. It seemed that the whole of England was out on the streets that day, with dancing, waving flags, with people kissing everybody and everything in sight. And of course there was the communal singing done in a way which only the British can- raucously and out of tune- bashing out the song, ‘Knees up Mother Brown’. And it was all perfectly understandable. After years and years of rationing, defeat after defeat, constant air raids, the most appalling loss of life- when our future as a nation hung by a delicate slender thread- here at last was victory over one of the most monstrous tyrannical regimes the world had ever known- Nazi Germany. Well, let me mention three other reasons for rejoicing which arise out of a turn in fortune which we might well relate to: first, a young couple who for years have been trying for a family, having been told by the doctor it wasn’t possible, suddenly finding the wife to be pregnant. That is something worth breaking open a bottle of Champaign for isn’t it? Secondly, a marriage which appeared to be ended, lying shattered on the rocks with both parties deeply hurt suddenly being turned around with all the broken fences mended, with love rekindled and both going into the future together. It does happen. The third reason for rejoicing would be the restoration of a city which may have been ravaged by war. Think of Warsaw which was reduced to rubble by Hitler, only to be rebuilt and repopulated. That would lead to celebrations on a massive scale. And do you know what? God himself uses each one of these pictures in order to drive home into our hearts some of the most magnificent blessings that Jesus has won for his church by dying for her on the cross. And it is all here in Isaiah 54. The cross is what chapter 53 is all about and as a result of that great sacrifice God lifts the lid on a fantastic future for all those who love him which arises out of a dramatic reversal of fortunes. So let’s take a look at each one of these pictures in turn in order for our hearts to be warmed and our sights lifted high.

And so the first reason for rejoicing, namely, the reversal of infertility vv 1-3. The note of celebration is struck in verse 1: “Sing, O barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labour; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband, says the LORD" The singer is an infertile woman. What is she singing about? Well, that she has abundant children. That is not normal, in fact it isn’t possible because by definition an infertile woman can’t have children, and yet here she is. Bringing about this change in fortune is not new for God; he did it with Abraham’s wife Sarah who was ninety when she became pregnant which is pretty good going. But now that picture of the desolate woman is applied to God’s people. This is the way they feel in Exile, a small, despised group with no future because, as we saw a few weeks ago, normally captured people’s in these days were obliterated, they lost all national identity as they became swallowed up in the new Empire. But God says that is not going to happen here, he has not abandoned his plan of having a special people who will be a blessing to the world. In fact we are talking about a massive population explosion- v2-3, "Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes. 3For you will spread out to the right and to the left; your descendants will dispossess nations and settle in their desolate cities.” These people will be spreading out in every direction, there has to be a complete house makeover to provide enough space for them. But God did it. In the first instance he did it when he brought back these captives to their homeland in 539BC which was a sight even God’s enemies couldn’t believe and who did everything in their power to stop it happening- read the book of Nehemiah. But in a much deeper and more profound sense it was fulfilled as a result of Jesus going to the cross and after Pentecost. Back in chapter 53 as God’s servant goes to the gallows to bear away the sin of God’s people we read these words: ‘It was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand’- ‘he will see his offspring’, that is the fruit of his sacrificial death on the cross. As people pushed and shoved each other around the cross on that Good Friday and looked up at this young man dying in agony, as far as they were concerned that was the end of him. He wasn’t married, he had no children and that is the way it would stay. But they were wrong. He has billions of children- they are called Christians and you will find them in every country from every race. In fact when they are eventually all gathered in, there will be so many of them that God is going to have to create a new heaven and a new earth to accommodate them because this present set up won’t be roomy enough. Do you remember that scene in the Book of Revelation which simply stunned the apostle John into silence as the veil on the unseen universe was drawn back: ‘After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10And they cried out in a loud voice: "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb." (7:9) ‘A multitude that no one can count’- is John serious? Yes he is. Jesus likened to the growth of his kingdom to the growth of a mustard seed so small you need a magnifying glass to see it but which eventually grows into a tree 6 feet high. And that is how it happened after Pentecost and the early church. It has been estimated that if in AD 40 you only had a 1,000 Christians (and there were more), with a rate of growth at 3.4% a year, which amounts to 40% per decade, by the year 350 AD there was something in the order of 34 million Christians which was 56% of the population of the Roman Empire with its 60 million people! You know, today there are more Anglican Christians in Nigeria alone, and these are vibrant Christians, than in the whole of the USA and Europe put together! God is still fulfilling this prophecy and we help to fulfil it as we go about making Christians by sharing the Gospel. Isn’t that a project worth investing in? Isn’t that something worth giving over your time, you money and your prayers to? Do you remember what Jesus said about one sinner who repents, there is rejoicing in heaven, the angels throw a party!

The second reason for rejoicing is restoring a marriage, vv 4-10. Just take a look at what God promises to do in verse 6, ‘The LORD will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit-- a wife who married young, only to be rejected," says your God. 7"For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you," says the LORD your Redeemer.’ When my Dad was two years old, his Dad, who was a self-centred bully, literally threw him, his Mother and two other children, all under the age of 6, onto the street. They had no place to go. It was 1930 which was when the Great Depression really began to bite with no social welfare worth speaking of. So my grandma clutching her three young children and a suitcase had to walk miles to a nearby village in order to get some help from a parish charity. This took the form of them living in a tiny caravan, the kind you see in those old films which gypsies drive with the rounded roof, which was parked on parish land. In order to feed the children my grandma had to take in people’s washing which she did by hand and then hung out on the line in the field to dry. Can you even begin to imagine how that felt, the sense of despair and abandonment? Well, that was how God’s people felt when these words of the prophet came to them. Of course God was not the abusive husband, but Israel had been the unfaithful wife and had to be weaned off her idolatrous liaisons which in part is why she was taken off into captivity in the first place. But she felt that God, her husband, had abandoned her, leaving her to fend for herself. But nothing could have been further from the truth. Just look at the words this pained husband uses to describe his affection and commitment to his wayward wife: ‘compassion’; ‘deep compassion’; ‘everlasting kindness’; ‘unfailing love’ -he is beside himself with an uncompromising devotion to his people, even though they are so utterly unlovely. He is going to take her back. Yes, for a while he had hid his face, for a while the relationship had been broken because of Israel’s sin, but now everything is going to be different, it is going to be a new beginning like after the flood there was a new world in which God promised on oath not to destroy the world in the same way ever again, v9 "To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth. So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again. 10Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed," says the LORD, who has compassion on you.’

But how can we as God’s people be so sure? How do we know he is not going to change his mind and come down on us like a ton of bricks? Even today there are so many Christians whose spiritual demeanour is like that of an abused wife, inwardly they are cringing, creeping around quietly scared that they are going to arouse God’s anger at the slightest provocation, one sin and that is it, they are going to be ruined. And so they live a life of fear. Sure, they may put on a show in coming to church, singing the hymns with everyone else, but deep down they have this gnawing uncertainty- how can they praise someone they are forever frightened of offending? You know how it can be when couples quarrel- invariably all the wrong things the other person has done in the past are dragged out and used as a stick to beat them with. And some Christians think God is like that, forever raking up the past in order to condemn them, saying, ‘You have done it again. You did it there, there and there and here we are again. And what about this, and this and this?’ And such a Christian is robbed of all joy and assurance. Is that you? But it really should not be so and I want to tell you why.

After the flood mentioned here in v9, Noah is said to have offered a sacrifice to the Lord which God accepted and it was after that sacrifice that the promise was made not to destroy mankind again in this way. It was a sacrifice that made all the difference. And it still is the case that it is a sacrifice which makes all the difference- the sacrifice which has been described back in chapter 53 and which we see described in the Gospels, the sacrifice of Jesus who died in our place for our sin to turn away God’s holy anger which otherwise would destroy us. And because Jesus has bore the penalty for the sin of those who trust in him, it would be unjust for God to demand that penalty again from us personally. That is why John in his first letter says, ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sin, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sin and cleanse us from every kind of unrighteousness.’ Do you see what John is saying? God forgives our sin, wipes the slate clean, buries it never to be dug up again, not because he is merciful, but because he is just. It would be unfair of God, as it would be unfair of anyone, to demand a payment when the payment has already been paid by someone else on our behalf. That is what Jesus has done. So when we confess our sin, it is forgiven and forgotten never to be mentioned by God again. Let me use an illustration because this is so important pastorally to sooth troublesome consciences. I gather that when the old settlers in the Mid -West of the United States found themselves caught in a prairie fire, the way to prevent themselves from getting burnt alive was to find a patch of ground down wind of the fire and set it alight. Once the fire had died down, then they would occupy the scorched earth and wait for the prairie fire to pass them by because the fire would not encroach on the ground which had already been burnt. And so it is with us and Christ. Because God’s anger has been poured out on the Lord Jesus as he bore our sins, in our place on the cross, that is ‘burnt land’ if I may put it like that. And so in order for us to escape God’s judgement which is coming at the end of time, all we have to do is by faith go back and cling to the cross and the judgement will pass us by. If I may put it like this: because of what Jesus has done for me in bearing away my guilt, when I come before God when I die and if  I were to start saying to him, ‘I am sorry for this sin and that sin’ – he looking at what his Son has done will simply say to me, ‘Melvin what sin?’

The marriage has been restored and it is not going to be broken up again. That is why Christian love to sing because they have something to celebrate. So when the devil begins to taunt you because of your failure as a Christian, when you start to shake your head and think, ‘I have messed up again, God won’t want anything to do with me ever again’- then let the words of verse 8 just wash over you and keep saying them to yourself because they are true: ‘With everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you says the LORD your Redeemer.’

And so we come to our third reason for rejoicing, the rebuilding of a city, vv 11-17, "O afflicted city, lashed by storms and not comforted, I will build you with stones of turquoise, your foundations with sapphires. 12 I will make your battlements of rubies, your gates of sparkling jewels, and all your walls of precious stones.’ God’s people is no longer being likened to a barren wife or an abandoned wife, but a beat up city which he is about to rebuild with his own hands at great personal expense. The NIV has it that she will be rebuilt with ‘turquoise’ which is not a great translation; it is more like ‘mascara’, with the stones being encircled with this stuff to highlight their beauty. Some of us will remember the singer Dusty Springfield who used to use lashings of the stuff on her eyelids to highlight her eyes to great effect. That is what God is promising to do here. He will only use the most valuable materials which will simply be entrancing in their beauty- rubies jewels- no expense is spared.  And linking back to the first picture, this will be a secure place for children and offspring who will be personally taught by the LORD, that is they will now how to live the good life in contrast to the bad life which led to Israel being exiled in the first place. And just in case folk still have the jitters because they are surrounded by God’s enemies, God reminds them that he is Sovereign over all- so who do you think controls the people who make weapons of destruction in verse 16- but God? There is the story of Cornelius Martens who was in a German Christian community which was located in Russia during the 1920’s. He was quite an evangelist and many people were getting converted and eventually the communist powers that be caught wind of this and arrested him. He was thrown into a cell with other dissidents, many being non Christian, so he witnessed to them and some were converted. One day they were all taken out and forced to dig a shallow grave. That night at around midnight the prison commandant appeared with a couple of guards and made everyone lie down on their faces. Then he pointed to a prisoner and said, ‘Kill him’ so the man was picked up and pushed against the wall and shot. This happened several times and they all thought they were going to be killed. But eventually it was stopped. A week later, Martens was called into the office of the local communist party’s boss. The official told his two henchmen to take off Martens’ clothes, he said, ‘Don’t trouble yourself; I will do it for you as I am not afraid to die because I will be going home to the Lord. But if he has decided my hour hasn’t come you can’t do me any harm here.’ That was like waving a red rag to a bull because the official thought that is exactly what he could do. So he pulled out his pistol and said, ‘I will show you what I can do’ and he fired- and nothing happened, his fingers just froze around the trigger and he couldn’t pull it- call it paralysis if you like, but he just couldn’t manage to do it no matter how much he tried. His face juts got redder and redder; he looked like he was going to burst a blood vessel. He tried three times but he just couldn’t shoot the gun. God doesn’t always do that of course. Usually when guns are fired Christians get killed, but the Lord wanted to make a special point in this case- ‘It is I who created the destroyer for havoc.’

But this city appears again in the Bible, in the Book of Revelation, which is a picture of the perfected people of God saved by Jesus Christ. Very few people have expressed what this will be like that Jonathan Edwards- ‘The Great God, who is so fully manifests himself in heaven, is perfect with an absolute and infinite perfection. The Son of God, who is the brightness of the Father’s glory, appears there in the fullness of his glory, without that garb of outward meanness in which he appeared in this world. The Holy Spirit shall be poured forth with perfect richness and sweetness, as a pure river of the water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding out of the throne of God and of the Lamb. And every member of that holy and blessed society shall be without any stain of sin, or imperfection, or weakness, or impudence, or blemish of any kind. The whole church, ransomed and purified, shall there be presented to Christ, as a bride, clothed in fine linen, clean and white, without spot or wrinkle, or any such thing. Wherever the inhabitants of that blessed world shall turn their eyes, they shall see nothing but dignity and beauty, and glory. The most stately cities on earth, however magnificent their buildings, yet have their foundations in the dust, and their streets dirty and defiled, and made to be trodden under foot; but the very streets of this heavenly city are pure gold, like transparent glass, and its foundations are of precious stones, and its gates are pearls. And all of these are but faint emblems of the purity and perfectness of those who dwell therein.’  That is our fantastic future.

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