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Isaiah 22: The Valley of Vision

Good morning, church. I want to acknowledge that it’s been a difficult week, and I want to take time, publicly, to do something I do often privately—to thank God for you. The vacation my wife and I had made space for was instead providentially provided time to mourn the loss of Anne-Elise’s aunt, who was like a grandmother to her, and be with her family. I know Kallee, too, has been dealing with a death in the family. And when I got in touch with Adam to make arrangements for my being gone last weekend, he told me our friend Mike had died, so even before we left Memphis I started writing the memorial message for him, which I preached Friday.

Like I said, I thank God for you. For Jess, who helped comfort my wife and overnighted us clothes for the funeral in Memphis; for Phil who preached for us on Sunday, and has done so much to minister in the wake of Mike’s death; for Adam, who’s done the same, and who without notice had to manage this weekend’s fundraiser on his own; for Meg who planned Mike’s memorial in addition to all of her regular duties; for Louis, who taught our Bible study Wednesday; for Rose, who does more ministry with a flip phone from her living room than most people do with vast platforms and resources; and for each of you who have done so much, seen and unseen, to care and pray for our congregation through a difficult week. I thank God for you.

And I thank God for his own work during this time; the providence of already being in Memphis the literal moment we were needed, of already having the week off, when we needed to be with our family; the providence of Mike’s last day being one of labor and celebration, surrounded by friends, and the comfort and hope the Spirit brings into what would otherwise be a dark day. Father, God, thank you for your providence and your ever-present help in times of trouble; for the people in this church who love each other so well. Christ, thank you for being with us and understanding our griefs. Spirit, thank you for your presence here with us. Amen.

Please go with me to the book of Isaiah, and this morning we’re going to be reading from chapter 22 as we continue our series through the book of Isaiah.

Isaiah is a book about the fall of the nation of Judah. 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, and the coming of the kingdom of God on earth. We talked about how 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 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. God doesn’t use the same tools the enemy uses to do his work. The enemy uses death, violence, shame, accusation, oppression. God isn’t going to establish his kingdom that way. He has his own weapons, his own tools he is using to establish his kingdom on the earth.

The Lord uses things like natural consequence, time and memory; hospitality, a word literally meaning stranger-love. God establishes his kingdom using judgement—not a judgement that shouts shame in the streets, but a judgement that leaves thrones and throne rooms, comes through the city gates, and rescues us, cleanses us, from the death that surrounds us.

And the last week I preached, we saw God establishes his kingdom by telling the truth. Hard truths—even ones that make us look bad—like the ones in which we admit we might actually need God, might actually need saving, help to change. Truths that overthrow unjust rule and set captives free; truths that have been forgotten, and rejected, and raged against. God always tells the truth, and his truth is able to set us free.

This week, I’m going to focus, again, on a single weapon of the Lord, a single tool he is using to forge his kingdom: vision. Vision—seeing the world rightly, the way God sees it.

Read with me, Isaiah, chapter 22, starting in v.1. [Isaiah 22:1-11]. 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.

I was laughing to myself as I was writing this, realizing that any sermon I preach on vision is just utter hypocrisy. You may not know this about me because I wear contacts, but I am incredibly near-sighted. I one time left my glasses home on a date because I wanted to look cool, and I was in middle school, and we went bowling, and I couldn’t see anything, and I kissed the girl at the end of the date, and I was excited about that, and my parents were waiting on me, and I literally ran, as fast as I could, into a glass wall, and I hit it so hard that it bent inward, and threw me back about four feet. That’s a good story; I’ll tell you the whole thing sometime, but my point remains: there is danger in only being able to see what’s right in front of you. Danger both of the glass wall sort and of the spiritual sort. If you don’t see the world rightly, the way God sees it, you’re not going to be able to understand, much less participate in, the establishment of the kingdom of God here on earth.

Isaiah, in our passage, gives this beautiful, incredibly intriguing image of, what he calls, the valley of vision—he repeats it a few times. The valley of vision. It’s a paradox, of course—you can’t see anything in a valley, except for the mountains and the sky—but that’s Isaiah’s point.

In our passage, we find the King and prime minister on the walls of Jerusalem preparing for a siege. If you remember from a few weeks ago, this is the second time Jerusalem has prepared for a siege. The first time, their own people, the nation of Israel in the North, was marching on Jerusalem, so Judah allied themselves with the violent empire of Assyria to destroy Israel. And they succeed—with Judah’s support, Assyria destroys Israel—which is why at the start of this passage everyone is celebrating—everyone but Isaiah, that is. Isaiah’s weeping, because he doesn’t see a victory in the destruction of the nation of Israel. He sees betrayal, and the destruction of God’s own people.

Isaiah could see, too, what would immediately follow the fall of Israel. Assyria wasn’t satisfied with conquering half of the God’s people, they destroyed Israel and kept marching South, into Judah. Jerusalem’s celebrations were so short-sighted, myopic, they couldn’t see the wall they were about to slam into. By the end of the passage, Judah, Isaiah’s nation, is preparing for a siege. Assyria is coming for them, now. The king is readying his capital city yet again for war.

To understand this image of the valley of vision, you have to understand that Jerusalem is on the top of a mountain, with other mountains surrounding it, so from the walls of Jerusalem, you could see for miles. Preparing for an invasion from the North, the king would have set watchmen on the walls, day and night, to stare at the horizon for any sign of the coming armies, to give everyone living outside of the walls in the fields surrounding Jerusalem, time to gather inside the city before the king closed the gates.

The king is securing the water supply, stocking food, clearing and repairing the walls, and here comes Isaiah, and Isaiah says to the king: you’re not seeing rightly. Again, you’re only seeing what’s right in front of you; you’re not seeing the bigger picture. Don’t stand on top of the walls, the peak of the mountain, if you want to see what’s coming. Go down into the valley. Take your eyes off the world, and everything going on, until all that’s in front of you is the valley and the heavens, what God is doing in the world. The valley is going to give you more perspective, more protection, in this situation than the mountaintop.

As the psalmist writes, “I lift my eyes up to the mountains. From where does my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”

You see, the people of Jerusalem were so concerned with the danger from armies of powerful kings, that they forgot about the Lord of hosts, the king of kings. All they could see was what was right in front of them. They forgot that the Lord is establishing his kingdom with vision, circumspection. Our God sees not just for miles, but for ages. He alone saw the beginning, and he alone is able to see all the way to the end. He’s calling us today into the valley of vision, to see as he sees.

My points for today are stolen from a Puritan prayer based on this passage, which insists we need to learn by paradox. So my first point for today is this: to see the big picture is to see what’s right in front of you. To see the big picture is to see what’s right in front of you.

Maybe it’s strange to think about the vision of God actually being a tool he is using to bring about his kingdom, but in my mind it’s one of the more powerful tools he uses. God uses his vision to allow people to enter into his work in the world. You have to realize that the kingdom of God is not so much a place as it is a people. Just like the church. We do know the kingdom of God will be centered in the new Jerusalem, just like our church is centered here in this building, but the building itself is not the church. The kingdom of God is primarily a people, a nation.

So maybe you can see, then, why vision is so important for God in establishing his kingdom and doing his work in the world. The enemy uses oppression in the place of vision, to gather people and have them labor toward his ends. But God doesn’t use oppression. He allows his free people to enter into the labor of the kingdom by giving them a vision of what all of the labor is for. Again, just like a church. Step one of church planting is this: establish a church vision, so people can see and understand where the church is going. It’s the vision of God that allows us to see how to walk, what next steps to take, toward the ultimate end of his kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

This is at least a bit embarrassing, but when Anne-Elise and I went to Nashville last weekend, for the Baptist Convention, I forgot to bring pants. I mean, I was wearing basketball shorts, but I didn’t have any pants, and I felt a bit ridiculous going to the convention, because a lot of people were wearing suits and all that. I needed some new pants anyway, so Annie just took me to the mall, where I proceeded to get lost immediately.

In many ways I’m not the stereotypical male, but one part of that stereotype rings true in me: I do not read instruction manuals and I don’t look at maps, so I walked into the mall and just kept walking around looking for the pants store, and I do it with an air of confidence, so it took about five minutes for Anne-Elise to realize I had no idea where I was going. She stoped me and brought me over to one of the “you are here” mall maps to plot a course.

My point is: if you’re not seeing the big picture, you can’t know what your next steps are. That’s what Isaiah was trying to tell the king. Stop letting fear of everything going on in the world drive you to the left or to the right. Stop for one second and look at a map. You are here, in the middle of the story of God’s redemption of the world. Zoom out. Look at the big picture. God is the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end. He created us in the beginning, and the world ends with his kingdom come on earth. Keep your eyes focused on that, and then you’ll know how to walk today. God is both the lamp to our feet and the light of the world. Keep your eyes on him, and you’ll know where to step next.

How much anxiety and fear in our lives is caused by our insistence on standing on the wall trying to see our fears confirmed on the horizon instead of hiking down into the valley and looking up to the maker of the mountains? Practically speaking, it’s good to have plans, but you don’t even know if you’ll survive today, so hold them loosely. Look to the wisdom and the work of God in the world, keep him as your keystone, and your paths will be straight even through the wilderness. If you’re doing what he called you to do, you’re in a safe place. He is a strong tower. Whatever comes at you on that road, he’ll defend you, and when you’re fallen and hurt, he’ll pick you up and see to it that you’re well.

Secondly, and lastly today, to see our weakness is to see his strength. To see our weakness is to see his strength. Isaiah was preaching a message that no one is his day wanted to hear: Judah is not going to be able to stand. You can make any kind of preparation you want for siege, but it’s not going to save you. You can’t trust the might of the armies and nations you’re depending on, you need to trust in the Lord and his salvation—even if his salvation is not going to spare you from trouble or get you what you want.

So long as the king was hoping in the fortresses of the city and the armies of his allies to come and save him, he wasn’t hoping in God our fortress, and the Lord, our salvation. We have to see our own weakness, our own need for help, if we are ever going to learn to hope in him. So part of the vision of God is humility, seeing ourselves rightly, in order to see our need and dependence upon him. But, just as the valley is a place of vision, so it is that when we see ourselves as weak and unable to do the things he’s called us to do without him, that’s when we’re actually at our strongest.

I was talking about how bad my vision is, but I made it all the way to fifth grade without getting glasses, and it wasn’t because my parents or teachers were inattentive, it was because of my own pride. I didn’t want glasses. I thought they looked bad, so I memorized the vision charts at the doctor’s office and did everything I could to avoid actually asking for help.

And I remember the first time I put on glasses at the age of 11, walking out of the optometrist’s office and looking up. I saw a cloud for the first time, and individual leaves on trees. Colors were sharp, and the entire world came into a beautiful focus. I had been missing so much because I didn’t want to admit I needed help to see.

So in the same way, today, I would invite you to admit your own weakness. Stop mending your walls and gathering water, or whatever your version of that is in your life. Stop avoiding having other people in your life, or admitting your own sins and faults. I would invite you this morning into the vision of the Lord, to see yourself as he sees you: as a child, in need of help, but the child of the king of kings, who is strong for salvation.

Go to the valley, and lift your eyes up to the mountain. Where does my help come from? My help comes from the maker of the heavens and the earth.

I wanted to end today just by reading a prayer I know I’ve read to you before, but it’s written from this passage, and it bears repeating. Pray with me.

“Lord, high and holy, meek and lowly,
Thou hast brought me to the valley of vision,
where I live in the depths but see you in the heights;
hemmed in by mountains of sin I see your glory.

“Let me learn by paradox
that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is a place of vision.
Lord, in the daytime stars can be seen from the deepest wells,
and the deeper the wells, the brighter your stars shine;
Let me find your light in my darkness,
you life in my death,
your joy in my sorrow,
your grace in my sin,
your riches in my poverty,
your glory in my valley.”