Sunday, January 12, 2020

Salvation by Quietness: Sermon on Isaiah 30

A warm July day in Paris. The race begins. Runner 451 is twenty-two years old. Before the 400-meter dash, while so many of his competitors hyped themselves up, he felt at peace. He'd made a name for himself – and taken his share of flak – for a principled stance against running on Sundays. But this was a Friday. So as he ran and ran, he fixed his eyes, not on a competitor, not even on the finish line, but on the heavens above. He pushed and sprinted the whole length of the dash in 47.6 seconds. And with a quiet confidence, he felt the ribbon break across his chest – he'd won the gold. He'd set a record. He took a deep breath. And within a minute, as his competitors panted and moaned, he felt cool and collected again. His accomplishment was great. His place of peace was greater. Eric Liddell was the kind of man Isaiah might have liked to meet.

It's hard for us to imagine just how unnerving it was to Judah's leadership and population when the Assyrians invaded. We live, after all, in a big and powerful country which George Washington himself called a “rising empire” – we have our share of fears, but feeling small and powerless in the face of something that dwarfs us is seldom an American experience. Judah was a small country, faced down by a massive empire that ground up little nations by habit – just two decades earlier, Judah had been flooded with Israelite refugees fleeing from the Assyrian annihilation of that northern neighbor. And now the Assyrians were threatening the very existence of Judah, too. And for Hezekiah's advisors, it was all too much. There was only one other great world power that might be able to stand against the Assyrians – and that was Egypt. So the royal advisors sent diplomats to make a hasty trip to Egypt, in hopes of getting support – surely the Egyptians wouldn't want the Assyrians this close to their borders. The idea was that, through the effort of Judean diplomatic wiles and Egyptian military force, Hezekiah's kingdom could find salvation.

But as Isaiah makes clear, God wasn't thrilled with their decision to turn to Egypt. “Ah, stubborn children, who carry out a plan – but not mine! – and who weave a web – but not of my Spirit! – that they may add sin to sin; who set out to go down to Egypt without asking for my direction, to take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh and to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt” (Isaiah 30:1-2). In fact, Egypt was nowhere near capable of fending off the Assyrians. All of Egypt had recently been taken over by a foreign dynasty from Sudan, and although these new Nubian pharaohs were fascinated with restoring Egypt's heritage, they just weren't going to be up to the role Judah wanted them to play. It was no use. “Egypt's help is worthless and empty” (Isaiah 30:7), God announces. Egypt would “bring neither help nor profit, but shame and disgrace” (Isaiah 30:5).

In fact, what God uses Isaiah to point out to Judah is that it's precisely their continued attempts to solve their own problem, their efforts to invest so much energy into the endeavor, that would dig them into ever-deeper holes, thus frittering away whatever resiliency and resources they yet retained. “Therefore this iniquity shall be to you like a breach in a high wall, bulging out and about to collapse, whose breaking comes suddenly, in an instant; and its breaking is like that of a potter's vessel that is smashed so ruthlessly that among its fragments not a shard is found with which to take fire from the hearth or to dip up water out of the cistern” (Isaiah 30:13-14). All of Judah's activity was like thrashing around in quicksand. Their energetic efforts were making things so much worse than they ever needed to be.

So what God tells them is to stop. Stop moving. Stop thrashing. Stop trying. Stop working so hard. Stop all these programs and initiatives. Cancel them. Fall back. Retreat. Just hold still and let God work. God gives them a reminder of who he is: “the Lord Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel.” And then God reminds Judah of a message he'd apparently already given to them. Evidently, they'd ignored their prophet when he spoke these words before – they'd been too busy to listen, too consumed with activity to listen, too proud of themselves and their potential to listen – so now he repeats himself. And the message is this: “In returning and rest, you shall be saved; in quietness and trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15).

Oh, there's the key! Isaiah tells them, “Yahweh waits to be gracious to you” (Isaiah 30:18). God is waiting! He waits to rescue them. He waits to protect them. He waits to accomplish for them. What's he waiting for? Just this – they have to return. That means both the diplomats being recalled from Egypt, and it means a general atmosphere of repentance, of confessing that they've sinned against God, of admitting their pride, of humbling themselves. And God is waiting for them to rest and be quiet – for them to quit their frenzy of activity, for them to just hold still – an action that I'm sure to them seems like a recipe for death. Which is why they need to trust, to be confident in God. God isn't looking here to reward the hard workers. Just the opposite. God is looking for them to call it quits! God is looking for them to throw in the towel! God wants them to settle down and admit that all this energy isn't getting them where they need to be. They've been running up the down escalator for too long. They've been struggling too much against this quicksand. They've worn themselves out. It's time to admit that they've not just been idolizing idols, they've also been idolizing their energy, their activity. They need to stop. They need to realize that all this energy and drive and initiative isn't what matters, isn't what's able to rescue them. They need to hold still, calm down, take five, and trust God to do everything that matters.

We're told that the first time Judah's leaders heard this message, they just flat-out rejected or ignored it. “For thus said the Lord..., but you were unwilling, and you said, 'No! We will flee upon horses..., we will ride upon swift steeds'” (Isaiah 30:15-16). They heard God's call to return and rest, to be quiet and trust, and they said that wasn't for them. No, they were going to get stronger, get faster! They were going to crank up the tempo, they were going to pick up the pace! They were going to show what they were made of, they were going to be achievers, they were going to set goals and accomplish them. Isaiah warns that their very efforts would become their downfall – that, in all this striving, they were planting the seeds of their decimation. They want to go fast on horses? Then they will – in the opposite direction. They want to get faster, faster? Then their pursuers will pick up the pace even more. “A thousand shall flee at the threat of one! At the threat of five you shall flee, 'til you're left like a flagstaff on the top of a mountain, like a signal on a hill” (Isaiah 30:17). Their undoing.

Just as Isaiah's preaching informed them, the Egyptians were no help... but, when Judah's leadership finally paid attention, when they at last listened to and heeded Isaiah's words, when they put them into practice by stopping the activity, cancelling the programs, returning and resting – well, then what happened? God broke the Assyrian onslaught. “The Angel of Yahweh went out and struck down 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians … then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and returned home and lived at Nineveh” (Isaiah 37:36-37). And Judah could then restfully recover: “The Assyrians will be terror-stricken at the voice of Yahweh, when he strikes with his rod” (Isaiah 30:31). “A people shall dwell in Zion, in Jerusalem; you shall weep no more” (Isaiah 30:19). “And he will give rain for the seed which you sow in the ground, and bread, the produce of the ground, which will be rich and plenteous. In that day your livestock will graze in large pastures, and the oxen and the donkeys that work the ground will eat seasoned fodder winnowed with shovel and fork. And on every lofty mountain and every high hill there will be brooks running with water in the day of great slaughter when the towers fall. And the light of the moon will be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun will be sevenfold as the light of seven days, in the day when Yahweh binds up the brokenness of his people and heals the wounds inflicted by his blow” (Isaiah 30:23-26). This deliverance would point to the ultimate one. All they need to do is be quiet.

And so it is with our souls. Not only are we prone to think we need to earn our way through life, but we can be tempted to apply the same logic to eternity. We're suspicious of a free lunch – no such thing, after all. And so we're tempted to ask what we have to do, what we have to achieve, to earn our way to heaven, to merit a place in the new creation. Do we have to climb the tall mountain? Do we have to swim the far sea? Do we have to go forth on a grand quest? Do we have to do twenty heroic deeds a day? What is it that will earn our way there, what will present us as worthy? We want to get a leg up on others – to be able to look at them and say that we qualify. We want that sort of upward mobility, that kind of promotion.

But if anyone knows how we can get there, it's God, and what he says is so different from what we may imagine – he says that it's precisely by faith that we can be saved! It's through a quiet trust, a restful repose, a stillness that turns focus back to God. Only in this way, and not by the achievements of our hands, can eternal hope be unleashed. For just as Judah against Assyria, so can all our schemes and all our efforts accomplish nothing to defeat the enemy of our souls. The only hope is to surrender to God. This yields the field to him, and he can accomplish more while we're resting than we can in the perspiration of our sternest struggle. God tells us by his prophet Paul that salvation is precisely for someone “who does not work, but believes” – restfully trusts – “in the One who justifies the ungodly” (Romans 4:5). We are saved by grace, and “if it is by grace, then it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6). And this salvation is then “not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace” (2 Timothy 1:9). In our search for salvation, we will stumble if we chase it “as if it were based on works” (Romans 9:32). The great preacher C. H. Spurgeon said it this way when he preached on today's passage:

In order to be saved, you have simply to come to Jesus and to rest on him! Can you not do that? If you cannot, I will tell you why. It is not because you are too weak, but because you are too strong! It is strength that keeps a man from resting! It is weariness that makes him recline. The more faint and feeble he is, the more readily does he lean upon another. It is your strength that will destroy you – it is your supposed goodness that will ruin you – it is your own works that will be your destruction! Come now, and lean wholly and alone upon that almighty Savior whose heart was pierced for you, and then it shall be well with you!

In other words, return to the God who makes himself available in Jesus Christ. This Savior's heart was pierced for you. The accomplishments of his righteous life, the sufferings of his cross, the victories of his resurrection, the fruit of his ministry – they're more than enough. Trust Jesus. Quiet yourself to hear him. Humble yourself in his presence. Lean on him. Rest in him. Abide with him. Trying to earn your keep, you'll never attain, you'll just trip up your soul; but leaning on the everlasting arms of Jesus, you're supported by perfect strength. And if you'll still yourself, he whispers his love and mercy to you in the eye of the storm.

As the church, we should know all of this. We should understand that works-righteousness is a peril – that we are saved by grace through faith, not of works, lest we should find room for boasting. But we're addicted to that boasting. And so even when we admit that works-righteousness is no measure of heavenly salvation, sometimes we wrongly think that we can make works-righteousness into the church's earthly salvation! And this especially is a pitfall of our evangelical subculture. Because for us low-church evangelicals, we've absorbed the American ethos of the corporate world, the can-do spirit of the pioneers and industrialists. We all want to be entrepreneurs – and we shape our churches accordingly. We want to do bigger. We want to do more. We're all about doing everything with passion, about doing everything with fire. We're all about being busy for God. Last year, a prominent Christian leader warned that “the evangelical movement in particular has made an idol of being busy for God, to the point that God himself has been increasingly eclipsed from our hearts and minds...”

As a consequence of that idolatry, we in the church are inclined to value people according to their contributions. In particular, we value people according to what works they do, what passion they exude, what level of energy they exhibit and lend. A passionate person is worthwhile; a calm and measured worker is less treasured. That's the mentality in many churches. The risk of this is that we put so much emphasis on what a person can do that we neglect who they are. We measure people by their skills over their sanctity, their contribution over their character, their heat more than their heart. It's not a new problem. But it is a skewed priority. Because God did not say that our strength was found in energy and passion. He said our strength would be in quietness and trust. And when the church forgets that in how we live together, then we will trust in our works – our programs, our initiatives – for 'salvation' from our decline. The church will collectively live by works-righteousness, turning away from the living God. All because we were so fixated on passion and activity that we missed true strength.

And much the same applies to our individual lives, whether in the church or out of the church. We are tempted to value ourselves by what we can outwardly do in the world. It's a common temptation – I know I feel it all the time, tempted to measure the value of a day by what I achieved, what tangible results I can show for it, what I can claim as accomplishments to justify myself. We take our value in what we do, day by day. And for a while, we maybe think we can live like that. But we can't. We can't live sustainably by tying our value to productivity. This bad habit is especially crippling as we age. For as we age, we find that our strength of body and mind will start failing. Our energy dries up. Our stamina lags. We can't put our thoughts together as clearly. We can't lift all the things we once did, or labor with the precision we used to. And if we've been building up a habit of tying our value to productivity, then as aging degrades certain abilities we used to use to produce, we'll struggle to see ourselves as retaining our value. If we see our worth as what we do, then once we can't do what we used to, we may wrestle with a waning sense of self-worth.

But your worth is not in what you can do! Your worth is not in how much energy you have. Frenzy and activity are unrelated, in the eyes of God, to your worth. They are unrelated to your importance. They are unrelated to your fruitfulness. Because the fruit of the Spirit has nothing to do with outward achievements. Passion is not a fruit of the Spirit! But patience is. Peace is. Goodness and gentleness are. The fruit of the Spirit is grown in your character, grown from your soul; not grown with your hands or your intellect. True strength is a quiet trust in the God we meet in Jesus Christ. If you want to be saved from insignificance, the path is not to go be mighty, the path is not to speed up, the path is not to buy and sell. If you want to be saved from insignificance, the path and key is just resting faithfully in the Lord.

Consider again the story of Eric Liddell. A record-making Olympic champion. Speed personified. But he lived for something else. As the son of Scottish missionaries who worked in China, he later returned to China as a missionary himself. He worked patiently and faithfully. And in 1943, when the Japanese invasion reached his mission station, he and his fellow missionaries, with others, were all thrown into an internment camp. Liddell spent his time playing chess, preaching, exuding joy. Even when he was malnourished. Even when he was confined. Even when he was ill. You see, it turned out that he had a brain tumor. Inoperable. It sapped many of his outward abilities. By February 1945, he certainly wasn't showing off his speed any more. But that was okay. He used his last strength to scribble, on paper, as best as his failing brain could recall, some lyrics from his favorite hymn, the hymn he'd often sung as he'd zipped around the country roads of China. And that hymn was “Be Still, My Soul.” For all the speed of his legs, for all the athletic efficiency of his body at its peak, he quested after stillness where it counted. And so when he became confined and sick, when he neared the doors of death, he knew that his fruitfulness had never been in his energy and accomplishments. God may have been pleased to watch him run, but God was much more pleased to watch him rest in Jesus, trust in Jesus, become quiet and still in the arms of Jesus. And that – not the musculature of his legs or the passion of his preaching – was his authentic strength. And the quiet quality of his soul, rather than the outcome of some race, is what makes him significant today, certainly significant in the eyes of God. So may it be for us.

Whether in this life or the next, whether individually or as a church, let's remember to simply abide. Jesus calls himself the Vine and tells us that we're his branches (John 15:5). A branch from a vine doesn't have to labor and struggle in order for the grapes to grow. All the branch has to do is stay connected to the vine, and receptive to the life and nourishment that flows from the vine into it. As branches of Jesus, our fruitfulness is never a product of our energy, never an accomplishment of our activity. Fruit is the product of non-resistant abiding – an enduring connection to Jesus that refuses to resist his Spirit's work in our hearts, all while submitting to the pruning work of those the Father hires. For as our vices are pruned away and a trellis of good formation is set for our healthy and directed growth, we can be healthy and fruitful branches. But that fruit is not grown in what we accomplish, but in who we become. The fruit God cares about most is not our work but our character.

So the hope of the church, the hope of the individual, is not to get energized. It's to get deep. It's to deeply abide, deeply connect to Christ. It's to be pruned and guided, yet let him produce the life that, through us, will yield the fruit. It's to be quiet and be still, yielding the field to him. And that's not something our programs can do. It's a matter of formation by the word of God, by song, by sacrament, by devotion and meditation. These are things that encourage us, not to spend and expend, but to quietly be open and be changed. We put ourselves through so much trouble, when the one necessary thing is quiet trust, a return to rest. What we need to relearn is that “the Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul who seeks him; it is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (Lamentations 3:25-26). For “in returning and rest you shall be saved; in quietness and in trust shall be your strength” (Isaiah 30:15). Returning. Rest. Quietness. Trust. May they be ours, that salvation and strength follow. May we all soon be able to pray with the psalmist: “O LORD, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I don't occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul like a weaned child with its mother – like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time forth and forevermore” (Psalm 131:1-3). Amen.

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