Thursday, January 3, 2013

EJ100 #9 Isaiah 59:1-21

Today's Essential Jesus reading: Isaiah 59:1-21.

This passage is in the book of Isaiah, first and longest of the works of the major prophets; it comes well into the second half of the book, the later part of Isaiah's ministry, just before Isaiah's prophecy of the glory of judgement and salvation to come to Zion, which completes the book.

This is a hard passage to read, to hear. In the first two verses Isaiah tells his readers that it is not God's fault they have not been saved, not any lack in God that their prayers are not answered. Rather, it is because of their iniquities (evil, sin) that have created a barrier between themselves and God so that even though God can hear, he will not.

Isaiah describes the sins of the people: both "your" sins (59:3), and "their" sins (59:4-8). Then he describes the plight they are in as a result of their evil actions.
"Justice is far from us,
and tighteousness does not reach us.
We look for light, but all is darkness;
for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows." [59:9]
Many times in Israel's history his people did not repent when they cried out to the LORD for relief from their suffering (just read the book of Judges). But this time, Isaiah recounts the people's repentance (59:12): "we acknowledge our iniquities." Isaiah lists the sins that the people acknowledged, and it is significant that this list focuses on the sins the people have committed against God as "rebellion and treachery against the LORD" (59:13), rather than against each other. The people recognise that sin is first and foremost against God. Finally, they acknowledge their role in relegating justice and righteousness to a distance, and preventing truth and honesty from coming near.

Isaiah also recounts God's solution. He finds no one to intervene, so he himself intervenes. "His own arm achieved salvation for him" (59:16). The LORD's arm is common metaphor in Isaiah's prophecies representing the mightiness of God, active in judgement and salvation [Isaiah 30:30,32; 40:10; 48:14; 51:5,9; 52:10; 53:1; 62:8; 63:5,12]. Verse 16 thus answers the otherwise rhetorical question from verse 1:
"Surely the arm of the LORD is not too short to save...
so his own arm achieved salvation for him."
The arm of the LORD may also be read as a prophetic description of Jesus. Isaiah 53:1 asks, "Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?" The chapter, the most famous of Isaiah's Servant Songs, goes on to describe Jesus, the "man of sorrows" who "was pierced for our transgressions ... crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed" (53:5).

God prepared himself for vengeance, zeal, wrath and retribution (59:17-18). He is feared, yet he is also revered in his glory (59:19) [remember Philippians 2:9-11?]. He came not only to punish but also to redeem any one of his own who repented of their sins (59:20), and he granted his Spirit to them so that his words might always be on their lips (59:21) [see also John 14:25-26; 15:26-27].

God is both awesomely terrible and awesomely generous.

Repentance is key in this passage. It is your/my sins that have separated you/me from our God (59:2). "We acknowledge our iniquities" (59:12). The Redeemer will come to those among God's people who repent of their sins (59:20).

Before the people could acknowledge their iniquities and repent of their sins, first they had to observe them. Isaiah, helpfully, pointed them out. Only then did the people admit, "Our offences are ever with us" (59:13).

As a Christian, it is helpful to have someone in my life who keeps me accountable in my Christian life. This person holds me accountable and points out my sin to me (privately) so that I may repent of it. Most of the time, because I am married, this person is my husband. Over 12 years of marriage, he has become better at exposing my sin to me, and I have become better at receiving his criticisms as what they are, rather than assuming they are signs that he does not love me. Far from it! When my husband exposes my sin to me - sin that I had been unaware of, or, more commonly, deliberately ignoring - he makes sure my offence is with me, so that I may acknowledge it and repent of it. This is truly an act of love.

Some other people who keep me accountable in various ways are my three best friends. God has brought each of these women into my life in different ways. One was a member of a small group Bible study I was in with my husband for three years. One was a member of the last church my husband pastored. One lives half a world away and communicates with me mostly via email and the occasional Skype conversation - we met through blogging. Of these women, two are in the same demographic as I am, being stay-at-home mothers raising 4 or 5 children of similar ages to mine. The other is a generation older than me, a widow with four adult children. Two struggle with major health issues. The only thing all three have in common is a strong faith in God that has been tried and tested numerous times since we met.

Since the nearest of these women lives 350km (220mi) away, it would be easy for me to pretend to them that I am someone I am not, to hide my sin and failures. But, although I do tend to major on the positives and minor on the negatives in my conversations with them, I try very hard to be honest. If there is no honesty in such friendships, they are worthless.

Proverbs 27:17 says, "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another." Because I am honest, my friends can sharpen me. Their challenges and encouragement makes my blade/life, which may have become dull and marred by sin, once more bright and sharp-edged and useful to God.

> What relationships do you have where honesty is paramount and you are able to receive prophetic criticism which exposes your sin so you may repent?

Why do I love and worship Jesus?
Because I need him! Jesus is the arm of the LORD, extended to me for my salvation.

Thank you Jesus,
for the gift of my friends Amy, Shelley and Chris, who sharpen me;
for the gift of my husband, who criticises me when I need it;
for the love of all four of these people
and the fruit of repentance and obedience
they have yielded in my life.

Tomorrow's reading: Amos 5:1-27.

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