Saturday, July 16, 2005

Sermon on Isaiah 44:6-8

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The sermon text is Isaiah 44:6-8, (I’ve made a slight revision of the first verse to match with more accurate translations)

Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: “I am the first and last; apart from me there is no God. Who then is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and lay out before me what has happened since I established my ancient people, and what is yet to come—yes, let him foretell what will come. Do not tremble, do not be afraid. Did I not proclaim this and foretell it long ago? You are my witnesses. Is there any God besides me? No, there is no other Rock; I know not one.”

When the prophet Isaiah recorded these words, the Southern Kingdom of Judah was witnessing the Northern Kingdom of Israel fall to the Assyrian empire. The Assyrians were a ruthless people, known for their cruel warfare. It was a time of fear and uncertainty for both kingdoms of Israel, as their borders were pressed by this great and fearsome enemy. And in 722 BC, the Northern Kingdom fell. One of the earlier emperors of Assyria, Shalmaneser III, had boldly claimed that he was “the mighty king, king of the universe, the king without a rival, the autocrat, the powerful one of the four regions of the world, who shatters the might of the princes of the whole world, who has smashed all of his foes as pots” (Unger’s Bible Dictionary, p.120). Arrogant claims for a mere man—even for a great emperor—claims that verge on putting himself equal with a god. When men deny or forget God, they themselves become ‘gods’—legends in their own minds.

In many ways, the situation of the people of Judah was comparable to the one we find ourselves in today. Only we face the hidden threat of terrorists, posing danger on every side, with no respect for life, as we were so painfully reminded in London the other week. But the similarity is not only in that there was the constant threat and uncertainty of war—but that Judah found itself surrounded by polytheism—pagan religions that believed in many gods. Today you can find a small but growing number of self-proclaimed ‘neo-pagans,’ who are polytheistic, but the greater threat that we face in our times is that of religious ‘pluralism.’ The idea that all religions have an equal claim on the truth; that no single faith can claim to teach ‘absolute truth.’ Both for Judah then, and us now, the pressure is to give in and admit that our God is really no different, or at any rate not much better than any of the other gods or religious paths out there.

So this prophecy from Isaiah addressed their fundamental need to know who the true God is. They needed assurance that they had One True God who was able to deliver them from the hands of the Assyrians. Did they have a God strong enough to save from the might of the Assyrians, who boasted god-like powers in demolishing any nation that stood in the way of their imperial conquest? Ultimately, Judah would go into exile for their sins, but not under Assyria, whose boastful claims of power crumbled under the rise of a new Babylonian empire. And likewise we need the same assurance of the One True God so that we aren’t lost in a multiplicity of religions, and so that we know there is a Redeemer who can and does deliver us from the captivity of our sins.

First God declares who He is: the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts. He directly claims kingship over Israel, His chosen people, but no less does He claim kingship over all the earth (Ps 47:7). As such, He demands that He alone be worshipped: “You shall have no other gods beside me. What does this mean? We should fear, love, and trust in God above all things.” Part of the problem in Isaiah’s day was that people were worshipping the true God alongside worship of false gods—mixing true and false worship. Or, they would try to worship God in ways that He had not commanded, especially by offering sacrifices at unauthorized ‘high places.’ This idolatry and religious pluralism is what ultimately led Israel, and later Judah going into exile. And so we ask ourselves today: do we fear, love, and trust in God above all things? Or are we caving in to the claims of religious pluralism? Have we conceded to put Jesus as one god among many in the religious pantheon?

Its also interesting that God calls himself “his Redeemer, the Lord of Hosts” and says “I am the first and I am the last.” In the New Testament, we find Jesus saying almost the same exact words in the book of Revelation: “I am the alpha and the omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end” (Rev. 22:13). Jesus is our Redeemer, the eternal God from the beginning to the end, who redeemed us from the curse of the law and our empty way of life. So even here in the Old Testament, Jesus is referred to as the Redeemer, the first and the last. Not only is He the first and the last, He also says “apart from me there is no God.” This is especially important today as pluralism claims that God reveals Himself in different ways to different people. Contrary to that, God is only revealed through His Son Jesus, the first and the last. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also” (John 14:6-7a). Anyone that rejects Jesus, God’s Son, cannot truly know God the Father.

So when God declares in Isaiah that apart from Him there is no God, He follows this up with a challenge to any would-be ‘gods’ to prove themselves. How can they compare to the true God? He says, “Who then is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and lay out before me what has happened since I established my ancient people, and what is yet to come—yes let him foretell what will come.” God defies anyone to show himself to be God’s equal. The first part of the challenge is this: let any so-called god recount salvation history. Let’s see if any false god or prophet of a false god can show that he is eternal, just like the LORD is first and last. Can they recount what has happened since God established His ancient people? This may seem to be an odd challenge, until we remember that the record of salvation history, from Adam and Eve until now is really God’s “track record”—the proof throughout history that He is the true and only God who redeems His people. This was one of the primary ways that the church throughout the ages gives praise to God—by recounting the great deeds of salvation that He has done for us. Can any false god display such knowledge, or carry such a track record? But that is still too easy. The second part of God’s challenge is greater: let any pretenders also “foretell what will come.” Let these so-called gods predict the future—tell what is going to be! God alone knows the future with certainty, as He demonstrated time and again through His prophecies and their fulfillments, culminating in the fulfillment of all the prophetic word—Jesus Christ.

But again we come back to Judah, encircled by pagan enemies who would lead them into exile, mocking the true God; and to us, Christians encircled by competing religions and claims for truth, who mock any claim to one God as ‘intolerance.’ Yet from long ago God has called His people to believe that He is the One True God, and that all other gods are no gods at all. A God who is unapproachable in His majesty, enthroned in glory, armed with the might of the heavenly hosts, the armies of angels. Yet this almighty, powerful God, King of Israel and King of Kings and Lord of Lords, speaks gently with tender words to His people, His frightened creatures. Though surrounded by enemies both physical and spiritual, God whispers “Do not tremble, do not be afraid.” All these things—the persecution of the faith, the groaning of all creation under sin, the sin dwelling in our flesh—all of it has been proclaimed and foretold to us from long ago. Our life with its fears and dangers, and most of all with the challenges to our faith, happen just as He told us, from times forgotten. Yet He has set forth an eternal people of His choosing—throughout time He has set apart the godly for Himself (Ps. 4:3). He protects and redeems those who believe, and sets their feet on steady ground—the Rock of His Son Jesus Christ. Though a horde of demons and enemies of God should oppress us, the LORD of hosts is on our side, commanding the host of heavenly armies.

And the LORD calls us His witnesses! We are God’s witnesses of this salvation—seeing in Christ’s death on the cross His deliverance for us, and bearing witness of that salvation to others. Seeing Jesus as the very Rock of Refuge in which we hide securely from all evil. We have seen His glory, the glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. No one has ever seen God; the only God who is at the Father’s side has made Him known. Do you know what this means? What we have seen and are witnesses of? Only the most amazing thing ever! The God who is unapproachable in majesty has revealed Himself in humility to us as our Redeemer! The God who dwelt in heavenly splendor came down and met us here on earth, for the purpose of redeeming us to Him by dying on the cross for our sins. A thing utterly unheard of from any other religion! So we can truly say “Is there any God beside Him? No, there is no other Rock; I know not one!”

He is an eternal God, the first and the last—not a god that comes and goes with the latest trends, or only appeals to one age or culture or race or social status at the expense of others. But rather He is the eternal and unchanging God, who is relevant to all people at all times, because Jesus is more than just a quick fix for our ‘felt needs.’ He is instead the eternal answer to our greatest need, that unites all of humanity, regardless of age, color, or social standing. That need is release from sin, the universal problem of mankind, which meant death and separation from God. And there is no other god that is equal to the task of fixing this great separation. For no other god exists than the One God Jesus Christ, who has bridged the gap and approached us because He was unapproachable.

Truly an incomparable God! What can any other god offer? Only the One True God, Israel’s Redeemer, offers forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation by grace—as His free gift to us, paid (redeemed) for by His own blood. What other God suffers for His children, His own creation? What other God does not demand that that we earn our way into heaven, but rather descended to earth Himself to give it as a gift? What other God would suffer an ignoble death to pay for the crimes and sins His creation committed? Truly, there is no other Rock but Jesus Christ. Every religion claims a god or gods of power, but none have a God of mercy like the True God--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And no other religion ever claimed that God entered human flesh, died and rose again from the dead. Truly, a God like no other—a God who comes to us. And a God who would have us believe in Him and not fear false gods and the enemies of Christ Jesus. For we need have no fear when we are secure in the Rock who is like no other, Jesus Christ. Amen.

Now may the peace of God which passes all human understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.


R.M. Murphy said...

Awesome stuff Josh, I wish I could sit under Christ centered exposition like that every week. If I could nit-pick, I would like to hear more individual sins when you are preaching the law. Stuff that all sinners do to replace the true God with idols. Like money, sex, jobs, gossip. That stuff really crushes me, and makes me long for the Gospel. Thanks for posting, Good Job!


Josh Schneider said...

Thanks R.M. for the compliment! Good suggestions too ;)

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