Sunday, April 25, 2010

Threats


Judah is once again faced with a threat. And the threat is real. Our chapter is about how the people of God respond to this threat and then, how Jesus, in turn, responds to them. We’re back to geopolitics, alliances and international diplomacy. Or to put it another way, we’re back to how people respond to life. And while there will be darker parts here, the chapter ends on a very bright note.

Listen as I read Isaiah 30.

Assyria is still the big bully on the block. It’s still the super power of the day. And it still has Judah in its sights. So, what do the people of God do? They do what any reasonable nation would do. They look around for some help. As a result they appeal to Egypt for protection. But this is Jesus’ opinion about that. ‘“Ah, stubborn children,” declares the LORD, “who carry out a plan, but not mine, and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit, that they may add sin to sin; who set out to go down to Egypt, without asking for my direction, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt!”’ Judah is being foolish. But they would claim that their choice makes sense. The threat was real. This nation of military might, Assyria, was surely working on plans to invade and conquer Judah. It is only reasonable that the leadership of Judah recognize this and act. And what better way to act than to match military might with military might. An alliance with Egypt certainly makes sense, no? Well, they thought so, but Jesus didn’t.

However, Jesus does more than point out Judah’s stubbornness. He also speaks words of grace to His foolish people. ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.’ The language of rest and quietness is a reminder of what we saw back in chapter 28: ‘rest and repose’. It’s the call to rest in Jesus even when, or especially when, you are faced with a threat. And what is required for someone to do this? ‘…in trust shall be your strength…’ Or, again, to put that into language from chapter 28, ‘Whoever believes will not be in haste.’ The issues for Judah were clear. ‘Will Jesus take care of us? Assyria looms. Can Jesus handle that?’ Those who trust Him will answer those questions with a ‘Yes’. It might be a timid ‘Yes’, but it would be a ‘Yes’. But Judah answered those questions with a ‘No’ as they turned to Egypt for protection.

But Jesus’ grace is not finished. It’s helpful to see what else He had included in His call to them. Listen again. ‘In returning and rest you shall be saved…’ What is this ‘returning’? It’s all about repentance. It was Jesus’ way of saying, ‘You have acted foolishly. You have looked to Egypt. That is so wrong. But if you repent of that, if you return to Me, I will make sure that it will be alright.’ Jesus responds with patience and the offer of grace. He appeals in mercy to His wayward children. He goes above and beyond – as usual.

But notice their response. And this time I’ll read the whole verse. ‘For thus said the LORD God, the Holy One of Israel, “In returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.” But you were unwilling…’ It’s one thing to be ignorant, not to know what’s going on and then sin, but this is not about being ignorant. The people of Judah were unwilling. They knew what Jesus was saying, but they refused to listen. Isaiah’s description is apt. ‘For they are a rebellious people, lying children, children unwilling to hear the instruction of the LORD; who say to the seers, “Do not see,” and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right; speak to us smooth things, prophesy illusions, leave the way, turn aside from the path, let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.” Jesus spoke to them, by His prophets, but He was rejected. The people heard but were unwilling. They really were ‘a rebellious people’. Now, Jesus responds with words of anger. He describes what will happen to Judah. They will be like ‘a potter's vessel that is smashed so ruthlessly that among its fragments not a shard is found with which to take fire from the hearth, or to dip up water out of the cistern.’ Judah will be utterly shattered for their willful rejection of Jesus.

There are many who read about what they call ‘the Old Testament God’ who, to them, is so angry and violent. And they just don’t think He should be. He should be more like ‘the New Testament God’ who is full of love and never gets mad – or so they say. But consider the situation in Isaiah’s day. Over the previous seven hundred years or so, Jesus has called Israel into existence, rescued them from Pharaoh’s harsh slavery, made them His special treasure by covenant, given them good laws and the promise of reward if they followed them, led them into the Promised Land, enthroned good kings like David and all along the way provided for daily needs. But when life gets a little dicey, when confronted with a threat, they forget all about Jesus’ promises to take care of them and look, of all places, to Egypt for safety. Then, instead of responding in justice, Jesus appeals to them to return in repentance so that He could protect them. And what do they do then? Do they come to their senses and return? No, they make it all the worse by despising His offer. So, even though the prophets remind the people that rebellion will result in being cursed, the people continue in their rebellious ways, even telling the prophets that they had better change their message to something more agreeable, or else. Should it surprise anyone that Jesus responds to such evil as promised? Should His just rage be unexpected? Judah had been warned. They had been warned time and time and time again. But they were stubborn children who refused to repent.

None of this should be surprising. Jesus’ expression of justice is to be expected. Punishment, here, makes sense. But His response after all of that is surprising. ‘Therefore the LORD waits to be gracious to you, and therefore he exalts himself to show mercy to you. For the LORD is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him.’ Even after all of this rebellion, Jesus is eager to be gracious. One translation puts it this way, ‘The LORD longs to be gracious to you.’ Jesus has punished His people. He has brought upon them the violence that He had promised. Justice has been served. Judah has been brought so low as a result. But Jesus has not given up on His Church. He waits to be gracious. What is this but more of the surprising kindness of our God?

And for what is He waiting so that He can be gracious? Listen again to the last line of that verse. ‘… blessed are all those who wait for Him.’ What does that mean? Go back to the beginning. Assyria looms. And what are people saying? ‘We’d better do something. Before you know it Assyria will be on our doorstep. We need to act and we need to act now! What about Egypt? That’s where we should look for some help.’ But what should they have said? ‘We will appeal to our God and wait for Him to act.’ But waiting for Jesus to act will take trust. It requires people to say, ‘I know that Jesus has the power to deal with this situation. I know that He cares about me in this situation. And I know that His timing is always perfect. So, then I’ll trust Him in this. I’ll wait for Him to act.’ That’s what Isaiah means when he writes, ‘… blessed are all those who wait for him.’ To these Jesus will be gracious. At the right time He will act.

And what happens with those who wait? What does Jesus do for them? ‘For a people shall dwell in Zion, in Jerusalem; you shall weep no more. He will surely be gracious to you at the sound of your cry. As soon as he hears it, he answers you. And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher. And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, “This is the way, walk in it,” when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.’ Jerusalem, the once glorious city that had been emptied because of Jesus’ punishment, will once again be filled. And the people of Zion will rejoice and with good reason. Notice what Jesus says. ‘… when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.’ What is this? Jesus is describing our wandering away from the path, turning to the right or the left. Did you notice that He didn’t say, ‘If you turn …’ Rather, He said, ‘When you turn …’ Jesus knows that we are going to wander from the strait and narrow. He knows we are going to sin. But He doesn’t go ballistic when we do. He understands that we are sinners who have a lot to learn. So, when we sin, what happens? ‘… your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it…’ When we wander off, Jesus calls us back to the path. ‘The path is over here. This is where you want to be. Return to Me so we can continue our walk together.’ No fireworks, just patient calling. Our Savior is so very patient with sinners like us. He understands our weakness. All you need do is admit your sin and return to the path. As you do, you will find Jesus ready to resume the journey with you. We will sin. We will turn to the right or the left. But when we do we will hear Jesus’ gracious words calling us to repentance. All that is needed at that point is a little honesty.

And that leaves this. ‘You shall have a song as in the night when a holy feast is kept, and gladness of heart, as when one sets out to the sound of the flute to go to the mountain of the LORD, to the Rock of Israel. And the LORD will cause his majestic voice to be heard and the descending blow of his arm to be seen, in furious anger and a flame of devouring fire, with a cloudburst and storm and hailstones. The Assyrians will be terror-stricken at the voice of the LORD, when he strikes with his rod. And every stroke of the appointed staff that the LORD lays on them will be to the sound of tambourines and lyres. Battling with brandished arm, he will fight with them.’ What is this? It’s Jesus striking the Assyrians. Or to put it in another way, it’s Jesus dealing with the threat that confronted His people. It’s Jesus keeping His word to protect and care for us – if we would but wait for Him. And When Jesus acts there is no doubt as to the outcome. As He acts, our enemies will be terror-stricken. And what will we be doing as we watch our Savior destroy our enemies? We will be singing. ‘You shall have a song … And every stroke of the appointed staff that the LORD lays on them will be to the sound of tambourines and lyres.’ I‘m guessing that means lots of Psalms, the ones that speak of the joy of the saints as the enemies of God are vanquished. ‘… blessed are all those who wait for Him.’

Let me finish up by going back to the beginning. What happened? Judah was confronted by a threat, a very real threat that could have spelled disaster for them. What did they do? They panicked and opted for unbelief. They didn’t see it as such. They thought that they were simply responding to a problem in a way that made sense. They were just being reasonable. But in reality they were opting not to trust Jesus. And in this they sinned. You and I face similar situations every day. We find ourselves confronted by threats. It doesn’t have to be a huge, life or death kind of thing. Most of the threats that we face are on a much smaller scale. So, there’s the threat of being overwhelmed by all that you need to do. Or the threat of loneliness. Or some office politics. It might be anything. But whatever it is, it looms ready to do us harm. Sadly, when we see it, all too often we panic or despair and opt for unbelief. We respond in a way that seems to make sense at the time. But what we are doing is choosing to act in a way that has nothing to do with trusting Jesus. But remember how Jesus responded to Judah. ‘This is the way, walk in it.’ It’s His kind and gentle call to repent and return to Him. He understands our weakness. He knows that our sinfulness has deep roots. He knows that we are in the process of being changed, and He is so very patient as we learn to trust Him.

So, pray that the Spirit would help you to see your life in terms of today’s chapter so that you can see the threats for what they are: times to trust Jesus. Please understand that you will often fail to do this. Expect that to happen. Jesus does. But when it happens, you’ll hear His gentle voice calling you back to the path. All you need do is be honest and return to the path where Jesus waits. And as you do this you will find that you will come to enjoy Jesus’ friendship more and more as you make progress together along the path.

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