Sunday, January 19, 2020

Highway to Holy: Sermon on Isaiah 34-35

It sits on our altar each Sunday, as one of the holy things. But have you ever taken a look at this? There's a special word for what this is, the form it's in. It's called a diptych. This folding hinge allows two separate panels to dwell side-by-side, featuring our confession of faith on one and the Author of our Faith on the other.

Not unlike this, over the course of two chapters, Isaiah paints his own diptych: two panels, contrasting two lives or two worlds or two destinations. On the left of Isaiah's diptych, we have the world-trusting life on display in chapter 34. Isaiah 34 portrays what happens to a world filled with self-trust, self-absorption, self-devotion. It's an unsettling picture. And perhaps it's so unsettling because Isaiah gives us the impression that when he points to this world, he's being very inclusive. Isaiah says that this panel is a picture of “all the nations” with “all their host” (Isaiah 34:2). He invites the entire earth, its whole population, to pay attention (Isaiah 34:1). This side of the diptych isn't a portrayal of what happens in very special, exceptional, rare circumstances. It's an analysis of the ordinary. This is Isaiah's portrait of how God feels about normal human life and normal human concerns – the activities, motivations, orientations of pretty much anybody, all the host from all those nations. This side of the diptych proceeds from the way basically everyone lives – our buying and selling, our giving and getting, our mating and breaking, our thoughts and preoccupations.

And what Isaiah says is, God is not impressed with the human normal! “For Yahweh is enraged against all the nations and furious against all their host; he has devoted them to destruction” (Isaiah 34:2). And therefore, he fights it: “My sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; behold, it descends for judgment” (Isaiah 34:5). If you read on, you'll find the language in these verses isn't pretty. It's full of blood and fat, death and butchery, sulfur and smoking asphalt (Isaiah 35:6-9). Isaiah is intensely graphic. The centerpiece of his left-panel scene is grotesque on purpose. It's multisensory – you almost smell the rot, almost hear the buzzing flies. Isaiah paints a portrait of a world falling to pieces: “All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree” (Isaiah 34:4).

What Isaiah does is, he paints the universality of human sinfulness. As he'll say elsewhere, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way” (Isaiah 53:6). Or as the psalmist says, “They have all turned aside, together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one” (Psalm 14:3). Ever since our first steps east of Eden, the natural course of human life has been bound up with sin, our propensity to miss the mark, fall short of the point, sideline God and thus our very own reason for being. We tell ourselves it's okay, we convince ourselves we're good, and yet we're all turned inward on ourselves. And the new normal post-Eden, the idolatry of God-neglect and God-exclusion, is simply our commonplace. All the nations and all their host contribute to a world that ignores God – a world turned aside, a world adrift, a world hustling and bustling down eight billion different roads. A world scattered.

Isaiah wants us to be aware where this leads. He graphically shows us God's ultimate punishment of a world in rebellion. It's intense. In the end, that world becomes something worse than a wasteland. “Her streams shall be turned into asphalt and her soil into sulfur; her land shall become burning asphalt. Night and day, it won't be quenched. Its smoke will ascend forever! From generation to generation, it shall lie waste; none shall pass through it forever and ever” (Isaiah 34:9-10). All that's there are “thorns” and “nettles and thistles,” making it “the haunt of jackals” (Isaiah 34:13) and infested with demons (Isaiah 34:14). God “shall stretch the line of formlessness over it, and the plumb line of emptiness” (Isaiah 34:11). Those are the same two words we find at the dawn of Genesis, when “the earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). Isaiah gives us a picture of uncreation, of God undoing all his creative work, fully withdrawing his Spirit and letting it all collapse back in on itself, reduced to the inchoate muddle of mere materiality.

Left unattended and unaltered, normal life as all the nations live it, as all the people live it, will lead nowhere. And not just to the proverbial nowhere, but to the hellish Nowhere, the Great Undone, where the night-shadows haunt the Abyss. On this left side of the diptych, Isaiah shows us a world turning into a hell, with all its attendant sights and sounds and smells. It's an uncreation given over to howling subhumanity. Isaiah is telling us that if we settle for a normal life, if we're content to live like the nations and enjoy ourselves the way they do, this is the end of all those eight billion roads. They all drop to the Abyss. They all unravel to the Great Undone.

It's not pretty. I'd much rather us fix our eyes on the right side of Isaiah's diptych. Because Isaiah has chosen – has been inspired – to paint a study in contrasts. And as much as the left side showed a God-neglecting life's outcome, the right side shows us a God-revering life's outcome – what happens when God is our trust, when God is our hope. And whereas the left side took all the hustle and bustle of the world and brought it to an awful end, the right side takes the sterility of the desert and makes an Eden out of it. We begin with Isaiah's three words for a sterile place: “the wilderness,” “the dry land,” “the desert” (Isaiah 35:1). Those are all pretty ordinary. Isaiah knows those from experience. You can see places like that in the Middle East, after all. It's an ordinary geographic feature. But Isaiah later says that the transformation he's talking about can even begin from more extreme starting points. He uses phrases like “burning sand,” “thirsty ground,” and even “the haunt of jackals” (Isaiah 35:7). Isaiah's telling us that God can plant an Eden even in the worst wreckage of our human sin – that even after we've paved over and polluted life, even after we've driven ourselves out of the world, God can bring us back and make things new. Not even the haunt of jackals is too much for God to restore to us.

Whereas the left panel of Isaiah' diptych showed us God in his fury at the normality of our sin, the right panel gives him another motivation: “They shall see the glory of Yahweh, the majesty of our God” (Isaiah 35:2). Just where all hope looks most lost, there God is most motivated to put on the show and reveal who he really is: the Creator of New, the All-Things-Done-Well Doer. And with the same judgment by which he arrives to put an end to normal life, he arrives to “come and save you” if your life is outside that inclusive norm (Isaiah 35:4). When God steps onto the scene, things change! “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For waters break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; in the haunt of jackals, where they lie down, the grass shall become reeds and rushes” (Isaiah 35:5-7). So consider, then, how Jesus describes his own ministry: “The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matthew 11:5). In other words, with the ministry of Jesus, God has stepped onto the scene, and things are changing wherever he goes! The touch of Jesus flips the panels. The touch of Jesus is the saving grace. The touch of Jesus is the healing and restoring presence of God. It's beautiful, what Jesus does!

And then there's this last key image, the way Isaiah finishes off the beautiful right panel. “A highway shall be there” (Isaiah 35:8). The myriad crisscrossing ways – each having a path of our own – give way to a single route, a highway. It really is the high road, a road built by mounding up the soil into an elevated path. What that means is that this path is unmistakable. It's well-marked, as a highway should be. It's clear and visible, as a highway should be. Which means there should be no confusion. In this life, we're prone to hearing people agonize about figuring out what's true, about discerning how to live. But once you know who the true God is, once you look to him, a lot of those convoluted back roads become unimportant. You can lift up your eyes and see this highway, raised up over the others. It isn't so hard to recognize, if we've got eyes to see.

So where does the highway lead? This highway has one destination in mind. It leads to Zion. It leads to God. It leads back to the home we lost. Isaiah describes taking this highway as an act of “return[ing] and com[ing] to Zion.” It's the way home from exile. It's the way together from the scattering. It's the way Edenward from the wastelands. It's the way to the party from the doldrums. For to approach Zion is to sing: “come to Zion with singing.” It has to be! Because in approaching Zion, “everlasting joy shall crown their heads: gladness and joy shall overtake them, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10). This picture is just as vivid as anything on the left panel. To get near this destination is a promise that gladness will suddenly tackle you out of nowhere. Joy will hunt you down. And in the surprise, sadness will get spooked and hightail it out of there in shock. It's like the promise God would later give through another prophet, Jeremiah:

Hear the word of Yahweh, O nations, and declare it in the coastlands far away! … For Yahweh has ransomed Jacob and has redeemed him from hands too strong for him. They shall come and sing aloud on the height of Zion, and they shall be radiant over the goodness of Yahweh – over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd. Their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more. Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old shall be merry. I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. I will feast the soul of the priests with abundance, and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness (Jeremiah 31:10-14).

It's such a precious picture! A people living at peace, languishing no more. Singing with serene confidence on the heights. Being absolutely radiant over God's goodness in his provision. Enjoying life like a well-watered garden, like the Eden we lost. Merriment for those young in years and those older in years. Dancing. Comfort. An abundant feast, forever satisfied with the goodness of God. Can you picture yourself in it? Can you see it all around you if you close your eyes? This is home! This is where you belong! This is how you should be!

And that is where the highway is leading. It's the one clear path you can't miss, and it's the only road to where you belong and how everything should be in your life. Don't you want to get on that highway? Well, be alerted that it's like the Turnpike, and you need to pass through an entryway to embark. How do you get on? What's our E-ZPass for this highway? Isaiah explains, “The redeemed shall walk there” (Isaiah 35:9). In other words, those whom God has bought a ticket for, those whom God has bought back, those whom God calls family – for that's what redemption is all about. It's his controlled-access highway, and “the unclean shall not pass over it” (Isaiah 35:8). The name of the highway is this: The Way of Holiness.

As believers, we already have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once and for all” (Hebrews 10:10), but we're not all the way there: Paul prays for God to still “sanctify you completely (1 Thessalonians 5:23). And as we walk the Way of Holiness, we are presently being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). And in part, that sanctification will produce purity and cleanliness: “God has not called us for impurity but in holiness” (1 Thessalonians 4:7). “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). “If anyone cleanses himself from what's dishonorable, he'll be a vessel for honorable use, set apart as holy, useful to the master of the house, ready for every good work” (2 Timothy 2:21). These are things we should all know.

But almost every time Isaiah uses the word 'holy' in his book, he's referring to God as the “Holy One of Israel.” God is set apart as holy. God is set apart as uniquely the proper target of Israel's hope and trust. Holiness is uniqueness, special separation from what's ordinary. And for us to be holy means, in turn, to be exclusively and uniquely related to God, and thus distinguished from worldly norms. “Be holy in all your conduct,” we're told (1 Peter 1:15). And if we're ever to make it to Zion, to the New Jerusalem, then we need to “strive... for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). And that means to strive for something that isn't normal – it means to strive to have God as our exclusive Hope, God as our exclusive Trust, God as our unique focus. So often, as individuals and even as the church, we try to go about our business in ways that say nothing about God, that have little to do with God – ways that are not unique to God's people. And when that's what we do, when we refuse to be God-conscious and God-centered and God-powered in how we live or even profess to minister, then we're merely mundane. And that's falling short of the holiness Isaiah is calling us to.

And now Isaiah finishes his diptych. On the left panel, the normal life of a sin-tainted world graphically leads to the Great Undone. But on the right panel, God intervenes – as he has in Jesus Christ – and so those whom God has redeemed are called to walk the Way of Holiness and press onward to Zion with heavenly song. This is the only panel that promises to “strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees” and offer assurance to the “hasty heart” (Isaiah 35:3-4). It's the only panel where flowers bloom by surprise, where beauty creeps up from the shadows, where parking lots become parks. It's the only panel where gladness is more eager to get to us than we are to get to it. But we have a choice as to which panel we'll paint ourselves in. And the right panel calls us to walk to Zion on the Way of Holiness. There is no other way. Normal doesn't cut it. If our minds and hearts are not focused on God's Spirit and on the spiritual qualities of all we do, we'll get sidetracked. Don't get sidetracked by the normal. March to Zion under Jesus' banner. For he is the Way of Holiness. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment