Isaiah 29: The World in Contradiction
Good morning, church. Please go with me to the book of Isaiah, and this morning we’re going to be reading from chapter 29 as we continue through our series in Isaiah.
Our passage for this morning is another passage of rich imagery and metaphor. The book of Isaiah is, largely, poetry. It’s an invitation to see the world the way God sees it, and also to feel about the world the way God feels about it—in a word, hopeful.
Isaiah’s about the fall of the nation of Judah and the coming of the kingdom of God on earth. The world in Isaiah’s day had gone horribly wrong to the point where people couldn’t imagine any possible ending besides pain, and in the midst of that, God promises to make everything right again. In my life, I’ve felt this way, like everything has gone so wrong there can’t be any ending besides pain and wrongness, but it’s a lie. There’s hope so long as God is still moving in the world.
The past several weeks, I’ve been talking about what God’s kingdom is like, and what our lives are meant to be.
We are meant to live everlastingly. Not a dull sort of drawn out existence, but abounding life. A return to innocence and childlikeness, like living always in those moments of our lives we don’t want to end. When Isaiah imagines the everlasting life in the 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. He brings peace and freedom to his people—not just peace for some, or a status quo, but peace and equity together with justice. We were created to live under the rule and reign of God, and we are called in this life to live as citizens of his kingdom.
Last week, we saw, 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. God doesn’t have some use or purpose for us beyond simple delight. He cares for us and prunes us because he wants to. He loves us.
This week, we see an important truth about the kingdom of God: God is turning everything upside down.
Read with me, Isaiah, chapter 27, starting in v.2. [Isaiah 27:2-13]. 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.
Theologian Miroslav Volf writes, The world is “in contradiction to God.” Pastor Tim Keller puts it this way: “the kingdom of God is an upside-down kingdom.” Or rather, it is the right way up, and we have been upside down for so long we’ve forgotten there is any other possible orientation.
Y’all know I’m a big ole nerd, right? So when I say I was thinking and writing this week about the etymology of the word enlightenment, that’s not going to throw anyone off, right? It’s an interesting word, enlightenment, as far as words go, even though I know some of you are thinking, “Words don’t go very far for me.”
Enlightenment developed as a word in contradiction to God. It comes from 16th century continental philosophy—Josh knows what I’m talking about; I love having philosophers in the room. Through the middle ages, the Church taught that people were able to know truth about the world because of the illumination of the Holy Spirit. Illumination is meant to be the Holy Spirit filling you with his light—knowledge of spiritual things, spiritual gifts and fruit.
But some thinkers at the time coined the word enlightenment to describe how they didn’t need God to discover truth. They were able to discover it just as well, or better, on their own. They had no need for illumination; they were enlightened; no need for God’s truth and light, they were able to make little lights of their own. They also began calling the middle ages the dark ages, to make a contrast and show just how bright their generation was.
In considering whether I would rather be illumined or enlightened, it seems to me the same choice as living in sunlight or under fluorescents. I choose the sunlit window over the cubicle every time. Whenever I spend a long day at my desk in my office, I always find myself toward the end of the day wandering outside or looking out a window. My soul longs for the sunlit world, even with all of the heat and wildness of it—especially with all the heat and wildness of it. And here’s another important truth: if you think for long about any kind of light or heat humankind has ever been able to produce, you’ll find the sun as the eventual origin of them all.
You see, enlightenment thinkers were using minds God created, inside bodies God intricately wove together, to contemplate a world he crafted, and they were proud of themselves for being independent of God’s light. How backwards. They didn’t make their own light, they just managed to catch a ray of what God had poured out into the world, and bottle it. This is why, in the middle ages, before all of this enlightenment foolishness, theology was called the queen of the sciences, and parochial schools and universities were founded in churches to bring all of the disciplines and arts together under one roof—it was understood that any pursuit of knowledge, at it’s core, is a pursuit of God, since God is the source of all truth. We’ve forgotten so much since the middle ages.
It’s possible to get confused in our world, about things like light and dark, backwards and forward, up and down. To start thinking that copies and corrupted forms of something is the thing-in-itself. AJ one time, when he was two, was going to bed in summer in New Orleans, when the sun sets around 8pm, so he was going to bed with the sun still out. I read him a story, sang him a song, and left the room, but he called me back in. He pointed at his bright window and asked, “Daddy, turn it off.” I told him, that’s the sun, buddy. There’s no switch for that, I don’t control it, and he looked at me, confused.
AJ has an excuse, though. He was two. But we adults have no excuse, and still oftentimes we confuse the corrupted things of this world for the good things of God’s kingdom. We confuse the manmade control-able things of this world with the wild, uncontrollable things of God. In doing so, to quote the apostle Paul, we “trade the truth of God for a lie…become futile in our thinking, and our foolish hearts are darkened.”
Isaiah, here, shows us something very important as we continue to consider what the kingdom of God is like. The kingdom of God is in contradiction to our world, and God is flipping everything upside down.
Our passage starts off with this image of a book no one alive can read; it’s a mystery, this book of God’s kingdom. But in v.18, God himself is reading it to the deaf, and they—who in this world are deprived of so much direct knowledge—are the ones who hear and understand what no one else on earth was able to know. He shows the book to the blind, and the blind see what no one else was able to see, and that’s just the start to God flipping the world upside down.
He takes aim at the church, says you church people say my name, you talk a lot about me, but your heart looks nothing like mine. I see all of your works, and your works are nothing like mine. Church in God’s kingdom will be nothing like church in this world. In God’s kingdom, God himself is priest and king. He won’t need to speak his name, because everyone on earth will know him, and his works will be wonder upon wonder.
The meek and low are lifted up, and those who used them to gain a high position will be brought down.
V.15, everything done in quiet and in darkness is revealed. V.16, Isaiah says enlightened people who look down on the light and truth of God and think they are self-made, are like clay pots who have decided they know and understand more than the potter who made them. He says their understanding of the world is upside down.
I love v.17, because it’s almost ridiculous, like Isaiah got carried away talking about everything God is reversing in the world and wasn’t able to stop. He says, in the kingdom of God, the forests will be like fields, and the fields like forests. Do you understand yet what the man’s trying to say? Everything in this world is flipped upside down in the kingdom of God, and so at last it’s the right way up.
Today, I want you to ask yourself whether you’re upside down or right side up. Whether you’re enlightened or illumined; whether you’re seeing the world in the light of day or under street lights. It changes the picture.
I’m not going to lie, many of these lines convicted me. The part about coming near him with my lips, but my heart is far from him? It’s easy to say the name of God in a prayer, or in church. With our lips, it’s easy to come close to the Lord. With our hearts, it’s harder. Sometimes we say we love the Lord, come to church, sing the songs, but our hearts are all twisted inside of us because they’re upside down. We come near him with our lips, but our hearts are far from him. Do you love the people and things God loves? Do you feel about the world the way God feels about it? Do you have the hope he has for the kingdom come, or is your heart twisted upside down?
Or what about the part where our fear of God is a commandment taught by men. I spent years diving headlong into that sin, so I recognize it when I meet someone who has her own law that she’s made, his own rules he lives by. A lot of people say they’re living life in obedience to the Lord, but in reality they’ve traded his law of grace for a law of their own making.
I know some people who have traded God’s law of grace for a law that will never forgive them. They alternate misery with eating and drinking and trying to stay positive, because it’s not even possible that God could forgive them what they’ve done, that they could enjoy life again.
I know other people who trade the law of God for a law they can keep. The law of God is meant to show us how imperfect we are, how broken, so we will fall on the grace of God, admit our brokenness and unworthiness, and ask over and again throughout our lives for his forgiveness. But sometimes we trade that law for one we can keep. One we can get good at. A law we can be better than him at. We make some sins the really bad sins and as long as we avoid those things, we’re basically good people. So as long as I’m not gay, I can sleep with people I’m not married to. So long as I’m not drunk all the time, I don’t have to be generous. Or so long as I don’t judge people, I don’t need forgiveness. That’s not the law of God, that’s you writing your own commandments so you can do as you’d like.
So I’ll admit, sometimes I don’t know if my heart is right-side-up or twisted. Most days I feel like I’m halfway in-between, flat on my back. I need the law of God, the Spirit of God to come resurrect me. Maybe like me, your heart needs reorientation.
And your mind this morning, is it illumined or enlightened? It’s not always easy to tell. C. S. Lewis told a fairy tale once about a witch who lived in an upside down world underground, and she captured a prince as a young child and raised him in this underworld. By the time he was a man, he had forgotten all about the sunlit world. The witch had a dim lamp she hung in her underground city, and she called that the sun—she copied everything from the real world like that, so when someone from the real world told the prince what it was like, he laughed at all the silly fantasy stories and told them, this underworld is what’s real.
Sometimes we laugh and joke about things like hope and joy because we’ve never felt them, so we just assume they’re not real. We copy the real world, trade pleasure and vague optimism for joy and hope, laugh at anyone who would give up our copies in search of the real thing. We laugh about forgiveness and reconciliation because we assume everyone argues and disagrees as much as we do. Everyone feels just as miserable, alone, and hopeless, they just won’t admit it. We say, “I’m the free one, because at least I’m not deluded by religion, using it like a crutch.”
Illumined or enlightened. Having an open mind is good, but sometimes our minds are open in the same way trashcans are open, in that we allow whomever we pass on the sidewalk to just drop something in, even if it’s garbage. I prefer, as Chesterton writes, to open my mind as I open my mouth, in hopes of closing it again on something good and nourishing.
Sometimes we read all the books and take all the classes and think we know the way the world is, so we don’t need to have conversations with people who disagree and really hear people out. We’re wise and right in our own eyes, and we’re on the right side of history. Now I’m far from being anti-book and anti-education, I’m just pro-humility. Sometimes we graduate from high school and assume we know more than our parents; graduate from college and assume we know more than God, himself. We learn how to use the internet and assume all of the vast ages of humanity were thoughtless fools, because someone on twitter said they were and we believed them. We don’t heed the warning in proverbs that a word of wisdom spoken in quiet is better than the shouting of a ruler among fools. If I could I would change the slogan of Twitter to “the shouting of rulers among fools.”
But we don’t seek illumination, because we assume we are already enlightened. Listen, though, your light is nothing compared to the sun. I hope you can believe that and seek out the true Spirit of God to illumine you. I hope you understand what I mean when I say there is really joy, and hope, and forgiveness for you in God through Jesus Christ. There is peace in him, reconciliation with God and with the people around you, a life you’re not ashamed of, one you actually want to live. Don’t just assume this world, with all of its copies, is all there is. The kingdom of God really does exist, and you’re invited into it.
God is turning everything right-side up again, and in his kingdom, he is a light bright enough to illumine every mind, heart, and household—all things known, all truth told, all lies brought into the light, every foolish word giving way to wisdom.
My invitation to you this morning is summed up pretty well in Psalm 43, so I’m just going to ask you to close your eyes this morning and we can pray these verses together:
 Send out your light and your truth;
let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
and to your dwelling!
 Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God my exceeding joy,
and I will praise you with the lyre,
O God, my God.
 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my salvation and my God.