Friday, January 01, 2016

The Restoration of Israel

[8] Thus says the Lord: “In a time of favor I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you; I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people, to establish the land, to apportion the desolate heritages, [9] saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Appear.’ They shall feed along the ways; on all bare heights shall be their pasture; [10] they shall not hunger or thirst, neither scorching wind nor sun shall strike them, for he who has pity on them will lead them, and by springs of water will guide them. [11] And I will make all my mountains a road, and my highways shall be raised up. [12] Behold, these shall come from afar, and behold, these from the north and from the west, and these from the land of Syene.”

[13] Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted.
Isaiah 49:8-13 (ESV)
New Year’s Resolutions

How many of you make New Year’s resolutions? What are some of the things you resolve to do? I don’t really hang my hopes on them, but I usually like to make a few resolutions at the beginning of the year. New Year’s is a convenient time to take inventory of last year, and see how you measured against your goal and set new goals.

Some people say that New Year’s resolutions are a poor way to turn your life around. For example, if all your life you’ve struggled to be disciplined with food and exercise, and on January 1, you resolve to join a gym and go at least 4 times a week, and stop eating sweets and refined sugars and white carbs, and stop eating fast food and stop this and stop that, what you’re really doing is setting yourself up for failure.

In fact, gym contracts are set up this way. I heard a story on the radio last week about a man—something like a retail space designer—who designs gyms to attract a certain clientele, who they’re pretty sure won’t show up regularly. To do the story they went into a gym in lower Manhattan, which is one of the most densely packed business districts in the country. This is a place where people fight hard for space to live, space to work, space to walk on the sidewalk. But when they did the show the gym was pretty much empty. Five to ten people in the whole place at the time.

The story was about the economics of gym membership price schemes. The reason a gym can charge you as little as $10 a month for a membership is that they sell memberships to a lot more people than will show up any given week.

They know that we have these intentions to work out. We may even have a self-image of being a person who works out. We may even think we’re the kind of people who go to the gym daily, when in actual fact, the real number is more like twice a week.

We all know that in our culture, there are enough jokes about well-intended New Year’s resolutions falling apart in February to let us know that we have a problem. So often we don’t measure up to the standards we set for ourselves.

Israel’s Resolution and God’s

This brings me to Israel. We’ve been studying Isaiah for the last few weeks, and I know that when I read Isaiah without a road map of sorts for the book, I can get lost. Over 66 chapters, Isaiah contains a lot of poetic language and a lot of different letters and sermons aimed sometimes at a number of different audiences.

This will be helpful to remember when you’re studying Isaiah. Isaiah and the other prophets were like preachers who were called by God to remind his people of his word. Remember God’s word. Remember God’s covenant. Remember your responsibilities.

Similar to what we do each January, Israel had made a promise to God long ago with Moses. At Mt Sinai Moses read the Law and the Covenant to Israel and Israel promised to keep it.
Moses came and told the people all the words of the Lord and all the rules. And all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.” And Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. … Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read it in the hearing of the people. And they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient.” And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
This promise on the part of Israel had conditions. If they kept the law, they would see blessing and prosperity in the land, but if they broke it, they would be brought under occupation and even sent into exile.

Israel’s story is just like our story. Do you remember Romans 3? All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. None are righteous. Not one. Israel made a habit of breaking God’s law, even from the very moment God made a covenant with them. That’s where we are. Isaiah is a prophet and he’s trying to call Israel to faithfulness. He’s trying to call them to repent of their sins. We’ve spent a lot of time in Isaiah during Advent, because Isaiah prophesies the coming of a savior-king who will rescue Israel.

Our passage today outlines the promise of a day of salvation. A day in which everything in Israel is made right. All of this is based on the Promise of God. This message is based on the fact that God also made a resolution. He promised to save his people in Genesis three. He promised to bless the whole world through Abraham. He promised not to destroy Israel when Moses prayed for them. God's promise of salvation, though, comes to us without conditions and as we’ll see today, God keeps his promise.

I want to look first, at the day of salvation. Second, the covenant God keeps with us. Third, Christ’s call to us. Then finally, we’ll look at the result, which is joy.

The day of salvation is now
Thus says the Lord: “In a time of favor I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you.
The first point [1] today is that the day of salvation is right now. Isaiah was preaching about a time that was yet in the future. Isaiah was reminding Israel of the exile and the discipline that would come if they did not repent of their sins. When Isaiah was writing this discipline had not occurred yet. Exile to Babylon was all in the future for them. The people were continuing in their sin, just like the generations before them, and just like the generations after them. But here in verse 8, Isaiah reminds the people that after the time of discipline would be a favorable time, a time of salvation.

And Paul, writing in 2 Corinthians 6:1-2 tell us—you and me—that the day of salvation, the favorable time is right now.
Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says, “In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.” Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.
In a sense, that’s always true when we hear God’s word. Whenever God says to you, “you must repent of your sins,” you have an opportunity at that moment to either obey or not. Honestly, whenever you hear anything from God at all, you have that opportunity. When Jonah preached to Nineveh, he said “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” I don’t even see where Jonah gave even an implicit invitation there, and Nineveh repented and believed.

But Isaiah has been calling Israel to repent for 48 chapters up to our passage. His point is essentially, “even though you’re not going to repent now, there will be a day called ‘a favorable time’ and ‘a day of salvation.’” Isaiah is saying that on that day, everything will be in place. The work of salvation will be done, and at that time God will call us to repent and not to wait.

And Paul in 2 Corinthians makes it clear that that day is now. He’s calling us not to wait, because time is running short. In Matthew 3 and 4, both John the Baptist and Jesus summarized their message this way: “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

Here’s what this means. The work of salvation is done. Jesus began his kingdom work when he was born and began his ministry. He was enthroned as king when he ascended into heaven. Right this very second, he is in heaven, praying for us. The kingdom is very near. The last day is very near. If you were ever wondering, when is the time to repent of my sins, both Isaiah and Paul answer that question for you. Now is the favorable time. Now is the day of salvation.

The point of this is that salvation can be yours right this second, if you repent your sins—that is turn away from them, renounce them—and turn to Jesus. Turning to Jesus means submitting to him as king. Hearing his word—his instruction—and following it. This is repentance and faith, and as we see in Ephesians 2, it is a gracious gift of God. So ask him for it. Pray for his help. Now is the time.

Christ is the covenant for us
I will keep you and give you as a covenant to the people.
My second point is that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of God’s covenant. Way back in Genesis 3, God made a promise to crush the head of the serpent and reconcile with humanity. He began to keep that promise right away by forgiving sins. In a sense though, he was forgiving sins on credit. Because what do we know about God from Exodus 34? God keeps “steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty.” God forgives sins. That’s a part of who he is. He is patient and longsuffering. He is inclined to forgive. But the thing is he doesn’t clear the guilty, and we’re all guilty.

Romans 3 tells us we’ve all sinned. Honestly, your own conscience tells you that you’ve sinned. I mean, if you’re listening to it, it will tell you that you sinned even yesterday, even this morning. And Genesis 2 and 3 along with Romans 6 tells us that what we deserve because we’ve sinned, or rebelled against God is death. We deserve death, both physical and metaphorical. But God, if we ask him, if we turn to him, will forgive us. And he did the same for generations and generations before us, including the Ninevites, us all the way to Adam.

How does he keep his promise? The answer is Jesus. We’ve been in Isaiah for a few weeks now, and including last Christmas, we’ve spent quite some time in Isaiah. Isaiah prepares us to look for a child who will be king. In Matthew 2 and Luke 2, we see a child, descended from David, born according to prophecy, worshiped by magi from the east. We see a child who fits the prophetic bill. And as we see Jesus’ life unfold prophecy after prophecy is fulfilled. He is anointed by a prophet (John the Baptist). John the Baptist later asks for confirmation, and this is what Jesus says:
“Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight (Isa 35) and the lame walk (Isa 35), lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear (Isa 29), and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Jesus was the one who fulfills and keeps the covenant. Jesus was the promised king. In this sense, he is a man. He identifies with us. He experiences temptation. He keeps the law. But on the other hand he is God with us (Isa 7). He and the Father are one (John 10). In that sense, he is just in offering himself in our place and forgiving sin by taking on its penalty. There is a lot more that can be said here, but this is an overview of the ways Jesus keeps the promise. Jesus is at the center of the covenant for us.

So if you’re convinced, then, that Today is the day of salvation, and you’re not sure what to do, begin by looking to Jesus. You want to pray? See how he taught us to pray. You want to walk in repentance? Look at his life and study how he obeyed God. Study his teaching. Ask God to help you and he will.

Christ Calls us to come out before him
Saying to the prisoners, ‘Come out,’ to those who are in darkness, ‘Appear.’
My third point is that Christ calls us to make our faith public. In other words, he calls us to come out—to confess our sins to him and make a public profession of faith in Baptism. Jesus teaches us that identifying ourselves publicly as his followers is essential to our actually following him.

There are two reasons for this. First, when you announce publicly that you are a follower of Christ, people around you will be more likely to hold you to it. This is the logic of church membership. The people in your church who know you are responsible before God to encourage you in your faith. Likewise you non-Christian friends know that Christians are supposed to love their neighbor as themselves. Many of us know that if we make New Year’s resolutions silently, we are much less likely to keep them than if we announce our resolutions to our friends and family. Reason one for coming out as a Christian is public accountability.

But the second reason is that our relationship with God is a real two-way relationship, just like relationships with any other person. If you are friendly to a person in private—have them over for dinner, shared fun experiences and so on—but you denounce them in public, acting like you don’t know them, or even acting like you dislike them, your friendship won’t last very long. In this illustration, it’s not because your friend is vain, either. It’s because you are if you behave that way. The relationship you have with God is not merely like the relationship between king and subject, nor even merely like father and child (even as close as that is. For people who profess faith in Jesus, Jesus calls us friends. John 15 says
“No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.”
And this is what Jesus says about acknowledging him before other people in Luke 12:
“And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God.
Paul teaches the same in Romans 10:
If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.
Why then would you be reluctant to come out before God? There are many reasons. Here are a few. First, you are running from divine justice and the best thing you can do will be to turn yourself in. Perhaps you feel like a criminal who, if you turn yourself in, you will only go to jail. Maybe you think whatever sin you’re guilty of is particularly dirty or shameful. Maybe you think that whatever sin you’re guilty of, you relished with just enough enjoyment that to turn to God would be hypocritical for you or insulting to him.

Whatever is keeping you from turning to Jesus, you have to know that the best thing you can do is turn yourself in. Jesus will forgive your sin because he offered himself in your place already. Your faults, your mistakes, your vices, none of them surprise Jesus and none of them surprise God. God is not only inclined to forgive your sin, he’s already made provision for it. The very Jesus who offers you friendship is the one who has stood in for you at the Cross. There is no need to run away from justice that has already been completed.

A second reason you may feel reluctant to come out before God is that you are very lonely and you have been avoiding your best friend. Maybe you know all of this maybe you know that Jesus stood in your place on the cross; that he rose again specifically to forgive your sins. But maybe you feel ashamed specifically because you have to come back to the cross so often. Maybe you’re ashamed that you continue to confess old sins you feel like you should have long since been done with. It’s like if you have a voicemail from a friend you’ve been putting off listening to. As time passes, you feel more and more reluctant to return the call or answer the letter because you’ve put it off so long. Jesus has offered you his friendship. When you return his call or answer his letter is always received joyfully. He is slow to anger and abounds in steadfast love. Stop avoiding Jesus today.

A third reason you may feel reluctant to come out before God is that you’re sick and you are hiding your disease. There are two reasons a person might hide their disease. One is fear and the other is shame. On the one hand, you might be showing symptoms, and you’re afraid to go to the doctor because you don’t want to have the disease you think you might have. So many people fail to go to the doctor because of rationalizations like “That pain? Oh, it’s nothing!” or “That swelling will go down soon, I’m sure.” They don’t go to the doctor because they want it to go away soon, or they want it to be nothing. In these cases, the disease may turn out worse than it would have if they had gone to the doctor right away. Sometimes we fail to turn to God because we rationalize that we’ll be okay. After all, we’re not as bad as so and so. We fail to turn to God because we don’t want to find out how bad things are.

On the other hand maybe it is shame that keeps you from dealing with your disease. Our spirituality in some cases is very much like our health. Sometimes, various health processes or diseases may involve embarrassing topics we don’t want to talk about or they may imply something about us we don’t want to imply. This is definitely true about our sin. Even though we are inclined toward sin from birth, and even though we are born with natures that are sinful, the particular sins we commit are our own. We are culpable for them.

The truth is the same for our sins as it is with our health. If we go to the doctor, we will receive treatment. If I turn to God and confess all my sins to him, as they are, with all the ugly details, he will forgive them and heal me. He is the great physician who has charge over not only our bodies but also our souls. We have already seen that he will help you if you go to him for help.

No one has a right to be a secret Christian. Remember what I’ve said already. Remember what Jesus says in Luke 14: 27 “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.”

Remember also the story of wise men. In the story, Herod responds to baby Jesus with contempt. Because he’s jealous of his position as king, he tries his hardest to kill Jesus, even killing all male children in the region of Bethlehem who were under two years old. Herod responds with contempt. In the story, the religious leaders responded with relative indifference. The wise men came to ask about the birth of Jesus from the king and the king didn’t know. King Herod consulted with the religious leaders and they read him the prophecy and even identified the city. But they stayed where they were. They didn’t go to worship him or even see him. Only the Magi in this story responded with worship, visiting Jesus and giving him gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh.

My point here is to remind you that if we fail to acknowledge Christ publicly, if we fail to profess our faith publicly, then our indifference to Jesus is likely to progress in the same way as the indifference of the religious leaders in Jesus’ time. They went from indifference in Matthew 2, to open denunciation as the story progressed. Beware of trying to be a private or secret Christian. Come out. Acknowledge God and confess your sins. This is how you receive his promise.

Joy is the result
Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! For the Lord has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted.
I will conclude with my fourth point. The result of this salvation is Joy. You can see this in verse 13. After a litany of ways Isaiah tells us the land will be repaired, we see in verse 13 that the heavens and the earth and the mountains—and this includes their inhabitants—will sing for joy. God has comforted his people.

I think it’s important to point out here that singing is a uniquely human act. In our popular concept of the Christmas story, we tend to imagine the angels as a choir singing praise to Jesus. But in Luke 2:10 the angel speaks to the shepherds “behold I bring you good news of great joy.” The angel is speaking, not singing. Likewise in heaven before God, the angels are speaking, not singing. Revelation 4:8 tells us the angels never cease to say “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord.” And Isaiah 6:3 tells us the angels call to one another saying “Holy, holy, holy.” The angels are speaking, not singing. Isaiah tells us we will sing because God has comforted his people.

Peter tells us in his first letter that the Prophets, including Isaiah in our passage today, were preaching to us today. He writes in chapter 1, verse 12,
“It was revealed to them that they were serving not themselves but you, in the things that have now been announced to you through those who preached the good news to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven, things into which angels long to look.
The angels aren’t singing, but Isaiah says we will respond to God’s gospel with singing. The difference is the good news. The difference is the fact that we were sinners. Even still we sin; sin clings to us. But in Christ, things are different. In Christ, we are new creatures. In Christ, we have turned away from our sin. In Christ we have received a new life and a new nature and a new heart. That knowledge—the joy of being delivered from the fate we deserve—that knowledge leads us to sing. God resolved to save us and kept his promise to us in Christ. Turn away from your sin today and turn to Christ.

Questions for Discussion
  1. Do you make New Year’s Resolutions? What is your track record in keeping them? How do you feel about that?
  2. Isaiah writes, “In a time of favor I have answered you; in a day of salvation I have helped you.” St. Paul tells us that this day of salvation is today. To you, does salvation seem close or possible? Does this knowledge encourage urgency or assurance?
  3. Christ calls us to come out before him (point 3). Are there any ways (you’re comfortable discussing) you have been avoiding coming out before Christ?
  4. Discuss some of the ways Isaiah’s promise of coming salvation is joyful for you.

  1. I am highly indebted to Charles Spurgeon in the outline structure of this lesson.

Title: "The Restoration of Israel"
Text: Isaiah 49:8-13
Date: 12/27/2015
Location: Graduates and Professionals - CATM Lakeland
Series: n/a

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