Sunday, April 18, 2010

Drawing Near

Today’s chapter is like so many of the others that we have read in Isaiah. It’s about faithlessness and punishment. The question might pop into your head, ‘Why is this here? Why do we have to hear about Israel’s failure?’ I can understand that. After a while it can get to be a bit much. And yet, the Spirit has seen fit to include all these chapters about faithlessness and punishment. He’s done that for our sake. Life is a battlefield and every day has its skirmishes. The world, the flesh and the devil do not take a day off from the war. And neither should we. So, by pointing out the failure of the Church of old the Spirit is warning us. ‘This is where the people of God in Isaiah’s day fell. You don’t want that to happen to you. Be careful. Avoid their errors that you might live.’ So, there are warnings in our text that we would do well to watch for and heed. And if we do this well, we will flourish. That, after all, is the Spirit’s goal for us. So, let me encourage you to work through the darker parts of Scripture so that you can enjoy its blessings.

Listen as I read Isaiah 29.

I’m going to focus on just a couple of verses from this chapter, verses that get at the core of what was going on in old Israel. Listen again to verses 13 and 14. ‘And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.”’ The issue was worship. And the problem was that the worship of the people of God was not from the heart.

Let’s begin to take this apart by taking a look at worship. What is it? Isaiah describes it in two ways. First, there is this idea of drawing near. Imagine this situation. A businessman sees an acquaintance. He walks over, greets him and they shake hands. What was our businessman thinking as he did all this? Was it happy thoughts of seeing an old friend or was it the allure of a possible sale? Or consider this. A husband and wife are out on a date. It’s time to be away from the rest of life, time to be together. What are they thinking about? Are they focusing on each other or is their attention on some distraction back at the job or at home? Isaiah describes worship as drawing near to God. In the two situations I mentioned we have people drawing near to each other – or were they?

Isaiah also uses the language of honor. Worship is about responding to God by giving Him honor. That might sound a little stiff and a sterile but it doesn’t have to be. Consider the husband who says this to his wife: ‘You are such a fine woman. I am so glad that God has brought you into my life.’ What wife wouldn’t just love to hear such words? The husband is honoring his wife, but it’s abundantly clear that this is not at all stiff or sterile. Worship is about honoring God.

Put these two together and what do you have? Worship is a time of intimacy with God. We are to draw near, not in some merely outward sense, but much more profoundly than that. And as we draw near, we come to honor our God with words of affection.

The people of God in Isaiah’s day were failing in this. The problem was not that they neglected times of worship but that their worship was basically phony. Their bodies were at the Temple doing all the prescribed things, but their hearts were somewhere else, far away. They did all the things listed in the order of worship, but they didn’t honor their God from the heart.

That’s the problem. Isaiah reports Jesus’ response to all of this. He pronounces a curse on them. He promises that wisdom and discernment will be removed from His Church. Jesus declares quite clearly that the ability of the people to ‘get it’, to comprehend the things of God, will be taken away from them. This is a very appropriate punishment. The point of a date is to nurture intimacy, to get to know the other person better so that you can enjoy, and be enjoyed by, the other person. That’s what ‘the two shall be one flesh’ is about. Worship has the same purpose. It’s for us to get to know our God better so that we can enjoy Him. And I think that I can say that it is also for Him to be able to enjoy us. And so, the fruit of worship is the blessing of greater intimacy with Jesus. But when people abuse that, as old Israel was doing, it is appropriate that the curse be less intimacy.

This curse didn’t come out of the blue. Remember what Jesus told Isaiah back in chapter 6. ‘Go, and say to this people: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.’ Eyes that could not see, ears that could not hear and hearts that could not feel: the epitome of being lost. Israel reaped what they had sowed. So, the people might have been ‘drawing near’ by doing and saying all the right things at the Temple, but there was a growing distance between them and Jesus.

Jesus quoted this passage in His discussions with the Pharisees. Bear in mind that the Pharisees were the religious people of the day. And when this movement started, the goal was to be devout, truly devout. These Pharisees didn’t wake up one morning and say, ‘I think that I’ll become a hypocrite.’ No, each day they did what they did the previous day. They read their Bibles and said their prayers. But something happened. Listen to this from Hebrews. ‘Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.’ Did you notice the word, ‘drift’? Falling into the trap of drawing near to God in some superficial way isn’t something that happens in one big jump. It’s a slow slide into unbelief and the cold heart that goes with it. A person drifts into it. And bit by bit that person loses the ability to get it, the ability to enjoy Jesus. The end result is a Pharisee, ancient or modern, someone who is quite religious, there every Sunday, but who understands less and less. He drifts away. And intimacy dies.

So, the Spirit has this here to warn us. ‘The danger is real. Be careful. This is where they blew it. Don’t be like them. Be careful. Avoid their errors so that you can enjoy Jesus more and more.’

Now we’re ready for some questions. Here’s the first. What do we do so that what happened to them never happens to us? How do we avoid their errors? Some quickly opt for greater discipline. But that can’t be the solution. Those Pharisees were really disciplined and it didn’t help them any. In fact, if you linger at this thought a bit you’ll pick up the scent of salvation by works. No, the key to this is something different. It has to do with the heart. Remember how Jesus described the problem. He said, ‘… their hearts are far from me…’ Our protection is having a heart that really does draw near to God, a heart that worships. What does that look like? First, a couple of Psalms. ‘How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, yes, faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and flesh sing for joy to the living God.’ A heart that worships is a heart that longs for Jesus. Isn't that what love always does? Real worship, drawing near in the best sense of what that means, comes from a heart that longs for the Beloved. Another Psalm. ‘Whom have I in heaven but You? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides You.’ The Psalmist understood: compare anything else to Jesus, and it is clear that there is no comparison. What other desire can possibly match this heart’s desire for Jesus? And then, this from Paul. ‘For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.’ For Paul, life – every bit of it – was about Jesus. And if given the choice, there would be no choice. Paul would leave here to be with Jesus in a heartbeat. That’s the goal: a heart that is so given to Jesus that nothing else can compare. It’s a heart that says, ‘Jesus is my treasure.’ Remember, ‘… where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.’ The goal is a heart that treasures and yearns for Jesus. Worship, for such a heart, will always be real. That’s the protection. That’s how to avoid Israel’s error.

And that leads to the next question. How do we create such a heart? The fact of the matter is that this is not something that you can do. You cannot change your heart. That is something that only the Spirit can do. But the good news is that He is so very eager to do exactly that. That’s why He’s here. Remember, it’s all grace. We are saved, that is, we are changed, by the grace of God, Father, Son and Spirit. It isn’t something that we do. And that is very good news because it isn’t something that we can do.

Does that mean that we do nothing? The Spirit does all the hard work, but we still are responsible to act. But please notice what we are to do. We are to place ourselves in the path of His blessing. And that’s just another way to say what I’ve told you before. We need to give Him the tools that He uses to change hearts. So, once again, let me encourage you to get to know your Bible. The Spirit uses His Word to bless. And develop the conversation with the Father called prayer. Discuss life with Him, and watch how He responds. The Spirit also uses the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Now, does reading your Bible, praying and participating in the sacraments change your heart? No. It’s the Spirit who changes your heart. He is in control, not us. But as you pursue these tools the Spirit will use them. He will change your heart. And one key place that that will show is in worship.

Now, a word to you kids. What I have been talking about is especially important for you now. Right now you are in the process of forming your desires: what you like and what you don’t like; what’s important to you and what’s not important. Out of that will come the things that you will give yourself to, the things that matter to you, goals that you will strive toward for the rest of your life. These are all matters of the heart, the inner you. As you work on that you will notice that there is a lot of competition for your heart. Many things are calling to you and saying, ‘Make me the treasure of your heart.’ Sometimes they are physical things that you can see and touch. And sometimes they are things you can’t see and touch. And in the midst of all of this, Jesus also calls. ‘Make Me the treasure of your heart.’ It is so much better if Jesus becomes your greatest love, your treasure, when you are young. You’ll avoid many heartaches if you do that. You’ll avoid falling into the errors that Israel fell into. So, let me ask you this. What do you treasure? What is on the top of the list when it comes to the things that are really important to you? Some of you are still developing that list, so you’re not sure how to answer my question, but some of you have a list. What’s on the top of your list? Is it Jesus or something else? That is the most important question you will every deal with. More important that whom you will marry or what career you should pursue. What’s on the top of your list? I would urge you parents to discuss these things with your children. It would make a good lunchtime conversation this afternoon.

There is this ancient Greek saying that many of you have heard. ‘Know yourself.’ When properly understood, there is significant wisdom there. Nothing of what I have said will make any real sense if you don’t know your own heart. So, how is your heart doing? As you think over the last few years, are you seeing progress in this drawing near to Jesus? Is there a growing intimacy? Are you able to discern things a bit more clearly so that you understand better what it means to long for Jesus, to treasure Him above all other things? Please note that I’m not talking about how fast this change is happening. It’s not about speed. Growth in these things is not like a straight line graph always going up. There are lots of ups and downs. Solid change takes time. The question is not how fast, but whether there is movement in the right direction. I think that I can say that many of you do see movement in the right direction. You really do. As you look back over the last years you do see change. You do see a growing intimacy. Jesus has become more precious to you. This change hasn’t been as fast as you would like – it rarely ever is – but you can see the change. So, be encouraged. The Spirit is at work in you. He is re-making your heart so that you yearn for Jesus more and more.

So, continue what you’ve been doing. Continue to work at trusting Jesus. The blessings of intimacy make that easier as time goes on. So, keep at it. And don’t get discouraged when you mess up. The world, the flesh and the devil haven’t quit yet. You still have many battles with sin ahead of you. But learn from your battles and keep fighting. And then, look to the future with optimism. The Spirit is at work in you. He won’t stop until He’s completed what He has begun in you. And what a glorious day that will be!

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