Called to the Stand

When God decides to purify His people, He will do so, and nothing will stand in his way.

Anson Kroeker on March 27, 2022
Called to the Stand
March 27, 2022

Called to the Stand

Passage: Isaiah 1:1-31
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“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable,” or useful, as 2 Timothy 3:16 says. All Scripture is God’s word, and all Scripture is good for us. Those are the convictions that drive the preaching here at EBC, and those convictions now bring us to the book of Isaiah.

Back in 2020 we began a new pattern on Sunday mornings where our goal is to preach through all six major sections of the Bible in a two year period. If all Scripture is God-breathed than we want to make sure we’re listening to all of it.

Bask in the fall we spent time in Joshua, one of the former prophets according to the Hebrew bible. And today we come to the book of Isaiah, who was considered one of the latter prophets. And in the next 11 weeks we’ll be working our way through the first 12 chapters of this book.

And at the outset, I’ll be honest with you: I find the prophets kind of intimidating. Throughout my life I’ve struggled to understand them and I’ve always imagined that preaching through a book like Isaiah would be quite a challenge.

But that’s why I’m so glad we are doing what we’re doing, because already this week I’ve learnt so much as I’ve studied this first chapter. And I’m sure Josh, who will be preaching next week, would say the same. This is going to be a good experience for the preachers and the listeners alike.

One of the books that has helped me get into the message of Isaiah is this volume, “Isaiah by the Day.” Alec Motyer was a highly respected Old Testament scholar who spent years studying and teaching the book of Isaiah, and in this volume he’s bundled it all up in a devotional format which is readable and accessible by just about anybody. I’ve found this to be a really good guide to the book and I’d encourage you to get a copy and use it in your daily devotions. You could order it on Amazon or talk to Angela and I’m sure she could get you some copies in through the NBC bookstore.

Something else I want to encourage you with is to read along week-by-week as we work through these first 12 chapters. Given the nature of Isaiah and the long sections of poetry that form these chapters, there will be many weeks where we won’t read or comment on every single verse here on Sundays. We included a series outline in your bulletin so you can pre-read the passage we’ll be getting into each week.

Introducing Isaiah

So let’s turn our attention to Isaiah itself and ask a few questions to get familiar with this book. Let’s start by asking about Isaiah himself. Who was this man?

The answer is that we don’t really know. Verse 1 tells us who his father was, but we don’t know anything about Amoz either. We know that Isaiah’s name, in Hebrew, means “Yahweh is Salvation,” which is a great summary of his message and ministry.

But other than that, we don’t actually know too much about him. That’s surely on purpose—Isaiah wanted the focus to be on his message, not on him.

While we don’t know much about him, we do know when he ministered, because verse 1 tells us that he received these visions from God about Judah and Jerusalem in the days of “Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Isaiah 1:1).

So, Isaiah ministered in the southern kingdom of Judah over a period of 40-60 years, from around 740-680 BC. You can read about the reigns of these different kings in 2 Kings 15-20 and 2 Chronicles 26-32, but I can sum this period up by saying that it was a twilight season for the people of God.

It was during these years that the northern kingdom of Israel was invaded and completely obliterated by Assyria. Assyria then moved in to threaten the southern kingdom of Judah, and those events actually factor large into Isaiah’s ministry.

God protected Judah from the Assyrian empire, but as a whole the nation was still going downhill. And it was only another 75 years or so after Isaiah’s ministry that Babylon first invaded Judah, and another 20 years or so after that when they destroyed Jerusalem completely.

So Isaiah is in these twilight years when night is coming. Down in Jerusalem, they watch as Assyria gobbles up their brothers to the north. And much of Isaiah’s ministry speaks to the fact that the same thing is going to happen to Judah and Jerusalem in the south. Like most of the prophets, Isaiah prophecies that judgement is coming.

But on the other side of that judgement is hope. That is a major theme in Isaiah and, in particular, this first section of the book. Yes, God’s people are in rough shape and judgement is coming because of their persistent rebellion. But God will not let that be the end of His people’s story. Grace will triumph.

And that’s why we’re calling this series “The Triumph of Grace.” That’s the message that shines out in Isaiah and in particular these first few chapters. Grace will triumph. And that grace will come in the form of a person—the Messiah. Isaiah turns our attention again and again to the coming Saviour. And I’m so excited to get to look at some of these familiar passages with you in the weeks ahead.

Now just a few more words about the structure of Isaiah. Isaiah is a big book and it’s broken up into a few major sections. And in this series, we’re going to be looking at the first two sections. The first section, from chapters 1-5, is best understood as the preface of the book. When you pick up a book often there’s an author’s foreword or preface that sets up the book and introduces its main themes for you. And that’s what chapters 1-5 are. These were likely messages delivered by Isaiah at different points in his ministry that, together, give us a big overview of the book and it’s themes.

And then chapters 6-12 form the first section of Isaiah, zooming in on this idea of the triumph of grace—that God is redefining the future of His people on pure grace.

And so that brings us to today’s passage. We read the first 20 verses of chapter 1 together, but we’ll be considering all of chapter 1 together. And what we have in chapter 1 here is a general introduction to the book of Isaiah. Chapter 1 sets up the themes of the people’s sin, the coming judgement, and the hope that lay on the other side of that judgement.

The setting here in chapter 1 is like a courtroom drama or a lawsuit. Look there in verse 2: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth; for the Lord has spoken: ‘Children have I reared and brought up, but they have rebelled against me’” (Isaiah 1:2). What God is doing here is pressing charges against his people, and he has called the heavens and the earth to the witness stand. And this kind of legal, lawsuit language persists throughout the rest of the chapter.

This idea of a lawsuit between God and His people might seem strange to you, but it would have made perfect sense to the first readers of Isaiah. They understood that they were in a covenant with God. And in the ancient world, when someone broke a covenant, this is what you would do: you’d bring them to court, call witnesses, and press your charges against them.

Back in Deuteronomy 30, as God formalized the covenant between Him and the people just about to cross over the Jordan, he said, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse” (Deuteronomy 30:19). Those were the terms of the covenant: blessings for obedience, curses for disobedience, with heaven and earth as witnesses.

And here, roughly 500-600 years later, God’s people have broken that covenant. Again and again and again. And so, through Isaiah, God presses charges.

The main charge is rebellion, in verse 2. Though the people of Judah were God’s own children, they had rebelled against him and acted even worse than animals. Oxen and donkeys know their masters, but Israel doesn’t know their God. Verse 4 shows the exasperation that God expresses towards his people’s sin: “Ah, sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, offspring of evildoers, children who deal corruptly! They have forsaken the Lord, they have despised the Holy One of Israel, they are utterly estranged” (Isaiah 1:4).

The goal of God’s covenant with Israel was that they would be His people, and He would be their God. But here, these corrupt people, weighed down with sin, are totally alienated from the Lord.

And, as a result, they’ve already started so suffer the consequences for their rebellion—the covenant curses God promised would come to them. But it hasn’t made any different. Verse 5 points to their crazy, wild pursuit of sin despite the pain it’s causing them: “Why will you still be struck down? Why will you continue to rebel? The whole head is sick, and the whole heart faint” (Isaiah 1:5).

These words, and into verse 6, picture the nation as if it were a person, beat up and bleeding from wounds they’ve brought on themselves. Verse 7 makes the point of this word-picture clear: “Your country lies desolate; your cities are burned with fire; in your very presence foreigners devour your land; it is desolate, as overthrown by foreigners” (Isaiah 1:7).

Once again, these are the very things God promised would happen if His people broke the covenant. And so complete have these troubles been that, verse 9, “If the Lord of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we should have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah” (Isaiah 1:9).

That’s how bad things have gotten. Judah has come close to being completely destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah. And it hasn’t made a difference. They’ve continued to charge ahead in their head-strong sin.

But do you notice, there in verse 9, a glimmer of mercy? Despite what they deserved, God had left them a few survivors. There is grace in the midst of the judgement.

Sunday Christians

And that’s the situation that verses 2-9 have set up the situation for us. Judah is in bad shape for breaking the covenant, and the mercy of God is the only thing keeping them from being completely wiped out.

And at this point, it seems like God anticipates a response from His people. Remember, this whole chapter is like a court case, and they’d surely want to say a few things in their defence.

And if we look at this next section, from verses 10-20, it’s almost as if God knows the people are about to say something like this: “Yes, but we haven’t been that bad! We haven’t totally broken the covenant. We’re in the temple all the time, praying and offering sacrifices. We keep all the feasts and special gatherings to a tee. How can you say we’ve broken the covenant?”

If we look at verses 10-20, all of that is clear. For everything they were doing wrong, the people were at least doing the temple stuff right. They were at least following that part of the law. And it would be pretty easy for them to think, “Hey, as long as I keep going to the temple and offering the right sacrifices, I’m good with God.”

But that’s not the case. Look at verse 10: “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah! ‘What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the Lord; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of well-fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. ‘When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations— I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them’” (Isaiah 1:10–14).

Yes, Judah has been consistent with the temple worship—and God hates it. He can’t stand their sacrifices. When they come in to the temple, it’s like they’re just trampling his courts. When they burn incense, it’s abominable to Him. He’s tired of having to endure their religious celebrations.

Now why is that? Aren’t all of these things—the sacrifices, the worship in the temple—what God commanded them to do and carefully obey? Wasn’t this temple worship a major part of his covenant?

The answer is yet. But there’s more going on here. Verse 13 points us in the right direction—“I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.” And it’s made clear in verse 15: “When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”

Have you ever met one of those people who lives like the devil from Monday to Saturday but faithfully goes to church on Sunday, all dressed up, and thinks that everything is okay? Have you ever been that person? That’s exactly what God’s people were doing here. They were showing up to their solemn assembly full of sin. They would murder someone on Friday and then show up on Saturday, lifting up their hands to pray.

And even though they had washed their hands, in God’s eyes they were full of blood. And He was not impressed with their empty, formal religion.

In verses 16-17 God tells them what he’s interested in. Not empty religion but genuine obedience and real justice. “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.”

That’s the kind of righteousness God is interested in. Notice especially God’s concern for the truly vulnerable. In that culture, widows and orphans were so often exploited by the wicked. And without that righteousness and justice, all of their acts at the temple were empty and worthless.

Now once again, as this section draws to a close, there is a note of grace. Verse 18: “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord.” That word “reason” is a legal word used in court disputes like this. God is encouraging His people to interact with Him this courtroom setting. And what does he offer to them?

“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” (Isaiah 1:18).

Their empty sacrifices at the temple weren’t doing a thing, but real forgiveness was available to them. How? Verse 19-20: “If you are willing and obedient, you shall eat the good of the land; but if you refuse and rebel, you shall be eaten by the sword; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

So there it is. All of their religious performance wasn’t worth a thing, but if they turned from their sin and obeyed there would be forgiveness and a clean slate. But if not, judgement was inevitable.

The Triumph of Grace

There’s one final section in our passage today, from verse 21 down to 31. And this passage really sums up the big ideas we’ve seen so far, and drives home one of the most important themes in the whole book of Isaiah.

It starts by summing up the sins of the people. “How the faithful city has become a whore, she who was full of justice! Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers. Your silver has become dross, your best wine mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them” (Isaiah 1:21–23).

Instead of being a faithful wife, Jerusalem has been like a prostitute, chasing after foreign gods. Instead of being a place of righteousness, she’s become a home for murderers. Everyone, from the rulers on down, has become corrupt, using their power to oppress the poor and the vulnerable among them.

And one of the key statements in here is there in verse 22—“Your silver has become dross.” When you mine silver, it doesn’t come out of the ground as pure silver. It’s got other things mixed in with it. And so the refiner of silver would heat it up, and all of the junk and the impurities rises up to the surface. That junk was called “dross.”

And what God is saying, when he says that “your silver has become dross,” is that Judah and Jerusalem aren’t part good and part bad. They are all bad. Their best is just garbage. That’s how bad things have gotten.

So those are the charges brought forward in this court case. With heaven and earth as witness, God has demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that His people have broken His covenant, and they have no defence. They are guilty as charged.

So, what is God going to do about all of this? What is the judgement that is going to be handed down? Consider for moment what the people actually deserve. Consider what justice demands. And with that in mind, hear verse 24: “Therefore the Lord declares, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: ‘Ah, I will get relief from my enemies and avenge myself on my foes.’”

God is not going to put up with this. So what’s he going to do? Verse 25: “I will turn my hand against you.” That sounds serious, right? This sounds the final judgement. The end for Jerusalem. But not so fast. Keep reading.

“And will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy. And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city. Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness” (Isaiah 1:26-27).

God is not going to put up with His people’s wickedness. So what’s he going to do? He’s going to take it away. He’s going to purify them like a refiner of silver, burning away all of the impurities and somehow, miraculously, putting pure silver in its place.

He’s going to give them righteous leaders. And when He’s done, this city is going to be a place of righteousness and faithfulness and justice.

This is the triumph of grace. Real, powerful grace. Not just turning a blind eye to sin. That’s not grace. But actually stepping in to deal with sin and remove it and replace it with real, solid righteousness—that’s grace. And God’s grace is going to triumph over the sin of his people. It will. Nothing can stop it.

Now, we should notice that there is an option here for those who won’t repent. Even though God has spoken of Jerusalem as a whole, Jerusalem is made up of individuals. And how those individuals respond to God’s grace matters.

Yes, “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness. But rebels and sinners shall be broken together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed” (Isaiah 1:27–28).

Those who persist in rebellion will find that God’s judgement does come, and there will be no hope for them. And the final three verses of our chapter describe that those who don’t repent will be ashamed of the oaks and the gardens where they worshipped false gods, and that like a bad tree they will shrivel up and die. “And the strong shall become tinder, and his work a spark, and both of them shall burn together, with none to quench them” (Isaiah 1:31).

So, for those who persist in being unrepentant, there will be judgement. That’s not a surprise. That’s not astonishing—or at least it shouldn’t be.

But what is astonishing is the grace and mercy promised just a few verses up. God will come in His grace to triumph and make His repentant people clean and new again. This will happen.

And we know when and how this happened. These promises were fulfilled when Christ came to die for his runaway bride. Ephesians 5:25 says that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 5:25–27).

That’s what Jesus did when He died and rose again and sent His spirit. That’s what Jesus is still doing today as He works in His bridge through the word and Spirit to make us beautiful.

And men, we’ll be considering the first part of verse 25 tonight, where husbands are told to love their wives like this, but here I just want us to see what Jesus has done and is doing for His people.

And one day these promises will be perfectly fulfilled one day when Christ returns to make all things new. The perfection of the people of God is pictured in Revelation 21 when an angel says to John, “‘Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal’” (Revelation 21:9–11).

While there may be an actual New Jerusalem in the New Creation, it’s very clear that the vision John sees there in Revelation 21 is a symbol of the people of God. That’s what the angels says—“I will show you the Bride, the wife of the lamb.” Just like Revelation uses symbolic pictures of dragons and beasts, here we see the picture of a perfect city to show us the purified church, made up of all of God’s people from all ages, like Ephesians 2 describes.

And verse 27 says that “nothing unclean will ever enter it.” That’s the final victory God wins over the sin of His people. When God decides to purify His people, He will do so, and nothing will stand in his way.

And that vision in Revelation is the final fulfillment of God’s words here in Isaiah 1:26. Corrupt Jerusalem becomes the New Jerusalem, the purified people of God, made holy and dazzling forever.

What About Today?

So what about today? I think it’s clear that there’s a lot we can learn from a passage like this. We can learn about the crazy wildness of sin, and how those who fall into its power hurt themselves again and again.

We can learn about how much God hates formal religion. God does not care how religious you are if He doesn’t have your heart.

We can learn about God’s heart for the truly vulnerable—the widows and the fatherless who had nobody to protect them—and how we should share that same concern for the truly vulnerable among us today.

But I want us to end by focusing on two directions. First, let’s remember that God cares about His people’s holiness. That’s important for us to remember here, still in the middle of that story, still in the middle of this process. Jesus has come, our sins have been paid for, we have been washed, even as we wait for His return and our final battles with sin to be over.

And we have a part to play in this process of holiness today. Over and over again the New Testament tells us to put off our sin and to put on Christ. As we trust in Christ’s promises, we have an active role to play in putting our sin to death. And because this process is empowered by the Holy Spirit, this is one of the ways that Jesus is purifying His people today.

So, let me ask: do you look more like Jesus than you did a year ago? And if not, why not?

I hope today’s passage gives you a strong sense of God’s passion for His people’s holiness and I pray that God’s passion will become your passion.

But the final note I want to end on is just a celebration of God’s mercy. Look at how his grace triumphs. Look at how nothing—not even death itself—can stand in His way. Be encouraged, you who are fighting tooth-and-nail against sin in your own heart, or as you watch and pray and help others doing the same.

God’s transforming mercy is bigger and deeper than all of our sin put together. He will get relief from his enemies. He will deal with His people’s sin. The bride will be perfect.

So we can rest in that knowledge. We can resist sin in that knowledge. And we can rejoice in that knowledge.

And I just want to encourage you today that if you’ve never come to Jesus for forgiveness or cleansing before, today can be the day. No matter how many your sins are, His mercy is more.

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