Did you know that we're living in the last days? That is what the New Testament calls the time between the first and second comings of Jesus Christ. The Kingdom of God has come, but is also yet to come. It's an exciting time but also a difficult one. Waiting tests our patience and our faith. The Bible tells us there will be times of difficulty, persecution and discouragement. These last chapters of Isaiah relate to the period following the arrival of the first returnees from exile in Babylon. They faced great challenges but the most serious problems arose from the fact that this small community too lived between the times, so to speak. The return from exile had begun but was far from complete. They lived in the tension between the now and the not yet. And as we live in that tension in the last days there are problems. As we've already been hearing this evening there are difficulties and discouragements in the church in the West, in us and in our nation.
We've all been seeing the headline 'Infected' over the last day or so with the outbreak of foot and mouth. And the church in the west seems to be infected with sin – with a turning away from God and his Word. There are evident marks of God's judgement. The church is becoming more like the world and therefore has become a laughing stock to many. Yet in the western church there is great indifference to the situation. And in us?
There is rebellion, wandering, hardness, spiritual torpor (63:15-19) and prayerlessness (64:7). Your sacred cities have become a desert, Zion is a desert, Jerusalem a desolation, temple burned with fire and all that we treasured lies in ruins (64:10-11). Why doesn't God intervene? Is this what he wants? Where is your might?
How are we to pray at such a time as this? We are to pray for revival. We are to pray for God to work in the church, in us and in the nation.
First, TRUE INTERCESSION
Isaiah 64 is the continuation of Isaiah's prayer, which began in chapter 63 v.7. So let's go back to where we left off last week at v.15 of Isaiah 63. Look at v.15 – 64:1:
Look down from heaven and see from your lofty throne, holy and glorious. Where are your zeal and your might? Your tenderness and compassion are withheld from us. But you are our Father, though Abraham does not know us or Israel acknowledge us; you, O LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name. Why, O LORD, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so that we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance. For a little while your people possessed your holy place, but now our enemies have trampled down your sanctuary. We are yours from of old; but you have not ruled over them, they have not been called by your name. Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down…
As we heard last Sunday we are to look up in prayer to "our Father" and "our Redeemer" (63:16) and call on him to act. God is sovereign and can act without our prayers but he wants us to pray. So often he seems to be waiting for our prayers. Do we pray? Many Christians in the West do not. 64:7:
"No-one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you".
How do we pray? Expectantly? What do we pray for? Just for our own wants? Isaiah asks God to "look down" (63:15) and to "come down" (64:1). He calls on God to see how bad the situation is and then pleads for God to break in on that situation. Just as God came down in fire at Sinai (Ex. 19:16-19), so let him come down again and reveal his awesome power to the nations. He prays with great passion in these verses. This is the prayer of intercession, the passionate entering into of the needs of those for whom we are praying, and a storming of the gates of heaven. He calls on God to Return, to turn back to the people he has seemingly rejected (63:17). He appeals to God's power, he reminds him that he alone is their Father. He points out that his name is at stake. Will the Master abandon his servants to their sin? "Oh that you would rend (or split) the heavens and come down" (64:1).
What about us? Do we intercede in such a way? Is our passion stirred and connected with God's passion – or is it just stirred and connected with earthly things? Do we care about people as God does? Do we care about the things of God? as Isaiah does? Or are we uncaring? I.e. have we wandered from God's ways? (63:17) Are our hearts hard? Do we not revere God? How do we act at work or at home? Do we pray for and stand up for God's standards in the workplace – as doctors and teachers and others? Because as someone has written until our passion is in some small way stirred and connected with God's passion, his power is in some way restrained.
Secondly, THE TRUE GOD ACTS ON BEHALF OF THOSE WHO WAIT FOR HIM
Look at v.1-4 of chapter 64:
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no-one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him.
Isaiah cries out for God to break into the situation. Nothing else but God's direct intervention can break the power of the people's sin and make them a witness to the nations instead of a laughing stock. In fact the first part of the first verse is in the past tense: 'If you would have just split the heavens'. Isaiah wished that God had already intervened long ago and he finds it hard to understand why God would let the situation of the people's sin get so desperate without having done something about it.
Isaiah is heartbroken and he continues to pour out his soul to God in the next two verses, which are all one sentence with v.1. Literally it reads something like this: 'Oh, if you had just broken in on us, shaking the mountains – like fire burning brush or boiling water – revealing your nature to the nations, doing wonders we never dreamed of, coming down and shaking the mountains'.
Fire in the Bible is associated with the presence of the holy God. Isaiah knew from his own experience in chapter 6 that if God were to come among these people and apply his fire to their hardened hearts then the brushwood of their lives would burst into flames and the tepid water of their souls would boil. They would be on fire and the result would be that God's adversaries would know something about the name or the character of God and then would realise the peril they are in. He had come down unexpectedly before and the mountains had shook because of his presence. Now the people were waiting but nothing seemed to be happening although the earlier unexpectedness gave them hope that God would indeed come down. And that, of course, is what happened in the first advent of Jesus as Saviour and what will happen when he comes again as Judge (Mt 24:36-44).
From experience Isaiah and we can trust God to act. There is no God like him (v.4). Nothing else has a right to be called God except the one God, the Holy One of Israel. He is the Saviour. He is the only one who will act on behalf of those who wait for him. To wait in the Bible means to trust God over the long haul. It means to continue to trust God and expect him to act when others have given up. It means believing that it is better for something to happen in God's time than for it to happen on my initiative in my time. We can find that hard can't we – the waiting. We live in an instant society and many of us want things to happen now or even yesterday. How many of us have stood in front of a microwave shouting hurry up? But God's timing is perfect. "When the time had fully come God sent his Son and at the time known only to his Father he will come again."
Waiting for God is in some ways what the book of Isaiah is about. As someone explains it: The book of Isaiah is about waiting for a God whose face is hidden to reveal himself to his people (8:17); waiting for the restoration of a people from long before they were even exiled; waiting for a Servant to deal a death blow to sin; waiting for a Messiah to establish his kingdom forever. But they know one thing while they wait: that the one true God will act on behalf of those who wait for him.
So what do we do as we wait? Well waiting for God is not passive but active. It is to do righteousness with joy and remember God's ways. Look at the first half of v.5: "You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways". To wait for the Lord is to live the Christian life. It is to commit the future into God's hands by means of living a daily life that shows we know his ways of faithfulness, mercy, generosity, simplicity and self-denial. According to Isaiah God will help or meet those who wait for him in this way (John 7:17).
In terms of waiting for the Lord's return – his second coming the Apostle Peter reminds us of three related things in 2 Peter 3.
First of all, [he writes,] you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, 'Where is this coming he promised?' But do not forget this one thing dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.
In other words to God Jesus' first coming was last Friday night! Secondly, Peter goes on:
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
And thirdly Peter speaks about how we should live in the light of the day of the Lord. He writes:
Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming…We are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness [which we'll hear more about next week from Isaiah 65]. So then… make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.
Now Christian believers have peace with God only as a result of being justified by faith in Christ (Rom 5:1) but we are then to live a life worthy of the Lord in the power of the Spirit. We will all appear before the judgement seat of Christ to give an account (2Cor 5:10).
Certainly we cannot produce enough righteousness to please God. In no way can we earn peace with God. We cannot be justified by good works. We cannot be justified by observance of the law as some of us have been learning in Home Groups from Paul's letter to the Galatians. Isaiah saw the dilemma that we are fundamentally unable to do righteousness until God makes it possible but God cannot work in our lives until we do righteousness. Look at the second half of v.5: But when we continued to sin against them [them being God's ways], you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. We are unclean in the presence of the One who is absolutely clean. Our so called righteous acts are as corrupt as menstrual cloths which are not a sign of new life coming but of the lack of conception. Like a dead leaf on a tree which is helpless before the wind, we become captive to our sins and then the sins come to define us and determine the directions that our lives take. We are helpless and hopeless. How then can we be saved?
The answer is that God had to satisfy his righteous anger for himself. No one else can do it. The servants of God are expected to do righteousness, yet they're unable to do it, so God, the Righteous One, has to enable them to do it through his own grace and power. 2 Corinthians 5:21:
God made Jesus, his only Son, who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
How can we be saved? Only by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Have we realised that we are sinners? Have we repented and trusted Christ?
But are we concerned about our sin? Is the wider church concerned about sin today? Is our nation? It is rightly concerned about Foot and Mouth disease. But sin and its consequences are much more serious. The nation being immediately addressed in Isaiah was not. No one was even concerned enough to cry out to God for help. Look at v.7:
No-one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins.
No one recognised how desperate the situation was. There was no intercessor. God has given them over to the power of the sins they have chosen (Romans 1:18-24). In trying to be free they just discover a worse bondage like leaves on the wind. But Isaiah doesn't stop praying for his people and neither should we. There is hope. We have a forgiving Father and a patient potter. Which brings us to my final heading:
Thirdly, WILL YOU KEEP SILENT?
Look at v.8:
Yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.
There is hope as we've already seen for those who repent and believe, whatever they have done. But not for those who don't. "Repent or perish", said Jesus in Luke 13:5. And now Isaiah appeals to God as Father and potter, as Creator and artist. Isaiah prays something like this:'Can the artist simply toss aside the thing on which he has lavished care and attention, into which he has put so much of himself?' Remember you did not call Israel into existence, give them your covenant and lead them into the promised land because they deserved it for their faithfulness. Isaiah pleads with God in v.9:
Do not be angry beyond measure, O LORD; do not remember our sins for ever. Oh, look upon us we pray, for we are all your people.
He prays that God will remember his people in the light of his unending love, not in the light of their sins.
In v.10&11 Isaiah continues to pray for God to intervene.
Your sacred cities have become a desert; even Zion is a desert, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and glorious temple, where our fathers praised you, has been burned with fire, and all that we treasured lies in ruins.
Isaiah is pleading thus. All are a wilderness. The result is that God's holy name is profaned. Isn't that true today? Can God allow the temple to lie in ruins? Will God keep his promise to make Zion a reflection of his own beauty (Ch 60-62)? And v.12:
After all this, O LORD, will you hold yourself back? Will you keep silent and punish us beyond measure?
In other words will he restrain his compassion? Will he refuse to respond to their cries for mercy and so continue to punish them to the point of extinction? Isaiah offers no excuses for Israel's sins but asks God to show mercy out of concern for his children and his name – to intervene in his people's hearts and lives – to do in them what they cannot do for themselves. Will the Warrior from Edom who we heard about last week act? Well God's response to Isaiah comes in the next chapter – so you'll have to wait until next week… But how are we praying for the church? for our nation? for ourselves? God is sovereign in judgement and in revival but desires our prayers to act– he acts on behalf of those who wait for him.
Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down.
Let's be praying for true revival – for God to work in us and in the church. To revive his church, to revive us.