Did you or do you ever use advent calendars? I remember them from my growing up years and I remember the excitement and anticipation of opening the first door on December 1 and then one each day until we could open the last one on December 24. Each day brought more excitement and anticipation. Advent means coming. It is a season of anticipation, in which we wait for the coming of a special event. Do we have such anticipation as we wait for Christmas? I know that as a child when I was waiting for Christmas, it was being off school, the celebrations, and especially the gifts I would get that I was looking forward to. What are we anticipating?
There are a lot of passages in the Old Testament which express the longing for what God was going to do through His anointed one. We live past the time of Jesus coming to earth and sometimes it is hard for us to understand the value of anticipating His coming. The season of advent is a season of anticipation which can help us come to the place of really rejoicing and celebrating the coming of Christ.
Please turn to Isaiah 59 and let us read some of it in order to get a flavour of anticipation for God’s actions. Read 59:1-4, 12-21.
Although verse one is an affirmation, it has behind it a doubt. In the minds of people the question which was being considered was, “is God perhaps not strong enough to help us? Is God perhaps unable to hear the trouble that we are in?” Why were the people of Isaiah’s day even thinking about such a question?
There are a lot of times when we can see that they might have thought about such a question. When they were slaves in Egypt for 400 years, it would have been natural to question where God was. Every time the Amorites or Philistines or Edomites or any other nation around them attacked them and defeated them, they would have wondered where the power of God was. Isaiah was written during the time preceding the attack of the Assyrians. This powerful nation came against them from the north and eventually defeated and destroyed the northern ten tribes of Israel. Isaiah prophesied about this coming destruction and as he did, many people would have wondered where God was. Were they not his chosen people, his special nation? Why was this devastation happening? Some have suggested that this chapter was written after they had been exiled to Babylon and then had returned to Judah once again. At this time, although they were back in the land, they were still under the domination of a foreign power. They might have wondered what happened to the old promises of the land, the presence and power of God. Where was God during this time?
Although they had all the promises of God, yet trouble seemed to follow them. Except for the glory years of David and Solomon, they always seemed to have trouble. One nation or another attacked, one difficulty or another surrounded them. It looked like God had failed to deliver on his promises, that he was indifferent to the prayers of his people. They were wondering, why has the promised deliverance not come?
Have you ever asked this question? We do don’t we? Although we have salvation, we wonder where God is when we still struggle so terribly with sin. Although Luke 4 talks about the healing that will be brought when Jesus has victory, yet we still find that we are sick. Although Jesus has won over Satan, he is still powerful and active in seeking to destroy lives. Although the church is intended to be that tree which began from a mustard seed and spreads through all the earth, yet today, it appears so weak that it seems that it cannot even influence public policy in Canada. Whenever any of these things happen, we also ask, “Where is God?”
To those to whom Isaiah was writing in his particular historical situation, the answer is pretty blunt. In contemporary terms, you have probably heard it put this way, “if God seems far away, guess who moved.” However, Isaiah is much more accusing.
Imagine being near the top of a mountain. As you walk along, you see a pretty little mountain stream. You and the person you are hiking with decide to walk along the stream and each of you chooses to walk on opposite sides of the stream. As you walk, tributaries are added to the little stream and it grows. All of a sudden, you come to a portion of the stream in which you realize that the stream has grown so large and the banks on either side are so steep that you can no longer reach your friend. The stream has become a barrier separating you. That is what Isaiah says to his readers. It is their sins which have separated them from God by a gulf so great that God cannot help them any more.
Have you ever seen a child turn the TV or radio up real loud in order to cover up the sounds of what is really going on? Isaiah says that the noise of the sins of his people are so loud that God cannot hear them. Their sins have obscured the face of God from being able to hear and see what their needs are.
So Isaiah is saying that it is not that God is not strong enough or that he can’t hear. It is that sin has created a barrier and is so loud that God is not able to hear his people in order to help them.
This happened in the history of Israel many times. Right after God had created a covenant with them at Mt. Sinai, they were down worshipping the golden calf. Not many years before Isaiah wrote, Elijah was one of only a few prophets who followed the Lord. Most people were followers of Baal.
By the time of Isaiah, the wickedness of the people had reached dreadful proportions and so we have this list of sins. From verse 3 - 15 there is a litany of the evil of the people. We have read some of this section, but I missed most of it. Just look at what a list of sins is recorded here, murder and lying in verse 3; injustice and conceiving trouble in verse 4 and violence in verse 6. One of the major sins that is recorded again and again in this section is injustice. Notice verses 8, 9, “The way of peace they do not know; there is no justice in their paths. They have turned them into crooked roads; no one who walks in them will know peace. So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us.”
In verse 3 we have an interesting literary device which shows how pervasively they were affected by their sin. Notice that it talks about hands, fingers, lips and tongue. Hands and fingers reflect on what is done. Lips and tongue reflect on what is spoken. The doing and speaking parts of their bodies were filled with evil.
It seems a desperately evil situation. Isaiah declares in verse 12, “For our offences are many in your sight, and our sins testify against us. Our offences are ever with us…”
The situation is so bad that we read about God’s judgement of the situation in verses 15, 16, “The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intervene…” God hated what he saw and it was totally appalling to Him. Even worse, there was no one who seemed to care and no one who was prepared to do anything about it.
God could not act because of their sin. It was an enormous tragedy and a hopeless situation. The phrase “there was no one” is a statement of hopelessness.
What we read here is the human story. It speaks of what the Bible has always told us. People are sinners and utterly lost. It tells us what Romans 1-3 tells us that all people on earth are without hope because there is none righteous not even one.
This passage poignantly tells us about a people cut off. If God cannot enter into a situation, what hope is there for peace, freedom and forgiveness?
But the passage does not end with this hopelessness. What we read in verses 16-21 is a story that we know well. It is the gospel story. It answers the hopelessness with good news. As we see God’s promises to these people at this time, we get a glimpse of the wonder of what it meant that God came into the world at Christmas. We learn something about the God whom we serve and we rejoice at what God has done for us which has now left us in a situation that is not hopeless.
As we read on in verse 16, having left off reading of the hopeless situation that “there was no one to intercede” we read, “so his own arm worked salvation for him.” This is an absolutely amazing statement. Steeped in sin, utterly lost, without a hope in the world we read that God can and will act. We learn that God has stepped in and done it himself. This is the nature of God. He will fix it himself. He will do something about it.
This gives us, first of all, a view of the wonder of what God has done in sending Jesus. It reminds us of Romans 5:8 - “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” When Isaiah 59:16 says, “so his own arm worked salvation” in the context of sinful loss, it is the same as Paul saying “while we were still sinners, Christ died.”
It also tells us about the nature of God, not only in this one incidence, but in all of who He is. This is God. When the situation is hopeless, when we have no where to turn, then God shows up to intervene. What does that mean for your life and mine? How does that speak to the celebration of Christmas? This is why we must make a big deal of the anticipation and celebration of Christmas. God has stepped into a totally hopeless situation and redeemed a people walking in darkness.
Even more wonderful is the way in which God works. People have different views about God. Some see Him as a Santa Claus who is nice to all people and gives gifts to those who are nice to Him. Some see Him as a cosmic watchmaker who has created the watch, set it in motion and leaves it alone now. In other words, He cares nothing for the world or the people in it. Others see him as a terrifying judge who stands over it all looking for someone to condemn and punish.
But in verses 17, 18, we see the nature of the God who will enter into the world and deal with the wayward nation. What are the ways in which God works? He works in righteousness, bringing salvation and dealing with the wicked. You may have already discovered that if you don’t bring your key to the post office, you won’t get your mail. This comes from the “privacy law” which is being enacted. It arose from some bad situations such as the one in which a person’s private health information became publicly available. The result for us in Rosenort is that your friend who works in the post office and has known you since you were a child, can’t be a friend otherwise she will lose her job. Doing what is right, dealing with wrong things without also limiting good things is terribly difficult and although the government tries, they have a hard time getting it right for everyone. But God is different. He brings salvation, is perfectly just in doing so, offers grace to people, but still punishes those who are evil.
That is good news and that is why the people of the day had such a great longing for God to act and that is why we celebrate Christmas with joy.
Although this is written to the wayward nation of Israel who was about to be scattered, there is the hint of a world-wide restoration of people to God.
Notice what it says in verse 19. People will come from the west. Others will come from the rising of the sun – or the east. People from all over the world will bring glory to God. They will recognise the wonder of what God has done and will glorify Him for His goodness and his great gift.
The reason they will fear Him is because He will come. The situation is not hopeless. There is hope for all who desire to see God act and for all who find themselves in the hopeless situation of bondage to sin.
How can this be? How will God do this work himself? The word “redeemer” in verse 20 is significant. We need to understand what a redeemer is. The concept comes from Old Testament law and is illustrated well in the book of Ruth. Ruth’s husband died and left her a widow. Ruth was a foreign woman and had no rights in the land. Her husband, however, had owned land and had rights. The law said that the land could not be sold, it could only be passed on to the next generation. But since Ruth had no children when her husband died, who would inherit the land? Well, along came Boaz. He married Ruth and became her redeemer. That is, he provided a way for her family line to survive. The first child born to Ruth and Boaz would really be viewed as Ruth’s husband’s child and would inherit accordingly. In other words, there was a cost involved for Boaz to be Ruth’s redeemer. That is what a redeemer is and does – a close relative who pays a price to buy someone out of a difficult situation.
This background helps us see the wonder of what God has done. He is redeemer. For Israel, it meant that God would pay the price to purchase their forgiveness of sins. He has also become our redeemer.
Often when we hear the sentence of a convicted criminal, we also hear either the lament by victims that the sentence was too short or their rejoicing that it was fair, in which case we sometimes hear the lament of the convicted criminal that the sentence is unfair and will be appealed.
What kind of a sentence, what kind of a requirement would be fair for a people who have so seriously wandered away from God as described in this text?
Because God will take the initiative and will be the Redeemer, the only requirement for people will be to confess sins. This is what we find in verse 20, “The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins, declares the LORD.”
Repentance isn’t easy. It involves admitting wrongdoing. However, it is a wonderful thing. Any other way has too many flaws. Restitution always has the problem of knowing when something has been fairly paid for. Punishment has the same problem. Overlooking something ignores the wrong done. Repentance is completely different. Repentance is the best way to find forgiveness and hope because it is complete because it doesn’t depend on us. It is possible because God is redeemer and has paid for the sin. So we rejoice at the amazing thing promised here that it is through repentance that God deals with the hopeless situation of lost people.
The passage concludes with a wonderful promise that what God does involves an eternal hope. What God would do with his wayward people would be held to be true for a long time. The promise is “from this time on and forever, says the LORD.”
One writer says, “Despite the constant sin and apostasy of His people the Lord abides faithful; the promises will be fulfilled, and the Redeemer will come bringing rich gifts, even His Spirit and Word; and these will abide with His Church forever. To God alone be all the glory.”
Sometimes I have asked Carla whether she prefers to be surprised or to anticipate a special event. She tells me sometimes both. I like to anticipate a special event because the anticipation is fun and can make the event even more exciting.
Some of you have heard me express reservations about decorating early for Christmas. Let me tell you why and make an appeal for this Christmas season.
Isaiah 59 expresses the longing for God to act because of Israel’s desperate need for him. The theme of longing for God to act in the wonderful way described in this passage is an important theme. Unfortunately, we begin with all the celebration on November 1 and we miss out on the reason for the celebration because we never go through the season of longing.
I have learned that I probably won’t win in trying to encourage people to put up the Christmas tree on December 24, but let me make this appeal for this advent season. I would invite you to make the next 24 days a season of anticipation. Spend time reading Isaiah or one of the other Old Testament prophets and get a flavour of the way in which the longed for God to act. Think about your life and allow yourself to become aware of the many ways in which you fail God. Let your mind wander down the paths of wondering where God is. If you spend time in such meditation, the anticipation of waiting for God to act will grow. The meaning and wonder of the beginning of the fulfilment of these promises will increase and the joy of celebration will be so much the sweeter.