Sunday, May 30, 2010

Vengeance


I think that you’ll find this week’s chapter quite striking. And as we work at understanding it, we will bump up against some questions that will be at least a bit challenging.

Listen as I read Isaiah 34.


Let’s start with the obvious. What I just read to you is so very violent. Some examples: ‘Their slain shall be cast out, and the stench of their corpses shall rise; the mountains shall flow with their blood. … The LORD has a sword; it is sated [or you might translate it ‘dripping’] with blood…’ And Jesus is described as ‘enraged’ and ‘furious’ at the nations. As a result, He has ‘devoted them to destruction’. There is violence here and violence of a sort that many are uncomfortable with.

So, what should we do with this? Here’s one thought. It is good to be reminded that Jesus can get very angry. The Jesus that many of us grew up with was always gentle and kind and compassionate. And, to be sure, He is that. But remember that half the truth presented as the whole truth is a lie. The real Jesus also gets very angry. We see that in the Gospels when He starts flinging tables and chasing people. And bear in mind that the whip He had in hand was not for show. He used it on those people. That’s what whips are for. The Jesus who is so very compassionate is also, at times, angry, even violently so. If you’re going to work at getting to know Jesus it might as well be the real Jesus that you get to know.

There are other lessons to be learned here. For one thing, this, again, brings up the topic of emotions. Jesus’ actions here are filled with emotion. And it’s good to see that because His angry response lets us know what’s going on within Him. Whatever provoked His response – and we’ll take a look at that in a moment – touched something close to His heart. I say all of this to once again tell you that considering our emotional responses can be very helpful. Our emotions reveal what’s going on inside us. Our emotions reveal our hearts. So, there is something wrong with the person who never gets angry. It’s just as bad as the person who is never elated. When someone responds with strong emotion it shows that his heart is committed to something. His rage or his excitement show that something that matters to him is either doing really poorly or really well. A lack of emotions in some area suggests that this person has no commitment there. No emotion means that, as far as this person is concerned, it really doesn’t matter what happens. Our emotions – including their lack – reveal our hearts. I no longer get excited about football. But play some Rich Mullins or Andrew Peterson songs and I am quickly brought to tears. Our emotions reveal our hearts. So, you see, something has gone very wrong in our text. Jesus has responded with His emotions. And the situation must be extreme because Jesus’ emotional response is extreme. The commitments of His heart are being revealed.

My thought here is not that we need to somehow create certain emotions. That’s just phony. My thought is that our emotions reveal where our commitments lie. The point to take away from this is to consider what gets you angry and what gets you excited. Do you find yourself responding with an intense emotion when it comes to Jesus? Our text shows us that Jesus responds with intense emotion when it comes to you.

And that leads us to the next thought. Isaiah is quite clear as to what Jesus is responding to. Listen: ‘For the LORD has a day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause of Zion.’ Today’s chapter is about vengeance and recompense, revenge and payback. We’ve all been told that revenge is wrong. But that depends. The Spirit speaks to this in the Scriptures. ‘Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”’ It is true that we are not to seek revenge. But did you notice why? We are not to pursue revenge for sins committed against us because our God will. And that is what Isaiah 34 is about. Isaiah is writing about payback at the hands of Jesus. Revenge. And as you can see there is plenty of wrath. Jesus pursues revenge, with some anger, because of the sins committed against us, His Church. That’s what Isaiah means when he writes, ‘For the LORD has a day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause of Zion.’ Jesus is responding to something that has happened to Zion. All of this violence is Jesus’ emotional response to the evil done to His Church. This is what I meant when I said that Jesus responds with intense emotion when it comes to you. And who is on the receiving end? ‘For the LORD is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all their host…’ Jesus is responding to the nations for what they have done to His Church. How many times in these sermons on Isaiah have I referred to the bully on the block, Assyria? In previous chapters Isaiah has referred to Moab and in this chapter he points to Edom, two nations that hated the people of God and who acted on that hatred. And before we’re done with this book we’ll talk about Babylon and what it did against Israel. Jesus is responding to what’s happened to His Church at the hands of the nations. This is what, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay’, looks like.

All of this makes sense when you put it into the context of the key theme of the Bible. Let’s go back to the Garden once again. From Genesis 3, God’s words spoken to Satan: ‘I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed…’ It’s the nations against Zion, the world against the Church, Satan against Jesus. And because the nations attacked His people violently, Jesus responds violently. Revenge belongs to Jesus, and He will repay. And the fury of Jesus’ response reveals not only His intense anger against the nations, but also His intense commitment to His Church. His emotions reveal what’s going on in His heart. Jesus is intense when it comes to you.

Something Paul wrote repeats what we have in Isaiah. ‘This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering – since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.’ When Jesus returns there will be vengeance. It will be payback time. And all those who brought such suffering upon the Church will face a very angry Jesus. To use Paul’s language, He will ‘repay with affliction those who afflict you’. This is what Isaiah is talking about. ‘For the LORD has a day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause of Zion.’

This helps us to understand another theme of the Scriptures. ‘When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”’ It’s the cry for justice by the saints who have suffered so much for the cause of Jesus. And this cry runs throughout the Scriptures. And what is the reply to this cry for justice? ‘Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.’

This recurring cry, with its response for the saints to wait a little longer, reminds us that there is delay. There is a gap between the time when the nations afflict the Church and the time when Jesus deals with it. What Isaiah described has not yet occurred. Jesus has not yet returned ‘from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance’. And so, the question lingers: ‘How long?’ But Jesus will return. And when He does there will be justice. Jesus will repay with affliction those who have afflicted His Church. And then we’ll have the answer to the question, ‘How long?’

All of this leads me to some questions. As I look at the Church, at least the Church in America, I don’t have the sense that there are many who are crying out, ‘How long?’ I don’t get the sense that there are many who are looking eagerly to the return of Jesus so that there might be justice, that the wait might be over. I think that it’s fair to say that this is not a prominent theme even in our own church. And that leads me to ask why that might be. The cry for Jesus’ return with His justice is so large in the Scriptures. Why not here? One answer that suggests itself is that we do not long for Jesus’ return and what that will mean for us because we don’t suffer very much. We are not confronted with the afflictions that Paul wrote about, afflictions that are the result of conflict with the world because we are disciples of Jesus. And that gets us into an area that I am not at all sure about. I have some questions that do not yet have answers. Are all Christians supposed to suffer? Is this kind of affliction a necessary part of what it means to be a disciple? Is this included in the normal Christian life? There are places in Scripture where it really does sound like the answer is, ‘Yes’. Paul wrote: ‘Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted…’ And Jesus said, ‘Remember the word that I said to you: “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.’ I have to say that it sounds like there is an answer here to my question, and that the answer is, ‘Yes, following Jesus necessarily includes persecution and suffering’. But I’m not quite ready to say that. There have been too many times when I have come to some conclusion only to find that I acted prematurely. There was more Scripture for me to consider. So, I find that I am not yet prepared to come to a conclusion on this. Or to put it more bluntly, I’m not yet ready to say that if a Christian never suffers at the hands of the world because of Jesus, it must be because he is in some serious sin, or maybe even that he’s not really a Christian. I’m not ready to come to that conclusion. I have to ponder this more. However, I must say that, at first blush, it does sound like a Christian who never suffers for the faith is, at least, an oddity.

While all of that is not clear to me, there are some things that are clear. There are some things that I can say with confidence. When the saints do suffer, when affliction is great because of conflict with the world, the cry will go up, ‘How long, O Lord?’ The return of Jesus is then a precious truth, a comforting truth. It becomes something that encourages suffering saints to press on. Jesus will return. And when He does, He will demonstrate for all to see His love for His Church as well as His sense of justice. I can also say with complete confidence that we all need to be ready to suffer. If affliction comes upon us because of we stand firm for Jesus and against the world, we should not be shocked. Peter said as much. ‘Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.’ Peter calls for rejoicing instead of surprise. And that is something that we can work on now. So, we should not plan our lives simply assuming that suffering is not a possibility. Jesus has called us to follow Him, to live as He lived. And even a shallow knowledge of the Gospels will show that life for Him was filled with conflict, filled with suffering. So, His call to follow Him must include at least the possibility of our having to face the same kind of response that He did. And please understand. I’m not saying that we should look for suffering. Jesus didn’t look for suffering. But because of His faithful living before the Father, suffering found Him.

It seems to me that this is helps us to see where we need to focus our attention. The important question is not whether we are suffering. Our attitude toward suffering might be an indication that there are some things we might need to reconsider. But it’s not the heart of the matter. What’s of first importance is whether we are working at following Jesus. So, in this context a good question to consider is whether we love as He loved and as He still loves. That, after all, is how we are to fight this war against the world, against the disciples of Satan. We are to love them in the hope that they might see Jesus more clearly than they do now and that they might leave the world and become a part of the Church. We are to love them because we love Jesus and are working at following Him. My guess is that as we make progress there, life will get harder. People will react. There will be suffering. And we will find ourselves crying out, ‘How long?’ But there will be the flip side to all of that. First, we will experience a greater degree of joy than we do now. We will be rejoicing because of what Jesus will be doing. He will cause many to see the foolishness of serving Satan. They will then turn from that slave driver to give themselves to Jesus. They will do that because they will see our how we live. They will see the love of Jesus in us. And that will make the suffering worth it.

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