Sunday, 27 December 2015

Daily Reading: Isaiah 40v1-5 'Christmas: Promised messenger'

Imagine that on every single channel on the radio and TV there is a news flash. There is the black door with the gold Number 10 and stood in front of it is the Prime Minister, with the cabinet behind him.

He steps to the microphones; “Thank you for coming this afternoon, my government and I have an important announcement regarding our future as a country. For too long we have been trying sticking plaster solutions to the problems we face, rushing from temporary solution to temporary solution both at home and abroad, both in foreign and in economic policy. We have relied on our allies, our intelligence, our reasoning, our past, but it has become increasingly apparent that we can do so no longer. As a government we have decided we cannot solve these problems, no government can, no alliance or deal can.

And so this morning we ask you the people of Britain to join with us in prayer. Not a vague prayer to a God we do not know, but a prayer to the almighty God of heaven. We ask you to join with us in confessing and asking forgiveness for our stubborn foolish determination to trust in everything but him and cry out to him to save us because he is our only hope.”

How would you react? What would the headlines be the next day in the newspapers, on the news channels and so on?

That is the call Isaiah makes to Judah’s King, Hezekiah. Judah is in crisis economically and militarily. It is the small child stuck between the two posturing playground bullies of Assyria and Egypt. What should Judah do? What should the king do?

Hezekiah’s advisors keep telling him to make politically astute deals. But Isaiah says ‘Trust God not men’ And the king flits between the two, he’s a bit like us sometimes trusting God and standing for him, but at other times giving in to the pressure of those around him and trusting men and alliances not God. In ch37 he trusts God and the city is miraculously saved, but in ch39 he forgets God and trusts in alliances, and God warns Judah they face exile. They will be defeated in battle, the city ruined and the people carried far away to serve a foreign king.

Can you imagine how Judah felt? Exile. What about God’s promises? What about the promises to Abraham of a place, people, protection, and God’s big plan to bless all nations? This is the end of everything! There was a real danger that Israel would despair. How can you trust God when it seems hopeless? How can you trust God when it looks like his promises have failed?

That’s what this chapter addresses, how to have hope in despair, and it is hope founded on understanding who God is. God’s promises haven’t failed because he sends Judah into exile, in fact he is being faithful to them.

I want you to imagine you have been told not to do something. What happens if you do it and get caught? You get punished? Why? Is it that your parents are mean? No, it’s that they want you to learn what to do and what not to do, they want you to be safe and live life at its best. Discipline is the result of love. And good parents keep their word – break the rule face punishment.

God as he sends Israel into exile is lovingly punishing them because he wants them to realise trusting and worshipping anything other than him is wrong and dangerous, he wants to save them from an even greater danger. But there is hope because he says he is not done with Judah yet! (1-2)He speaks comfort to them; that is what these verses are, an encouragement. And look at what he calls them – what does he calls Judah? “my people”. And (2)the comfort is that Israel’s sins have been paid for, she has received double. Now that doesn’t mean she has been punished twice as much as she deserves, but she has been punished the exact double, the mirror image, of her sins, in other words God is satisfied. Here is comfort people can come back to God with their sin paid for.

But how? God can’t just sweep sin under the carpet, or put it in the bottom of the cupboard. And exile doesn’t atone for sin, only a perfect offering can do that. So how?

Israel knew that they couldn’t deal with sin, they knew that all the sacrifices in the world couldn’t stop them sinning or make them right with God. All through the bible there had been hints at a bigger, grander, bolder plan; God’s plan to bless all nations, a serpent crusher, a ruler who would be the lion of Judah, the exile ender, the shepherd king. Now (3)we get another piece of the puzzle – a voice - would come and tell them to get ready for something that had never happened before.

Look at (3)whose coming does the voice get them ready for? It is the ‘LORD’, Yahweh, God himself will come to his people. God isn’t just going to speak through a prophet, he isn’t just sending a message through his messenger. This messenger comes to get people ready for God himself to come.

Can you imagine the excitement if the Queen was coming to church next Sunday? People would come and get us ready, tell us how to stand, where to line up, how to bow and curtsey, what to say and so on.

Well this ‘voice’ comes to get people ready for God to come and live among them!

But if you were an Israelite God’s coming would be both exciting and scary, because of sin, sin kept on being a problem and God hates sin. It’s why Israel go into exile, because God is holy and Israel isn’t. The bible tells us we have the same problem, sin is in our hearts, and it always separates us from God, it breaks our relationship with him and leaves us facing his right anger and judgement. We need to be ready if we are ever to meet God, but how do you get ready to meet God? The great news is God acts, God loves, God comes down to deal with just that problem.

I wonder if you’ve seen ‘The Voice’; 4 judges listen to people sing and then decide if they want them or not. The twist is the judges can’t see the contestants they can only hear their voice and they can only choose so many on their team. They listen carefully for the next voice, is this the voice that will win the competition, sell records and so on.

By Matthew’s time Israel have been waiting to hear the voice for nearly eight hundred years. Turn to Matthew 3, after the nativity, the magi, the escape to Egypt and the return, Matthew fast forwards a 30 years and records these events:

“In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the wilderness of Judea and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near. This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah:
“A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
Prepare the way for the Lord,
Make straight oaths for him.”

The voice is here says Matthew. The one who comes to get people ready for God’s coming is here. And the crowds flock to see John, they have been waiting hundreds of years for the voice to come because they know it means the Messiah is coming next. God himself is coming and sin will be dealt with.

How does he get them ready? He tells them to repent – to stop trusting and living for themselves, to stop running from God, and trying to find meaning in life themselves and instead to ask God’s forgiveness and run to him for meaning and joy. People listen to him and turn to God, they look for the Messiah to come.

And (13)”Then Jesus came from Galilee” and John identifies him as the one, the Messiah, God come, and so does God at Jesus’ baptism. John has called people to repent but he can’t pay for their sin, he can’t atone for it, he points them to one who is coming to do that for them. Jesus comes to seek the lost and wandering, to show people a tantalising glimpse of the kingdom, and to bring people into the kingdom by dying in their place and rising again having conquered sin.

But just flick back to Isaiah 40:5 Jesus doesn’t just come for Israelites, Jesus isn’t just their hope, he is the hope of the nations. He comes to save all nations from sin, to make us God’s people in God’s place, under his protection, enjoying and awaiting his plan.

Isaiah says know God and trust God. Only God can deal with our biggest need, our biggest problem. Only God in Jesus comes to solve the problem of sin, “he was pierced for our transgressions... the punishment that bought us peace was on him...”

As you look back on this last year who have you trusted? If we are honest we have to say how like Hezekiah and Judah we are – we switch from trusting God to trusting ourselves, from faith to trusting in our intelligence, or ability to provide for ourselves. God lovingly calls us again this morning to know him, to enjoy his rule, to experience his comfort, to trust him. Our loving Father waits, calling us to return to him, and he has done everything possible to enable us to return to him. He calls us to recognise how utterly ridiculous it is not to trust him with our lives when we see him in all his power and in his love, a love so for us that sometimes he disciplines us to show us our danger and bring us back to reliance on him.

As we look forward to this year I don’t want to make you panic but I do want you to be aware you and I have no idea where we will be twelve months from now. Our sense of being in control is an illusion, our idea of being able to determine our future is a sham. We have no idea what the next year holds, you only have to look back on the past year to realise that. But we don’t need to panic, shut down, stockpile food, or find a nice corner to sit and rock in. Because we know the God who promises us he is our comfort, who comes in Jesus to make us right with him and enable us to live enjoying and knowing him. Our reality is defined by God in love becoming man to bring us back to God, not our ability, or intelligence or circumstance. We know the God who is the Alpha and Omega who knows the beginning, the middle and the end and he is for us and will one day come back for us.

Trusting God in Jesus is not just a one off decision, it is a day by day, moment by moment reality that keeps a grip on the sovereignty of God and his love and grace shown us in God the Son and the present experience of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Trusting God is not vague but is seen in the way we make decisions, the way we view and use our possessions, the way we give away money generously, the way we love others, the grace we extend to people when they fail, the way we cling to God in crisis, in grief, in insecurity, and praise and thank him when we experience blessing, both the everyday and the extraordinary.

God is our hope. It is seen in our praying, our living, our loving, our repenting, our confessing, our relying. Because we realise God is for us, his plans for us are bigger and better than anything we can imagine or accomplish and we trust him secure in Christ and filled with the Spirit.  Sit and read Isaiah 40:27-31 and then turn it into prayer.

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