Monday, March 8, 2010

The End of the Story, Part 1

Today’s chapter begins a new section in Isaiah’s prophecy. The last section had the oracles about the nations and their evils. This section is related to that. It’s about what will happen to the nations and their evils. It’s about the end of the story. One day Jesus will return, in the words of the Creed, ‘to judge the quick and the dead’. One day Jesus will descend from heaven in the same way that He went up – except that when He comes back there will be a bunch of angels with Him along with all the saints who have gone before. The next four chapters in Isaiah reveal some of what is going to happen when Jesus returns.

Listen as I read Isaiah 24.

I’m sure that you noticed that this chapter is bleak. The next chapter, which is also about the end of the story, is much brighter, and I look forward to preaching on it. But this one is bleak. ‘Behold, the LORD will empty the earth and make it desolate, and he will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants. … The earth shall be utterly empty and utterly plundered; for the LORD has spoken this word.’ Bleak. It’s not so bad if you can keep some emotional distance between you and the text. But once you see that Isaiah is writing about people – actual men, women and yes, even children – and what will happen to them, then it can weigh on you.

And that provokes a question. Why is it here? Why do we need to have this dark chapter in the Bible? What good can it do? Well, for one thing, it’s the truth. It’s not the whole truth, to be sure, but it is the truth. When Jesus comes back there will be desolation and destruction. That’s the truth and hiding from the truth is never a good idea. But it’s not just some truth laid out there. All of God’s truth has a purpose, a good purpose for us. For example, this chapter serves as a reminder. It is a reminder about the end of the story. Being reminded of such things is helpful. And it’s helpful for us because we tend to focus on the more immediate and neglect the more distant. We need this kind of reminder about the future because it will affect our present.

There are several ways to preach this chapter. Here’s how I’m going to do it. I’m going to give you some ways in which this kind of reminder can be helpful to you.

Let’s start with this. Being reminded that there is an end can be very encouraging. One fruit of developing a Christian understanding of who we are and what is happening in and around us, is that you see more clearly that life is a battlefield. Each day, sin – your own sin and the sin of others – continues its conflict with you. It attacks again and again, day after day, and it never gives up. Each day, you continue your wrestling match against Satan and those with him. And for sure he isn’t letting up until he absolutely has to. All of this ties in with Jesus’ comment, ‘Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.’ Day in and day, out it’s a battlefield. And one result of this is weariness. You get tired of having to deal with it over and over and over again. Who wouldn’t? It’s no wonder, then, that Paul wrote, ‘And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.’ Life can be wearying. So, how do you keep going and not give in to the weariness? How do you continue the battle day after day? There are many things that I could say here. Here’s one. We need to remind each other that this battle does not go on forever. One day it will be over. The war will be done. And we will win. One day, to use Paul’s language, we will reap. And it will be so good when that happens. So, at the end of this chapter Isaiah writes, ‘Then the moon will be confounded and the sun ashamed, for the LORD of hosts reigns on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and his glory will be before his elders.’ One day Jesus will return and everyone will acknowledge that He is Lord over all. He will reign. At that point He will bring this part of history to a close. No more war; only peace. And when the battles are over, Jesus will be glorified. And there will be such joy. The Church is going to sing. So, Isaiah writes, ‘They lift up their voices, they sing for joy; over the majesty of the LORD they shout from the west. Therefore in the east give glory to the LORD; in the coastlands of the sea, give glory to the name of the LORD, the God of Israel. From the ends of the earth we hear songs of praise, of glory to the Righteous One.’ One of the great joys of eternity will be our singing songs of praise and rejoicing. Jesus will return and begin the next part of the history of Creation, and that will be so good. But in the mean time we all have to continue the fight. We get to the final victory by fighting each day’s battles. But as we fight, let’s remind each other about the end. Jesus is coming back.

Here’s another reminder from our text. ‘The wasted city is broken down; every house is shut up so that none can enter. There is an outcry in the streets for lack of wine; all joy has grown dark; the gladness of the earth is banished. Desolation is left in the city; the gates are battered into ruins.’ Isaiah describes the coming destruction in terms of its affects on a city. Some have tried to figure out which city Isaiah is talking about. But others don’t think that he’s referring to any one in particular. They say that Isaiah is using the idea of a city as an image. And that makes sense when you think about what a city is. It’s quite an achievement. If your grandfather was a wandering nomad who lived in a tent, and you live in a city, that’s quite a change and quite a step forward. There’s a greater sense of stability. Tents fall down in the middle of the night. Cities don’t. There’s also a greater sense of security. Cities have walls to ward off attackers. Tents don’t. But it is exactly this sense of stability and security that can be so misleading. Cities are just as temporary as tents. When the promised destruction comes cities will not be exempt. When the destruction comes all that is temporary will be removed. And that’s some of what Paul was thinking about when he wrote this: ‘… we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are temporary, but the things that are unseen are eternal.’ When Jesus comes, these temporary things will be removed and replaced by things that are permanent, eternal. And this is something that we also need to remind each other about because we are all tempted to be too attached to what is temporary.

Last summer, there was a fire in Lawrence Park, where I live. One house was engulfed in flames, and the one next to it was being damaged. The man who lived in the second house was watching. The volunteer firefighters had not yet arrived, and he was angry. From his mouth came a stream of curses because of their delay. Understand that his family was safe. His daughter was sitting next to him. They even got the dog out. But he was livid. Why? He was too tied to his stuff. What was obviously temporary – it was, after all, in the process of being destroyed – had taken too strong a hold on his heart. And he reacted. The question to ask at this point, of course, is this. How would you feel if, when you got home after worship, your house and all the stuff you had in it was a pile of ashes? Remember that one day it all will actually be a pile of ashes when the temporary is replaced by the eternal.

Let me explain why this is important. Someone who is too attached to the temporary will not be able to focus on the eternal. As a result, lots of things will go wrong. Life will be that much more difficult. And worst of all, Jesus will lose out.

Let’s move on. ‘Terror and the pit and the snare are upon you, O inhabitant of the earth! He who flees at the sound of the terror shall fall into the pit, and he who climbs out of the pit shall be caught in the snare. For the windows of heaven are opened, and the foundations of the earth tremble.’ When Jesus comes back there will be punishment for sin. That’s the terror, pit and snare that Isaiah writes about. And Isaiah is quite clear that there will be no fleeing this, no avoiding it. When Jesus comes back those who are not His will be consigned to hell. And these will suffer justice for their sins.

The first point I want to make here is this. Be sure that you belong to Jesus. Be sure that you are His. Paul wrote to the Corinthians. ‘Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? – unless indeed you fail to meet the test!’ And Jesus warned us about the danger of being fooled. ‘On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.”’

This chapter gives you the opportunity to ask yourself, ‘Am I sure that I am a Christian?’ If you answer with a ‘Yes’, then let me ask this. How do you know? What are you pointing to that gives you that sense of being sure? Let me say something to you kids. Most of you have been coming to church since close to day one. It’s a habit: Sunday means church. And that’s a good habit. You’ve been a member here. I might have even baptized you. All of that is good. But if that’s all you’ve got, then you can’t be sure. It’s got to be more than baptism, church attendance and being a relatively nice person. What are you depending on so that you can say, ‘Yep, I’m a Christian’? This is too important to skip by. You really want to know for sure. The same question applies to you who aren’t kids anymore. Why do you think that you’re a Christian, that the Spirit has regenerated you and now lives within you? What’s the evidence that you are depending on?

I realize that, because I raise that question, some of you will be confronted with doubt. And because of that you wish I hadn’t asked that question. But if my simply raising the question produces such unrest in your soul, then isn’t that a sign that you have some work to do? Peter wrote, ‘Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure...’ Please notice two things. First, this is a command of Scripture. The Spirit expects us to be diligently working at this so that we can be sure. But also notice that Peter assumes that it is possible to be sure.

Let me tell you why this is important. The honor of Jesus is at stake. That makes no sense unless you remember that you’re your life is not about you. It’s about Him. Lurking doubts are obstacles to powerful living for Jesus. They will trip you up. And that will mean that you will fail to do as well as you might in making Jesus look good. So, if you have doubts, you need to do something about it. You need to be sure. For the honor of Jesus and for the sake of your own soul, you need to be sure. This may be something that you and I need to talk about.

Now, let’s shift our focus. We also need to think about those who are not Christians. It’s obvious that Jesus is not their Savior. Their fate is clear. Hell awaits. And what shall we do? This is not a plea for all of you to start some door-to-door crusade. But I can’t help but think that you all know some people who are not Christians. If Jesus came back today, as nice as they may be, these who are friends and family will spend eternity paying for their sins. What will you do about that? At the least, you can pray. You can pray for them, and you can pray for yourself. Someone becoming a Christian is something that only the Spirit can cause. So, pray that the Spirit would bring this about in the lives of these whom you know. But the Spirit does not cause someone to become a Christian apart from that person hearing the Gospel. So, pray that you would have opportunities to say something to them about Jesus and that you would take advantage of those opportunities. And for those of you who are working at this, let me encourage you to keep at it. You might be the means that the Spirit will use to rescue someone you know. But regardless of what happens, you will be able to say, ‘Lord, I was faithful.’

One last thought. One day Jesus is going to float down from the skies and life as we have known it will be dramatically transformed. I have no idea when that will happen. But I am sure that it will happen. And the fact of His return has much to say about how we spend our time here. Embracing this fact places the things of this life in a broader context that we need to consider. It can be so encouraging. It is also a reminder that everyone will live forever either in heaven or in hell. That is both a sobering thought and a tremendously joyous one. I would urge you to consider these things – for the sake of Jesus’ honor as well as for the sake of your own wellbeing.

No comments: