Good morning, friends. Please go with me to the book of Isaiah, and this morning we’re going to be reading from chapters 34 and 35 as we continue through our series in Isaiah.
I used the word seismic to describe our week last week—overreached with the metaphor a little bit, so now I don’t have any words left to describe this week. AJ started kindergarten this week. We were all nervous. AJ spent all of Wednesday just kind of jumping on things and people—that’s what he does when he gets nervous. Annie spent the day calling me and talking on the phone—that’s what she does when she gets nervous. I was distracted all day, got nothing done, and showed up to everything 15 minutes early—that’s what I do when I get nervous.
Thursday, the nerves melted to pure excitement on all our parts. We took pictures, we all drove to the school together, AJ assigned each of us a member of the Weasley family to pretend to be, then he had an identity crisis and started pretending to be all of them at once. It was a good day, which we needed, because Wednesday was rough. My grandmother died in the morning, Wednesday, and I spent all day in meetings, then in Bible study, all day feeling the awkwardness of grief—the people I was with not knowing what to say, and neither did I—because there really aren’t words to describe how wrong death is. There is no real making it better except for the kingdom come. And in these meetings, as we cancelled events we had planned because of the virus, it felt like death was all around us.
On Thursday, I went to write this sermon, and I realized I was feeling right along with Isaiah. Not that I really know what he’s going through losing his home and his nation, but I understand a hope that feels like mourning, because this life is so far away from the kingdom of God and the life we were meant to live. The book of Isaiah, if you read it through, has a rhythm to it. Back and forth, like a drum beating out a march. Back and forth he goes deep into brokenness and God’s judgement, it feels very dark and difficult, then he looks to redemption and and the kingdom come, and the hope we can have in this world, and he rejoices. Over and over again, back and forth, hope in the middle of pain and darkness, life springing up out of death, the kingdom of heaven breaking through, the clouds being rolled back as a scroll.
He’s trying to show us that God is not done with what he’s doing. So long as there is brokenness in this world, and in your life, he will not be done. He will work to redeem the world until every wrong is undone, every wound healed, everything broken pieced back together. In our passage today, we see the same.
Let’s read it, Isaiah, chapter 34, starting in v.8—that’s going to be the dark and difficult passage, then in chapter 35 we’re going to read v.3-10 and that’s going to be the restoration of the Lord, the kingdom come, his will done on the earth. [Isaiah 34:8-12; 35:3-10]. This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly. Lord, please show us your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.
We’ve been talking about what God’s kingdom is like, and what our lives are meant to be.
We are meant to live everlastingly, in the midst of permanent things, relationships, a family that doesn’t break or end. A church where God dwells and cannot be moved. When Isaiah imagines the everlasting life in God’s kingdom, he imagines a meal together with God and all of his people, a feast, life together with people we love and who love us, meals and lives shared, everyone having a place at the table.
We are meant to live under the rule of God, himself, and he is a good king, a just judge. Christ is bringing peace and freedom to his people—not just peace for some, or a status quo, but peace and equity together with justice.
In the kingdom of God, everything grows and thrives, bears fruit in its season. The trees, the plants, and his people, because God the gardener tends them and provides for them. It’s a place of quiet peace, where everyone is well provided and you’re able to rest.
In the Wednesday night small group this week, we spent most of our time basically asking, “so what.” I mean, you heard how my Wednesday was going, I think we were all in a place of feeling hopeful, the Christian “hope that is really a kind of mourning.” The kind of hope which is going to make the apostle Paul write, thousands of years from this moment, when Israel is still ruled by foreign empires, when he is facing execution under that empire, he writes, “to die is gain…My desire is to depart and be with Christ; that’s far better.” Any time I spend here on this earth is for your sake, not mine.
So this morning, I wanted to answer the question more fully than I was able to on Wednesday: so what? What does the kingdom have to do with our lives now? How does hope for the future effect anything now, in this life? Our passage holds two important answers to that question.
My first point for this morning is this: Our God is a God of healing. Our God is a God of healing.
That first passage I read this morning is a bleak picture of the earth, which I wanted to read because it’s in rhythm with the second passage: wounding and healing, judgement and redemption, mourning into joy. Isaiah’s not being overly optimistic, he’s not positive and encouraging, he’s hopeful, with that Christian hope that’s really a kind of mourning. He has hope for healing.
The first author I ever remember calling my favorite was Fyodor Dostoevsky. I remember having a conversation with my English teacher at the time where I told her Dostoevsky’s writing is so good that it makes me think I will never become a writer, because I will never be able to write as well as he writes. In his book, The Brothers Karamazov, one of the characters, Ivan, loses his faith in Christianity, and for a very good reason; let me tell it to you (strange sermon, I know). He says some things in this world have gone so wrong, are so heinous and broken, that there is no way to make them right again. There is no possible good in the world that could make up for some of the wrongs we experience in this life.
And at least one of you right now is probably like, pastor, you’re supposed to tell people why they should believe in God, not why they shouldn’t—but stick with me.
Ivan’s mistake is this. He assumes God is going to try to balance evil in our lives now with good in the end, like a divine consolation prize, like the child of divorce who gets extravagant gifts that year at Christmas. Like we aren’t really able to fix things, but here’s a pony, so maybe it’s ok? This is the same conception of the kingdom of God that would cause one of Dostoevsky’s German contemporaries to say that “religion is the opiate of the peoples,” promising reward in the afterlife, convincing people to ignore, and do nothing about, untold amounts of suffering in this life.
And here’s why I’m telling you Ivan’s reasons for losing faith: your conception of Christianity is that we are waiting around in this life for a reward in the next, I hope you do lose faith in it. That’s not the teaching of Christ or of Isaiah. The kingdom is not a consolation prize at the end of our lives—it’s not meant to balance the suffering of this world, just like our good works don’t balance our sin—our God is not a God of balance, but of healing. Do you see the difference?
Think about it this way. If you have cancer, there is no gift that will make it better—no new car or dress. When people I love get sick, really sick like that, I don’t pray for karma, for them to get some happy thing in their life to try to balance it out. I pray for God to heal them. Whether in this life or the next, there is nothing that’s going to make suffering and death better except for the undoing, the healing of the exact thing which is causing that suffering.
I lost my grandmother this week. What’s supposed to make that better? Am I supposed to content myself with all of the family I have left—does my father being alive mean I should be less upset about my grandmother dying? Or should I drink enough, eat enough, buy enough things to tip the balance of my life toward the positive? No, the only thing that will heal my suffering is resurrection. Her death doesn’t need to be balanced, it needs to be undone, come untrue.
In our passage, if you look, he is making weak hands and knees strong. He is taking those with an anxious heart and making them strong, fearless. The blind see, the deaf hear, those without a voice are able to speak. Even the land is healed, rain and rivers in the desert places.
God isn’t intending to create a place good enough to balance out all of the suffering in our lives until we’re kind of ok, he’s healing and undoing that suffering, until we are whole and at peace, and he’s starting that work now, in this world. For those of you who are suffering now, God is not waiting until the end of our lives to heal you—he is a God of healing now—and neither should we be waiting in this life. We’re meant to taste and see, even now, that the Lord is good. That’s my answer to the so what question: so what if God’s kingdom is so good? How does that matter to us now? The king of that kingdom is here now, working now, healing now. That’s what.
Yes, the kingdom of God is filled with peace and joy, but those things are not the blessing, or the reward of the kingdom. God, himself, is the reward of the kingdom, and he is here now. You can speak to him now, you can spend time with him, if you are in Christ. And because God is here now, all the benefits he brings are here now. The kingdom of God is not far away. Christ begins his ministry by teaching that the kingdom of God is near. It’s “breaking through” all around us.
That same apostle Paul I quoted before who said it would be better for him to die says this, too: God, our Father, has already, in this life, “blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing” in heaven. If you’ve somehow convinced yourself that the point of this life is just to wait around until the next, you need to un-convince yourself.
The reason Paul writes that dying is gain is, in our resurrected life we’ll be spared the suffering of the world. We long and hope for that. But to live is Christ. Even now in this life, we have access to all the things God is bringing into the world.
All of these things we’ve been talking about—peace, quietness, joy, permanence, everlastingness, healing, community. These are all things you can experience now, even in the midst of suffering; they are things you can participate in now, even in brokenness.
The world goes not well—it never has. In this life, there is suffering. But in the kingdom, there is healing, healing that’s possible the moment God begins to work in your life. For many of you, even now, God is healing the suffering in your life.
My second point for today is this: we are created for community. We are created for community. Theologian Stanley Grenz writes that if he were to boil down all of the work of God in our world into two words, he says God is “establishing community,” and we are created for community.
We use the word community, usually, to talk about groups of people who know each other or have certain things in common—the gaming community, community college. But there’s a deeper meaning here, one that verges on the mysterious. The God of Christianity is trinity, meaning one God in three persons. This trinitarian God is the one who created us, when I talk about the way we are meant to be, he is the one who gives us that meaning. He is the one who emptied himself and died to be with us. He is the one working to heal us. And at the core of this God, at the core of the meaning of our life, is community in the truest sense: the love and relationship of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Isaiah pictures community this way in chapter 35: a road across the whole earth, and all the redeemed are walking on it together, singing together, worshipping God together. This road doesn’t belong to any nation or group, he says it belongs to the pilgrims, to anyone who chooses to walk on it, and the destination is God, himself. They hold the way in common with everyone else who is on it, and the reason the road stretches across the face of the earth is to stress that everyone from every time is able to walk down it together. They sing together, worship together, laugh together—they experience community—and in the end, they are together with God in Zion, experiencing the fullness of his community. I love the humor in v.8, he says even if you’re an idiot you won’t get lost on this road.
This image from Isaiah is one of the foundational images of the Christian Church by the time we get to the New Testament, because Jesus picks up this image and identifies with it, saying “I am the way.” We should understand Jesus’ life as his coming to walk with us on this highway to Zion.
This image was so significant to early Christians, in fact, they called themselves—not Christians, but—walkers on the way, pilgrims on the road. It’s how they summed up the whole of the Christian life.
There’s so much to say on this image, but for today, I want to zero in on the commonality of the road, the community of believers as we follow the way of the Lord. My reason is this: between American culture’s demands for individualism, our understandable fear of rejection in such a polarized society, and evangelicalism’s rejection of historical Christianity, we’ve almost entirely lost Christian community in our churches today. It’s hanging by a thread.
We struggle to get together, we struggle to know one another, to be a meaningful part of each other’s life. We struggle even to talk to each other, confess to each other—and dishonesty is the death of community. We don’t ask for advice, or seek to understand other people, we certainly don’t ask for help. We come into churches and neighborhoods thinking, not how can I be a part, but what can I take away? And so we’ve lost much of what makes our lives joyful and meaningful on this road.
If we recover Christian community, it will be in small ways. An invitation to dinner, a request for help, an apology, an hour set aside. Asking someone a question, and just listening rather than seeking to share an opinion. Introducing yourself to the person you haven’t met yet, inviting someone to church. Playing together, as kids know to do but adults so often forget.
When I look at historical expressions of Christianity, I find that some of us are called to live together in lives oriented around work and prayer together for common kingdom goals. Others are meant to support that work with our own resources and spiritual gifts. If we are, at all, to reflect the nature and work of God in the world, we have to reflect his community. It is central to who he is and what he is doing in the world. Community is central to the way God is healing us and the people around us.
My invitation to you today is to call upon the Lord to heal you even now. Don’t try to balance your life, drowning out the bad things with pleasure, but seek real healing, even for the deep hurts. There is hope in Christ for you, and for us. And part of that healing is going to be community, learning to walk this road with other people and with the Lord until we can be with him in full. My friends, the kingdom of heaven is near. Repent of anything less than the things of God in your life, and come, walk a little ways with me.