Some of the most beautiful language in English literature is found in the great prophecy of Isaiah. Truly he was a superb master of language. He was also a farseeing prophet who recorded some remarkable prophecies centering on the coming of God's Messiah. The 53rd chapter of his prophecy is such a clear picture of Christ that this book is often called "The gospel according to Isaiah." God's plan of redemption and his work of redemption are central in this prophecy. That is even suggested in the name of the prophet himself -- Isaiah, which means "God saves."
The book of Isaiah, as a matter of fact, could be considered a miniature Bible. There are 66 books of the Bible, and Isaiah has 66 chapters. The Bible divides between the Old and the New Testaments, and Isaiah divides into two halves. The Old Testament has 39 books, and the first division of Isaiah has 39 chapters. The New Testament has 27 books, and the second half of Isaiah has 27 chapters. The opening chapter of the second division of Isaiah, Chapter 40, describes the ministry of John the Baptist, the forerunner of Messiah, the voice crying in the wilderness, "prepare ye the way of the Lord." In the New Testament likewise, the first figure introduced is John the Baptist, crying in the wilderness, "prepare ye the way of the Lord." The closing chapter of Isaiah deals with the creation of the new heavens and the new earth. Revelation, the last book in the New Testament, deals with the same subject -- the creation of the new heavens and the new earth. This great prophecy of Isaiah, therefore, captures not only the theme of all Scripture and its central focus on the Savior of mankind himself, but also it reflects the divisions of the Bible itself.
The opening verse of the book gives a very brief introduction to the prophet.
The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. (Isaiah 1:1 RSV)
In that historical note we learn that Isaiah carried on his ministry through the reign of four kings. (He actually was put to death during the reign of the son of Hezekiah, Manasseh, one of the most evil kings of Judah, just before the Southern Kingdom was carried away to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar.) So Isaiah lived during a time of great unrest. Israel was surrounded by enemies and criss-crossed with invading armies. It was a time of threat, danger and desolation. This was when the prophet was sent to declare to this people the cause of their misery.
The Jewish people are often referred to as the "chosen people." (Eskimos are God's frozen people. The Jews are God's chosen people.) The Jews were not so called because they were superior to other peoples, however. The Bible is careful to point out that God chose them, not because they were smarter, richer or greater than others, but as a sample nation, a picture of how God deals with the nations of earth.
He also chose them, of course, as the channel through which the Messiah would come. Speaking to the Samaritan woman, Jesus himself repeated the statement of the Old Testament, "Salvation is of the Jews."
Some would ask, why bother with this ancient history about a people who lived thousands of years ago, a history that cannot possibly have any bearing upon us today? To that, the Apostle Paul in the New Testament says that "all these things happened to Israel as types (or portraits) for our edification," (1 Corinthians 10:11). In the Old Testament we see ourselves portrayed. The problems it pictures are the same problems we face today. This becomes obvious in Verses 2-3 of this opening chapter. God says through the prophet:
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;
for the Lord has spoken:
"Sons have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
and the ass its master's crib;
but Israel does not know,
my people does not understand." (Isaiah 1:2-3 RSV)
This summons by God to heaven and earth to listen to what he has to say indicates this is universal truth; it applies at all times and in all places. The problem is that the children whom he lovingly took care of, and to whom he gave tremendous opportunities, turned their backs on him in rebellion and walked in their own ways. That is one of the commonest problems of today, isn't it? God also pinpoints the most painful thing about the blindness of these rebellious children, that is, their ingratitude. Even animals, he says, know better. The ox knows his owner and the ass his master's crib. Animals are grateful for their loving care, but not the children of men. That highlights one of the problems this book of Isaiah confronts: Why is it that mankind is so blind to the goodness and mercy of God?
In Idaho a few weeks ago, David Roper told me how an 80-year-old man responded when told of his need for a relationship with God. The old man squared his shoulders and said, "I've lived for 80 years without God. I don't think I need him now." What an incredible statement! It is amazing that anyone can breathe God's air, which man did not invent or produce, eat food that comes from a process that God, not man, set into being, enjoy beauty which no man has made, live by means of the sunshine and the provisions of life which come from natural sources, which man has had nothing to do with, and still declare that he has lived for 80 years without God!
Every breath we breathe is by the mercy of God. Everything comes from his providing hand. But man ignores and turns his back upon all that, and then goes about saying that only man matters. That is incredible blindness. But that is the problem that Isaiah faces here. God analyzes the situation in Israel in one verse, a sevenfold indictment of the nation. Here we will see the parallel to our own times. Verse 4:
Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity,
offspring of evildoers, sons who deal corruptly!
They have forsaken the Lord,
they have despised the Holy One of Israel,
they are utterly estranged. (Isaiah 1:4 RSV)
Let us take a closer look at those seven things: First, God says, Israel is a sinful nation. They have been infected with a fatal virus that causes everything they do to turn out wrong. The biblical point of view is that this is the problem with the whole human race. People today, however, find that hard to believe. But there is something terribly the matter with humanity. Man is not what he was made to be. He does not function the way he ought to. There is a taint, a poison, spread throughout the whole human world, that causes even our efforts toward good to merely create new problems. The problem, the Bible declares, is sin -- that is, selfishness, self-centeredness. We are all afflicted with a tendency to take care of ourselves first, to look out for number one. That is what produces the narcissism that is so characteristic of our day, the "me generation" we hear so much about.
Secondly, God says, these people are "ladened" because of sin. Think of the heavy burdens that come upon us because of this urge to self-centeredness within us. Think of the terrible cost of crime, child abuse, teen-age pregnancies, the staggering cost of the arms race. All these heavy burdens load us down. This kind of message is not very popular, but it is realistic.
We are proud of the technological advances of our day. A man who works in Silicon Valley told me that if the automobile had kept pace with the development of the microchip, we ought to be able to buy a Rolls Royce for $2.50 and get 1,000 miles to the gallon, towing the Queen Mary! But what of the people who invent these things? They are laden with the same burdens that Israel faced in the days of Isaiah. We still have not learned how to keep a delinquent child from corrupting a whole neighborhood. We still have not learned how to save a disintegrating marriage by having those involved take an honest look at themselves and begin to work in harmony -- not in estrangement. Our inability to do these things is what God is analyzing here.
These people are also the "offspring of evildoers," he says, "sons of evildoers." This is an inherited problem, passed along from generation to generation. They are "sons of corruption," passing along their evil tendencies to the next generation as well. More than that, "they have forsaken Jehovah." There is a strange conspiracy, prevalent in politics and education, to keep God out on the fringes of life, to never mention his name or acknowledge his presence. Any effort to insert him into public affairs meets with tremendous resistance. People have turned their backs on the living God, and do not like to acknowledge that he has any part in human affairs.
Further, God declares, "they have despised the Holy One of Israel." They have blasphemed the God of Glory, they have insulted his majesty. That too is evident on every side today.
The ultimate result is, "they are utterly estranged." They are alienated, we would say. People are alienated from God and from each other. History confirms that when you lose God, you lose man as well. You can only understand man when you understand God, for man is made in the image of God. To lose the image of God is to lose the image of man. This is the problem with the world of our day. Isaiah goes on to use a vivid figure to describe the consequences of this.
Why will you still be smitten,
that you continue to rebel?
The whole head is sick,
and the whole heart faint.
>From the sole of the foot even to the head,
there is no soundness in it,
but bruises and sores
and bleeding wounds;
they are not pressed out, or bound up,
or softened with oil. (Isaiah 1:5-6 RSV)
That sounds like a description of AIDS. I wonder if perhaps AIDS, the loss of the body's natural defense mechanisms, has been given to us by God as a vivid picture of what is happening to the nations and peoples of the world today. Certainly we are a sick people, fitting the description here. The prophet goes on to describe the consequences of this seven-fold indictment of the people of Israel.
Your country lies desolate,
your cities are burned with fire;
in your very presence
aliens devour your land;
it is desolate, as overthrown by aliens,
And the daughter of Zion is left
like a booth in a vineyard,
like a lodge in a cucumber field,
like a besieged city. (Isaiah 1:7-8 RSV)
What vivid figures are employed to show the desolation that follows when people turn their backs on the living God! All natural defenses are removed. Scripture teaches that each of us in the human family has invisible defenses when we come into this earth -- "Guardian Angels" we call them. (Some say that those who like to drive motorcycles fast must have two guardian angels, one in front and one behind them as they ride!) Many of us have heard remarkable experiences of people being protected by unseen forces in times of danger.
But what happens when there is a persistent refusal to acknowledge God? Then the defenses are removed. Invaders take over and make life desolate and dreary, in the case of both individuals and nations. Between services this morning a woman told me that her husband is going through a terrible time of physical attack. His spirit is bitter and resentful toward what he perceives to be a torture imposed upon him by an angry God.
But, as we see in this picture, it is not that at all. It is God in his mercy, trying to awaken someone. He tries to awaken a nation that will not hear, and make them listen to what he has to say. Often that is the explanation for many of the trials we face.
C.S. Lewis said, "Pain is God's megaphone. He whispers to us in our pleasures, He speaks to us in our work, but He shouts at us in our pain."
Many times we have seen someone who will not pay heed to what he is doing to himself and his loved ones until God lays him on a bed of sickness or he suffers an accident. Then he will listen. That is what God says is happening to Judah.
What is Judah's reaction to this? They know they are the people of God and that God is upset with them, so they try to remedy things, not by a turnabout, where they give way to the grace and mercy of God, but by a religious performance -- a shallow and external pretense of worship, Verse 10:
Hear the word of the Lord,
you rulers of Sodom!
Give ear to the teaching of our God,
you people of Gomorrah! [The prophet compares Israel to Sodom and Gomorrah in their evil.]
"What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
says the Lord;
I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams
and the fat of fed beasts;
I do not delight in the blood of bulls,
or of lambs, or of he-goats." (Isaiah 1:10-11 RSV)
God is no pagan deity whose anger is mollified by bloody sacrifices. No, those are symbols, he says, and he has had enough of symbols which are empty.
"Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and the calling of assemblies --
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
I am weary of bearing them.
When you spread forth your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
I will not listen;" (Isaiah 1:13-15a RSV)
What good are empty religious exercises that do not involve the heart, where there is no change in the life? These are merely play-acting and charade, designed to keep God happy so he will not destroy your plans or cancel your prerogatives. What a low view of God, to think that he can be paid off by religious performance!
All of these things mentioned here, of course, were legitimate, even God-given, forms of expressing truth about man and God. But God is saying, "If your heart is not in it, if you do not mean what you sing, and what you say, it is nauseating to me." What does God want, then? If religious ritual and beautiful, well-planned services don't do it, what will satisfy him? He tells Judah and us in very plain language, Verse 16:
"Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
learn to do good;
defend the fatherless,
plead for the widow." (Isaiah 1:16-17 RSV)
Here are two steps, one negative, one positive: stop doing wrong; start doing right. This is what God wants. The sign of true faith is obedience and service. If these are not present, then the expressions of faith that you are offering are nauseating in his sight. Here is a quote from an insert in our bulletin that is pertinent to what I am saying.
Our children may be cheated out of a vital Christian life if their models are Christian adults who continually place a priority on getting and keeping more and more things and experiences. The only alternative to the threat of materialism in our children's lives is the adult model of "gaining your life by losing it." This is the biblical model kids must see from us in order to grow up spiritually healthy. So, while we are pondering over Christmas lists and checkbooks, let us also consider practical ways we can live intentionally Christian lives before our children.
That is what God wants. I clipped this paragraph from a Christian magazine the other day.
We pick up our newspaper and read about a three-year-old boy who is whipped with a belt for three hours because he wet his pants. We read about his cries and pleadings as his little body squirms under the foot of his stepfather. We read about this beating, which is his last in a year long series of frequent beatings; his last because he died in his bed a half hour later. We read about how the boy's body is found months later, buried in a creek, with a tiny cross clutched in his hands. We read about this brutal murder of a defenseless child, and we feel sick. Then we turn to the financial section and read about how the economy is improving. We turn to the entertainment section and look for an interesting movie to go to. We turn to the sports section and read about last night's game. Soon the sickness leaves us. We forget about the little boy, and forget that indifference makes us accomplices.
One of those things that troubles me most about the Christian world of our day is the fact that so many churches are unconcerned about pressing needs around them, and do so little to help. Yesterday I was pleased to visit a luncheon at PBC North, an annual Christmas affair put on by our Ambassadors class. They go to all the nursing homes and sanitariums around our area, picking up many of the residents to take them there, and serve them a wonderful Christmas lunch. They reach out to these older men and women who seldom get out, some of whom are in wheelchairs, some incontinent, some with unpleasant smells. I was especially pleased because no pastor has ever suggested that the Ambassadors take on that service of love. That is the outcry of changed hearts, the outreaching of changed lives.
But when we read these verses, there is a problem immediately evident. God's analysis of the human race is that we are tainted with self-centeredness so that we do not want to do good, basically. We want to minister to our own needs and our own lives. But when we hear his command, "Wash yourself, stop sinning, look out for others," the question arises, how can evil people do good things?
This cry is answered in the next three verses. This is the theme of the book of Isaiah. "Come now," God says, "let us reason together." (This was President Lyndon Johnson's favorite Bible verse.)
"Come now, let us reason together,
says the Lord:
though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they be red like crimson,
they shall become like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
you shall eat the good of the land;
But if you refuse and rebel,
you shall be devoured by the sword;
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken." (Isaiah 1:18-20 RSV)
It could not be put any plainer. There is no help in man himself. We cannot heal ourselves. We need more than our habits changed. We ourselves need to be changed, and that change can only occur in a relationship with the living God.
This is the good news, this is the gospel. It looks forward to the coming of the Lord Jesus, and the shedding of his blood, his taking our place that God might put our sins upon him, and, thus, enable him to give us the gift of righteousness so that our hearts will be changed. Selfishness is not taken away but it is overcome by the gift of love. We used to sing in Sunday School an old hymn.
What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
What can make me whole again?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
O precious is the flow
That washes white as snow.
No other fount I know.
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Isaiah is true to his name: "God saves." "Yahweh saves." Only he can do it.
None other Lamb,
None other Name,
None other hope in heaven or earth or sea.
None other hiding place from guilt and shame.
None but in Thee!
That is the message of Isaiah.
There may be some here this morning who have been attempting to clean up their own lives. Every Christmas time people get the urge to stop doing things that obviously are hurting themselves and others. Yet it never seems to work. They may stop temporarily, but then another bad habit surfaces and soon they return to their old ways. There is no power to change. But the gospel, the beautiful good news, is that God has found a way to break through the human problem to give us a changed heart and teach us a new way of living.
It is the business of people who have been born again to keep on learning from his Word how God thinks, to obey that Word, and then to reach out and meet the human needs we find all around us. This is the true message of Christmas.
Thank you, our Father, for this wonderfully forthright and honest word; and for the good news that we are not left in our doleful, miserable condition, but that you have broken through into our lives by means of the Lord Jesus, by his death and resurrection, and are offering to make us different. "If any man be in Christ, he is a new creation. Old things have passed away. Behold, all things have become new," 2 Corinthians 5:17). Thank you. In Jesus' name. Amen.