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Isaiah 59: The Armor of God

Good morning, church. Please go with me to Isaiah, chapter 59, for the second-to-last sermon in this series through Isaiah.

Y’all, I tried so hard—to preach through this book without short-changing it. We devoted half the year to it. The hurricane took three weeks from us, and for more reasons than this, I wish we had the time back. But as we come to the end of this series, I feel as I did when I first started preaching years ago.

I did some devotionals and things in high school, one sermon, but I didn’t start preaching with any kind of regularity was until I first started seminary. I was working at Vintage Church, when they were uptown on Magazine St., and one of our sister churches, CBCNO, Chinese Baptist Church of New Orleans, had hired a pastor who really only spoke Mandarin, and they needed preachers to cover their English service, which was mostly the children of those who attended the Mandarin service.

They didn’t give me a text or anything, and just said to preach whatever I wanted. I decided in my first sermon just to start at the beginning, with the foundations of the faith and build from there, so I decided the topic of my sermon was going to be the gospel, how God created the world and we sinned, plunging everything into a kind of disjointed brokenness that we’re still under. But Christ lived his life free, perfect, abundant. Then, unspeakably, we killed him because we couldn’t stand someone that true and good, with that much power. But even death couldn’t end his life, and he rose from the dead. He invites us into that life, to participate in his life now, to inherit his life in full in the end, to be saved and raised, sanctified and made whole. Anyone who comes to him he accepts and loves as they are, even as he makes us who we were always meant to be.

I remember getting to the end of that sermon thinking, “How am I supposed to say, in twenty minutes, everything the gospel is and means to the world, and to those of us here?” My text was from from 1 Corinthians, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” I walked away convinced the real folly was inviting me to come preach that day, like instead of inviting everyone in the room to the feast laid in Zion, I brought a go-box with me and tried to share it among 30 people.

But here I am at the end of our series thinking, you thought you were going to cover Isaiah? You thought it would take about half a year? Give me ten years, and I might have scratched the surface of the depth of meaning in this book. Give me five years, just of study, and maybe I’ll begin to understand it. Yet here we are, with two weeks left, and I’m meant to choose two passages from the last eight chapters of this book.

Isaiah ends the book talking about the character of God, himself. We saw two weeks ago that God is satisfying and good, like bread and wine and milk to the hungry, Isaiah says. And far from being angry, standoffish, or withholding, God is eager to forgive. He’s waiting for us to turn and come home, so we can be a family again. In Isaiah’s day, in our world, the word of God is active, never meaningless; God is speaking words that cause us to grow and change and be alive.

We saw that our God isn’t just our God, we don’t own him or determine who he wants to adopt and show the same grace he’s shown to us; he’s the God of all peoples—even of our enemies, even of people you don’t agree with.

So we’ve seen what our God is like, what he says, what food he likes, and the people he really cares about and invites into his home to eat dinner with him and his family, what pleases him, and what doesn’t. Today we’re going to see what makes him angry.

Read with me, Isaiah, chapter 59, starting in v.1, and it’s so beautiful I couldn’t help myself, we’re going to read a lot of the chapter [Isaiah 59:1-8, 14-21] This is the word of the Lord; thanks be to God. Pray with me, briefly.

We need to learn to imitate God in his anger—this is vitally important to our faith—to get angry when he does, about the things he does. Hilariously, in Hebrew the word for anger is the same as the word for nose or nostril, as in flaring nostrils, so if you want to say someone’s angry you say—look out! He’s getting nostrily.

The anger of God is probably the most misunderstood, misrepresented aspect of his character in our culture, which is a shame. Our misunderstandings mostly stem from our own broken relationships with the emotion. I’ve noticed, as a pastor—and I’ve heard this from others, it’s not just me—most individuals think God gets angry in the same way and with the same frequency as their parents got angry growing up.

Those of us who grew up with disappointed parents usually believe God is quietly, permanently disappointed in us. If you grew up with perfectionistic parents, you may think that God is just constantly finding fault in every little thing you do, and these people tend to alternate back and forth between an exhausting kind of legalistic rule following and a devastating spiral of guilt and shame when they think they’ve messed up, that usually ends with them leaving the faith altogether.

While we are meant to learn a great deal about our relationship with God from our relationships with our parents or our children—that analogy is a part of my sermon today—we do need to remember the holiness, the otherness of God. We need to remember he is a good, good father, and won’t make the same mistakes our parents did, or we do.

It doesn’t help our collective misunderstanding that the religious teaching on God’s anger is all over the place. Some groups seem to think God is angry at pretty much everyone about pretty much everything, just all nostrils all over the place. Others seem to think God’s never been upset about anything, like he’s some noseless force—do what you want, God’s fine with it! Never change, have a great summer, yolo! And you have people everywhere on the spectrum in-between.

We need to learn to imitate God in his anger—this is vitally important to our faith—to get angry when he does, about the things he does. What a person gets angry about tells you a lot about him. I, for instance, get irrationally angry whenever I get the hiccups. That’s a true story. So what that should tell you about me is that I get angry far too quickly about random, unimportant things. God is not this way. The Scriptures tell us he is “slow to anger,” longsuffering is the old word for it. I love that. Or, an academic translation of the Hebrew may help you: God has enormous nostrils. God is slow to anger.

In fact, one of the first descriptions of the character of God we have in the Bible is in Exodus 34: “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…”

Everyone has that family member who’s just looking to be offended. The question isn’t whether they’re going to be all bothered about something and make a scene. The question is how long it will take, and whether or not you can get whatever dish they brought on your plate before they storm off with it.

God is not this way. He doesn’t get angry about silly, small things. And he’s not just waiting for you to slip up so he can yell at you and gain the high moral ground. No, “God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.” He’s not the father who is constantly bothered, whom you can never please, he’s the father who sees his child spill a cup, and shouts “milk down!” and runs over to help clean it up, who knows how much help we need, the things we can reach, the weights we can carry, when he needs to help. He’s paying attention to us enough that he understands when a mistake was a mistake, or when it’s something in us that needs to be talked about, disciplined, and healed before it does some deep harm.

He’s also the father who, when we ignore him and leave him, and live our lives exactly the way he always warned us against, he’s there waiting for us when we come home, broke and damaged to welcome us home and help pick up the broken pieces, glue them back together. He waits patiently for us to admit he was right, and when we do, he doesn’t rub it in, he’s just glad we’re alright.

As a parent, myself, I was thinking through all the ways I respond to my son’s errors, his sins, to try to understand God’s anger. And again, it’s a poor analogy, I’ve already admitted I get angry way too quickly and about stupid things. When I look at my relationship with my son I’m dealing with my own sins as well as his causing division “a separation” Isaiah writes in v.2. But when I’m parenting well, I can see myself imitating this divine quality of “slow to anger.” Annie and I have a phrase I borrowed from my teaching days to remind each other to be slow to anger, we say to each other throughout the day, “high standards, low expectations.”

The idea is this: you correct everything, over and over again—high standards. You don’t let them get away with things, but you expect them to make mistakes, and you don’t come down hard on everything, you kind of side-swipe. If they boss you around, you can smile and say “try again.” Or if they break a rule, you ask them to go back and do it over, and if they do well the next time, clap and make a big deal of it. You have to keep your anger reserved for the times when it’s really needed. We want him to recognize the look and the tone of voice that says, you’re in trouble. To know it so well that he starts to hear it when we’re not there, to be sixteen, and in whatever situation he’s in where he’s able to tell his friends, “My dad would kill me.” And I don’t want him to feel like he’s always in trouble—that’s not healthy—I only want him the feel that way about things which will wreck him.

When we do come down hard on him, show a bit of anger—I usually say, “come here; we’re going to have a conversation.” The stern voice, punishment if need be, letting him really experience the consequence of what he’s done—usually it’s because he’s done something egregious and intentional, or over and over again to the point that our decision is made for us, either we discipline him for this behavior or we allow our child to be a monster, allow his worst impulses to drive his actions, allow behaviors that will eventually wreck his life. It’s for his sake, for his good.

So to answer the question, “when does God get angry?” He gets angry when he absolutely has to. When we, his children, would be monsters otherwise, our worst impulses driving our actions, behaviors that will eventually wreck our lives. Most of the time, a healthy Christian faith looks like side-swipes. A smile and “try again.” Bringing you back into a room or into a person’s life and saying, do it over, then celebrating when it goes well. A still quiet voice in your mind after a fight with a friend that gently tells you you need to apologize. A gentle course correction from a friend or a pastor.

And then there are the days the word of God for you that day is “come here; we’re going to have a conversation.” A stern voice, truth that cuts, punishment if need be. All of it—his patience, his wrath—meant to lead us to repentance for our good and for his name’s sake.

We need to learn to imitate God in his anger—this is vitally important to our faith—to get angry when he does, about the things he does.

If you’re familiar with that verse I quoted a moment ago in Exodus, you know I stopped short of the whole verse. It reads, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin…” and it would be wonderfully encouraging if the verse stopped there, but it goes on: “but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

By no means does the longsuffering, the slow anger of God lower the standard required of us, and this is not just the Old Testament faith. Jesus says very clearly not one iota disappears from the law of God in the light of his grace. “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly father is perfect.” Again, we see high standards, low expectations. Even though God is slow to anger, he will by no means clear the guilty. We have to know, not just when he gets angry, but what things make him angry.

The word Isaiah uses in v.15 to describe the Lord’s response to everything mentioned in the passage, “The Lord saw it, and it displeased him.” The word displeased there, is the word for evil, wickedness. And then in v.16 “he wondered,” the idea behind the word is complete desolation, where there’s nothing left but wrongness and need. The Lord saw it, and to him it was evil that there was no justice. He saw that there was not even one person treating people with justice, and his heart was left in desolation. Inconsolably indignant. Mournfully angry.

V.3, People are lying, and saying horrible things. V.4, using the legal system and power structure of the society to get what they want out of people. In v.8 he points out that if you live among this people, if you join the group, you don’t have peace, because you’re complicit in the injustice, then in v.15 he says if you remove yourself from the group, if you try to leave, they criticize you and try to destroy you. Truth has stumbled in the public squares to where right thinking can’t even enter, it’s excluded, made ashamed.

When I read this, I thought not of ancient Babylon, but of our time and place. I thought about how for my own sake, for my emotional health, I had to stop going on social media and reading comments on articles because people spoke so many horrible things—to me, about me, to each other, about each other. All it takes for evil to flow from us is the anonymity of a screen. I thought about the clannish church and political culture I’ve seen, where if you don’t fit into whatever the majority opinion of the group is on any given issue, you’re made a prey, made afraid or ashamed until you get on board, or if there are enough people on both sides you make a break, divide—not new birth and growth, replication and discipleship, but fracturing, ever smaller and more useless, form a new group, a new denomination, excluding each other without any kind of love or embrace.

And if you do not see, in our day, people using the courts and legal structures to do evil, then v.10 Isaiah says you have your eyes open, and you’re still tripping, so you must not be able to see at all. I know he’s talking about his own people, but he’s also talking about us today. I think of the recent challenge to abortion laws—and on the other side of the political divide—the proposed changes to policing and immigration policies—we repeat rhetoric, repost harsh and biting comments because quote, it’s funny, or it’s true, or they will help win the argument.

When we agree with the law in place, we talk about the duty of the populace to follow the laws of the nation—only when we disagree with the law do we repeat scripture and talk about God’s heart for children, mothers, foreigners, courts in our midst. And many times, we’re not repeating scripture to learn and share the heart of God, we’re attempting to marshal him to our side of the battle line. In short, we’re guilty of exactly what Isaiah is accusing his people of, using the courts to further our own society’s injustices rather than taking up the armor of God, beginning always with his character, his heart, and praying, advocating for his kingdom come on earth. We’ve lowered God’s standard for ourselves.

And those things I mentioned aren’t the only evils done in the name of law and order. Small things, lowered standards, double standards. You find your daughter with drugs and you call a rehab center; if it’s the neighbor you don’t like, you call the cops. Racial disparities in conviction and sentencing, disproportionate community policing, and on and on. We’re still using the courts to do evil things. Just as it was then, so it is now. There may be thousands of years between Isaiah’s moment and now, and the human condition in our sinfulness has not changed by a degree.

The Lord sees it, and it makes his heart desolate when he sees people going through this, and there’s no one to intercede, no man, there’s no one beside them seeking justice.

I want to end with this image Isaiah gives us of what God will do in his anger at all of these things, starting in v.17 God begins to strap on his armor. Isaiah says his breastplate is righteousness, his helmet salvation. Vengeance and jealousy are his clothes. And then God uses his armor to stand up to all of the people who are perpetrating these injustices, to avenge all of those who have been wronged. He will not let a single cry go unanswered.

I wanted to end with this, because this part of the passage has been constantly on my mind since I wrote about it last summer in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, specifically because the passage deals with injustice coming from the very people and courts we set up to accomplish justice in our societies. If you’ve been in church for any amount of time, you’ve probably heard a sermon on the armor of God, because Paul cites this Isaiah passage in his letter to the Ephesians. He encourages the people in his church to put on the full armor of God and stand firm in the day of adversity.

When I was younger, that Ephesians passage on the armor of God was a very important passage to me. We were told to pray, each morning, that God would lend us his armor so that we might stand firm and not give into any kind of temptation to do evil. I hope we do pray for the armor of God, but I hope when we do we know what we’re asking.

Asking the king for his armor was a big deal in the old days. Usually the king and court were the only people with armor, because it was so expensive. And having the king lend you armor was a great honor. If you asked for the king’s armor, he would only lend it to you if you were to be his champion, to fight his battles in his name. So ask for the armor of God, but if you do, you can’t just imitate God is his righteousness. That would be like putting on the king’s armor just to look at yourself, to ride down the lines and have everyone think you must be a great soldier for the king to lend you his armor. We have to take his righteousness and use it, like a breastplate. Take his truth and use it, like a helmet, to accomplish his ends in the world.

When I first read this passage in Isaiah, I felt ashamed. I was the soldier who didn’t even ask for the honor to wear the king’s armor, who made his heart desolate. I thought God would be angry at me for not understanding at first what his armor was for, but now that I’m a parent and I’m understanding a little more when and about what God gets angry, I hear his voice saying, “try again.” When we fail to meet his expectation, when our sin creates a divide, he’s the one who crosses it, to lift us up, and set us back to doing what he has asked us to do.

My invitation to you this morning is to take up the armor of the Lord. Do that difficult work of taking upon yourself righteousness and truth. But don’t just stand there with it on. Go out into the world, in grace and peace, wherever truth has stumbled, so that injustice is allowed to reign, and stand in the gap, the king’s champion with righteousness and truth, vengeance and jealously as your clothing.