Good Tidings

When I was seven years old, I burnt down our garden fence. I was looking after a bonfire and my parents had just bought a piece of furniture from MFI, so there was a huge, flat cardboard box - about 6 feet by 3 feet - to be disposed of. My eyes lit up (as did the fence a little later) as I suggested we burn it. So Dad gave me the box with strict instructions to tear it into small pieces and put them on the fire one by one. I, however, felt that it would be much more spectacular to put the box on whole. I was right. It caught light beautifully, and then suddenly a gust of wind picked it up, swept it across the garden and pinned it to the fence. And the rest is history. The fence certainly was. Well, I went to confess. And I have never seen my parents so angry, before or since. I was smacked very hard and manhandled to my bedroom with orders to stay there until they'd decided what to do with me. And I remember vividly the time I spent in my room that day. I remember the seriousness of what I'd done slowly sinking into me as the minutes became an hour, and an hour became several hours, and I wasn't let out, I wasn't visited. And I remember for the first time wondering about my position in the family. I only thought about it in a seven-year-old's way, but the fear crept over me that I had done something that might have forfeited my relationship with my parents for good. I remember that time in the bedroom more clearly than almost anything else in my childhood. Well tonight we start a new series in this Old Testament [OT] book of Isaiah. And we start in on chapters 40 onwards. And they are chapters written for a group of people who, spiritually speaking, had been sent by God to the bedroom as a punishment for their rebellious behaviour. Isaiah was a prophet - a person through whom God spoke - who preached to God's OT people from about 740BC to about 700BC. Chapters 1-39 are Isaiah's message to his contemporaries. Chapters 1-39 basically say: 'If as God's people, you keep living in rebellion against God, ignoring God, he will judge you by having your land over-run, and you carted off into exile.' Just glance up to chapter 39, verse 5 where Isaiah is speaking to the last king under whom he ministered:

Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah [the king], 'Hear the word of the LORD Almighty: 'The time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your fathers have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left says the LORD. And some of your descendants, your own flesh and blood who will be born to you, will be taken away, and they will become eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.'' (Isaiah 39.5-7)

In other words, Isaiah tells his contemporaries: God is not going to put up forever with his so-called people living in rebellion against him. The time is coming when they are going to be sent to the bedroom of Babylon. They will be punished with exile from their promised homeland. That seems to be where Isaiah's public preaching ministry to his contemporaries ends. But it's not where the book of Isaiah ends. And read on into chapter 40 onwards, and it's as if you're in a different world. You come out of the world of a disobedient people, and warnings of judgement and punishment in exile, to this: Isaiah 40.1-2:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. {2} Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.

And it seems that what God did was this. He used Isaiah to predict the punishment of the exile for his own generation - his contemporaries(chapters 1-39). And then he used Isaiah to write a message for a future generation - for the people in exile. And that is what chapters 40 onwards are. They are a message for people who, spiritually speaking, have been sent to the bedroom of Babylon. They have experienced God's judgement on his disobedient people - even if some of them were in fact part of the faithful minority. Isaiah 40 onwards was written for the generation who found themselves in exile after 587BC - long after Isaiah was dead. It was written for people who had spent hours, days, weeks, months, years with the seriousness of what they'd done sinking into them. It was written for people wondering about their position before God, with the fear creeping over them that they might have forfeited their relationship with him for good. And Isaiah wrote these chapters for them, and had them preserved for that generation in exile - a message to reassure them that the exile was not the end of the story. They contain a message of COMFORT ABOUT THE PAST, and a message of HOPE ABOUT THE FUTURE. Firstly, A MESSAGE OF COMFORT ABOUT THE PAST (verses 1-2) Try to put yourself in the shoes of one of these exiles. What questions would be going through your mind? 'Is that the end of our relationship with God? Is there any way back to him from sin as serious as ours was, as wilful, as long-term as ours was? Do we conclude from our present circumstances that God has rejected us, just as we did him? Have we sinned away God's love? Have we out-sinned the capacity of God's forgiveness?' I've told you of the worst literal sending to my bedroom I've ever experienced. The worst spiritual chastening I've experienced was after a broken engagement that was my fault. And because of the consequences on others and on my conscience, I was asking all those questions. And I would be surprised if most of us could not think of similar, if less serious, times of chastening in our own experience. You may be in one, or emerging from one right now. Like the exiles, many of us have known, or do know now, what it's like to be in chastening circumstances that are the result of our less-than perfect obedience. Not just circumstances caused by wilful rebellion; sometimes circumstances where we acted out of doubt, rather than waiting and trusting God; sometimes circumstances when we chose what we knew to be less than the best; sometimes circumstances where we compromised, we were just plain weak. And we feel on our lives and in our hearts the touch of God's discipline, God's chastening. And into that experience of his discipline, God speaks comfort. Isaiah 40.1-2:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. {2} Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.

Notice: comfort, my people, says your God. He's speaking to the faithful ones, the ones who are sensitive to their sin, who regret their sin, who confess it. And to them he says: you are still my people, I am still your God. And that has been true throughout your time in the bedroom. All the time, it's been the discipline of a loving, heavenly Father. This is how the New Testament [NT] puts it in the book of Hebrews:

(Heb 12:5-6 NIV) you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons: "My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, {6} because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son."

[It goes on:] 'Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.' (Hebrews 12.10-11)

We're not spared the life-consequences of our sins, whether it's damage to others or ourselves, or attacks on our conscience. But God uses them to discipline us, to teach us to take him more seriously, to teach us that mistrusting him and half-heartedness and compromise only ever land us in trouble. But we are spared the worst consequence of our sins, namely: being rejected by God, going unforgiven. Verse 2:

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins.

The LORD did let these exiles experience the temporary fear that they couldn't be forgiven. So they wouldn't take him for granted. They wouldn't think his love was cheap. But having let them know that fear, he reassured them: 'proclaim to her that her sin has been paid for.' And as NT believers who know far more than Isaiah, we know that that assurance comes from the death of Jesus on the cross. The sins of 'negligence and weakness and my own deliberate fault' that I committed in that broken engagement were not paid for in the chastening time that followed. They were paid for by Jesus on the cross, so that not for one moment through that chastening time did God cease to be my committed, forgiving, loving, heavenly Father. I didn't have the confidence to believe that at the time, but it was true. And I took far too long to come back to the cross and to trust that the failure I felt so sensitive about had been paid for. So, at the beginning of this New Year, can I ask a first question: 'What are you looking back on that for you was one of these chastening experiences?' What sin, or compromise, or faithless decision in whose wake you're now living? Whatever is in our minds, however large or small we feel it to be, we need to read verses 1 and 2 as Christians, and remember they point back to the cross where Jesus paid 'for the sins of the whole world' as 1 John 2.2 puts it. Just take a moment to glance over those two verses. And ask whether you know the comfort they hold out. And if you feel you don't know that comfort, then can I say: please make it a priority to find it. The most miserable 18 months of my Christian life followed that broken engagement, when I could not bring myself to believe that God's grace does truly outstrip our sin. I tried to carry on living the Christian life while hiding the underlying uncertainty of whether God accepted me. But we cannot live for the Lord out of guilt and insecurity. We can only live for him out of the liberation and assurance of his forgiveness of our sins. That's the most fundamental thing in spiritual life. And if we don't know that in our experience, we need it. And we may need to be honest with a Christian friend or spouse and say, 'You know, I don't have this comfort. I seem to have lost it somehow. Can you help me forward on this?' Or it may be that we've never known this comfort, we've never understood how the death of Jesus on the cross is the means by which our sins can be forgiven. Well, that is the heart of the Christian message. Ask a Christian friend, read a Christian book, look to understand and receive this comfort. It is your greatest need. So firstly, a message of comfort about the past. Then secondly, A MESSAGE OF HOPE ABOUT THE FUTURE (verses 3-11) These exiles are reassured that God has been their loving God throughout this time of discipline. They're reassured that though he's made them feel the seriousness of sin, that sin is forgiven and they are still his people, and he is still their God. And next comes a promise about their future: God is going to bring them home:

{3} A voice of one calling: "In the desert prepare the way for the LORD ; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. {4} Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. {5} And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken."

It's a picture of the whole region around Babylon being prepared for God to come. Like when a VIP visited your school and they filled in all the potholes in the drive, especially for them. Well, here in Isaiah's picture, they're using mountains to fill in valleys, because God - the supreme VIP - is coming. Verses 3-5 are basically saying: 'Be prepared! Having sent you to exile in the bedroom of Babylon, the LORD is about to come and bring you home.' Verse 6:

{6} A voice says, "Cry out." And I said, "What shall I cry?" "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.

'A voice says, 'Cry out!' [That's God's line] 'And I said, 'What shall I cry?' [That's Isaiah's line] And here's what God gives him to say:

"All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. {7} The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. {8} The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever."

In other words, Isaiah says; 'God may have brought judgement on one generation of his people. He may have blown judgement on them and brought them to an end. But his purposes keep going. There are times of mass disobedience among people who claim to be God's people [witness the Church of England at present]. But that doesn't stop God. He gets rid of them somehow, or he moves where he's working -even to Babylon. 'But the word of our God stands forever.' God is still committed to his faithful people and to working out the promises he's made to them. Which in the case of these OT believers, included the promise of their homeland. And that's exactly where God intends to take them - back from Babylon, to Jerusalem and Judah:

{9} You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, "Here is your God!" {10} See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. {11} He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.

The issue for them was: would they actually believe that promise about the future, and act on it? Would they refuse to stay comfortably settled in Babylon, but rather pack up their stuff and return, trusting they had a better, God-given future ahead of them? All very interesting if you're into ancient near-eastern history. But what's it got to do with Christians in the 20th century in Newcastle? Well, the NT uses the exile and the return from exile as a visual aid of our spiritual lives now. In that NT reading tonight, Matthew 3, we've been told by John the Baptist, 'Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.' (Matthew 3.2) In other words: 'Live in the light of the future of heaven, where God rules unopposed and there is no suffering, sickness, sin, death, pain. That future is near to you. Believe that. Act on that.' And Matthew says about John the Baptist:

'This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: "A voice of one calling in the desert, 'Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.'" (Matthew 3.3)

It's as if Matthew is saying: history is repeating itself. Or, more accurately, what happened in the OT to the exiles is a foreshadowing of the far greater, glorious, final thing that is going to happen to us NT believers. There they were in Babylon, disillusioned, doubting, half-hearted, feeling let-down by God, feeling that faith in him wasn't really worth it when you'd managed to settle into Babylonian life and make a living. And they were called to believe in and act on a promise about a future back in their true homeland. And that, says Matthew's Gospel, is like a picture of our situation. Here we are, not in Babylon, but in an equally pagan world. Maybe disillusioned, doubting, half-hearted; maybe you're feeling let down by God right now and wondering whether continuing the life of faith into 1998 is worth it. And we're called to believe in and act on a promise about the future which is wildly bigger than anything the exiles were called on to believe. They were called to believe that God would come and get them out of the clutches of the Babylonians and back into their true homeland, after 70 years of exile and apparent non-fulfilment of God's purposes. We are called to believe that God will come, either by our own death, or the return of Jesus - whichever is the sooner - and get us out of the clutches of our own sin and mortality, and the pressures of a pagan world, and the mysteries of the sufferings and shocks and disappointments of this life, and into our true home of heaven. And we're called to believe that promise 2000 years after it was first spoken, and amid a lot of apparent non-fulfilment of God's purposes. So, at the beginning of this New Year, can I ask you a second question: 'If you're a believer, above all things this year, will you look forward to heaven, believe it to be your future, and act accordingly?' 'Oh, dear Ian, how other worldly you are. Can't you be a bit more realistic and down to earth?' In other words: 'Be a bit more faithless; a bit more hopeless; settle down here in Babylon or Newcastle or wherever we are; make a living; be grateful for what you've got.' No, that's not the believer's outlook. The believer's outlook is this. Your and my life, possibly history itself, could end in 1998. We might never need to go and see the millennium dome! (Hooray!) Heaven could be sooner than we think. And even if it isn't, we need to live as if we are going there - because if we're believers, we are going there. We're on the move like the flock of verse 11. And I want to pause again and leave us space just to ponder individually. If this was your last year, if you knew that by 31st December 1998 you would be in heaven, what would you do differently this year? Who would you tell about the gospel (see verse 9)? How would you spend your time, your money, your waking hours, how would you make those decisions that face you, and prioritise your life? If you knew you'd be in heaven by the end of it, how would you play 1998? My time is up. Isaiah 40 is first and foremost a message for people whom God has been chastening. A message of comfort for the past and hope for the future. They have not sinned themselves out of relationship with God. But it applies more generally to all of us, all the time. And it's not a bad word for a New Year. It says: when you look back, through your sins, your failures, your regrets, keep looking until you come in your mind's eye all the way back to the cross, and believe it has been paid for. Sin may have spoiled our relationship with God. It cannot split it, because Jesus died to bring and keep the relationship together forever. And the other thing is: when you look forward - to the things you look forward to, the things you dread, to the decisions there are to make and the priorities to be carved out in life, to good to evil, even to death itself - keep looking until you come in your mind's eye to the gates of heaven. And let's invest our lives in such a way that looking back from heaven's perspective, we'll say, 'You know, that was a year well spent.' Live between the cross and heaven, and we'll be able to live 1998 - however much or little of it the Lord gives us.

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