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Isaiah 26: No Other Lords

Good morning, church.  Please go with me to the book of Isaiah, and this morning we’re going to be reading from chapter 26 as we continue our series through the book of Isaiah.

Isaiah is a book about the fall of the nation of Judah and the coming of the kingdom of God on earth.  It’s a story of humanity’s sin, the distance between who we are and who we are meant to be, and in spite of all we’ve done wrong, God’s redemption.  God is reversing sin, bringing what the Bible calls peace, shalom, the distance closed, sin undone, so that we, and all of creation will be restored back to our original purpose; everything will be made whole and right.  We need to learn both to hope for the world as it will be and to live now as citizens of the coming kingdom of God.

The past several weeks, I’ve been talking about the tools God is using to bring about his kingdom, in contrast with the tools the enemy uses to do his work in the world.  But we shifted, last week, to doing a deep dive into what God’s kingdom is like.

Last week, we found that in God’s kingdom there’s everlasting life.  Not a dull sort of drawn out existence, like a church service that drags on too long, but abounding life.  A return to innocence, free from the deathly things which sap our joy from the small, quiet enjoyment of life.  Like living in those moments of our lives that we never want to end.

And true to myself as a New Orleanian, I talked for most of the morning about what we were going to eat.  When Isaiah imagines the everlasting life in the kingdom, he imagines a meal together with God and all of his people, a feast.  The goal of Christianity is not a place of everything you’ve ever wanted in abundant supply, but it’s a restoration back to the life we were always meant to live.  We aren’t getting through everyday life here on earth to get to some great festival in heaven—everyday life is what God is restoring to us here on this earth, life together with people we love and who love us, meals and lives shared, everyone having a place and a part.

This week, I’m going to do something dangerous.  Do not try this at home.  I’m going to talk about religion and politics at the same time and in public.  Specifically, I’m going to talk about remembrance and the government of the kingdom of God.

Read with me, Isaiah, chapter 26, starting in v.12. [Isaiah 26:12-19].  This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God.  Pray with me, briefly.  Lord, please show us—allow us to see—your truth in your word today, because we know your truth will set us free. Amen.

Let me get right down to it this morning.  My first point is this: in the kingdom of God, God is the only ruler.  In the kingdom of God, God is the only ruler.

As we just read, Isaiah writes, “other lords besides you have ruled over us, but your name alone we bring to remembrance.”  “For you indeed have done for us all our works.”  So here we see that word memory being used in a very interesting way.  If you remember from a few weeks ago, we talked about how memory is one of the tools God is using to establish his kingdom and restore the earth back to rights.  Here, we see Isaiah participating in God’s use of memory to establish God’s kingdom here on earth.

You have to understand.  There are two types of memory in the Bible—things you simply remember as past experiences, one, but then there are also things you cause yourself to remember—an intentional use of memory—Isaiah says “we bring to remembrance.”  In the psalms we see the phrase “I call to mind.”  It’s kind of like reframing; you are intentionally thinking of the past in a way that causes real-world healing and restoration.  Both types of memory are happening in this passage.

Isaiah remembers there have been other lords ruling over the people of Israel, other kings and now foreign rulers.  Good and bad, right?  If you want to read about it, you can read the books of Kings and Chronicles.  But Isaiah is intentionally only bringing to remembrance the Lord as the ruler of Israel.  Let’s start by asking why he’s doing this, and then we can talk a little bit about how he’s calling these things to mind.

Why is Isaiah asking us to forget all other lords over the people of God besides God himself?  Let me give the short answer, and then I’ll explain.  The short answer is, the people of God were never meant to have any lords other than God himself.  The people of God ordained a king over themselves against God’s wishes out of a sinful desire to be just like every other nation around them.  God didn’t want them to be like every other earthly kingdom, he wanted them to be like his kingdom, so he wanted to be the king in Jerusalem on earth, just as it is in heaven.

So for God to undo the sin of the earth, he’s going to have to undo the ordination of a king, a ruler, over the people of God.  Even if those kings did great works and expanded the lands of Israel, as David and Solomon, the son of David, were remembered for doing.  Isaiah is intentionally forgetting them, too.  He says, “Lord, you have done all our works.” v.12.  You have increased the nation and enlarged our borders.” v.15.  Everything the people of God gave glory to their ancient kings for, Isaiah takes that glory, takes that remembrance, and assigns those works, that glory, to God.

Because God was meant to be the king over Israel, so Isaiah is using memory and taking part in restoring Israel back to what it was meant to be.  And again, in one sense of the word, Isaiah remembers the experience of other lords ruling over him, but he’s choosing to remember God as the only ruler over the people of God as a means of restoring God’s people back to the way they were meant to be.

I never understood this intentional kind of memory until Anne-Elise and I started fostering, and we came face to face with trauma for the first time.  There are horrifyingly twisted things in my son’s early life, and we don’t keep it secret from him; age appropriately we tell him his history, but every day we work not to allow that history to dominate his thought and memory and control his present.  In one sense, we are working to erase the effects, the consequences of the sin against him, from his life.

He may remember what was done, but one day I hope those things will be rendered completely inconsequential in his mind and emotion, blotted out from the book of his life.  So we are both allowing him to remember, and causing him to bring to mind other truths and realities which cause healing and wholeness in him rather than hurt and shame.

The how of it is this: Isaiah is able to call to mind something other than what he remembers in the world, because he uses the vision of God to see human history the way God sees it.  In God’s reality, God has only ever ruled over the people of God.  In the kingdom of God, God is the only ruler.

Church, today, there are some things we need to remember, and some things we need to forget.

We need to bring to remembrance God alone ruling over us in our lives.  We may remember the name of the current president, and the one before him.  You may remember policies and rulings, political movements you liked or didn’t like, but we need to bring to remembrance that God alone rules over us.  We are able to live as Christians in freedom and under oppression, in celebration and in persecution, in a moral society and in a corrupt society, because in the kingdom of God, God is the only ruler, and we are meant as Christians to live now as though we are citizens of the coming kingdom of heaven.

We need to remember that God’s laws are of far more consequence than the laws of whatever nation we live in.  If you are a Christian, you are a foreign national here in the United States; you are a sojourner, a refugee.  You should abide by the laws of the land and honor the emperor, but fear God.  In some nations you get dragged before a judge for worshipping God or sharing the gospel, and God forbid, but if that happens to you remember God is the real judge of your actions.  Phil and I were trading stories just the other day of preaching the gospel of the life death and resurrection of Jesus Christ in places and positions here in this country where that was against the law, but so be it.  If the law of God is against the law of the land, be an outlaw.

But be careful; be wise.  It’s easy to say God is king; it’s harder to allow him to rule in our lives.  People often write their own law and call it the law of God—we call that legalism.  Or they use the law of God as an excuse to be lawless.  To get specific: some Christians don’t pay taxes, not because we love the Lord but because we love money.  We rebel and protest not to lift high the Lord, but only because we like seeing people brought low.  We conform the law of God to support a political party or to back a specific candidate, not because the kingdom of God has come but because we think something or someone other than God will save us and save our country.  Sometimes Christians argue for immigrants, not because we love the foreigner and stranger, but because we like holding a moral high ground over the moralists who made us feel ashamed.  We argue against abortion, not because we love children but because we like holding the moral high ground over the activists who made us feel ashamed.  Be careful; be wise.

If you search your heart this morning for your motives in what you’ve done or said in your political involvement—because you are not Christ, himself, you will find fallenness lying at the root of some of your words and actions.  Pray, ask the Spirit for conviction, and repent.  Stop speaking from a posture of being right and righteous.  Rather speak from a posture of being aware that there is only one person who is right and righteous and that person is the Lord, God, himself, who is the only ruler, the only Lord.

Two, my second point for this morning, briefly: God alone is able to ordain peace.  God alone is able to ordain peace.

Hopefully by now, as we go through this Isaiah series, we’re about halfway through, so hopefully some things are starting to come together for you.  Isaiah starts this section by saying the Lord will ordain peace, and we’ve defined peace as the closing of the distance created by sin between who we are and who we are meant to be.

In our sin, we’ve created a distance, like a break or fracture, between the way we were meant to be, the people God created us to be, and the way we are now.  This brokenness has radiated out to all of the creation.  And this distance, this brokenness, is not a hairline fracture, but a gulf, a canyon, one we cannot on our own cross.  So praise God that he crossed the gulf of our sin, that he came to us and bore the weight of our sin, because we were crushed under it.  God alone is able to ordain peace.

The image Isaiah gives us here is fairly shocking.  He imagines a woman who goes through the whole process of pregnancy and birth, and after all of that pain and excitement and expectation she gives birth to nothing—to wind, it says.  We are like this, he says, and in v.18 he explains himself a little bit.  He says, we’ve tried through our whole human history to deliver ourselves from this brokenness in our society, these divisions and wars, all of this human suffering.  All of the pain and excitement, and then when it comes to it, we’ve accomplished nothing of consequence.  He says, specifically, after all of our strivings and grand experiments, we’ve not managed to raise a single person from the grave and give them life again.  Oftentimes we haven’t even known what was the real enemy.

I was thinking in writing this of the campaign slogans and promises I’ve heard in my lifetime.  Promises to to build back better, to make America great, yes we can, a safer more hopeful America.  There was a candidate running for a recent local election who had on his sign, “Do good; seek justice,” which is a quotation from the book of Isaiah.  But think, none of our rulers thus far have promised to do anything about death, or to ordain peace.  Bush got closest with the word “safer.”  But think how far even that word is from peace.  Safety isn’t peace if there’s still injustice in the land.  And the -er at the end of the word is haunting, an admission that we aren’t even going to get to “safe,” where there will be no one to make us afraid, we’ll just be safer.  Still there will be fear and suffering among us.  This is the most the most powerful rulers of the earth can offer.  Safer.  Better.  Great.

Our earthly rulers don’t promise us things like peace because they know they are completely incapable of ordaining peace.  We may struggle and push, but in the end, as Isaiah writes, “we have accomplished no deliverance in the earth.”  What would God’s campaign sign read do you think?  Something like, “I will swallow up death forever, overthrow all nations, rule in justice, and keep you in perfect peace everlastingly.”  I don’t know, it’s a little wordy, but I think it would work.

God alone is able to ordain peace.  We are able to participate in his work, but he does for us all our works.  He’s the only one worthy of thanks and praise.

For us, this means to seek peace on earth is to seek the kingdom of God.  To work towards peace on earth is to do the work of God in the world.  Healing, teaching, forgiving, eating, loving, arguing, correcting, feeding, calming, caring, calling, discipling, baptizing, befriending, obeying, praying.  Always with an explicit call to believe in the salvation of God, always in humility and love.

For you, in your life, it means if you’re seeking peace, for yourself or for the people around you, you’re only going to find it in Christ and on his road.  I would invite you this morning to seek peace, which means allowing Christ to rule in your life.  Stop writing your own laws, ones you can keep, and turn to his law, which will show you haw deeply broken you are, but don’t worry.  He is able to ordain peace in your life and close that distance between who you are and who you’re meant to be.

Praise be to God who has accomplished deliverance on the earth.