3. Expand

Studies in Isaiah 54: 3. Expand!

Isa 54:2,3 “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes. For you will spread out to the right and to the left; your descendants will dispossess nations and settle in their desolate cities.”

Wow!  As I said yesterday, how easy it is to just skim read scripture and fail to let the Lord speak through it. I have a list of seven expressions of unbelief in the Christian life and shallow reading of Scripture expecting nothing of it, is one of them. these present verses leave me pondering: “Think big”. I wonder how many of us never think big, how many of us, just settle for normality, ordinariness, no change, and have no vision for the future.  Take these verses with verse one, “barren woman, you who never bore a child…. you who were never in labour … desolate woman,” and you have an amazing picture.

Hope: It’s like Isaiah says, “I know you are barren; I know all the hopes and dreams have come to nought, of you becoming a nation that would impact and change the world as it revealed the goodness and glory of the Lord to the world; I know that the wonder and excitement of that one time when the Queen of Sheba came to Solomon with such promise, has now evaporated so that much of the time the glory of the Lord is unseen through you; I know that is how it is, but get ready, God is about to change all that so that you will have plenty of ‘children’, plenty of those who will come into the family of God, many who will encounter Him, know Him, be called His children – because of you.

The Big Tent: When you are a childless couple you need very little accommodation and, in their time, a small tent, and so when he talks of enlarging your tent, lengthening cords, driving in bigger stakes, it is conveying a picture of an expanding family, it is the picture of growth & blessing, it is a picture of utter transformation. That is what this is all about. Now there are two things about this, as we read these verses: first, how we respond to them and, second, what do they actually mean, how were they fulfilled?

Our Responses: I asked earlier how many of us never think big, how many of us never have a vision for growth and change in the future?  The trouble is that when ‘barrenness’ is all you have ever known, it is very difficult to have a change of thinking. In our changeable climate in the UK, I have watched in the past when days have stretched into weeks when the sky is grey and it continues to rain – and it is summer! It becomes almost impossible to believe that tomorrow the sun might shine; we settle into a ‘more rain’ mentality.  I’ve also noticed it in respect of the neighbours when overtures of friendship have been rebuffed time and again, and so we now have little expectation of any possible change with them.  But I remember one couple for whom this was true and the years went by with the ‘woman next door’ always looking grumpy, never responding to a cheery, ‘Good morning!’, never giving any indication of wanting to make contact with anyone, let alone you. But then suddenly, one day, with no warning at all, she simply stopped and started talking over the fence and everything changed.  I can remember people who have appeared totally hard against the Lord for years, and then suddenly, again with no warning whatsoever, suddenly they turned, started asking questions and then came to the Lord.

But how do you respond when God speaks – whether it is through the preacher on Sunday morning or through someone bringing you ‘a word’. Is the response, “Oh, that’s nice” or is it, “Wow, God has spoken to me!”  With Isaiah, I wonder how people responded to this? “Oh well, at least it’s not one of his ‘gloom and doom’ prophecies.” You bet it’s not, it’s an incredible hope-inspiring word, a bit like a word that comes early morning, “Get up, the sun is about to rise!” What do we do? Get up, get out there and watch the sky changing until that red fire gradually appears over the horizon and transforms the dark landscape. Do we watch the people around us in life, for signs of the Lord moving and speaking to them, preparing them for you to speak to? If God says, “You will have a child,” do you prepare a nursery? When He speaks words of vision about extending your home, do you start drawing up the plans?  When He says “enlarge the place of your tent,” do you start thinking big and asking, “What do I need to do, Lord?”

Fulfillment? We said the second thing to consider is just how this word was fulfilled. Well there was little sign of it in the following centuries; in fact, life got worse in Israel and eventually came the Exile, after which the spiritual life of Israel still seemed to do little to impact the wider world. If was only when Jesus came and left and then the Holy Spirit was poured out that suddenly there were new children of God in abundance – and it did come through the family of Israel, for all the first Christians were Jews. Since that time the kingdom of God has continued to expand, the family of God has continued to grow, mostly through the Gentiles. Yet there are indications in Scripture that at the end the Jews will be used to bring a further harvest and truly their ‘household’ will require a ‘bigger tent’.

Overcomers: But there is another dimension to this transformation that goes far beyond mere growth. Look: “For you will spread out to the right and to the left; your descendants will dispossess nations and settle in their desolate cities.” (54:3) There are many verses in the prophetic scriptures that indicate that God’s intentions for Israel are that, instead of being the underdogs they will be the overcomers. In fact it was right back there in the Law: “If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. …. (Deut 28:1) … “enemies who rise up against you will be defeated before you. They will come at you from one direction but flee from you in seven.” (v.7) “Dispossess nations” has echoes or reminders of the taking of Canaan at the original Exodus. God did it for them then, He can do it again in the future. “Settle in their desolate cities” suggests that when the ways of the Gentiles fail, Israel will step in and show God’s alternative way.

Surely within these things, for us in the present, there is the suggestion that we who are seated with Christ in the heavenly realms (Eph 1:20, 2:6) while he rules in the midst of his enemies (Psa 110:1), are to know the same enabling in the Lord whereby we conquer sin and, working with Christ, triumph over his enemies that he will one day put under his feet completely (1 Cor 15:25). Our enemies are not physical but spiritual or moral or ethical. His enemies (1 Cor 15:25) are anything that is contrary to, in rebellion against, or detracting from, the will of God. His intent is that ‘in Christ’ we reign over such things. Dare we believe that? Dare we work for that? May it be so.

2. Barren Women

Studies in Isaiah 54: 2. Barren Women

Isa 54:1 “Sing, barren woman, you who never bore a child; burst into song, shout for joy, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the Lord.”

Ohhhhhh!: How easy it is to pass over words of Scripture and not let them impact you. The analogy here, of Israel (or perhaps Jerusalem), is one of a disheartened, broken woman. Few of us can understand the heartache of being childless, of the yearning to have that sense of fulfillment as a child-bearing woman but who has never yet conceived. But the Bible seems full of such women, key women in the plans and purposes of God, and so perhaps we need to note them to take in the awfulness of the picture that Isaiah now presents to us.

The Women of Anguish: The first of these is Sarai: “Now Sarai was childless because she was not able to conceive.” (Gen 11:30) When she seems unable to conceive, despite the number of times the Lord had promised a family that would grow into a multitude, she gave her servant girl to Abram, who promptly conceives; it is obvious the problem lies with her and not with Abram. (Gen 16:3,4) When God turned up and reiterated the promise that Sarah (as she now was) would conceive, she laughed, but it was laughter of unbelief, of derision, and the Lord pulled her up on it (Gen 18:10-15). When she does eventually conceive she laughs again but now it is of joy (Gen 21:6)

It almost seemed to run in the family. Isaac, Abraham’s promised son, marries Rebekah but she too remains childless for twenty years (Gen 25:21). We aren’t told what Rebekah felt but in the next generation the same thing happens to Jacob’s favourite wife, Rachel: “When Rachel saw that she was not bearing Jacob any children, she became jealous of her sister. So she said to Jacob, “Give me children, or I’ll die!”  (Gen 30:1) Perhaps this is seen most clearly in Hannah who became the mother of Samuel the judge-cum-first prophet: “In her deep anguish Hannah prayed to the Lord, weeping bitterly. And she made a vow, saying, “Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son.” (1 Sam 1:10,11)

Assessment: Children in the Hebrew culture (and in many others) were seen as a sign of God’s blessing: “Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are children born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them.” (Psa 127:3-5) Thus the absence of children would have acted as a question mark over the spirituality of the wife if not the couple. The declaration of this barrenness that hung prophetically over Israel, as now declared by Isaiah, says six things: First it proclaims that bearing offspring was considered what was natural, what the Lord intended. Second, the absence of offspring was something to anguish over. Third, there must have been a reason for it.  Fourth, transformation was seen as only possible by the blessing of God, and that comes again later in Isa 66:7-11. Fifth, there is given an interesting comparison with others who are not barren but not blessed, which we will see shortly and, sixth, the end of their barrenness is expanded to reveal a much wider blessing on them.

Hannah’s Blessing:  When Hannah conceived, prayed and sang, she declared, “She who was barren has borne seven children, but she who has had many sons pines away.” (1 Sam 2:5) Whether she waited until years later to pray and sing, or whether she was declaring her anticipation of what would come, is unclear, but what is clear is the extent of her blessing, seven children, joy, and a sense of being loved (implied by the way her adversary now pined away). The releasing from barrenness in the present passage is similarly indicated in the same way that Hannah had prayed: “because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband,” says the Lord.”  (Isa 54:1)

Now Get Ready to Expand: She, Israel, now has (or is about to have) more children than other nations (whose husbands were idols, we might suggest), and is thus told to get ready to expand. (v. 1-3) Expansion in abundance and enlargement is what is coming. Previously, “you were ruined and made desolate and your land laid waste,” (49:19a) but now the land, with the Lord’s blessing, “will be too small for your people, and those who devoured you will be far away.” (Isa 49:19)

Forgetting the Past: As He now says in the present prophecy, You will forget the shame of your youth.”  (54:4) The history of Israel, right from the start of the Exodus, was never glorious, filled with grumblings and disobedience and as the years unfolded in the Land, in the period of the Judges, it never improved.  But the good news is that although the Lord requires us to confront the present, He does not hold the failures of the past over us; He is more concerned that we repent (Ezek 18:23,32, 2 Pet 3:9). Now the past will be forgotten in the light of the present blessings and, as we saw yesterday, those blessings can come to us because of the work of Christ on the Cross.

New Application: Under the New Covenant the apostle Paul took this present passage and applied it to the present reality.  (See Gal 4:24-27) So, Sarah was the barren woman who, though technically was Abraham’s wife, never had been previously able to fulfil the full outworking of marriage – bear children – and was replaced by Hagar. Yet we know that the desolate woman, Sarah, was enabled by God to bear Isaac, the child of promise. Paul applies all this to the Law and to slavery because although Hagar (representing the Law) had children naturally with Abraham, she was still a slave.

As the message version puts those first verses: “The two births represent two ways of being in relationship with God. One is ….a slave life, producing slaves as offspring. This is the way of Hagar. In contrast to that, there is an invisible Jerusalem, a free Jerusalem, and she is our mother—this is the way of Sarah.”  Through new birth, from heaven, from the city of God in heaven, the ‘invisible Jerusalem’, which acts as our mother, we are children of promise born to be free. The ‘mother’ of the old covenant was the Law but all those who sought to follow it found themselves slaves to failure and guilt. Born from above, we are now free, children born by the Spirit, empowered by the Spirit, who will one day return to our home – heaven. Hallelujah!

1. Transformation Declared

PART ONE: The Need

Transformation Meditations: 1. Transformation Declared

Isa 61:1-3 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion — to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

I recently finished the series entitled, ‘Reaching into Redemption’ which was all about the ongoing redemption process of God which starts when we are saved and continues throughout our lives. Some might prefer to refer to this as our sanctification, but I wanted to put the focus on the Lord and His activity, even though it did involve us. Having completed that series I have pottered in various attempts at other meditations but find myself coming back to this subject of ‘transformation’, the incredible nature of what takes place when God meets with a human being.  The thrust or main purpose of this, I sense as I have prayed, is the potential for life change that comes with encounters with God, something that perhaps we so often take for granted. My intent is that each of these (limited number of) meditations will be a lot shorter that those ‘Redemption’ ones, for I am aware the length of those required a high level of discipline to read, so I am intending to make these more manageable.

In this first study I simply want to take a preliminary look at these amazing verses from Isaiah that Jesus quoted at the beginning of his ministry in a synagogue in Nazareth (see Lk 4:18,19) Let’s be very simple; the intent of the Messiah, empowered and directed by the Spirit of God, was to proclaim good news to the poor, but that wasn’t just a word exercise, it was to be a life transforming exercise:

  • He has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted,
  • to proclaim freedom for the captives and
  • release from darkness for the prisoners….
  • to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion
  • to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes,
  • the oil of joy instead of mourning, and
  • a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair.

Note first of all the people he goes to: the poor, the broken-hearted, the captives, prisoners, those who mourn and grieve and despair, to bring them to a place where there is something beautiful about them, and they are characterized by joy and known as a people of praise. So here’s the questions that must follow: do we see people around us without Christ like this, do we see life transformations like this when they (we) come to Christ, or is our evangelism simply words without power? The activity of Jesus seen through these words is a power ministry and he says to us, “whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing.” (Jn 14:12) May it be so.

16. Idols?

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.16.  Idols? You have to be joking!

Isa 40:18    With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him?

The subject of idols crops up again and again in the Old Testament. They make us realise that superstition is there lurking in the background of humanity. Solomon wrote of God, He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the human heart,” (Eccles 3:11) yet in a fallen world, that inner searching for something more gets twisted into superstition which was seen again and again in the false religions of the nations that surrounded Israel, and then which found its way into their consciousness and lives. Thus, near the beginning of the book, Isaiah declared, “Their land is full of idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their fingers have made.” (Isa 2:8) Idols (or images) were the tangible expression of idolatry – the worship of idols. The word ‘idols’ occurs 20 times in Isaiah and ‘idol’ 28 times. Now we have moved into this more positive phase of the book, it is used in a derisory manner as the prophet exalts the Lord.

The purpose of verses 18 to 20 might be summarized as ‘don’t compare Him to idols’ and then verses 21 & 22 exalt the Lord, showing how He is so different.

Verse 18: No Comparison! “With whom, then, will you compare God? To what image will you liken him?”  Hey people, Isaiah challenges the people, stop and think about this. Stop and think about what you know about God, and then look at these idols you have around you. Come on now, look at these idols you have, think about how they are made and then stop and think about the Lord. Really, there is no comparison is there!

Verse 19: Idol manufacture: “As for an idol, a metalworker casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it.”  Be honest, you know how an idol is made. You only have to go along to a goldsmith’s workshop and you see how an idol, either wood or cast in metal is made and then overlaid with gold and has silver chains attached to it. Were such chains used to help it down in place in the home, so it couldn’t be easily removed? We don’t know, but the point is that this idol is made by other people.

Verse 20: The process: “A person too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot; they look for a skilled worker to set up an idol that will not topple.”  Look, he continues, even the very poor who may not be able to afford an image covered in gold or silver, has an idol. Their idol is very basic. They look around for some hardwood that will last and they find someone who can work with wood to shape it and create a basic image for them, something that will last, be stable and not keep falling over. They actually put effort into all these considerations, but they are still very obvious objects, things you can see and things you know exactly how they came about.

This is what Isaiah is pressing in on, the ordinariness of these objects, objects that are man-made and which, therefore, have no life, no power, or ability to change circumstances, change the world. We would never believe such foolish things and yet there are things in twenty-first Western life that may not have the same appearance but to which we give the same credibility. What are the things that we rely upon, what are the things that the world uses as a substitute for God, things we believe can help us survive, things we must hold on to and view as precious, not to be let go of?

A point to ponder. Of what in our lives do we give greater importance than the Lord? Comfort? Pleasure? Success? Appearance? Modern technology? Work? Leisure? These are the modern ‘idols’ that many place first in their lives. These deceive us because there appears no similarity to the things we see ‘pagan peoples’ worship, and we consider ourselves so much more sophisticated, but they are still things that modern Western man puts in front of God. They can be very simple, for even just a person we can exalt and put before God. If we honour and exalt such a figure that they blank out God, they become an idol. I won’t bother to dignify some more scientific atheists by naming them, but they are idols in the minds of some in their ‘followers’.

The worship of ‘self’ or of ‘me’ is an idol, something that replaces God and which we esteem above anything else. Watch the way some journalistic columnists write, above contradiction, claiming the high ground, beyond question, elevating themselves to the position of little gods. Listen to some politicians and you find the same thing.

Now do the same comparison exercise that Isaiah has just done. Does it make sense to make appearance or personal success or pleasure & leisure – or people – the  governing feature of our lives when there is the Lord, the almighty One, standing there with open arms calling us into real relationship? A last thought. You could easily take one of the idols that Isaiah has been talking about and destroy it. What effect would it have had? None, except in the mind of the superstitious idol-worshipper. Now to do a modern comparison, it is probably easier to imagine you are separated off from these possible ‘idols’ we have been thinking about.  Imagine you contract a fatal illness. Suddenly all these things we have listed above become worthless. Success becomes meaningless. Materialism becomes meaningless. Pleasure becomes meaningless. Celebrities and atheistic scientists and politicians become meaningless. The only thing of meaning before you, is life. The threat of its removal suddenly puts everything else in perspective. No our idols may not sit on a shelf, but they are just as insidious if they become substitutes for God – until our life is seriously under threat and then we start thinking sensibly.

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, please forgive me if I put things or people before you. Please draw my heart. I purpose to make you first before all else.

 

12. The Powerful Shepherd

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.12. The Powerful Shepherd

Isa 40:10      See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.

We have just seen the call to shout the good news that God is coming. Now we have two pictures describing the coming Lord.  First it is the picture of an all-powerful God but then it is of God who comes as the Shepherd of Israel, so let’s look, first of all, at the picture of the all-powerful God. “See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and he rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.” (v.10) Perhaps we should split that up so as to note exactly what it is saying.

“See”. Twice there is a call to observe. It is thus a call to really take note of what the prophet is saying. How we are often so casual when a prophetic word comes! If you have ever received a personal prophetic word, could you say exactly what it was a month later? Look and watch carefully, is the instruction.

“the Sovereign Lord comes”.  Many versions just put, “the Lord God” but the emphasis, we should see, is the same. It is God who is Lord of all, God who is sovereign. From verse 12 on the prophet is going to bring a word that emphasizes this, and we need to believe it and take it on board. God IS Lord of all things, Jesus IS ruling at his Father’s right hand. We may not understand why He gives such freedom to sinful mankind to do such awful things as history reveals, but I believe when we get to heaven, if He allows us to see every detail of history with His eyes, we will never be able to criticize Him for anything He did or didn’t do.

“with power”.  This God we are considering here is the Creator of the whole world, as we shall shortly be reminded and any Being who has that power is indeed mighty. When Jesus Christ, the Son of God, exercised his ministry we see in the gospels, example after example of him exercising the power of the Godhead as he deals with sickness, makes provision, walks on water, casts out demons and raises the dead. This is power!

“and he rules with a mighty arm”. This power is used for one end: to rule. To rule or reign means to be supreme over all peoples and circumstances so that His will is brought about. That is what God does and that is what He is coming to do. When Jesus comes back we see he will exercise this rule over all things (see Rev 19) We saw it in the previous study.

“See, his reward is with him”. Some versions use the word ‘recompense’ which really means a payment with a purpose.  The Bible is quite clear, the Lord rewards the righteous, e.g. Gen 15:1, 1 Sam 26:23,  1 Kings 8:32, Psa 58:11, Prov 11:18, 13:21, 22:4. When God comes He will judge between men and the righteous will be blessed or rewarded. In the New Testament we read, “a man reaps what he sows,” (Gal 6:7) for that is how God has made it to be.

“and his recompense accompanies him.” The two things go together – God and His reward. God’s character is to do good and so wherever He can He blesses His people. He will not bless evil, but He will bless His righteous people.

So here is the comfort for the downtrodden people of God: your God is coming, and His desire is to bless you. He will come to deal with evil (and he has the power to do that) and will reward and bless righteousness. Hallelujah!

But there is further reassurance, for this could be really scary and so we find this second picture in verse 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.” (v.11) Verse 10 could leave us feeling somewhat awed with talk of the Lord’s sovereignty and His power and His mighty arm and His acts of judgment, but now the prophet speaks to the faithful, to believers whose consciences may be over-sensitive. Hey, he says, for you who are His flock, He will come like a shepherd and a shepherd is known for caring for His flock – see Psa 23, and the following verses here: “He gathers the lambs in his arms, and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.”  (v.11b) What words of tender care!

If you are a young believer, have no fear, don’t be over-awed by Him, for His desire is to lift you in those strong arms that can be used for war, but instead He will use them to protect you and give you a sense of loving security, He will hold you close to His heart. And those of you teachers and evangelists who feel responsible for the young ones in the faith, be reassured the He will so gently be there for you in your caring role and He will so gently guide you and lead you in it.

This last verse in this part helps balance the strength of the first part. Yes, God is coming, and He is coming in power and will deal with the ungodly, but those who are faithful, those whose hearts are turned towards Him, know He is coming with love and care and compassion. He is for you!  Hallelujah!

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, I recognise that your heart is to come more fully into my heart, my life, my circumstances and I bow before you who are the Lord of all.

11. Tell the Good News

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.11.  Tell the Good News

Isa 40:9   You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news 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!”

What have we seen in these verses of this chapter so far? First, a call to comfort Israel with the news that God has dealt with their sins (v.1,2). Second, a declaration that God is coming to them (v.3-5). Third, a recognition that we humans are prone to unfaithfulness under the pressures of life and especially when God comes with discipline or even holds back and delays (v.6-8). So what follows?

Now we find an instruction to those who believe this good news (?Isaiah) to go up to a high place where they can call out so all can hear, shout it out loudly and don’t fear what people will say:  You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid.” (v.9a) God wants the good news sharing; He wants everyone to hear it.

Throughout the Bible we find God’s intent is that the people of this fallen world – nations throughout the world – know Him. He called Israel to display Him, as He will shortly say, to be “a light to the Gentiles” (42:6, 49:6), and He will make them to be those who carry His light (58:8,10, 60:1,3,19); it is a common picture in Isaiah.

Now here’s a question. If He is coming anyway (and He is!) why does He place so much importance on us hearing about it before it happens?  Is it because He wants us to prepare ourselves, and put our lives straight, before He comes? That is what seemed to have happened with the ministry of John the Baptist. Or is there some other, perhaps bigger, purpose?  This we considered in earlier studies.

The truth is that the Lord wants our hearts to be revealed before He comes. He wants to see the response of our hearts when we have heard the good news. Perhaps some will scoff at it: “Oh yes, we’ve heard that before!” Perhaps some will deny it outright: “God doesn’t care about us. He won’t come to us!” But then there will be those whose hearts leap with joy when they hear He is coming. God is concerned with truth, with the reality of our lives. Again and again His word comes to reveal our hearts.

In the four gospels, it is quite clear that again and again he spoke things that seemed like pearls before swine, truth about himself that fell on deaf ears, truth that was rebuffed or even rejected outright. But the truth is there to be seen. God sees it, you see it and I see it. We know the truth about ourselves in these sorts of situations and that lays the ground open for the Holy Spirit to come and convict and change us. The word of God reveals hearts.

So what is the word to be shouted from the rooftops? (OK, the mountain tops!) “Say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!” (v.9b) The message is, God is coming, God is available to us. So often, mistaken modern Christianity focuses on people’s failures and although somewhere along the line we do need to face our failures, the first thing we find both John the Baptist and Jesus declaring in their preaching in that the kingdom of heaven has come near,” (Mt 3:6) and “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Mt 4:17). And how was that kingdom expressed? “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.” (Mt 11:5) Wonderful! The apostle Paul gives us a little insight: the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.” (1 Cor 15:24,25) i.e. the reign of Jesus began when he started his ministry two thousand years ago and will continue until he returns again. Today, now, he continues to overcome his enemies – unrighteousness, evil, sin, sickness etc. These are his enemies and he comes to overcome them.

We have already seen it before, in general terms, when God arrives in the wilderness, it is transformed. When Jesus turned up in the spiritual wilderness of Israel, wherever he went it was transformed because, as he declared using the Isaiah 61 verses, he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Lk 4:18,19, quoting Isa 61:1,2) That was good news! Now the amazing thing about Jesus’ ministry, and it has often left me wondering, was that he did not appear to do a ‘Four Spiritual Laws’ or any other such presentation and certainly didn’t do any in-depth counselling before he healed people – he just healed them. All it needed was for them to come to him, but the record shows that they didn’t necessarily become followers of him – but he still healed them, knowing this. It was that same thing we’ve already just noted, when God turns up, the wilderness is transformed.

Now we have to be careful here because assuredly God did want Israel’s heart to change and that is why Isaiah and the other prophets spoke. Yet, it is clear He brings words of comfort and assurance and, in Jesus’ case, brings amazing acts of healing etc. in order to touch and change people’s hearts. Clearly Jesus did these things to attract and move people, even though many would walk away unmoved. The Lord says and does these things for those who are often referred to as ‘the remnant’ who will believe. For you and me our calling is to seek to bless the people around us, sharing God’s love in word, practical and miraculous deed, and leave the outcome up to Him.  May it be so.

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, please open my eyes that I may realise more fully the wonder of what you have done for me in Christ and the wonder of what you have done already in my life.

 

10. Human Frailty

Meditations on Isaiah 40: No.10.  Human Frailty

Isa 40:7   The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them.  Surely the people are grass

We saw the prophetic picture: “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.” (v.6b) and we considered how God sees mankind as He designed us to be before sin entered the word, and how we can be living in redeemed relationship with Him. That was verse 6, the good news, but now we have to move on to maintain a right perspective in verse 7.

Oh, how we so easily loose a right perspective!  You see the folly of mankind as it is displayed in Psa 2:Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?  The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying, “Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.” (Psa 2:1-3) The picture is of pride and arrogance that first of all misunderstands God’s love and tolerance, and then thinks they can oppose God and get their own way.

So much of the time our problem is that we lose perspective and much of the rest of the chapter is about regaining a right perspective about God and us. It is not that God wants us to be cringing, servile creatures – in fact exactly the opposite – but to become the opposite we first have to realize the truth about God and then us. Although, in my chapter breakdown at the beginning of this series, I made a division at verse 12, there is a hint of verses 12 to 31 here in verse 7, a declaring of a right perspective.

Very well, what particular aspect of grass and flowers are we now talking about? That they are beautiful? Not quite! “The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them.” (v.7a) Oh! There are two things in this verse. These ‘plants’ die off so easily and especially when God blows on them.  We considered in the previous study, the picture of faithfulness and I said then we are now talking about frailty shown in failing faithfulness. We need to see this in the big picture.

What challenges our faithfulness?  Trials and tribulations, and when we are going through times of discipline (that the Lord brings as He ‘blows’ on us) we can see these as times of trouble, and we then grumble. That is what is at the heart of this, not only our frailty but, as we just said, frailty in respect of our faithfulness, especially under times of testing, times of discipline. Trials show the quality (or otherwise) of our faithfulness.

We used Abram as an example just now, and the way the Lord taught him should be an example to us. He had received the words of blessing from the Lord, he left his home and went to Canaan and there the Lord promised that this land would belong to his descendants (of whom at the moment there was no sign!). As soon as a famine strikes Canaan, he flees to Egypt where he gets into trouble (see Gen 12:10-20) Faithfulness to the vision, to the word of God, appeared transient and he had to learn.

So, just in case there might be any misunderstanding the word continues: “Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall.” (v.7b,8a) This is surely the truth. It only needs a few trials and tribulations to strike and we wither and fall. Now we may not like it and object to it, but if we do it simply means we have not been through a Job type of situation. The message of such situations is not condemnation, but just recreating an awareness that left to ourselves we are weak, and we need the Lord and His grace.

But that is not the end of it, it is just one side of it. The other side of this, the all-important side is, “but the word of our God endures forever.”  (v.8b) When God speaks He means it and He will ALWAYS do what He says, so if He says He is coming – He IS coming. If He deems it right to wait a while, so be it. Be patient, remain faithful and continue to believe. The contrast here in these verses is between our inability to remain faithful to the Lord, and the Lord’s cast-iron constancy that is seen in His faithfulness to His word, to His plans, to His declared will.  As the Lord described Himself to Moses, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.”  (Ex 34:6) See also Deut 7:9, 32:4, Psa 33:4.

That is what these three verses are about, about how we may truly believe all that the Lord says. We may not fully understand what He says, but when we do we will see that He is absolutely true to what He says, always!  Our faith may waiver in the face of passing time or in the face of trials, but He means what He says, and He will remain true to it (even if we misunderstand His timescale), and so He WILL do it. So, remember, he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Phil 1:6) Hallelujah!

Application for further thought and prayer: Lord, I recognize my frailty and my constant need of your grace. Strengthen my faith, strengthen my resolve. Thank you that you are here for me.