HOW ARE WE SAVED?
… you, O LORD, are our Father, our Redeemer from of old is your name. Why, O LORD, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance.
… Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you! For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways. But when we continued to sin against them, you were angry. How then can we be saved? All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins. Yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand.
There is always a debate on which prayer is better, an ex corde prayer or one that is written out like in a prayer book. Ex corde prayers are prayers you make up as you speak. Some say these are better prayers because they come from the heart. On the other hand, some say written out prayers are better because they are carefully thought out and may include things we didn’t think of. Another nice thing about prayer books is they include all sorts of prayers for all sorts of situations. Some prayers may not apply to you now, but a day may come when one of these prayers does apply. For example, in a prayer book there may be a prayer for the birth of a child. If you are single or unmarried, this prayer may not seem very appropriate. But when you are blessed with a baby, then this prayer is very appropriate. The truth is, both types of prayers, ex corde or written, are good and both have a place.
Isaiah is writing a prayer in this chapter. By God’s inspiration, Isaiah foresaw the captivity and the destruction of the temple that will come about a hundred years in the future. Knowing that, and moved by God the Holy Spirit, Isaiah wrote this prayer. You can imagine the Israelites of Isaiah’s day reading this prayer and saying, “What? The temple in ruins? We living as exiles? I don’t need this prayer.” This prayer did not make sense them because none of those events happened. But later, when all of this took place, this prayer would suddenly mean something to them.
As we study this prayer, we quickly learn that it wasn’t written only for sad Israelites sitting in captivity in some foreign land. It is written also for you and me. This prayer is asking God to come and help us. And we need his help. But the question is how, “How should God help us?” Is it better for God to help us with a display of his awesome power or with his gracious love?
I. With a display of his mighty power?
How long does it take water to boil? Even if you set the dial to the highest setting, how long will it take? Five minutes? Seven minutes? Now imagine how powerful something has to be to boil water in a millisecond. Or imagine how hot it has to be to cause wood to instantly burst into flames. That is what Isaiah prays for.
“Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains would tremble before you! As when fire sets twigs ablaze and causes water to boil, come down to make your name known to your enemies and cause the nations to quake before you!” Isaiah is asking God to tear down the great curtain that separates heaven from earth with such power that it would cause all the mountains to shake and fall apart, that wood would instantly burst into flames and the oceans and lakes instantly start to boil.
It is not wrong for Isaiah to pray this way. God has used his awesome power before. “For when you did awesome things that we did not expect, you came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.” Isaiah is remembering the good old days. Certainly he was thinking of the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. He was thinking of the walls of Jericho falling down.
Wouldn’t that be great to see that today? Imagine the next Nobel conference where many deny the existence of God, and God rends the heavens and asks, “Where were you when I made the heavens and the earth?” Wouldn’t it be awesome if some liberal pastor denies that the Bible is God’s Word and Christ appears in a blinding light, knocks him to the ground, and asks, “Why do you persecute me?” It would make a difference, wouldn’t it, if there was a person who has neglected God for some time and suddenly his cat or dog speaks and asks, “Why do you hate God?”
That would be awesome, but would it help? Maybe, but only for a short time. Read through the book of Judges and how many times God miraculously delivered his people from foreign oppressors only to have them go back to worshiping idols. Look at the Israelites before Mt. Sinai. The mountain shook and terrified them, but within days they built a golden calf and called it god.
We can be just as fickle. We have numerous cable options and satellite TV and internet TV. We have at our disposal thirty, eighty, even three hundred stations to watch. All we have to do is push a button. If it doesn’t capture your attention, just keep pushing buttons until something does. That’s how people approach God. Entertain us and keep our attention or we will turn the channel. God didn’t answer your prayer in the way you wanted, so turn God off. Many times people were interested in Jesus’ miracles and not in Jesus the Savior, so he refused to do the miracles. And remember what Abraham said to the rich man languishing in hell? He wanted Lazarus to rise from the dead and appear to his brothers so they would not go to hell, too, and Abraham said it would not work. They have the Bible. If they don’t listen to it, then dead men coming back to life would do them no good.
Yes, a display of God’s power would be awesome. I’m sure it would increase church attendance for a while. It would increase offerings for a while. It would make troubled husbands and wives think twice before ending their marriage for a while. But will it save us? No. As much as we would like to think, a display of God’s almighty power simply cannot scare anyone into heaven. The only thing that can save us is a display of another kind of power, the power of God’s love.
II. A display of God’s love.
God used Isaiah to prophesy the destruction of Israel. Isaiah could have easily said to his congregation, “It is all your fault.” Isaiah didn’t bow down to the false gods. They did. Isaiah didn’t ignore God like the others. “I’m glad I’m not like them,” he could have said. But he didn’t. “But when WE continued to sin,”he confessed. “How can WE be saved? All of US have become like one who is unclean, and all OUR righteous acts are like filthy rags; WE all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind OUR sins sweep us away. . . . For you have hidden your face from US and made US waste away because of OUR sins.” Even though he didn’t bow down to a false god, Isaiah still calls himself an idolater. Even though he didn’t kill anyone, he calls himself a murderer. Isaiah knew full well that the best any man can do before God, including himself, is nothing but filthy rags.
Isaiah then describes man’s hopeless condition. “We all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” Sin makes us lifeless and useless before God like dead leaves blown around the neighborhood. There are still leaves cluttering our backyard. They are a nuisance and deserve to be taken to the dump. That is the sinner. No wonder Isaiah laments, “How can we be saved?”
“Yet, O LORD, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand." “Yet,” Isaiah says. Despite all he confessed earlier, despite the fact that we are like shriveled leaves, yet the Lord is our Father. Let’s go back to what Isaiah prayed earlier. “Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. You come to the help of those who gladly do right, who remember your ways.” The Lord promises to act on behalf of those who wait for him. Only he comes and saves us in ways that we don’t expect. Who would have thought that the Lord would deliver his people with ten plagues? When the Israelites were pinned between the Red Sea and Pharaoh’s army, who could have imagined that God would deliver them by parting the sea?
And so it is with our deliverance from sin. Who would have thought that God would send his one and only son to earth as a lowly human? Who could have imagined that God saves us by offering up his own son as a sacrifice for the sins of the world? What human mind would have ever conceived the open tomb and the resurrection on the third day? What logic is there that a little water with God’s Word washes way sin, or that Christ’s body and blood are truly present in Holy Communion? It is against all human reason that the Lord , who must turn his face away in disgust because of sin, would forgive us and promise us eternal life?
Yet, that is what the Lord does it. It doesn’t make sense, but it is real. And we are the happy recipients of the Lord’s awesome deliverance. We are merely clay in the skillful hands of the potter, the Lord. We are God’s workmanship. You may have heard of the phrase, “Give a man a meal, you feed him for a day. Give a man a plow, you feed him for a lifetime.” Well, it could be said, “If God performs a miracle in your life, he saves you for a day. If he comes to you with his love and the gospel of Jesus Christ, he saves you for eternity.” So it is better God displays his awesome love.
This Christmas I want you to marvel at the angels in the sky; what a sight that must have been. But marvel more at God laying in the manger as a man, coming to die for our sins. That means more to us. INJ Amen.