It will be worth reminding ourselves of the situation that is the background for our study tonight. It is the period after the Exile. God's people have been freed from their captivity in Babylon by the friendly Persian King, Cyrus. But what was it like when the people returned back home? Was everything wonderful? No! not at all. The leaders of the people of God were corrupt. In Isaiah 56.10 we are told that
'Israel's watchmen are blind, they all lack knowledge: they are all mute dogs, they cannot bark;'
and Isaiah 56.11 says,
'they are shepherds who lack understanding; they all turn to their own way, each seeks his own gain.',/I>
They were not warning the people of all the error and immorality that was going on around them. And they were corrupt themselves. It was the same as before the Exile. The Exile was to teach the people of God a lesson. But many of them were ignoring the lesson. Once again there were the age-old problems of sexual immorality and idolatry.
How true that is to life! So often God's people experience God's grace in a special way, in this case the ending of exile. But it is not long before some of them are living as though God never existed. I can think of one person who seemed to be a key member of my Christian Union. The next thing I discovered was that his personal and sexual life was in a mess. Then after we all went our different ways, before long I saw him regularly on TV advocating secular humanism.
But when this happens, it is a shock to many of the faithful people of God. It was shock to the people who remained faithful in post-Exilic Palestine. These people in post-Exilic Palestine, you must remember, were to have been encouraged by that vision in Isaiah 56.1-8 where God's kingdom is seen as a great and inclusive Kingdom, irrespective of who your parents are or what has happened to you in life. If there is repentance, no one is too inadequate or too much of an outsider for God. But then there comes the decadence described in verses 56.9-57.13 - the passage for last week. And many of the people – good, faithful believers – would have been tempted to say in the face of all the decadence, "What's the point? When we seek to live for God and be obedient to him, look at all these church leaders and their weakness and heresies. They are pulling the rug from under our feet."
I was in America this past week. Some of the churches there are growing and evangelizing wonderfully. But some are getting quite pagan with multi-faith services where foreign God's are honoured and there is sexual immorality - hetero- and homosexual. In places there is corrupt leadership - just as in post-Exilic Israel. I heard of one senior married clergyman going off with his secretary and a famous Professor of theology living with her lesbian lover. In post-Exilic Palestine not only was there sexual immorality and idolatry, there was also the killing of defenceless children.
Nor is that so different from today, either. In the hospitals of the Western world there may not be infanticide, yet. But there is foeticide, (the correct word for what is euphemistically called 'abortion'). And if Peter Singer, the Professor of Ethics at Princeton, has his way, there will soon be infanticide in the West to match these ancient Jews. Isaiah 57.5 says:
you burn with lust among the oaks and under every spreading tree: you sacrifice your children in the ravines and under the overhanging crags … [verse 8] forsaking me, you uncovered your bed, you climbed into it and opened it wide; you made a pact with those whose beds you love, and you looked on their nakedness.
When you forsake the true and living God, before long there will be violence against children and illicit sex. Perhaps you have read in the papers about the dreadful goings on with Social Services in the abuse of children in North Wales, but also sometimes here in Newcastle. Not long ago we had the Shieldfield scandal. This is only what you expect when people defy God's laws. But it is depressing for the people of God when it is all around you.
So what does God say our response should be? What did he tell the people of Israel? Well, that is what we are to discover tonight. So will you please look at Isaiah 57.14-21.And you'll see that my headings are, first, THE CHARGE TO THE FAITHFUL; secondly, THE ACTION OF GOD; and, thirdly, 'THE WICKED'.
First, THE CHARGE TO THE FAITHFUL
Look at verses 14-15:
14 And it will be said: "Build up, build up, prepare the road! Remove the obstacles out of the way of my people." 15 For this is what the high and lofty One says-- he who lives forever, whose name is holy: "I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite.
God, through Isaiah, is telling the people not to be weary in well-doing. They are not to shrug their shoulders and say, 'Life is too bad; I'm just going to keep quite, keep my head down and hope the problems will go away.' No! they are to 'build up and prepare the road'.
How are they to do that? By 'removing the obstacles out of the way of my people.' They are to take on these false leaders and oppose them. They are to do what the Christian Institute has been, and is, doing over Section 28. They are to do what some Christians are doing to 'remove the obstacles out of the way' in America. The Archbishop of Singapore and the Archbishop of Rwanda have just consecrated missionary bishops to work in America to give alternative leadership in the corrupt Episcopal Church. I hope one of these Bishops can visit us here in Jesmond before too long.
But you say, "when I try to stand up for the Lord, it is scary. My problems are not these macro-problems of church and state. I'm just trying to be faithful in my hall of residence or in my work. It so hard having to go against the tide. It is not easy."
Well, it wasn't easy for these faithful people in Israel. They would have felt like you feel. So what is the answer? How does God, through Isaiah, help them? Well, see how the prophecy goes on? There is a focus on three things.
First, the fact of God's sovereignty. He is over all. He is reigning. His purposes for this world, for his church and for you and me, are on track. They are not being frustrated by all this sinfulness and decadence. Look at verse 15 again:
For this is what the high and lofty One says-- he who lives forever, whose name is holy: "I live in a high and holy place."
That is a wonderful verse. God is awesomely transcendent. He is above all and far above all. The first Article of the Thirty-nine Articles puts it like this: God is ...
"... of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the Maker, and Preserver of all things both visible and invisible.''
Never forget the greatness of God. He is 'the high and lofty One'. Never forget the eternal nature of God - 'he lives for ever.' And never forget his 'holiness' - his 'name is holy'. But the goodnews - the real goodnews for you and me - is in that second part of verse 15:
"I live [says God, not only] in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit.''
This is the second thing you must focus on as you seek to work and witness to Christ in a hostile world - that God is with the 'contrite and lowly in spirit'. What does that mean? The word 'contrite' we have come across in that famous chapter 53 where it is translated 'crushed'. Chapter 53 is the amazing prophecy about God's servant - a prophecy that was so precisely fulfilled by Jesus. God's servant we are told in verse 5,
was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities.
And in verse 10 of chapter 53, we are told:
Yet it was the Lord's will to crush him and cause him to suffer.
So these 'contrite' ones are the 'crushed' ones. They are being attacked and opposed for being faithful to God. Jesus said, 'If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also' (John 15.20). But no sooner had he said that than he promised his disciples that he would send them the Counsellor - the Spirit of truth, the Holy Spirit. You aren't on you own. God is with you when you experience all those pressures and attacks for being a Christian. He is 'with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit.' And then there is that wonderful promise in the last part of verse 15: God comes 'to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite'.
That is the third thing he wants the people then (and he would want us now) to focus on - the fact that God gives you new life, he gives you that ability to stand firm, he gives you the drive you need when you feel like doing nothing and he gives you enthusiasm or at least a willingness to face the challenges that come your way. Do you believe that - that God revives the spirit and revives the heart? That is what the bible teaches. Paul said to Timothy, 2 Timothy 1.7:
God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.
I was speaking to a Christian leader this past week, but he had a 'spirit of timidity'. How, he and we all need to remember we have not 'a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.' So 'the charge to the faithful' - they are not to grow weary in doing good; they are to take action, but focusing first, on the sovereignty and greatness of God - he is over all; secondly, on the fact that God by his Holy Spirit comes to his faithful people in their suffering and, in their problems; and, thirdly, on the fact that the Holy Spirit will give them new life and strength.
Secondly, THE ACTION OF GOD
Look at verses 16-19:
I will not accuse forever, nor will I always be angry, for then the spirit of man would grow faint before me-- the breath of man that I have created. 17 I was enraged by his sinful greed; I punished him, and hid my face in anger, yet he kept on in his wilful ways. 18 I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will guide him and restore comfort to him, 19 creating praise on the lips of the mourners in Israel. Peace, peace, to those far and near," says the LORD. "And I will heal them."
God is not only high and holy, there is also a restraint in his nature. He doesn't accuse forever. He is not always angry. But he has every right to be.
Let me explain. Human beings by nature exhibit what is here called, 'sinful greed'. What does that mean? It means this: first they deviate from God's law, they go their way instead of his - they are sinful. Secondly, they quite unscrupulously follow their own self-interest. It is the 'me first' approach to life. It doesn't matter about the next person - they are greedy. And we all, by nature, are sinful and greedy.
Just think back over this past week? Can you truthfully say that you have never deviated at all from God's standards and you have at every point put the interests of others absolutely before your own? As we learn from Romans 7, committed Christians fail God. Even the so called 'saints' like Paul fail God. And there are people who have never recognised that going their own way is sinful and incurs God's anger. Who has come in tonight like that? Well, you need to know that first, God acts, when confronted with your sin, to 'punish'. Verse 17:
I was enraged by his sinful greed; I punished him, and hid my face in anger, yet he kept on in his wilful ways.
But you then need to know that secondly, God acts in mercy. He says in verse 18:
I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will guide him and restore comfort to him, 19 creating praise on the lips of the mourners in Israel. Peace, peace, to those far and near," says the LORD. "And I will heal them."
This is the great good news. This is like an edict from God. Through Isaiah this is a mind-blowing word from God to post-Exilic Israelites, who, remember, are debauched in themselves, defiant towards God, and depressing the faithful few. Nor is it because the people have changed - they haven't. These verses follow on from the verses at the end of chapter 56 and the beginning of chapter 57 and those reports of decadence. Nor is it because God overlooks a person's sin and greed. He doesn't. He says here 'I have seen his ways.' It couldn't be clearer. No! The reason is something in the very heart of God himself. He is not only high, lofty and holy. He is also a God of love. He says, 'I will heal, guide, restore comfort and create praise.'
This is God's great plan not only for decadent Israel but for the world, including decadent Britain and America. God twice says he wants to 'heal'. And healing is a big word. It means bringing wholeness to the whole of life - materially, physically, mentally, intellectually, emotionally and, most importantly of all, spiritually. God wants to guide you in life. He doesn't want you to be drifting aimlessly. He wants you to at peace with yourself and at peace with the world - 'to restore comfort' to you and supremely at peace with himself. And he wants to help you acknowledge that you have been following false God's - whether of money, pleasure, sex, security, ambition or whatever people go for today. He wants you to acknowledge and praise him.
He brings healing (verse 19) by 'creating praise on the lips of the mourners' - those are the people who mourn because of the mess sin has got them into. And God wants to do this not just to a privileged few in Israel, but to people in the whole wide world - to those, we are told, verse 19, who are 'near and far.' That is the action of God - to bring judgment but then to bring healing. You say, 'how does all this come about?' That brings us to our third heading tonight,
Thirdly, 'THE WICKED'
Look at verses 20-21:
But the wicked are like the tossing sea, which cannot rest, whose waves cast up mire and mud. 21 "There is no peace," says my God, "for the wicked."
This prophecy of God's love and mercy would have been another encouragement to the faithful few in post-Exilic Israel. God was going to do something new. Things were going to get better - in God's time and in his way. Now, with the hindsight of history, we can see that this was worked out in God's plan in Jesus Christ. As Isaiah 53 said, the servant of the Lord ...'
... was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.
He bore God's punishment in our place. That's where God's healing begins. But it was, and is, not automatic. No! These verses make it quite clear that there is 'no peace for the wicked'. Who are 'the wicked'? They are the opposite of the 'lowly'. And who are the 'lowly'? Again as we can see as we read on in the bible, it is not the people who turn over a new leaf. All fail eventually to do that. Nor is it is the people who go to church and become religious - the religious in Isaiah's time (and since) were (and have been) sometimes the most wicked of all. No! It is people who trust in God. And with the coming of Christ, the 'lowly in spirit' - those words there in verse 15 - are the people who realize that they fail, but Christ doesn't; and that on the Cross he has paid the price and penalty for their sin and they can now be free if they put their trust him. Who needs to do that tonight and for the first time.
I must conclude . Let me do so by drawing to your attention something important about that promise of healing. In verse 18 it says, 'I must heal him,' singular. In verse 19 it says, 'I must heal them,' plural. God's plan is big. His church and his people corporately form, and will form, in heaven ...
... a great multitude that no one [can] count, from every nation, tribe, people and language (Rev 7.9).
That is 'them' - the healed ones. But you join that number one by one. You must respond individually - 'I will heal him'. So I repeat, who needs to make that individual response tonight? Who for the first time needs to realize that our God 'lives in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit'; and that as you turn to Christ (that 'Suffering Servant of the Lord') your sinful greed is forgiven and you receive his Holy Spirit to revive you and give you new strength?