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Do you ever remember being out on a journey and it gradually dawn on you that you weren't entirely sure where you were? Maybe it was a trip out in the countryside or a walk in the hills; or maybe it happened to you when you were driving to a rendezvous and you just didn't recognise anything at all and the clock kept on ticking.
If you have then you've probably noticed that you had a change in your emotions too. The walk in the countryside was so pleasant, so enjoyable when you started out but then light was beginning to fade and you didn't know how to make it home. The joys of earlier in the day gave way to anxiety and perhaps fear. You didn't even have to be very far off track either for pleasure to be replaced by worry – I can think of one specific incident when I was a kid, maybe you can too.
The same sort of thing can happen to us in our spiritual lives. Perhaps when we began following Jesus everything was enjoyable – the sun seemed to be always shining on us – but somewhere along the way things began to change. We might not have noticed anything at the beginning but now we most certainly do. The sun doesn't seem to shine on us anymore and we're not sure which is the way forward for us.
Can our joy ever be restored to us? Will it be possible for us to find which way to go? Or is this it – are condemned to go through life trudging wearily along having within us a heavy heart?
These are some of the issues that are addressed in the section of Isaiah that we are looking at together this evening. So let's get started!
Israel's Faulty Compass vv.22-
Speaking through his prophet Isaiah the LORD spoke to the people of Israel and has a reproach for them and it is a reproach that is directly related to their religious life.
At first sight it might that Israel is being reprimanded for a failure to carry out the necessary religious practices that are mentioned in these verses. It might appear that they had stopped the rituals of prayer and of offering sacrifices and burnt offerings and that it was because of this failure that the people of Israel had got themselves into a mess.
This sort of conclusion might be tempting but it would also be a wrong conclusion to draw!
There is no period in the pre-
No, the reproach is not to be found in the absence of such religious practice but in the way such practices were being carried out!
Israel was proud of her religion and her religious rituals but in her pride had lost sight of what it was really all for.
Let me explain what I mean.
The LORD had freely chosen his people out of the mass of sinful humanity, graciously providing a way for them to return to him and to enjoy a happy and harmonious relationship with him. The obstacle to enjoying such a relationship was sin and for this the LORD provided his own solution. The religion that the LORD intended (and intends) for his people is all about joyful return to the Living God. The sacrifices and other rituals were about restoring men and women to the enjoyment of a restored relationship with God.
So what was Israel's problem? Israel had lost sight of this purpose and instead focussed upon the rituals and ended up with an endless repetitious round of simply doing religious things.
The LORD's criticism is not that the people offered no sacrifices but that they did not offer them TO HIM!
Israel's situation was a confused one. At one and the same time Israel was proud of her religion and wearied by it. This was not the LORD's fault but was due to the misuse of what God had graciously given by the Israelites. And so they succeeded in turning the good things that God had given to them into a religion that wearied them and which wearied God; which burdened them and which burdened God.
Do you see that in vv.23-
A Danger for Evangelicals
The problem that Israel's experienced is one to which evangelical, Bible believing Christians are particularly exposed. Believing the Bible to be God's infallible word means that we want to take the Bible and its teachings seriously and that will inevitably include its instructions and its commands.
However we must take care not to allow our understanding of Christianity to degenerate into a system of theological thinking that centres upon our religious practice. If we do we will have forgotten why there is a Christianity at all! Christianity does not exist in order to furnish men and women with a few blessed thoughts and a lovely set of religious ceremonies and duties to perform. Christianity exists to bring us to God!
1Pet.3:18 "For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God."
Indeed the message that God reveals throughout the Bible is that men, by God's grace, can know God and that God in his love wants them to know him!
The situation that Paul was addressing when he wrote his letter to the Galatians was in some ways similar to the Israelites of Isaiah's day – they had begun well but taken a wrong turning and they were focussing not on God but upon what they themselves could do.
If the goal and purpose of man is to know God and if Christianity is the God-
Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.
It wasn't that the Israelites didn't have sacrifices and burnt offerings, it was that they failed to present them to the LORD. They turned a religious practice that was designed to bring them directly to God into a religious practice that was complete in itself. They had their religious practices but they had allowed them to become ends in themselves.
Now, how might we slide into similar failure if we are not careful?
We can attend, and do attend, meetings but why do we do so? Do we do so because we want to meet with God, because we expect to meet with God or do other reasons explain our presence?
God promises to meet with his people, Jesus promises to be present by his Spirit when his followers meet in his name. Our reaction to meetings should be akin to the psalmist who when invited:
Ps.122:1 "I was glad when they said to me, "Let us go to the house of the LORD!""
But I'll warrant that we have all at times attended not out of desire to meet with God but just because we always go, or because we want to see someone, or because we worry about what others might say.
If we allow our attendance to go on and on for a lesser reason than to meet with and delight in our God then we will probably find it becoming irksome, tiring and boring.
But it need not be like that!
We read our Bibles, we're evangelicals after all, but why do we do that? Why do we sometimes fear that our day won't go well because we've skipped our Quiet Time? Bible reading is a good thing if we desire to hear God speaking to us, if we want to learn more about our Glorious God; if we want him to tell us about our sins so that we can confess them and leave them; if we want to learn more about the plan of salvation and in particular the Saviour at the centre of it all… But you know it is possible to read simply to say to ourselves that we have done our duty!
We should not allow our Bible reading to degenerate into some arduous duty that is part of the price to pay if you want to be a Christian. No, Bible reading along with prayer is to be part and parcel of our living relationship with the Living God.
Do you remember how the Psalmist wrote glowingly of the Word of God?
Ps.119:97 "Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day."
Jesus saw the Scriptures as important not as some kind of duty but as essential for spiritual life and well-
Mt.4:4 "It is written, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.""
The problem comes for us when we turn a gift that God has designed to bring us into his presence and to foster our relationship with him into a duty that is somehow ours to perform. When we do that we turn from the purposes that God intends and we substitute religion for spiritual reality. We focus on us and on what we do and we leave God more or less out of the picture altogether.
God Revives his People 43:25-
What will the LORD do with the people who have perverted the good gifts he had entrusted them with? It's an important question for us too because we can so often be like them. If God gave up on them would we be able to hope for anything better?
Well it is comforting to discover that God in his mercy continued to speak with his people through Isaiah even though their failures had been a source of grief to him.
The reason is simple but oh so amazing! God loves his people and wants to have them share fellowship together with him. In the Bible study last Wednesday we thought a little about this. For those of you who were there do you remember how John put it?
1Jn.1:3 "so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ."
In order to put the revival process into active mode in his people the LORD begins by reminding them just who he is and how he has related to them.
He it is who has made fellowship possible by being the One who blots out their sins and who promises not to bring them to remembrance. In other words their relationship with him depends upon his gracious dealing with them and not upon anything else; certainly not upon any religious ritual they might have performed.
With this asserted he invites them, in a courtroom-
Once more the first chapter of John's letter picks up on the same themes when John writes:
The LORD has revealed sin to lie at the very centre of what Israel considered a strong point – her religious practice. But when the LORD reveals sin his normal purpose is not to crush us but so that he might wean us from it. And that is just what we find here in this instance.
Chapter 40 opens with a "but". Yes, Israel will soon suffer the deprivations and the humiliations of exile away from the Promised Land but this must not be interpreted as meaning that the LORD has changed towards them. The LORD had chosen them not for any qualities in them but freely as an act of his sovereign and gracious will – now, as this choice of them had not been dependent upon their performance so their poor performance will not determine his attitude to them now!
He reminds them that he knows their past – their failure symbolised by the use of the name Jacob. But he also knows the changes that his grace have brought about – Israel. And he graciously repeats his pledge to help his people!
Isn't that encouraging? Sometimes having become Christians we find that even as Christians we can be guilty of real and significant failure. At such times black thoughts can come in and we can wonder whether there is any hope left for us. The way in which the LORD dealt with his people then should be of help to us now in the troubles and failures of our own lives, even of our failures in those areas we consider to be our strengths!
Help is promised and blessing too.
Restoration is the theme and it is spoken of in terms of water, refreshing, satisfying, life promoting water! The Spirit is poured out and brings blessing to dry and parched lives in the dry and weary place to which their failures had brought them.
And when God is at work there are always consequences. Just note with me the consequences or results that flow from his gracious help and blessing:
v.5a "This one will say, ‘I am the LORD’s,’" ie. a renewed sense of belonging to the LORD.
v.5b "another will call on the name of Jacob," ie. a renewed reality in prayer and relationship with the LORD
v.5c "and another will write on his hand, ‘The LORD’s,’ and name himself by the name of Israel." Ie. a renewed readiness to witness openly and to identify with the church.
If your spiritual life has become dry and formal and you feel as though you're only going through the motions, then this passage brings hope – it does not always have to be like that.
If your spiritual life has become a religious life -
If you have taken some wrong turnings, even if you've been slowly getting further and further away from a vital living relationship with God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, and you've been looking in the wrong direction this passage tells us there is hope because God wills it so!
The Apostle Peter put it like this:
Or in the words of chorus:
"THERE’S a way back to God
from the dark paths of sin;
there’s a door that is open
and you may go in:
at Calvary’s cross is where you begin,
when you come as a sinner to Jesus.