SERMON: Accepting God’s Vision (Isaiah 2:1-5)
1. Setting Goals
At the beginning of each year, many people make resolutions—they set goals and hopes for the coming year. And, of course, some scoff at those who do—and sometimes with good reason.
Because the disadvantages of those who like to dream and plan, is that sometimes their dreams are unreal, and they set goals which are unachievable. However, the advantages of those who dream and set goals, is that it gives them something to strive for. And for that reason alone, the idea of setting goals and hopes should not be so easily dismissed.
But whether it’s the New Year—or any other time—it’s important to set goals, to dream and to plan. But they need to be realistic goals—one’s that can be achieved. Indeed, one’s that give hope, and a reason to live, and an opportunity to put aside the negatives of the past.
And that is the opportunity that New year brings, and Advent brings. Because Advent—which marks the start of a new Christian year—is all about focussing our plans and our hopes—but from a Christian perspective.
It’s about dreaming dreams. It’s about having something to look forward to. And it’s about having goals to reach. And specifically, it relates to dreams and goals which refer to none other than the second coming of Christ.
Advent is an opportunity to think ahead to the time when the world will come to an end. A time when Jesus will bring to fulfilment the final part of God’s plan: to gather all his faithful followers to himself, and to give those who decide that God isn’t for them their just reward.
And of course, it’s a vision—a goal—we should all be working towards. And a small hint of it is what we read about in this passage from Isaiah.
B. ISAIAH’S PROPHECY (1-5)
1. The Prophecy (1-4)
Because in the prophet Isaiah we read a message given to country people and town people alike. It was a message to all a sundry. And it portrayed a time when Mount Zion—which is nowhere near being the highest mountain of the world—would become the highest mountain of all.
And, more specifically, it will be a time when the mountain will not just be noted because it’s height, but because of the role that it will play in bringing peace and blessings to all.
(Now, just a warning about this. Because over the years some have seen this prophecy only in political terms. As a consequence, there have been many scare campaigns about the idea of one world government and one world capital city—even within the Christian church. In other words the image of Mount Zion being raised above the other mountains has been hijacked by those who can only think in two dimensions. But this image isn’t a vision of some sort of political imperialism. Indeed, it isn’t political at all. Rather the image that is the more positive religious idea of a new world, which has its central focus on God. And it’s a place where justice and peace abound.)
It is God’s world that is being described, not man’s. And some of the features of God’s rule, include a time when God will rule over all people; a time when worldwide peace will be inaugurated; a time when all institutions will cease to exist. (Institutions like governments, schools, police, armies etc., and even the institutional side of the church). It will be a time when God will teach us directly, himself, what it means to be a believer; a time when God will be accessible to all of his people at all times, and in ways we couldn’t even imagine today; a time when their will be great peace, harmony, and contentment; and a time when all disputes and all war will be totally unnecessary. And, as a consequence, all weapons will be adapted for peaceful purposes.
Now if anyone else had come up with a dream or a vision like that, it would be quite understandable if people responded by thinking that that person was really off his (or her) head, or that they were a dreamer, or that they had no foothold in reality at all.
However, the sobering fact is that these words aren’t the words of a dreamer at all. Rather they are the words given by God to Isaiah the prophet. And they are the words given by God to the same prophet who prophesied about the birth of the Messiah; the suffering of the Messiah; as well as other prophecies of a peaceful Messianic age. As a consequence, they are not words we can easily dismiss as though the source is unreliable.
And the appeal (5) and purpose of those words of God? Well, what God wanted was for his people to catch hold of his vision; for his people to genuinely repent of their ways and return to him; and for his people to be active in hastening in this time of the future.
In other words there was an urgency in responding to God; there was an urgency in living the faith.
Now, as I said, if anyone other than God had given this message—this message of hope—most likely they would have been written off as a nut, or as a joke. However, because it is God who has given this vision, we are required to take it very seriously indeed. And we need to take it seriously in a number of ways:
1. We Need a Vision
Because, firstly, we need to grasp God’s vision now.
Because there are some who don’t think so much in terms of planning for the future. Rather, they prefer to let things drift—they tend to just plod along. Unfortunately for them, the vision of the future that God gives, challenges that kind of lifestyle and thinking.
What this passage (amongst many) teaches us, is that God is a god of vision—that he wants us to think in terms of what will happen at the end. And that what will happen at the end should be a major focus in our lives.
God wants us to be encouraged in our troubles. He wants to have hope in times of despair. But he also wants us to live as people who are not afraid of the future, but rather as people who are only too willing to embrace it.
And I think that when we’re down, when everything around us is going wrong, when we seem to be under attack from all sides—where things seem a little unequal—or if we’re going through those times where we seem to be aimlessly wandering, God’s vision for the future can be a very exciting and very encouraging thing.
There’s nothing quite like the idea of a world where everyone is equal; where there are no disputes; where we can live in peace and harmony; and where one can lap up the direct attention from God to raise one’s spirits.
Now, I know that we can enjoy a direct relationship with God now. But that is nothing to the relationship we will enjoy, as described in God’s vision. But we need to embrace it.
2. Running with the Vision
Secondly, however, we need to not only accept the vision, but we need to run with it.
We need to bear in mind that this vision isn’t just a personal vision—one given for our own personal peace of mind. Because the emphasis in this passage is not just on capturing the vision, but has also to do with being actively involved in bringing it about. And in order to do that, God said that we need to be genuine about our repentance, and we need to be genuine in our turning back to God too.
If we are genuine, then not only will we enjoy and be fulfilled in what God has planned, but that we will then be reflected in our being very active in working towards God’s goals.
And that will involve being totally focussed on God’s vision; not allowing other things to distract us from it; and being eager to share God’s vision with others no matter what the cost—whether at the cost of being ridiculed, or at the cost of letting things go that we hold dear. And everything that we do will have its focus on the coming of God’s kingdom (in all its fullness).
Now, some might point out the two extremes that are often seen in God’s church. The first extreme: those who nod in agreement but do little or nothing. And the second extreme: those who are totally active—indeed, some might even say who are ‘overboard.’ And then they may point to the need for a middle ground.
The danger with that, however, is that there is no middle ground. Indeed, the Apostle John recorded these words of God to the church at Laodicea (recorded in the book of Revelation): So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I will vomit you out of my mouth’ (Revelation 3:16).
In other words God’s church—his genuine church—is about people who are totally committed and totally involved with his vision. There are no other options.
3. The Urgency of the Vision
And, thirdly, we need to embrace God’s vision urgently.
God’s vision does not allow for people to have time to adjust to the idea of thinking anew, as if they have all the time in the world. It’s not about going through a process where we can change gradually and we can work over years to adjust to new ways. It’s not even about trying to make any transition less painful than it could be.
Rather, the emphasis in this passage is that we need to accept the vision for ourselves; and that we need to be actively involved in bringing that about. But there is also an urgency in the task. (An urgency that all God’s people should be willing to embrace.) And that is that we need to be active, and be doing all we can NOW, to hasten the bringing in of the kingdom.
The call isn’t to wait, to arrange committee meetings, or to wait until certain people die or move away before we can even think about doing certain things. Because that is not being genuine in the faith at all.
With genuine faith, is the idea of the need for urgency. And the day to start that hastening isn’t in five years’ time or even five months’ time. Rather, it is today.
So, if you haven’t committed your life to Jesus yet, then today is a good day to choose. If you haven’t committed yourself to the church community yet, then today would be a good time too. If you haven’t committed yourself to sharing your faith with the people in this community, then today is a good day to start. If you haven’t been involved in removing some of the obstacles to faith, that we so easily surround ourselves with, then there’s no time like the present. And if you haven’t committed yourself to helping others find Jesus who live a long way away, then today is a good time to do that too.
Indeed, the time to start in all these things is NOW.
Now Advent, is the beginning of the church’s year, and it is the ideal time to make New Year’s resolutions—but from a Christian perspective. And the best New Year’s resolution any Christian can make, is: To commit themselves to God’s vision; to commit themselves to the idea of repentance and the need to return to God; to commit themselves to being active members of his army (the church); and, most importantly, to commit to doing all those things NOW.
Of course, there were very good reasons why God gave Isaiah a vision of the future to share with those who would listen. Because for most of Isaiah’s life the people went through a rough time (and mainly of their own making). Despite that, however, God showed that he cared. And while they needed to live out the implications of their actions, God did give them a vision of the future to catch hold of, to embrace, and to give them hope.
For most of Isaiah’s life, the people, in general, were not active in expressing their beliefs. And as a consequence got themselves into the great difficulties they faced in the first place. Indeed, they chose to do things their own way, rather than God’s.
And for most of Isaiah’s life, the people, in general, did very little to promote faith in God. In fact by their slowness, and their lack of enthusiasm, they probably did the exact opposite.
And it would be easy to conclude, with the state of the church today, in many parts of the world, nothing has really changed. However, despite that, we have God’s vision, handed down over the centuries.
But are we prepared to catch God’s vision of the future? Are we willing to be genuine in our repentance and in the need to return to God? And are we willing to express our faith in an urgent manner, in order to hasten in God’s kingdom?
Because that is what God called his people in Isaiah’s day to do. And that’s what he calls us to do, today, too.
Posted: 26th August 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: The Hope of Christmas (Isaiah 9:2, 6-7; 40: 1-2, 9; Micah 5:2-4; ; Matthew 1:18-22; 2:1-12; Luke 1:26-33, 38; 2:1-14; Colossians 1:15-20)
Six more shopping days until Christmas; seven more sleeps. And probably, for many, still a lot of preparation to do. It seems that most of us at Christmas have a long list of things to do. And that no sooner do you cross off one item, then you think of another five to put on—a present for someone, something you’ve missed for the table… and the list goes on.
But, of course, that is only one side of Christmas. It’s what in the west we’ve been taught is expected of us—at least in the last hundred years or so. But even then, those expectations do not always relate well to reality.
After all, there are many people today who cannot afford that kind of Christmas, but yet are still actively encouraged to participate in that kind of celebration. There are people who are going through a tough time, and are finding that kind of Christmas all too much. And there are people for whom Christmas brings back bad memories—and can’t wait for the celebrations to be over.
Christmas can be a happy time, and it can be a sad time. And it isn’t always helped by the expectations that have been placed on us over the last hundred years or so.
But how about you? How are you preparations going this year? Well to put our feelings and our preparations into context, what I’d like to do is to reflect on some of the situations behind the readings that we’ve had today.
B. PROPHECIES OF THE COMING MESSIAH
1. Reading 1: Judah under attack by Israel and Aram (Isaiah 9:2, 6-7)
And I want to begin with the first reading from Isaiah.
Now it’s about 725 BC. Israel had been a divided kingdom for a little over two hundred years—there was Israel in the north centred on Samaria, and Judah in the south centred on Jerusalem. And at this point of time, Israel had allied itself with Aram (centred on Damascus) to invade Judah. In other words the background to the reading is a war.
Now Ahaz, the king of Judah, was not a faithful servant of God. He preferred worshiping other gods. But despite that, God sent his prophet Isaiah to him, to tell him that he had the situation in hand. What Ahaz had to do was to trust God. And God even gave him a sign—a child would be born—after which the conflict would come to an end. And of course that is exactly what happened. Mrs Isaiah got pregnant, gave birth to a son, the war came to an end and the captives were returned to Judah.
As a consequence, our first reading reflects part of that story. It describes the sign that King Ahaz was given—the baby that was born—the proof that God would come to the rescue of his people. Which he did. God provided hope in a very difficult situation.
However, how much understanding there was, at that time, of a deeper meaning behind that prophecy, we can only guess. What we do know is that seven hundred plus years later, those words formed part of the expectation that a Messiah was to be born.
So how about that for a background to the Christmas story? A war.
2. Reading 2: Judah under attack by Assyria (Micah 5:2-4)
But it doesn’t end there, because move forward fifteen years, to about 710 BC, and we find another war.
Now, at this particular time, the northern kingdom of Israel was no more. The Assyrians had conquered the land, and the people had been taken into exile. But Judah, centred on Jerusalem, was still there, and this time under the rule of King Hezekiah. Now unlike his father Ahaz, Hezekiah was a faithful king. But, despite that, he and his people were noted as being proud, arrogant, and self-sufficient. They had entangled themselves in an alliance with Assyria which had gone terribly wrong. So they rebelled against them, and now they faced attack from the Assyrian army.
And this time, it was the prophet Micah who delivered God’s message of hope. And because they were so proud, and self-sufficient, Micah told them that, this time, help would come from the most insignificant of places—from Bethlehem.
Now history doesn’t tell us who that person from Bethlehem was. Nevertheless the story assumes that someone from Bethlehem came, and the Assyrians returned home. Prophecy fulfilled. Except for, again, at some stage came the realisation that the prophecy had a deeper meaning. So much so that seven hundred plus years later there was an expectation that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem.
Now that’s two readings we traditionally have at Christmas time, which not only prophecy about a Messiah, but also deal with the reality of war. Which may well put any struggles we have with Christmas into perspective.
3. Reading 3: Exile in Babylon (Isaiah 40: 1-2, 9)
But it doesn’t end there, either. Because move forward another one hundred and fifty years, and it’s about 560 BC. And the people of Judah are in exile in Babylon. Forty years before the Babylonians had attacked Jerusalem, and the city had been demolished. So now the people were languishing in exile—and could only dream of returning home.
So God sent another prophet to the people, with yet another message of hope. God’s people would return to Jerusalem. And of course, if we’d read the verses that we missed out, we would have read something which would be very familiar: “A voice of one calling ‘Prepare a way for YHWH in the wilderness; make straight the highway for our God in the desert.’”
In other words the prophecy not only told the people that their exile was at an end, but it showed them how they would be brought back to Jerusalem. Now we don’t know who that “voice calling in the wilderness” was, but we do know is that the people returned to Jerusalem.
But more than that, over the next five hundred and fifty plus years the understanding of the prophecy grew, so that there became an expectation that the Messiah would be preceded by a messenger who would show the people the way.
So two wars, and living in exile, provide the context to three very traditional Christmas readings. But I wonder how often we think of that? In each case God gave an immediate message of hope, and in each case he asked the people to trust in him. But more than that, God’s promises provided an expectation, a hope, for well into the future as well.
Which would tend to suggest, that if we are struggling, if we are going through a hard time this Christmas … Well, we may not be facing a war, we may not be languishing in exile, but we can still have hope. But if only we put our trust in our creator.
But let’s move to what may be more familiar territory.
C. THE BIRTH OF THE MESSIAH
1. Reading 4: Mary (Luke 1:26-33, 38)
Because, move to about 7 BC, the Romans occupy the land, and the expectations about a Messiah are rife. A child is to be born, he is to come from Bethlehem, and he is to be preceded by a messenger leading the way.
Now imagine the scene … Mary, a devout believer in God—a girl, of about 12 or 13 years old—is engaged to be married, and she is visited by an angel who tells her part in bringing Jesus into the world. Now that was good news, in terms of being chosen by God. But now the bad news. Becoming pregnant outside of marriage was a recipe, for being stoned to death, or at the very least, living as an outcast, with a very bleak future, or having to resort to prostitution to survive.
Life would have been far from easy. But she was a young woman who was very strong in her faith. And despite the consequences was all too willing to do her part.
2. Reading 5: Joseph (Matthew 1:18-22)
Enter Joseph. Well when he discovered that Mary was pregnant, he was faced with a dilemma. He knew he would be expected to publicly end their engagement. Mary would then be open to face ridicule and shame—or even being stoned for her crime.
But that was something that Joseph, a man of God, did not want to do. So, he thought about it, and decided it would be far better to just quietly sign the papers needed to break the engagement, and go their separate ways.
But then Joseph was visited by an angel too. This time it was in a dream. And the angel told him to abandon his traditions, to abandon all his cultural sensitivities—no matter how difficult that would be—and marry Mary anyway. And being the man of God that he was, that was exactly what he did. And God blessed them both because of it.
3. Reading 6: The Birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1-7)
Now move on to about 6 BC (yes, someone can’t count), and all of Mary and Joseph’s nightmares come true. They were required to go to Bethlehem for a census, where suitable accommodation was not easy to find. Indeed, whatever plans they had for the birth of Jesus, and whatever preparations they had made, needed had to be set aside for their attendance in Bethlehem. And it was there that Jesus was born.
4. Reading 7: The Shepherds and Angels (Luke 2:8-14)
So finally, the expectations of the Jewish people were met. Yes, John the Baptist still had to do his job as the messenger, but being born six months earlier God’s plans were well in hand.
But for now the Messiah had been born. And the prophecies and the expectations of the people are summed up in the visit of the shepherds and the angels.
Having said that, however, I’m not sure even then, seven hundred plus years after Isaiah’s prophecy, that the people really understood what it all meant.
5. Reading 8: The Visit of the Magi (Matthew 2:1-12)
But it was an event that even some astrologers—probably from Arabia or Persia—recognised had great significance. As a consequence they journeyed to Jerusalem, were sent on to Bethlehem, and were led by a star to the child.
Now Old Testament wars and exile aside, even in the New Testament Mary and Joseph did not have an easy time. The first Christmas was not an easy event. The things they were asked to do by God, in many ways went against the grain of the expectations of society. And even the delivery of the baby was not in the best of circumstances.
They had a tough time. And yet, the promises of God brought hope. They gave something to live for, something to get excited about. But like those who faced war or exile, did they even then fully understand what it was that God had promised?
D. WHO IS THE MESSIAH?
After all, at the time of Jesus’s birth, the land was under Roman occupation. And many of the Old Testament prophecies, as we have seen, promised God’s help in difficult physical situations as well as providing that longer term hope for the future.
There was a common expectation, then, that the Messiah would do away with the Romans. And, whatever else he did, that he would restore sovereignty to the Jews. As consequence, when some of those expectations weren’t met, the people’s disappointment was to play a major role in his execution. What the people didn’t get, even in the early pages of the New Testament, was that the primary focus of God’s promises was not about rescuing his people from an aggressor, but on restoring his people’s relationship with him.
Time after time, the people had strayed in their relationship with him, and each time God had come to their rescue. He had rescued them from their enemies, and given them hope. But each time his main focus, was the need for his people to trust in him.
But it hadn’t worked. Because no sooner did people return to him, then they strayed again, and the whole process began all over again. So this time, he was looking for a more permanent solution to the problem of sin.
2. Reading 9: The Supremacy of Christ (Colossians 1:15-20)
Which is why I’ve chosen the poem or hymn, written or adapted, by Paul in his letter to the church at Colossae, to conclude our readings. Because in a letter written about 60AD, we find Jesus, as the Christ, summarised in two ways.
Firstly, he is described as the one through whom God created the universe (vv. 15-17). And then secondly he is described as the one rules the world, through God’s saving love. (vv. 18-20).
Now of course, there had been hints about who the Messiah was, reaching far back into history—as we’ve seen. But it probably needed Jesus to begin his ministry for some of the pieces to be properly understood. And even then, it evidently took some time for everything to click into place.
Jesus was the solution to mankind’s problem. He was promised by God, and he came to make possible our relationship with God. Indeed, Jesus is the reason we celebrate Christmas.
So in the midst of disaster, there is hope. When things go wrong there is always something to live for, and get excited about. Indeed God has gone to great lengths to come to our rescue and to give us hope.
So how is our Christmas going? Have we got everything that we’ve been told that we need? Or is this year a bit of a disaster, when nothing’s going right? Or is this Christmas a time when all we want to do, is to have it over and done with?
Well if it is all getting too much, think back to 725 BC. Think of the time when Israel and Aram attacked Judah. Think back to 710 BC when Assyria attacked Judah. And think back to 560 BC when the people were languishing in exile. And if that is the kind of Christmas that you’re having, then think of the prophecies of hope—of a baby being born in Bethlehem, and a messenger who will lead the way.
Think back to Mary and Joseph in 7 BC, and the issues they had to face. The problems that Mary’s pregnancy invoked, and the less than ideal circumstances surrounding Jesus’s birth. And if that’s the kind of Christmas that you’re facing, then think of the fulfilment of the prophecies of hope.
2. Hope in the Christmas Story
Because in each of our readings is a message of hope.
Our first three readings reflect God’s promise to his people, who were in dire need of his help. And he responded not only to their immediate needs, but he gave them hope for the future as well.
Which means that no matter what our circumstances, and how our preparations are going for Christmas this year, we should have hope. Hope in God that he will see to our physical needs. But hope in God that he will see to our spiritual needs too. And we can only have hope if we are people of God.
3. Our Modern Society
Yes, of course, our society encourages us to go to the shops. Yes, the adverts on television provide us with the modern expectations that only the last one hundred plus years have brought. But that is not what Christmas should be all about. Christmas should be about a baby being born in Bethlehem. It is about God coming to the rescue of his people. And it is about God giving his people hope.
So how are your preparations going this Christmas? Is everything on track, or are you getting flustered, and everything seems to be going wrong? Or is this a time that’s just too traumatic, and all that you can think about is getting it over with?
Well, wherever you sit this year, think of the Christmas story. Think of the wars against Judah—by Israel and Aram, and then the might of the Assyrian Army. And think of the people languishing in Babylon. All situations where God provided prophecies that dealt with the current situation, but provided hope for the future as well. And then think of the traumas of Mary and Joseph. Now does that put your Christmas into perspective?
Well if it does, then think of the fulfilment of those prophecies—the birth of the Messiah. The response of God to the deep spiritual need of his people. The need of all people for God’s grace, and for a relationship with the one who rules the world. Because that is what Christmas is supposed to be about. Indeed to coin an old and commonly abused phrase, “That is the “true” meaning of Christmas.”
The challenge this year, then, is to focus our Christmas—not on presents, or food, or drink, or family—but on hope. We consequently need to put the expectations of our day into perspective. But we also need to grab that hope.
We need to approach the Messiah as the one through whom the universe was created. And we need approach him as the one who rules the world, through God’s saving love.
Posted: 16th December 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Accepting Gods Vision, Part 2 (Isaiah 11:1-9)
Having a vision of the future, and working towards that vision, is a very important part of the Christian faith. In fact so important is it, that at the beginning of the church’s year—with the four weeks running up to Christmas we call ‘Advent’—the whole focus of the church traditionally turns towards the second coming of Christ. And that is particularly so, with the idea of judgement of those who are acceptable to God and those who aren’t; and with the concept of eternal life and living in God’s new creation.
Now, one of the people who had something to say about such times was the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. And in an earlier prophecy, Isaiah talked about the coming of God’s kingdom; about what that kingdom would be like; about the fact that we need to capture God’s vision; and that the test of any true believer would be that they would be active and have an urgency in helping to bring about God’s plan. And that, of course, is a challenge and a task for all of us.
However, that was only one of Isaiah’s prophecies about the end times. And with a focus still on the second coming of Christ, today we come face to face with a second prophecy from Isaiah, which continues that same theme.
This time, however, the focus is not so much upon the end times themselves. This time, the emphasis is more on the person who is at the centre of it—the person that everything revolves around.
Now, in Isaiah’s day, their world was very corrupt. People had no time for God, and corruption was rife at the very top. As a consequence, people needed rescuing. They needed a message of hope. And whereas a vision of the future was important, a vision of a good, strong and powerful leader was what they needed to give them real hope.
Sound familiar? After all, don’t we live in a world where people have little time for God? And aren’t we constantly hearing about corruption, particularly at the top? And isn’t what most people need: a good, strong and powerful leader?
And so the words that God gave Isaiah, to speak to his people then, may be very appropriate to us now. And in addition they give us yet another reason to want to capture and adopt his plan.
B. THE MESSIANIC KINGDOM
1. The Future King (1-5)
Now in his prophecy, Isaiah described the Messiah in a number of ways.
a). The Messiah: At the Centre (1)
First of all, Isaiah made the point that when God’s new creation is established, the Messiah will be right at the centre. Yes, somehow, historically, he will be a descendant of King David. But this Messiah will be set up in the centre of God’s kingdom, and he will be the central focus of everything that goes on. Everything will point to him, and he will be involved in everything. Indeed, whether we think in physical or spiritual terms, the image is that there won’t be one thing to which the Messiah won’t be at the centre.
b). The Messiah: The Greatest King (2)
The second thing about the Messiah is, according to Isaiah, that he will be far superior to any other leader than have gone before. In other words, when we think of some of the good and great leaders that this world has ever known—with the talents and abilities that they have demonstrated—well, the Messiah at the centre of God’s kingdom will have all of those. But not just in the measures that we have seen. But he will have them in ways far superior than we have ever seen or imagined. And he will have all sorts of other gifts and talents, as well.
Further, for Isaiah, this isn’t just going to be a political Messiah—someone who will rule his kingdom, in the way that people usually think of a king ruling. But his kingship will have a very spiritual focus. And he will be as concerned as much with maintaining and growing our relationship with the creator, than he is with the nuts and bolts of maintaining physical life.
c). The Messiah: The Bringer of Truth (3)
Now, the third thing, Isaiah said, about the Messiah, is that the ‘Truth’ will be a central focus of his work. He will introduce a time when half-truths, white lies, and out and out lies will no longer have any place. And it will be a time when only the whole truth will reign.
In fact, the Messiah will have the ability not only to distinguish between fact and fiction, but he will also be able to discern the inner motives of people—the reasons why people do certain things. Nothing will be hidden from him at all in this new kingdom.
d). The Messiah: The Righter of Wrongs (4)
Fourthly, the Messiah will bring in a time where every grievance ever known will be heard. And he will mete out justice personally—without favour—to those who have been wronged. And he will not hesitate to inflict the severest penalties on the perpetrators when necessary.
Not for the Messiah the idea of whether people can afford justice or not. Not for the Messiah, even, only helping the poor. But he will bring in true justice—without favour—simply based on whether an injustice has occurred or not.
And with this, we need to remember that the Messiah will be concerned with spiritual, as well as other matters. So his justice will also include injustices that have been done to God as well as to other people.
e). The Messiah: With a Focus on Justice and Good Order (5)
And then, fifthly, according to Isaiah, the Messiah’s whole office will be directed towards maintaining God’s kingdom, with its emphasis on justice and good order. And that includes . . .
2. The Future Age (6-9)
. . . ruling a world, where:
Divine power and blessing will be given to all people found worthy to share in God’s kingdom. And that will have a flow on affect to all other orders of life.
The inauguration of a new peaceful world order. Symbolised by the fact that even wild animals will become tame and harmless—and be able to live in tranquillity with domestic animals.
And it will be a world, where even the weakest and most vulnerable people (in this world) will have nothing to fear.
And that will be the result of the Messiah being at the centre, and bringing in a new world and a new order.
3. The Future Homeland (10)
. . . And it will be a time when God’s people, who are currently scattered around the globe, will be brought together to enjoy God’s presence. And to enjoy, and participate, fully in his kingdom.
Now, I think that’s quite a picture—that’s quite a vision. But yet it’s another piece of the puzzle about the end times that God has given us that we need to get excited about; that we need to adopt for ourselves; that we need to live life as though we want it to come about; and that we need to live life as though we want it to come about, NOW! And when you think about it, why wouldn’t we?
Well, I can think of only one reason. And that is, that we haven’t really accepted the Messiah for ourselves at all. And if that’s true, then that’s sad. Because if that’s true, then apart from the judgement aspect itself (and that will then take on a whole new scarier outlook), all those things we’ve just described we will miss out on. But then, we will not be enjoying the benefits of a relationship with God today either.
And there are plenty of benefits that we can enjoy today.
Because if Jesus, the Messiah, the descendant of King David, has already come to the world once., then there are aspects of this prophecy we can experience now (in part), and that we don’t have to wait until the end.
1. Jesus: At the Centre
Because if we can accept Jesus as the focus of our lives now—to which all else revolves—well, what that means is that even now we can enjoy a life where Jesus is at the centre. We can enjoy his love and his peace; we can enjoy his leadership and guidance; we can enjoy his presence and his prayers; and we can be confident that we will—no doubt about it—be one of those people that God finds acceptable and gets invited to join in his newly made kingdom.
2. Jesus: The Greatest King
If we accept Jesus as our great king now, then we can also take advantage of the fact that the Messiah isn’t someone who will only, at the end, have all sorts of gifts and talents available for his use. But that he actually has those gifts and talents available for his use now.
So, when things get rough, when things go wrong, and when things get beyond our own ability to help ourselves—and we need someone with all the supernatural skills they have at their disposal—if we have accepted Jesus, then we have a relationship with the one person who can help us now. And we don’t have to wait until the end of the world for his help.
Nothing is impossible with God. And, as believers, we can expect the unexpected, from Jesus, even today.
3. Jesus: The Bringer of Truth
If we accept that Jesus knows the truth from lies, then, in a world of fact and fiction—where it’s hard for us to always work out people’s motives and reasons, and where we need some guidance lest we walk the wrong path too—then that is something that Jesus can help us with today as well. And he’s actually already given us a number of tools we can use.
We have been given the bible—stories of people where fact and fiction often got mixed up, but where the truth becomes very evident. We have the Christian community—people who can help guide, from their own spiritual experience, and help direct us to which is the right path and which is the wrong. We have prayer—a direct means of communicating with God himself; a direct means of finding the truth. And we have the Holy Spirit—who comes and dwells in every believer—and whose job it is to guide and to bring truth.
4. Jesus: The Righter of Wrongs
If we accept Jesus as the central focus of our life now, we can rest assured that in God’s timing, not ours, any injustice that we have suffered, or are still suffering, will be righted.
With Jesus as our king, now, we don’t need to dwell on revenge, or the other person getting their due. We don’t need to. We can just let it go, knowing that, in the end, God’s justice will prevail. And that whatever it was, and whoever was the perpetrator, at some stage in time, that person will be asked to account for their actions and will be asked to pay for what they did.
Of course, the other side of this is the injustices that we’ve done—whether they have been done to others, or God himself. But with Jesus as our judge, we can live with the fact that although we will need to account for all the things we’ve done wrong too, that we can rest easy knowing that our judge is the same person who suffered horribly on our behalf for our mistakes. And, as a consequence, no further penalty will be required.
5. Jesus: With a Focus on Justice and Good Order
And, finally, if we accept that Jesus is the one who will inaugurate and ensure the eternal existence of paradise, we can live, even today, not only with the idea of Paradise being just a future event, but that in some way, even in only a spiritual way—because of all these things—we can actually experience Paradise now.
With Jesus at the centre of our lives, we can live in peace with the world now, knowing that everything has, or will be dealt with. That nothing will be overlooked—and there’s nothing for us to do. That is, nothing but to capture God’s vision, and be active, and active NOW in helping to bring it about.
For many people, thinking about the next life—or even our own mortality—may not be something they like to think about. And many may even choose to leave those sorts of thoughts (and consequent decisions) to another time.
Unfortunately, the prophecies of Isaiah—the words God gave Isaiah to share—do not allow for that kind of thinking. Isaiah’s emphasis is very much on the need for us all to capture God’s vision of the future; to be very active in working towards that vision; and not to delay, in any way, trying to hasten in the day when that vision becomes a reality.
Isaiah’s prophecies were given to a people whose world was very corrupt. As a consequence, they were intended to give the people hope. However, Isaiah wasn’t a man who told nice stories, just so that people could feel better about themselves. No! He told them the words God gave him to say, so that they could capture something of what God had planned; and so they could run with those visions themselves. And, in the same way, we are required to capture and run with those visions too.
Now for those who have accepted Jesus in this world, the words of Isaiah’s prophecy should be very comforting. But not so for those who haven’t really accepted Jesus at all.
So have we captured God’s vision? And are we active in working out that vision? Because that is the real challenge behind not only Isaiah’s previous prophecy, but behind this other prophecy too.
Posted: 3rd September 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: Making A Godly Decision (Isaiah 40:21-31)
1. Decision Making
Every now and again we all face turning points in our lives—ones that requires major decisions. It might involve something to do with education, and the decision about which stream to take. It might involve employment, and what kind of career to pursue. It might involve having a partner, and the decision about whether to commit or not. In addition, there is housing, children, retirement, etc., etc., all of which require major decisions which may require drastic changes to our way of life.
Of course with all these major turning points in life, in order to make a decision, you need a certain amount of information. You need to ask questions so that you can make an informed decision. And those questions can be about both facts and opinions. And they can be asked of a friend, a family member, a neighbour, an expert in a particular field, and even of God himself. But only when all the information is in, can a proper decision be made.
Some decisions will be easy and others difficult. But procrastination, and non-decision can be just as bad as the wrong decision—and can lead us down the completely wrong path.
Unfortunately, in asking questions—in gathering the information we need—we may not always get answers with which we are comfortable. However, if our decisions are to be the right ones, not only do we need to ask the right questions, but we need to have the courage of our convictions too. And that is despite the fact that the right decision may well make us very uncomfortable indeed.
So, how do we make our decisions? Do we tend to get all the facts together first, or are we happy with only a limited amount of detail? And when we do have all the facts, what do we then do with the ones that suggest that we should make ourselves uncomfortable? And where does God fit in to our decision-making processes?
2. The Exiles
Now to consider some of these questions, I’d like to refer to the passage from Isaiah. Because it’s a passage which has as its background a picture of God’s people who had found that what God had asked of them was too much. In fact, it made them so uncomfortable they decided to take another path. God wanted his people to put him first, but it was not a concept that the people found easy. So they made a decision on which way to go in life—and it just happened to be the wrong one. And as a consequence of making the wrong decision, they had to live with the consequences.
And the consequences of their wrong decision were two-fold. Firstly, they were taken captives to a foreign land; they were split up from their families, homes, and the things they loved. And, secondly, being a long way from home, they felt terribly abandoned by God (and that is despite the fact that they had abandoned him). In other words, faced with the major decision of whether to follow God or not, they made the wrong decision. And they consequently had to live with the consequences.
Having said that, however, they came to realise their predicament. And as a consequence, they started the process of decision making all over again. They began to ask questions all over again—to gather data. And having adapted themselves to the local way of thinking, their questions began at a very basic level.
B. TWO QUESTIONS
1. Is God Just One of Many Gods?
Because the very first question they asked was: “Is God just one of a number of gods? And if so, in contrast to others, how powerful was he?”
Yet to that question, they received an answer through the prophet Isaiah. And although Isaiah provided no new information, he repeated the things that they should have already known, because the character of God had been passed down from ancient times (21).
Indeed, God was not just A creator, but THE creator (22). It was God alone who had created everything. He had designed, pre-planned, and knew everything from the beginning to the end. He alone was responsible for his creation and for the care of the world that he’d created.
And, yes, there were many others who claimed to be gods (23), but they were nothing in the scheme of things. Some of the rulers of the earth may have claimed divine status, but they were nothing—less than specks—in comparison with God.
The essential character of God, Isaiah claimed, was that he was holy. That was how he revealed himself to his people. In comparison, the so-called Babylonian gods may have been identified with the heavenly bodies, but the heavenly bodies were really only part of the created order, which had been assigned their proper and limited functions by God the creator himself.
The conclusion to the question about God, then—about whether he was just one of many, and how powerful he really was—was that God was the absolute power over the whole universe. Indeed, he was the sole creator, for all of creation was confined to the activity of the one God.
And, having received that reply, which simply restated what they should already have known, one could easily have expected that God’s people—facing this point in their lives—would simply make the decision to follow God. To re-commit themselves to God, and, at the very least, to reinstate their past worshipping practices. However, like all decision makers, getting the facts right does not necessarily mean they were willing or ready to make the right decision.
They were still uncomfortable with the decision they should logically have made. So, in this case, rather than make a decision at all, they hesitated. They then added a further question, aimed at blaming God rather than themselves for their predicament.
3. Or, Is It That God Is Unwilling to Help?
OK they said, if God is the only god—which they were inclined to believe—then was it that God was unable to help them in their predicament, or was it that God was just unwilling to do so?
In other words, having been reminded of the past regarding God the creator, they recalled that God had made certain promises to their ancestors, about making them a great nation etc, etc. And they pointed out that, in their current predicament, God was actually ignoring their rightful claim to the fulfilment of those promises.
The issue, therefore, was that either God was deliberately refusing to see the fate of the exiles (27), or that he had so confused his people that they had lost their way.
And in that question, not only did they seek to blame God for their situation, but they seemed to have conveniently forgotten the whole reason they were exiled in the first place. That is, because that they had turned their backs on God, which is why he could no longer offer them his protection. Indeed, it was they who needed to repent and turn back to God, not the other way around.
Despite that, however, the prophet Isaiah, again, came to their rescue. But he did not offer anything new in this second answer either. He simply answered by appealing to the things they should already have known:
That God was an everlasting God (28); that his controlling activity extended throughout all time—past, present and future. That God’s power was equally unlimited in space. And if that was part of who God was, how could he possibly grow tired or weary? On the contrary the human mind was far too small to comprehend God’s mind or judge his intentions. Yes, God would act, but only at the appropriate time.
He reminded them of their history, and that that God had rescued individuals, and the people in general, many times in the past (29). And as a consequence he could be expected to do so again.
He reminded them that there was a huge contrast between the frailty and unaided human strength at its best (30-31), and the strength which God gives—and would give—to those who wait for the Lord. All they needed to do was to wait, with confident expectation and trust.
So in conclusion to the question of whether God was unwilling to help, the answer was that they needed to have faith, they needed to trust God. And if they did that, even in old age, it would be like they could grow wings and fly.
Of course the sad thing is that even having been reminded of who God was and what he used to mean to them, did not necessarily mean that even then they would make the right decision.
However faced with the dilemma—this point in their lives—they had sought out the answers to their questions, and in response they received some facts from Isaiah (facts they should have already known). And so they were now in a perfect position to make their decision.
So what this passage provides, then, is an example of the sort of processes that we can go through when we have to make one of those big life-changing decisions.
Because it reminds us of the need to get answers to our questions, in order to make the right decision. It reminds us that many of the facts that we may need to consider may well be already known to us. It also reminds us that many of the answers might make us feel uncomfortable.
However it also reminds us of what can happen if we make the wrong decision—that we will need to live with the consequences
In regard to our own decision-making processes then:
1. Asking and Listening
Firstly, when we ask questions of people, as well as of God, we need to make sure we are willing to listen to the answers. Because it’s no good dismissing some of the facts, simply because they make us feel uncomfortable.
For example, if we want God to guide us for the future, it’s no good putting limits and restrictions on the things we’re prepared to hear, because there are some things we are simply not prepared to do. Rather we need to be willing to hear every word, and have our hearts open to the things that God has to say.
2. Decision and Action
Secondly, when we’ve got all the facts together, it’s decision time. And no amount of indecision or prevaricating will make that decision any easier.
And in the context of following God, we need to look at the facts. We need to look at the things that he is asking us to do and the places he wants us to go. And we need to make the right decision.
Now, obviously taking any new track is likely to make us feel uncomfortable. And going along the path that God calls us to walk on will usually mean we will get very uncomfortable indeed. But we need to have the courage of our convictions. Because any decision making is pointless, if we deliberately choose the wrong way, or if we agree to something in theory and then refuse to put it into practice.
3. Living with the Consequences
And, thirdly, whatever decision we make, we need to understand that we have to live with the consequences. And it isn’t good enough to blame others, or blame God, for the poor choices that we make.
But in regard to any spiritual decision:
If our decision is to agree to do whatever God asks—whether we’ve done it before or not, and no matter how challenging or what others might think (and that can pretty uncomfortable)—the reward will be great blessings.
But if we decide to go down a different path—a path we think we can cope with, a path that is more acceptable to us and to others, a path that provides no real spiritual challenges—then we have to be prepared to live with the consequences.
After all, the Israelites maintained a deaf ear to the things they were uncomfortable with. They knew the answers, because all Isaiah had to do was to remind them of the things they should have known. The Israelites’ problem was that they were just unwilling to put their convictions into practice. Indeed, they preferred to blame God rather than themselves. And we have to make sure that we don’t end up doing the same thing too.
Now we all have to make decisions in life—and many of them. And part of the decision-making process is the need to gather all the facts in order to make the right decisions. But being willing to ask questions is one thing, being willing to act on the answers provided is another thing altogether.
So when we have a decision for the future to make—and it will different for each of us—it may be helpful to have the Israelites in the back of our minds. They were supposed to be the people of God. However in reality they fell far short of the mark. They made the wrong decision. They knew the answers but were frightened of making the right decision. They knew what to do, but they found it more comfortable doing something else. And as a consequence, they looked around for someone to blame for their own poor decision making.
So, yes, we can learn from their (poor) example. Because it’s not a picture that we should want anyone to repeat.
Posted: 20th March 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: A Message of Hope (Isaiah 43:18-25)
We all go through periods of not feeling good about ourselves. Indeed, things go wrong for one reason or another. And sometimes we only have only ourselves to blame. And other times . . . well it can seem that somebody has got it in for us.
Life isn’t always easy. We lose our way. And sometimes it can seem to be one thing after another—where bit by bit we lose the people or things around us, and piece by piece our lives seem to be fall apart.
At such times, even God may seem to be distant. It’s as though he’s taken a step back and allowed things to happen, or even is the instigator of our dilemma. It’s as though he no longer cares. And so we become lost, floundering, in need of a big boost. And all we can think of are happier times. The simpler days, when life was rosy, when everything was good, and the times when it seemed we never had a problem in the world.
Sound familiar? Well, if it does, you’re not alone. Because this Old Testament passage from Isaiah records a message to a group of people who fit precisely the description that I’ve outlined.
Only in their case, they were miles away from home—having been carted away by an invading army. They’d been physically separated from their families, their friends, and even their possessions, with no hope of returning. It seemed to them that God had deserted them. And indeed, maybe it wasn’t that God had just turned his back, but that he was the instigator of their misery. It was like he didn’t care—or that they were getting what they deserved. And, as a consequence, the people were longing for the good times—for the times when everything was rosy. And so they kept bringing up all the great things that God had done for them in the past, hoping that things would get better.
Going through a bad time? Well, rest assured that you are not alone. Furthermore, the same message that was intended to give God’s people in the past hope, may well do the same again now. Because this passage from Isaiah is not a passage of doom and gloom, but one that gave advice and encouragement to a people who were feeling very down. And if it was appropriate for God’s people in exile to hear that, then how much more so, should it be appropriate for us to hear it too.
B. THE MESSAGE OF ISAIAH
Now, God’s message (as recorded by Isaiah) comes in three parts.
1. The Need To Live In Hope (18-21)
Firstly, that no matter how down and discouraged the people were feeling, the people should not dwell on the glory of the past. Not because what they were thinking about was bad. On the contrary, recalling what God had done for his people was a very healthy thing. However, they were stuck there. And so this message to the people, therefore, was one of hope. Because what God was about to do, would make all the past events pale into insignificance.
Yes, the former things that they were thinking of were great events. The way God had rescued his people from Egypt; how they had crossed the Red Sea; how God had provided food and water in the desert; how he’d protected them from their enemies; and how he’d given them the promised land. They were all good positive things.
And then there were the Judges that he gave them to keep them on track. And the prophets that followed, including prophets like Elijah—Elijah, who God used in even raising the widow’s son back from the dead. Yes, all these (and more) were great events. And they brought some consolation in their current distress.
But they were nothing to what God was going to do next for his people.
Instead on looking at the past, God suggested, the people should look forward to what he was going to do next. That he was going to rescue his people and bring them home. But not just home in a physical sense—returning them to their own country—but rescue them in a spiritual sense too, where their relationship with God would be restored.
A new age would be heralded, where the world would be put right. And the whole of creation would be involved in giving glory to its creator. And God’s people would surround him and offer praise. Images of heaven indeed.
2. The Need To Acknowledge Our Own Faults (22-24)
Secondly, and this might seem harsh, but God suggested that although they might wish to blame others for their predicament, even God himself, they shouldn’t consider themselves to be totally blameless for the situation that they found themselves in.
And here we need to understand the nature of sin—in biblical terms—as having both an individual, and a community basis. Because here they were languishing in a foreign country, miles from home, and all they could do was blame God for their situation. And as far as they were concerned none of their predicament was self-inflicted.
However, as God pointed out, the reason that they were in that dilemma at all was because they had failed him. As individuals, and as a community they had put themselves before him. They had even directed their worship away from him to other things. And therefore, if they couldn’t be loyal to him, how could they simply expect God to turn a blind eye?
Far from their situation being undeserved, they were only experiencing what they were due—the punishment that they deserved. However, their predicament was not simply a means to punish them—his so-called followers—for their neglect of him. Rather its purpose was to shake them out of their complacency about their spiritual condition, and get them to return to a relationship with him.
And God wanted to make this point very clear. It’s not that the people as a whole didn’t offer worship to God. They did. And they even offered all the correct sacrifices, and whatever else was expected of them. But they did it name only; their hearts weren’t in it. They were just going through the motions. And as a consequence, their worship never reached him, because it had been offered by a people incapable, through its sinfulness, of acceptable worship.
On the one hand they had expected God to be at their beck and call. But when it came to the other way around, they had not been interested in devoting their lives to God at all.
3. To Remember Forgiveness Is Part of God’s Nature (25)
And the third thing that God suggested, was that no matter what their failings, despite all that they had done or not done, despite all they had gone through, he wanted to forgive them anyway.
Now in previous incidents, the emphasis on God’s forgiveness had come, mainly, out of a need to maintain his own reputation and glory. After all, God may have had many reasons to wipe his hands of his people, through their rejection of him. But what would that action have said to the surrounding nations, who believed that their so-called ‘gods’ were much more powerful. But in this case, it’s different. There’s no hint that God wanted to restore his people because of his own sake. Indeed, God’s readiness to forgive people this time, seems to proceed simply from the fact that it was in his nature to want to forgive. In other words, God’s people could take heart, that whatever had happened, whatever they had done (or not done), God was a forgiving God—a God who cared, even when his own people had let him down so badly.
Isaiah’s recording of God’s message of hope then, comes in three parts—to a people who were lost, far from home, with no hope, and where all they could do was to look at the glorious past. Indeed, this message would have been a very welcome blast of fresh air. And if it was relevant to the exiles of Isaiah’s day, then so too should it be relevant to us today.
1. The Need To Live In Hope
Because, firstly, we too need to remember not to dwell on the things of the past—even the positive things. Because no matter what great things God has done, what comes next will make the past pale into insignificance. When we’re down, when we’ve lost direction and hope, even though it’s probably natural to look back, we need to learn to keep our eyes focussed on the future, and on the promises of God.
Of course, each of us might like to recall the things that God has done for us personally, in addition to the things that he has done for the faithful of the past. But we need to learn to be people who live in hope, who have something to look forward to, rather than get stuck even in the glories of the past.
And in that, we have an advantage over the people of Isaiah’s day. Because they were given only a glimpse of the things to come. However, with the later birth of God’s son in the world—whose very nature encapsulates the hope to which the message in Isaiah was pointing—we should be much more sure of the future and what God has planned for us. It should be much easier then to accept that what God has done for us in the past is nothing to what he will do in the future.
2. We Need to Acknowledge Our Own Faults (22-24)
Secondly, we need to remember, that no-one is entirely innocent, and that it is no use trying to place the blame entirely on others—or even God—for our predicament. Paul, writing to the Roman church said, ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23).
Whatever our predicament is, whatever we are going through, we need, at least, to examine that in some small way that we may in some way be to blame.
(Having said that, remember that although God’s people were sent into exile—in a sense as a punishment they deserved—God’s motivation was, rather, that the people should be shaken out of their complacency and restored to a full relationship with him.)
When we are going through a rough time, it is, therefore, a good time to stop and think of our own relationship with God—and whether we need to be shaken out of our complacency where he is concerned. And not just in regard to our individual sins—the things that we do or don’t do as an individual—but in the part we play, the responsibilities that each of us has as members of a community, a nation, and an international community as well.
3. Forgiveness Is Part of the Nature of God (25)
And thirdly, we need to remember that despite everything, God is a forgiving God. No matter what we’ve done—as individuals or as a community—he is only too willing to restore us to new life. Forgiveness is in God’s nature. It’s part of who he is.
Now it is true, that some people feel as though they’ve been too bad to be forgiven. That what they’ve done in the past is too horrible for anyone, even God, to forgive. However, the sin that God accused his people of committing was that of neglecting God and serving others—and just going through the motions regarding God himself, of expecting him to be a puppet, but without any personal commitment in return.
Now I ask you, could there be any worse sin? And yet even that God was willing to forgive, if only his people would turn and embrace a full relationship with him again.
When things go wrong, and they do for all of us, then, we can lose our way, we can feel as though God is very distant, and we may resort to thinking of better times. And those three things are the same things that God’s people were feeling when God responded in the days of Isaiah, in a real and positive way.
But the solution to the problem, the prophet Isaiah records is threefold. We need to concentrate not on what God has done in the past, but on the promises of God for the future. We need to acknowledge that even in some way we may be in the wrong, and we need to stop blaming others—even God himself—for our predicament. And we need to hold on to the fact, that no matter what we’ve done, God wants to forgive. All we need to do is to pursue a relationship with him, and let him forgive.
Three things that if we take seriously should give us hope in even the most traumatic periods of life.
Posted: 9th September 2021
© 2021, Brian A Curtis