Promise (Foundations #3)

How God answers human rebellion

Isaiah 65:17-25

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Credit: iStockphoto

So far in this series we have seen

1. How God created the universe, and it was very good.

2. How humanity rejected God, rebelling against his love and goodness through Adam and Eve’s act of defiance.

Today we will see

3. How God answers that rebellion. As we do, we may well find ourselves challenged and surprised.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Let’s start with a promise:

I was a young boy, maybe 5 years old. My mother had to take me to the family doctor to get a needle: I suppose it was some form of immunisation. There was a problem: I hate needles, and my mother was probably not too good at dealing with freaked out children.
But she had a stroke of genius the week before I was to have that fateful appointment.
She walked me into the paper shop – that’s what we used to call the newsagent in the town I was born – and pointed up on one of the shelves. It was blue ray gun that looked something like this. It was a young boy’s dream toy. The 1963 version of a light sabre.
I looked at that ray gun, and imagined the fun I could have with it. I may even have believed that with such a weapon I could keep my older sister in line. My imagination was held with my mother’s promise: ‘if you don’t make a fuss about the needle, you will get that ray gun…’

Pifco side edit

In that moment of parental genius, my mother did something divine: she saw a person gripped with fear and foreboding, and spoke a promise which drew them toward a better reality.

The Power of God’s Promise

This is how promises work: they capture our heart and point us to something better.

It happens when a man slips a diamond on the finger of his fiancé.

It happens when two people sit down and plan the holiday of a lifetime.

It happens when a young couple puts a deposit on their first home.

A promise will meet us where we are and direct our vision toward something better.

The greatest promise of all happened in Eden. Humanity was trapped in their own rebellion from God. Overcome with fear, they hid from God instead of trusting him.

What was God’s core reaction to that rejection? By core reaction, I mean the response which best expresses the character of the Lord? Our answer is seen in how God spoke right into that rebellion, and challenged it with a promise:

“…I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”” (Genesis 3:15, NIV)

Yes, human rebellion has its consequences. Grief, tears, pain, death and separation from God. What we need to see is how in the thick of all that, this gracious God set about his work of restoring his people and his world.

If you want to understand anything about God, this is where you start: God’s most basic inclination, his most basic response to human fall and rebellion is to draw people out of chaos and into his love life and grace. His promise draws a fearful and fallen humanity toward a better reality. He would send a deliverer, a Messiah, to crush the head of evil once and for all.

God’s most basic inclination, his most basic response to human fall and rebellion is to draw people out of chaos and into his love life and grace.

The Bible is really the story of God bringing this promise to fulfilment. The ancient writings of the Old Testament tell us how God opens the eyes of humanity to their own need and how he started to bring this rescue about.

We learn how he chose a relatively weak and insignificant people and formed them into the nation of Israel. Their call was to show what life was like when people lived in relationship with this God of promise.

We hear the manifesto for this fledgling nation in Ex 19:

“Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…” (Exodus 19:5–6, NIV)

The distinctive character of this nation living with God would be expressed as they lived by his commands (Exodus 20).

Israel’s history however, shows how they failed in their task. Despite his doubtless grief and anger at his people’s sin, God keeps working to bring his promise to reality.
He keeps calling his people back to life. While it is true that he meets them where they are, he refuses to leave them that way. He draws them into change and transformation. Despite their continued failing, and times where they are exiled and disciplined, he never breaks his word. He remains faith to his promise to deal with their rebellion, to restore them and their world.

The question that really interests us today is ‘What sort of restoration would this be? What does this promise entail?’

The Old Testament has many different voices and a rich texture of answers to that question. The most breathtaking vision of how this promise would come to fulfilment is found in the book of Isaiah.

Writing some 700 years before the birth of Jesus Christ, Isaiah presents such a vista of hope and transformation that we can scarcely believe it. This is not because it seems untrue, but because it is so all encompassing and universal in its scope. Isaiah mentions three contexts in which God’s restoration will be seen.

First: God will act to reconcile humanity to himself. He will do this by dealing with the core problem of humanity: the rebellious disposition of the human heart.

“Come now, let us settle the matter,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” (Isaiah 1:18, NIV)

How will that happen?

Isaiah says this rescue will come through one identified as ‘The Servant of the Lord.’ This servant will become a sacrifice. He will take on the form of an abject, innocent man who willingly suffers for the wrongs of his people (Isaiah 53:3-6).

Second: Not only does God promise to reconcile people to himself, his act through his servant will have such magnitude that it will will impact on human relationships and reconcile people to each other. Relationships will be healed and the human heart transformed to such an extent that evil and injustice and violence will ultimately be overcome (Isaiah 61:1-3).

Third: (as if the first two contexts were not enough) Isaiah’s panorama of promise widens to something absolutely stupendous. How? Well, we know that creation groans with the weight of sin and the smell of the fall. We see this in natural disasters, in animal predation and environmental imbalance. We see it in unjust societal structures, in broken communities, abusive institutions, in warfare and genocide. Isaiah, however, points us to a new day when the servant’s actions will not only change human hearts and human relationships, his work of rescue will transform all created reality (Isaiah 65:17, 19, 25).

This is what Isaiah is saying: People will be reconciled to God. People will be reconciled to one another. People will be reconciled to their environment, society will be healed, and the brokenness of our universe will ultimately be overcome.

There’s the promise: God will act – through the servant – whom Christians understand to be Jesus – to rescue people and their world from their rebellion and all its consequences.

The scope of the promise

What are we to make of all this? If we are trying to come to terms with the core realities of Christianity, with the central truths of who Jesus is, what does Creation – Rebellion – Promise mean?

The first implication is that God – and his plan of salvation – is as concerned with physical realities as much as spiritual realities. In fact, they cannot be separated. One is not more important than another.

Some may be surprised about this. They have focussed so long on heaven and ‘spiritual things’ that there is hardly a thought to this world or the crying needs of people in it. The truth is that the kind of spirituality which elevates spiritual above physical, soul above body, heaven above earth, does not have its roots in the Bible, but in ancient Greek philosophers like Plato. But because western culture has been built on this foundation, people almost automatically understand that ‘spiritual’ things are more valuable to God than physical. Isaiah’s words challenge our assumptions as much as the work of the servant will transform our culture.

We do need to take care, however. We do not know all the detail of what the new heavens and the new earth will be like. And we should take great care with the symbolism and imagery employed by Bible writers. Will lions really eat straw like an ox? We don’t really know, but we do understand Isaiah’s intention: the sort of animal violence typified in the lion’s hunt will be a subject of a beautiful and radical transformation in the new heavens and the new earth which the servant will bring.

There are simply so many passages in the Bible which speak of a new world, a recreated and transformed reality where heaven and earth are reunited, that we cannot ignore them.

A second implication follows from the first: Christian ministry and mission is one of word and deed. Christians cannot seek to address spiritual matters while at the same time ignoring the physical needs of the world around them. Similarly, Christians cannot simply address physical needs of their world without also addressing the spiritual situation of people and society.

We observe this very clearly in Jesus’ ministry, where he not only taught the crowds who followed him, and saw them as sheep without a shepherd, he also fed them. Jesus addressed then whole person in his ministry. His church should do the same.

This is why when Jesus opens his ministry he not only talks about pardon from sin and rebellion, but of transformation of people and their world.

““The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”” (Luke 4:18–21, NIV)

This is why James the apostle says:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:14–17, NIV)

And it is why Paul sees the work of Jesus on the cross as not merely impacting the human soul, or matters of faith, or religious ideas. He sees Jesus’ work as impacting the entire cosmos:

“The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Colossians 1:15–20, NIV)

The Impact of Promise: We Are a People of Hope

Perhaps the greatest implication is that God’s people are people of real hope! Christianity is a world affirming, creation redeeming faith. Christians are people who are not just thinking about the Bible, but because they are thinking about their world and the community in which they live.

Christians are people who don’t just have faith in their head and their hearts, they have faith in their hands. A Christian is not simply someone with religious ideas, or someone who has made some deep commitments. A Christian is someone who is active in living out their faith. Someone in whom the transformational work of Jesus is coming to increasing expression in their behaviour, their actions, their words.

This is why at Gateway Community Church we have three core areas of our vision and mission: we want to grow transformed disciples, we want to build a new community of people, and we want to take the positive and transformational change of the gospel into our local community. If we fail on any of those three counts, we actually fail the mission of God and we fail to be his people of promise.

Christians are not simply people who believe the bible, but because they believe the Bible they are also deeply troubled that

there are 30 million slaves in our world today

average life expectancy of indigenous people is some 10 years below that of other Australians

some of the most vulnerable people have no right to legal support or process even in our own courts

• there are people in our own community who struggle to heat their homes and put a square meal on the table

So, yes, we look at our world and it is not hard to sense the fall all around us. But God’s promise in Jesus meets us where we are and draws us toward a more glorious reality. It is a promise expressed in the Christmas Carol “O Holy Night”

A thrill of hope! The weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn!

Did you know that? Because God is faithful to his promise, a new day is dawning!

Did you know that this is how God answers human rebellion?

Yes, there are consequences to this rebellion, and those consequences are dire. But God’s promise of a new and glorious morn is greater and more powerful than any threat of death or any penalty or curse of sin. This promise tells us One will come who will redeem us and our world from the curse of the law and from the ugly stain of our own rebellion.

There’s the promise, right there! And we are thrilled to hear that at the core of this God’s heart there is not retribution or anger or the rage of a despot, but something wonderful:

“This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 John 4:9–10, NIV)

Here is the miracle: through the lens of the Old Testament, we see God’s first promise in Genesis 3:15 narrow, and come to sharp focus on a nondescript stable. A young mother had just laid her baby in a manger for his bed. And sharper still, thirty years later, as this son, naked again, is laid on the rough timber of a cross, and then suffers hell for his people and their world.

Why?

Because our God keeps his promises. And when his world is broken, he must act according to his nature, and get to work putting it all back together again.

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