Sunday, May 16, 2010

Who Shall Dwell?

We are still dealing with the bully on the block, Assyria. Maybe I should say that we are dealing with the aftermath of Assyria. In this chapter Isaiah preaches about life for the people of God after the bully is done away with, after he is destroyed. And the life that Isaiah proclaims is one full of hope.

Please listen as I read Isaiah 33.

The opening verse is quite clear. Isaiah looks forward to the day when the nation that has cast such a shadow over the life of Judah will be removed. ‘Ah, you destroyer … when you have ceased to destroy, you will be destroyed…’ God will act and rescue His people. And while Isaiah is most immediately talking about Judah’s problems with Assyria and how God will rescue His people, you need to remember that ultimately he is pointing us to Jesus. Behind all those who oppose the people of God, whether we’re talking about Assyria or Goliath or even Job’s three friends, stands Satan. He is the one who stands against the Church through the ages. And while David can kill Goliath, it will take Jesus to destroy Satan. What we are seeing in our text is another picture of that destruction and what follows. And while this chapter has a particular historical context, the fall of the Assyrian empire, its ultimate point is about the fall of Satan’s empire.

Jesus acts to rescue His people. Then, according to Isaiah, He will bless His people. ‘The LORD is exalted, for he dwells on high; he will fill Zion with justice and righteousness …’ Jesus will bless His Church with all that is good and right. It’s at this point that some very important questions are asked, and it’s these questions that I am going to focus on this morning. ‘The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless: “Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?”’ These are the right questions to ask. And Isaiah helps us out by giving us an answer. He provides a list of qualifications for citizenship in Zion. ‘He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly, who despises the gain of oppressions, who shakes his hands, lest they hold a bribe, who stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking on evil…’

All of this might sound a little familiar. A couple of Psalms raise the same question. This is from Psalm 15. ‘O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill?’ And David, the author, has his own list that begins with this, ‘He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart…’ Psalm 24 puts it similarly. ‘Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?’ And here’s something from the list from that Psalm. ‘He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully.’ Understand what’s going on here. These three texts are about being able to live with God in His holy dwelling. Each one offers a partial list of the conditions that must be met if a person is to enjoy life with the Holy One of Israel.

Isaiah adds something to the mix. He talks about a ‘consuming fire’ and ‘everlasting burnings’. This helps us to grasp the seriousness of all of this. You see, failure to satisfy the conditions doesn’t just mean being left out of all the fun. It means being destroyed. That’s what ‘consuming fire’ and ‘everlasting burnings’ are about. The image of the destructive power of fire has been used before. Do you remember what happened to Sodom and Gomorrah? Or what about Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, who had some original thoughts on how to worship? Then there was the time in the desert when Israel complained. Jesus sent a little fire to some of the outer parts of the camp. The imagery of ‘everlasting burnings’ goes beyond all that. Here, Isaiah is talking about hell. Failure to meet the conditions isn’t just a matter of missing out. It has to do with punishment in this life and the next.

So, now listen again to the questions. From the Psalms: ‘O LORD, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill?’ ‘Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD? And who shall stand in his holy place?’ From Isaiah: ‘Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?’ And then remember the lists of qualifications. ‘He who walks blamelessly and does what is right and speaks truth in his heart…’ ‘He who has clean hands and a pure heart…’ ‘He who walks righteously and speaks uprightly…’

Here’s the first thing that I want you to get. We are all disqualified. None of us has satisfied those conditions. Now, remember what that means. It’s not just that we miss out. We are confronted by the destructive power of a very holy God. And it’s not that we did fairly well, but just not quite well enough. We are in the same category as all those people in Sodom and Gomorrah. Our sin is actually worse than that of Nadab and Abihu. We are not nice though somewhat imperfect people. We are wicked sinners who deserve God’s punishing justice now and forever. I hope that you can all apply those words to yourselves without any hesitation. Wicked sinners. Who deserve God’s punishing justice. Now and forever. Jesus in His kindness has given us lists like these so that we can see clearly that we’ve totally missed the target, so that we can see how evil we really are. And this is why, each Sunday, we read from the Law of God. Each week we review different conditions from God’s list. And what we come away with is this simple fact. We are sinners. Wicked sinners.

Now, if you’ve heard what I’ve said, then you’re ready for what’s next. Listen to Isaiah’s final words of this chapter. ‘… the people who dwell there will be forgiven their iniquity.’ The same Jesus who applies His consuming fires and everlasting burnings to sinners, has also endured those consuming fires and everlasting burnings. And He has done this so that some might be forgiven. These who have been forgiven are now qualified to be the citizens of Zion who dwell with holy God.

There are two things you need to know about these people. First of all, they are convinced that they really are wicked. They have a sense of just how disqualified they really are. And this sense is more than some intellectual agreement. It shows in how they live. There is no ‘trying harder’ or making up for past mistakes or striving to be good enough. And there is certainly no sense of being one of the nice people of the world. Any suggestion of such a thing is laughable, and they know it, at least in their sane moments. They are so convinced of their wickedness that they have given up trying to meet the qualifications to gain entrance. They know it’s a waste of time and a hopeless project. They know who they really are. But there is something else that goes with this knowledge of themselves. This is the second thing they are convinced of. They have heard Jesus tell them, ‘There is nothing that you can do to change your situation. So, let Me take care of it. Trust Me on this.’ And they do. So, if the Father really does pose that question, ‘Why should I let you into My heaven?’, these folk know what to say. They say nothing. After all, there is nothing to be said, at least by them. Jesus must do everything. If He doesn’t come through, nothing that they say can do any good. So, for these people everything hinges on Jesus. Either He will make it right or they will suffer the consuming fire and the everlasting burnings. Here are two convictions that citizens of Zion hold.

Now, you are the people of God. You are the Zion that Isaiah was preaching about. You know the truth about yourselves and about Jesus. And you are trusting Him to take care of the situation. So, because of Jesus you are now qualified. This is such good news! Here is something to rejoice in. But some of you will say, ‘But I heard what you just said about those two convictions that citizens of Zion hold. But I am so bad at that. My faith is so weak and small. I’m up one day and down the next. I can’t be qualified.’ Isn’t it good to know that it isn’t the size or strength of your faith that matters? Didn’t Jesus say something about having faith the size of a mustard seed? It is not the strength of the faith but the strength of the Savior that matters. So, let me repeat myself. You are the people of God. You are the Zion that Isaiah was preaching about. Because you trust Jesus, even as poorly as you do, He has qualified you. Good News!

And now we’re ready to return to those lists, God’s Law. These lists are not just entrance qualifications for citizenship in Zion. They actually describe what real life is. And so, as those already qualified by Jesus, we return to the lists. We return in order to do the hard but very satisfying work of living like true citizens. So, walking righteously, having clean hands and a pure heart, speaking truth in the heart, these are the kinds of things that we take aim at. The lists describe life as it was meant to be. And they do that because the lists describe what loving and enjoying Jesus looks like. We work at living like Christians because we love Jesus and want to enjoy Him more.

Let’s spend a little time on this. Much of what I am going to say will not be new, but there are some things that just need to be repeated. So, first of all God’s Law has an important role to play in our lives. We are to strive to live like Christians. God’s lists describe and explain what that looks like. That is how His Law is to function in our lives now that we’re citizens of Zion. If you’re thinking about this in terms of ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’, then you’re not getting it. We Christians strive to keep God’s Law not because of some sense of duty. We work at this so that we might enjoy life. The Law is Jesus saying, ‘This is how to really live.’ And so, we work at it. That’s the first thing.

The second thing has to do with a hidden but very common misunderstanding. We do not work at this in order to be qualified. We already are! We are the children of God, citizens of Zion. Jesus has already seen to that. So, we do not work to gain that goal. And you all know that and heartily agree - and yet. Consider this. You have been given emotions for a reason. They reveal what’s going on in your heart. So, what’s really happening in someone who works at the lists with emotions that are all about fear and the dread of failure? That person, in his heart of hearts, is worried about being disqualified. He is thinking that, because of his inability to meet the conditions, he will be rejected by Jesus. If you pursue living faithful with some hovering dread of failure, then something is wrong. So, let me suggest some things to ponder. The first is just a simple fact. You are going to fail. You will not satisfy the conditions on those lists – none of them. Even on your best day, you are going to fail. You need to come to grips with the fact that you sin, that everything you do is stained by your sin. It may sound odd, but getting this is the route to hope. Once you grasp that fact and accept it as God’s own truth for you, then you can relax and enjoy Jesus. So, here’s what you tell yourself. ‘I am a failure when it comes to doing the things on those lists. I haven’t done even one of them well enough to qualify. And for as long as I walk this earth I will continue to fail at this. But Jesus knows all about this. He has dealt with my failures. He has qualified me to be a citizen of Zion. And He loves me even when I am in the midst of failing again.’ Now, when you discover another failure, when the Spirit points out some sin of yours, this is what you do. Repent of that sin. And then believe the Gospel, especially the part about being qualified because of Jesus. And then, rejoice. Why not? After all, you’re forgiven. Remember what Isaiah wrote: ‘…the people who dwell there will be forgiven their iniquity.’ Forgiveness is part of what it means for you to live in Zion.

Once again, consider your emotions. If you don’t feel the joy of forgiveness, then you’ve missed something. So, talk to yourself. Go over the steps. ‘I became aware of my failure. Then, I repented of that sin. Next, I believed Jesus’ promise of forgiveness. Last, the Father forgave me.’ Which step did you miss? My guess is that if there is no sense of joy then the problem is in that last step. When folk think, ‘forgiveness’ too often they mean, ‘God’s not going to punish me, but He’s still a little ticked with me.’ The fact of the matter is that when the Father forgives He also forgets. Consider this promise of forgiveness from another section of Isaiah. ‘I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.’ The language of ‘blot out’ is the idea of obliterate, completely wipe out, to be totally gone. So, when the Father forgives He forgets because there is nothing left to remember. It has been obliterated. So, next time you don’t feel the joy of forgiveness once you’ve repented just imagine the wickedness of that sin you’ve just committed in your right hand. Picture it there in all its ugliness. And then, picture Jesus coming up to you and taking that sin out of your hand and putting it into His. Now, your hand is completely empty. There’s nothing there. Your sin is gone. It has disappeared. The Father has forgiven and forgotten. All because of Jesus. You’ll know you’re getting it when that sense of joy starts to make itself felt.

You are citizens of Zion. Jesus has come to make that happen. He has certified your citizenship. What you need to do now is enjoy it.

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