Things Aren't Always What They Seem
A sermon based on Isaiah 51:1-8
Monday, December 31, 2012 – New Year's Eve
Want to see something cool? I can pull my thumb right off my hand and put it back on. (Demonstrate.) Pretty cool, huh? Not just anyone can pull that trick off. It takes years of practice and hard work to make it look real. But of course, I didn't really remove my thumb. It's only an illusion, and not a very good one at that.
Some illusions can be very entertaining. Renowned illusionist, David Copperfield, does a much better job at making the Statue of Liberty or a Boeing 747 vanish into thin air or at appearing to levitate over the Grand Canyon, than I do at taking off my thumb. But even with the most convincing illusions we know that things aren't always what they seem.
That's often how it is with God. Reality is hidden beneath what is seen. As we struggle with finances, with relationships and with sin, it often seems as if we were losing. When we face such challenges, our futures appears to be uncertain. But things aren't always what they seem.
As we look back over another year now drawing to a close and look ahead to a new year to come, we do well to keep in mind that things aren't always what they seem, that in spite of what we see and feel, we are victorious and our salvation in Christ is very near. We know this is true because of the certain Word of God, and not because of the cheap parlor tricks of what we see or feel. Listen now to Isaiah's comforting reminder that things aren't always what they seem, recorded for us in Isaiah 51:1-8…
"Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; 2 look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. When I called him he was but one, and I blessed him and made him many. 3 The Lord will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the Lord. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing. 4 "Listen to me, my people; hear me, my nation: The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations. 5 My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations. The islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm. 6 Lift up your eyes to the heavens, look at the earth beneath; the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies. But my salvation will last forever, my righteousness will never fail. 7 "Hear me, you who know what is right, you people who have my law in your hearts: Do not fear the reproach of men or be terrified by their insults. 8 For the moth will eat them up like a garment; the worm will devour them like wool. But my righteousness will last forever, my salvation through all generations."
Because of their sin, God's people had been carried away in captivity. But God promised that this discipline wouldn't last forever. But seventy years of captivity was a long time to wait. And God's people started to lose patience. And they started to lose hope. They looked around and saw that they were still slaves. They were weaker than they were when they arrived in Babylon, not stronger. They heard reports of how the city of Jerusalem lay in ruins, their fathers' fields full of weeds and stones, the temple itself a pile of rubble. It seemed as if there was no hope at all of ever enjoying the land God had promised to their ancestors.
But things weren't what they seemed. God would deliver them soon in spite of all appearances. He would lead them back to their homeland and cause them to prosper again. So he told them, through Isaiah, to rejoice in spite of the evidence because their deliverance was near.
And to encourage their despairing hearts, he reminded them that things aren't always what they seem by pointing them to Abraham. "Look at Abraham," he reminded them, "your ancestor, the rock from which you were cut. Things seemed pretty hopeless for him too." He was 75 years old when God promised him a son. His wife, Sarah, 65. Not exactly the prime of their child-bearing years anymore. Sarah was barren. Abraham as good as dead. And how hopeless it must have seemed when year after year after year, they still had no son from God. It seemed about as likely for a rock to have a baby as it did for this elderly couple.
And yet, look what happened. Twenty-five years after the promise was made, when Abraham was 100 years old and his wife was 90, God gave them a son, Isaac. And from that son, the nation of Israel was born.
But what's God's point? What lesson did he want the Babylonian captives to learn? Things aren't always what they seem. It seemed like Abraham and Sarah would die childless, but that's not what happened. God was teaching the captives that if God could produce a multitude of descendants from this naturally barren pair, if he could work this miracle, defying nature, contrary to all reason, he could do the same in their lives as well…
"Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; 2 look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth. When I called him he was but one, and I blessed him and made him many." If he can do that, Isaiah argues, then you can certainly trust God when he says he… "will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the Lord. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing."
And God did deliver them out of Babylon. He led them home to rebuild the temple, to rebuild their homes, to rebuild their lives. God's promise rang true… in spite of all appearances to the contrary.
When you look back at this past year, what do you see? Do you see broken resolutions? Do you see mistakes you've made, failed plans and failed commitments? When you look into your soul, what do you see? Do you see one who has always loved God with all of your heart and all of your soul and all of your mind in all of your ways for all of 2012? Do you see a perfect, sinless saint? Or do you see a sinner, with broken resolutions made to God and failures to keep his commands. I know what I see when I examine my life in the mirror of God's law—and it isn't pretty.
When you look ahead to the year to come, what do you see? A weakened economy? Concerns about your job? About your health? About your relationships? Does the future seem rosy and bright and full of hope? Or does it at times look pretty bleak? Does it seem like Christ is coming to deliver us from this world of grief and pain, of stress and sickness, injury and guilt and shame? He hasn't come for almost 2,000 years! So sometimes it seems that this life is all there is and the promise of heaven is just an illusion.
But friends, things aren't always as they seem! This life is the illusion, no more real than me pulling my thumb off. You want to know what's real? Look at what God says: 3 The Lord will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the Lord. Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing. 4 "Listen to me, my people; hear me, my nation: The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations. 5 My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations….
Christ did come to earth and die on a cross though we weren't there to witness it. He did remove all of our sins though it seems like our sins cling to us each day. He did rise again to defeat death, though we see death all around us. And in spite of appearances, you are a perfect, sinless saint. In spite of appearances, you know that this world won't last. In spite of appearances, you are heaven bound. That's not an illusion. It's reality. Things aren't always what they seem.
And so we have hope for the future. 2013 does look rosy and bright. Not because God promised that the economy will recover or our national enemies will all be destroyed, not because he promised we'll be personally prosperous or have every relationship restored, but because we know God's promises of grace, that "[his] righteousness draws near speedily, [his] salvation is on the way…" and because we know this salvation isn't a temporary, fleeting illusion for this lifetime, but will be reality for eternity.
When David Copperfield pulls off an illusion, eventually the Statue of Liberty reappears or he comes back to the ground to walk around like the rest of us. His illusions are a temporary diversion from reality. But when God brings his righteousness, salvation and justice, it will be more than an illusion, but a new reality; one that will last forever. He says…
6 Lift up your eyes to the heavens, look at the earth beneath; the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants die like flies. But my salvation will last forever, my righteousness will never fail… my righteousness will last forever, my salvation through all generations."
Clearly these verses speak about more than just a deliverance from a few Babylonian captors. That deliverance wouldn't last through all generations. But the deliverance God led Isaiah to speak of in these verses would outlast the very heavens and earth themselves. It would last forever… never fail… through all generations. This is the greater deliverance of the promised Christ.
In him, our every sin is completely forgiven. In him, we not only seek righteousness, but receive it as a gift from God. This deliverance, from sins, from Satan's grasp, from hell's claim on us, will last forever. It can never be taken away, no matter what 2013 throws at us.
Even if we lose our friends, our family, our jobs, our nation, or our lives, even if the heavens and earth, the things we assume will be there day after day, should "vanish like smoke" and disappear like one of David Copperfield's monuments, still, nothing can rob us of the joy that is ours in Christ. We have heaven itself for all of eternity, forever and ever, without end. And so we rejoice right now, in spite of any appearances because our deliverance is coming quickly, and it will last forever.
What occupies your thoughts tonight as we face a new year tomorrow? Financial challenges? The heavens themselves will vanish. The earth will wear out. All that's in it will be destroyed. Why should we care about material wealth? Do you fear your enemies? The inhabitants of the earth will die like flies. They can't touch your salvation. Are you worried about persecution or hardship? Those who insult you for your faith will be eaten up like a moth chews up old clothes. No one, nothing, no circumstance can ever take God's gift of salvation away from you.
So rejoice, friends! Your salvation is near, your deliverance from this life of sin to a life of paradise in heaven awaits you! It's coming soon, in spite of all appearances to the contrary. Be at peace. Wait for the Lord in hope. Be full of joy and gladness, thanksgiving and the sound of singing. And in thanksgiving for that imminent deliverance that will last forever, resolve to live your lives in service to God and to share his deliverance with future generations. Rejoice, dear friends! Your deliverance is near! Amen!