Friday, December 18, 2009

“Too Good to Be True”: A Sermon on Isaiah 40-55

I think one of the ways we can effectively preach the Old Testament is covering large blocks of material in some of the larger books that we could not realistically preach verse-by-verse in our churches. I offer an example of such a sermon below. I have taken one of the major sections of the book of Isaiah and attempted to faithfully reflect the message and major themes of this section for the people of Israel and for us today as God's people. The section begins with God's announcement of release from exile and forgiveness of sins (Isa 40:1-11) and it concludes with a call for Israel to act upon God's gracious offer of restoration (Isa 55:1-7). The primary purpose of this section is to give those living in exile reasons to believe in God's promise of restoration and forgiveness. This section helps us as Christians to reflect on why we can believe God's promises when in reality they seem too good to be true.


How many of you believe it when you receive those emails that say: "The prince of Nigeria needs you to send him $500 so that he can recover the $20 million that was stolen from him and promises to share half of his fortune with you?" How many of you believe it when you get the phone call telling you that you've won an all-expenses paid vacation to Hawaii and they only need your social security and VISA number to process your prize?"

In 1957, the BBC aired a three-minute report on the Swiss spaghetti harvest beside Lake Lugano as an April Fool's joke, and there were people all over Great Britain who called in to find out where they could get their own spaghetti trees. None of us wants to be the gullible person who buys the spaghetti tree. We are trained to think, "If it's too good to be true, then…..

After preaching a relentless message of judgment where the prophet Isaiah announced that God was going to destroy his people and send them away into Babylonian exile, Isaiah's ministry reaches a turning point in chapter 40 where God commissions the prophet to preach a new message. Instead of preaching gloom and doom, God tells the prophet to comfort, to speak tenderly, and to announce good news. The good news is that after God sends his people away into exile, he is also going to act in a powerful way to bring them home.

The problem is that many people would hear this message and say exactly what we say, "If it's too good to be true, then…." Defeated nations did not come back from exile—they disappeared, they were assimilated, and they were forgotten. And yet, somehow and some way, God says, "I am going to deliver Israel from her exile and bring her back to her homeland."

The Bible is filled with promises that seem too good to be true. "I will never leave or abandon you." If you confess your sin, he is faithful and just to forgive." "All things work together for good." My grace is sufficient for the struggles in your life." It's easy to say: "Great promises; I wish I could know they are true. I wish I could believe them, but if it's too good to be true….God understands our doubts and our struggles to believe. As Isaiah speaks for God, he not only tells us what God promises; he tells us how and why we can believe in those promises. When you think that God's promises are too good to be true, here are the unchanging things about God and his promises that you need to remember.

First, we need to clearly understand the nature of God's promise to his people in Isaiah 40:

God's Incredible Promise

Isaiah 40 intertwines two incredible promises. The Lord first of all extends to his people the promise of freedom. God promises that he is going to bring them back from their exile. Israel and Judah sinned against the Lord for more than 800 years and God finally drove them out of the Promised Land and sent them away to Babylon as punishment for their sins.

Isa 40:2—"Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and tell her that her hard service (or her time of warfare) is over." This was the most comforting message God could give. The time of warfare was over and the time of serving on the chain gang in a foreign land was about to come to an end.

Isa 40:10-11—God is going to be a powerful warrior who rescues and delivers his people from captivity and he is also going to be like a shepherd who carries his lambs in his arms and brings them back to their resting place. In chapter 48, the Lord tells Israel, "Leave Babylon and flee from the Babylonians" (Isa 48:20) because this section of Isaiah is all about God's people going home.

The exile was the greatest theological crisis in the Old Testament, not just because it made Israel homesick, but because home was their Promised Land and home was where they met with God at the Jerusalem temple. The exile would cause them to say: "What has happened to our homeland? Has God terminated his covenant with us?" But, God gives them home by promising that he will bring them home even before he even sends them away. The punishment hasn't even started, and God is already assuring his people that the punishment won't last forever.

The Lord also extends to his people the promise of forgiveness. The greatest promise in Isaiah 40 is not that God is going to bring his people home; the even greater promise is that God is ready to forgive the 800 years of sin that has caused the exile in the first place. Verse 2 once again says: "her sin has been paid for" and "she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins." The Lord is finished with punishing his people (that time is over). They have received a double punishment for their sins, and now God is ready to forgive.

The promise of forgiveness was so incredible that the people could hardly believe what their ears were hearing. The prophet had to repeat this message of forgiveness over and over so that it would really sink in. The word of the Lord in Isaiah 43:25- "I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins." Isn't it great to know that the one thing that the God of the universe chooses to have selective memory loss about is my sin. This message really is too good to be true, and so God says it again: "I have blotted out your transgressions like a cloud and your sins like mist; return to me, for I have redeemed you" (Isa 44:22). They had wearied God with hundreds of years of sin and rebellion, but God was willing to forgive them. And when God forgives, our sin is like a mist and a vapor that disappears into thin air.

Forgiveness is an unbelievable, unexpected gift any time we receive it. I was driving home late one night on 460-West and didn't remember the place in Appomattox where the speed limit quickly drops from 70 to 45 until I saw the flashing blue lights in my rear view mirror. For some reason, the state trooper took pity on me and said, "The next time you drive through here, try to do it a little more slowly." I drove home like a free man whose life sentence had been commuted, but God's forgiveness doesn't just cover one act or one transgression. It covers our past, our present, and our future—it's comprehensive. It doesn't matter how much sin you bring to the cross; when you leave the cross, your sin is blotted out and it disappears like a vapor.

All of this brings us back to our initial problem—the Bible is filled with great promises, but how can I know that they are true and trustworthy? "God forgives me—are you kidding? I can't even forgive myself." When Isaiah announced this promise of freedom and forgiveness, that's exactly how the people responded to him. The prophet announces: "God is going to bring us home and God is going to forgive us—sure, yeah right. Is the prince of Nigeria ready to send me my million dollars? Would you like my credit card and social security number now?"

Notice Isaiah's strategy when he proclaims this promise. His first message in chapter 40 gives the promise, and then for the next 16 chapters, he explains why the people can believe that the promise is true. He speaks to people who believe that God's promises are too good to be true, and he gives them reasons to believe. We can't look at everything he says in these chapters, but I want to give you three simple things you can absolutely hold on to when you think that God's promises are too good to be true.

The Reasons to Believe God's Promises

God's promises are sure because of his unchanging love

We get an idea of how the exiles responded to God's promises of freedom and forgiveness in chapter 40, verse 27: "My way is hidden from the Lord; my right is disregarded by my God." "God doesn't care about us. If he did we wouldn't be prisoners in this foreign country." And then they basically say the same thing in 49:14 "Zion said, 'The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me.'" They thought, "Out of sight, out of mind." God has forgotten about us. And let's be honest. When we're going through tough times, we often feel the same way.

But, notice how God responds to their complaint: "Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne?" (Isa 49:15) Not likely that a mother is going to forget, but even if she somehow could, God can't forget or turn his back on his people. After talking about mothers and their love, the Lord then uses an image for his love that is going to disturb every mother here: "See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me." I'm not sure if we're ready for this or not, but the picture here is of the Lord having a tattoo on the palms of his hands. On one palm, it says "Zion" and on the other palm, there's a picture of Zion's walls" (the good news—at least it's not "Mother" and "barbed wire"). What does it mean that God has a Zion tattoo? God has inscribed Zion on his palms, because he is forever committed to his people. The first thing that God sees, the first thing that God thinks about, the thing that dominates the thoughts of the God of the universe is the people that he loves. It's us. God loves us way too much to pass out empty promises. The Lord reminds us of the same thing in Isaiah 54:10-"'For the mountains may be removed, but my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,' says the Lord, who has compassion on you."

Back in the spring, the Lynchburg paper had a story about a young guy from New York named Jeff who brought his girlfriend Laurel to Charlottesville for a concert and to ask her to marry him. Charlottesville was his hometown, and he wanted everything about the proposal to be just right He took her out for breakfast at the Downtown Mall and then they walked outside over to the "Free Speech Monument," where you can write anything you want. Jeff had written a quote from their favorite song and then the question, "Will you marry me, Jeff?" Jeff got down on one knee, and there was even a place for Laurel to check "yes" or "no." When Laurel saw those written words, she didn't think that her friends were trying to punk her or that some guy named Jeff was trying to stalk her. She trusted the words because she knew Jeff and she knew Jeff's heart. We can trust God's promises because we know his heart, we know his love. There is nothing we could do to cause God to love us more and there is nothing we could do to make God love us less. God's unending love means that there are no expiration dates on his promises. God will never make a promise to us that he fails to bring to completion.

God's promises are sure because of his unlimited power .

Isaiah 40 and the chapters that follow focus on God as Creator in order to say: "Remember the power of the God who is making these promises to you." When we are struggling to believe because of the greatness of God's promises, then we need to remember the greatness of the God who makes those promises to us. There is an amazing picture of God in Isaiah 40:12. God creates the world like a Master Craftsman sitting at his work bench. He pours the waters of the oceans into the palm of his hand. He measures off the heavens with the span of his fingers, and he weighs the dust of the continents on his scales to make sure he has done it just right.

When Israel was in exile, they thought about all of the problems and the obstacles standing in their way. Their situation seemed hopeless. They thought about the power of their enemy. Babylon was the most powerful nation in the world. Nebuchadnezzar had marched down on Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and taken the people away into captivity. The city of Babylon was like a fortress. Herodotus said that its walls were a hundred foot high and wide enough in places for two chariots to race side-by-side.

And so God says to them: "Here's what I think about the power of the Babylonians?"

Isaiah 40:6—All flesh is grass; and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of the Lord stands forever." The power of the Babylonians is fleeting; my power is forever.

Isaiah 40:15—the nations are like a drop in the bucket and like dust on the scale; 40:17—all nations are as nothing before me; 40:22—God sits above the circle of the earth's horizon as the sovereign , creator, king of the universe and the people below him look like grasshoppers. The Lord says, "You look up at the Babylonians and see giants. I look down at the Babylonians and see grasshoppers."

I can make all kinds of promises to my kids, but those promises are only as good as my ability and capacity to carry out those promises. We serve a God with unlimited power, so there's nothing that can stand in the way of the fulfillment of his promises. John Piper reminds us that you might have seen a good visual demonstration of the difference between the power of man and the power of God if you went to the beach this summer. The little rectangular or circular body of water at your hotel was man's swimming pool. The other body of water at the end of the sand was God's swimming pool. There's the difference. We live in culture that worships man's accomplishments. We believe that scientists, politicians, and physicians are going to solve our problems. We are fixated with celebrities, athletes, and movie stars. But, in the process of magnifying men, we have ended up minimizing God. We have brought God down to our level and forgotten his unlimited power. Isaiah says: "The God who made these promises to you is the God who created the heavens and the earth."

God's promises are sure because of his track record of doing the impossible

Isaiah 40-55 closes with a call for the exiles to believe the great promise that God has made to them. "Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live…. (Isa 55:3). However, the promises of freedom and forgiveness seem so great that they are still struggling to believe. And so, the Lord reminds them of one final thing they need to hear—the Lord has a track record of doing the impossible.

Throughout this section, the rescue of the exiles is pictured as a second Exodus—what God has done in the past, he is getting ready to do once again in the future. Back in chapter 40, the Lord gives a command to prepare a way in the desert because he is going to lead his people through the wilderness just like he did when he rescued the slaves from Egypt (Isa 40:3). In Isaiah 43:2, the Lord promises that he will be with his people when they pass through the waters, and the rivers will not overwhelm them. Figuratively speaking, the Lord is going to take Israel through the waters just like he did at the Red Sea. The future is going to be just like the past. When you're struggling to trust God in the present, it always helps to remember what God has done for you in the past. Think it through and ask if there has ever been a time when God or one of his promises has failed. Has there even been a time when God was not there for you?

Here in chapter 55, the prophet reminds us that God's ways seem strange to us because his ways are not our ways (Isa 55:8-9). God had this really strange-sounding plan for getting his people out of Babylon. When I think of a great rescue operation, I think of something like the Raid on Entebbe. The Israeli commandos stormed the airport, yelled "get down" in Hebrew and shot everybody that didn't. That's how you rescue hostages—go in guns blazing. But, listen to the Lord's strategy for rescuing Israel out of exile. See if you would want to bank your life on this plan. God says, "Stage one of my plan is that I am going to send a foreign king named Cyrus. He is going to conquer Babylon and send my people home. The exiles say: "Sure, a foreign king is going to help us and be our deliverer. Why would a pagan, idol-worshipping king trying to build his own empire want to help us? Great plan, God." If you think stage one is strange, it gets even better in stage two. Stage two is that God is going to use a suffering servant to save his people. He is going to be hated, rejected by his own people, and put to death (Isa 50, 53). The exiles again had to hear this and say, "We need a deliverer stronger than our enemies and you're sending us this suffering servant. How can someone who is so weak that he cannot deliver himself become the instrument of our deliverance?" The Lord answers: "This suffering servant is going to pay for the sins of my people and bring them back to me."

There's the plan—foreign king and suffering servant. There have been endless replays of the last play of the 2007 football game between Trinity College and Millsaps. Trinity needed to go 61 yards, and so they used a very ordinary, conventional play to win the game—they executed a 10 yard pass with 15 laterals and scored a touchdown to win the game. It was an amazing play, but no coach in his right mind would draw up a play like that. Here in the book of Isaiah, you can see the Lord calling the play, and he tells his prophet, "Here's how we're going to win the game—we're going to run the foreign king and the suffering servant."

The plan worked exactly as God designed. 150 years after Isaiah, Cyrus came, defeated the Babylonians, and sent the Jews back home. 700 years after Isaiah, Jesus Christ was the suffering servant who died on the cross to save his people from their spiritual exile; who died to pay the penalty for our sins that we could not pay for ourselves. If God can work out that plan, then God can work out the seemingly impossible situations in your life as well. Every day, God is asking someone here to trust him for something that seems absolutely impossible. When you're that someone, it's great to know that our God has a track record of doing the impossible.

Have you ever noticed it's easy to talk about trusting God when it's someone else's problem and hard to practice when it's yours. God's promises often seem too good to be true, but we have real reasons to trust in those promises. You can trust God's promises because they are an expression of his unchanging love. You can trust God's promises because they are backed by his unlimited power. And you can trust God's promises because he specializes in doing the impossible.

No comments:

Post a Comment