The title of our study, The Time of the of Rain and Snow, is taken from the oft-quoted passage found in Chapter 55 of Isaiah:
"For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and return not thither but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and prosper in the thing for which I sent it." (Isaiah 55:10-11 RSV)
We could not have chosen a better week for this study for rain and snow have been the featured elements of our weather in Northern California in the past week and the topic of most of our conversation. It will be interesting to see what the weather will be like when we come to the chapters on fire and judgment!
Chapter 54, where we actually begin our study, is linked closely with the amazing 53rd chapter, which pictures the Lamb of God offering himself for the sins of man. Chapter 54 opens with a summons to Israel to sing and rejoice because of the fruitfulness that will follow redemption. Chapter 55 then speaks of the rain and the snow which come upon the earth to bring forth that harvest of fruitfulness. But first the call to gladness:
"Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
break forth into singing and cry aloud,
you who have not been in travail!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than the children of her that is married, says the Lord.
Enlarge the place of your tent,
and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
hold not back, lengthen your cords
and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
and your descendants will possess the nations
and will people the desolate cities." (Isaiah 54:1-3 RSV)
These are words of hope and a guarantee of fruitfulness to the nation Israel, yet to be fulfilled in the day when they see and recognize their Messiah. Yet, as we have seen many times through this great prophecy, these words are also applicable to those who are members of the family of God today. We find they are fulfilled to us in a spiritual sense, not literally, as they will be to Israel. They picture the joy and gladness of a heart that has been set free by Jesus. Many of you, if you had opportunity, could bear a ringing witness to the joy and peace that flooded your heart when you came to know the Lord. Years ago at a church in Denver where I was attending, there was a woman who came to Christ, after having burned herself out in the ways of the world. Her heart was flooded with joy, but she did not know how to express it in a Christian way. She did not know words like "Hallelujah," or "Praise the Lord," so she would just stand and say, "Whoopee!" This passage reflects that glad sense of rejoicing. It goes on to describe in specific detail the freedom that Christ brings into a life. First, from fear and guilt:
"Fear not, for you will not be ashamed;
be not confounded, for you will not be put to shame;
for you will forget the shame of your youth,
and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more." (Isaiah 54:4 RSV)
That is one of the great things about salvation. We can forget the things that are in the past because a change has occurred. We are forgiven and restored. Verses 5 and 6 speak of the companionship and the comfort of a relationship with the Lord.
"For your Maker is your husband,
the Lord of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
the God of the whole earth he is called.
For the Lord has called you
like a wife forsaken and grieved in spirit,
like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
says your God." (Isaiah 54:5-6 RSV)
These are words of sweet comfort to those who have been bereaved, or those who have felt abandoned. Your Maker will be like a husband to a lonely widow. Verses 7 and 8 are words of compassion and mercy:
"For a brief moment I forsook you,
but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing wrath for a moment
I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,
says the Lord, your Redeemer." (Isaiah 54:7-8 RSV)
In their literal fulfillment, these words speak of the years of wandering for the nation of Israel. In the Lord's sight this is but a brief moment in which he has hid his face, and it will be over soon. But to those of us who know Christ, this speaks of that time when we thought God had no concern for us and we saw him as a distant, angry God, hiding himself from us. But now the promise is to show unbroken and everlasting love to us. Then the next two verses speak of the security one will feel in this relationship. God vows that there shall be no change in his attitude toward us.
"For this is like the days of Noah to me:
as I swore that the waters of Noah
should no more go over the earth,
so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you
and will not rebuke you.
For the mountains may depart
and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,
says the Lord, who has compassion on you." (Isaiah 54:9-10 RSV)
This beautiful language speaks of the assurance of Romans 8:1. "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." God treats us no longer as enemies, as pariahs and prodigals, but as children. He disciplines us, he chastens us, yes, but he always loves us and we can count on that love even through the times of discipline.
Chapter 55 extends this word of greeting and invitation not only to Israel, but to the whole world.
"Ho, every one who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price." (Isaiah 55:1 RSV)
What a beautiful invitation! The appeal, of course, is to any who thirst. We humans are so made that our souls thirst just as much as our bodies do. We thirst to lay hold of life. I have never met anybody who does not want to live, to be fulfilled and satisfied with life. This is what we are invited to satisfy. "Come to the water." We recall Jesus' encounter with the woman at the well of Samaria, and her pitiful attempt to find satisfaction in one marriage after another. Jesus said to her, "If you knew who it is that speaks to you, you would ask of me and I would put in you a well of water, springing up unto everlasting life," (John 4:10-14). She asked for it and he gave it to her. That is the same invitation we have here. And not only to drink water, but wine, the wine of joy; and milk, the milk of the Word, to feed the new life. Those of us who have drunk of this well, of this wine and this milk, know how true these figures are. There is where peace, inner calmness, joy and satisfaction of life are to be found. The Lord then has a question for those who hesitate to come and drink.
"Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?" (Isaiah 55:2a RSV)
That is a highly relevant question today. What are you working for?, God asks. What are you getting out of all you are doing? You may be hard pressed to answer that. Have you ever asked yourself, why do I get up in the morning, go to work, work all day, then come home, go to sleep, only to get up in the morning and go to work again? What is it all about? What am I working for? That is the question asked here. Why do you do all that? "To earn money," you say. Why? "To buy food for myself and my word be." Why do you need food? "To get strength." Why? "So I can go to work and earn money!" No wonder life is often described as a squirrel cage, w here you endlessly run around in circles, or a rat race, without meaning. This is the question many are asking today.
A certain television commercial that is frequently aired pictures a young man out in his yard planting trees. As he is doing so, he is talking about all the busy things that occupy his life, and how he is putting money into a certain investment savings plan so that, as he puts it, "the day will come when I can quit all this work and relax." He touches one of the young trees and says, "By that time these guys ought to be big enough to hold a hammock." Every time I see that I think, "What a futile end to live for! How long will he stay in the hammock?" You cannot enjoy a hammock more than an hour or two. Then what? Is that all there is to life?
This is what this passage brings before us. Why are you working for "that which is not bread and [spending] your labor for that which does not satisfy?" I think often of the words of T.S. Eliot,
All our knowledge only brings us closer to our ignorance,
and all our ignorance closer to death.
But closer to death, no nearer to God.
Then he asks the question that hangs over this whole generation:
Where is the life we have lost in living?
That is what God is asking here. Why are you not satisfied with all you are getting? And where do you find satisfaction? God goes on to answer:
"Hearken diligently to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in fatness.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David." (Isaiah 55:2b-3 RSV)
The "everlasting covenant" is God's gift of himself and his love, found in the salvation which our Lord Jesus brings. That is the basis for true self-acceptance. The world is forever seeking confidence, self-worth. People expect others to give it to them, but all others can offer is a momentary shot in the arm. The whole thrust of Scripture, however, is that only God can give you an abiding sense of worth, the "everlasting covenant," "the sure mercies of David." This is something you can stand on every day: the feeling that you are loved, accepted and valuable in the sight of a God who has forgiven your sins and given you grace to live. This is the appeal of the gospel. How do you obtain this? The answer is found in Verse 6:
"Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake his way,
and the unrighteous man his thoughts;
let him return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on him,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon." (Isaiah 55:6-7 RSV)
That is the only way; no one has ever found another. Acknowledge your need, your failure, your weakness, and turn to the Lord. Ask of him and he will abundantly pardon! The text goes on to say:
"For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:8-9 RSV)
That is one of the most important verses in the Bible. It declares, God does not work like we do, therefore we need not be surprised that at times we cannot understand what he is doing. We need not get angry at God because he does not work the way we work. When man plans something, he thinks of specialized training, expensive machinery, complex organizations and endless supplies of money. But God does not do that. When he wants to do something, he usually picks some unknown, obscure, forgotten person. He takes simple things that are right at hand: a couple of loaves and a few fish will feed multitudes; six water jars filled with water and he will turn it into wine; only the jawbone of an ass (that is a comfort to me)! God will use whatever is right at hand. We do not easily understand how to work with God because he does not work like we do. We keep trying to impose our manmade systems upon him. No wonder his work seems to falter because it is not his work, but ours. But when we learn to work with him how wonderfully he does things.
A long-term friend of mine who grew up in this church, Brad Curl, dropped by a meeting of our interns at our house yesterday and I had him share what he is doing. Brad is an artist who lives in Washington, DC., where he has an art gallery. Some years ago the Lord laid on him a deep concern about what pornography was doing to our nation, especially to our youth. Under God's direction he took on the Playboy empire, seeking to reveal the whole truth about the way pornography dehumanizes people, degrades them, by planting filth into their minds that takes root and produces some of the terrible crimes we are so disturbed about today. He is a David that has taken on a Goliath. Already 40% of the advertisers in Playboy magazine have voluntarily withdrawn their advertising because of his campaign. The Playboy empire is financially shaken by this kind of a grassroots approach. Yet he told us of the many times he has felt so alone, and cast upon God. He has had to mortgage his house several times to pay bills. But God has used him in abundant ways and is calling attention to people all over the land of the terrible evil that pornography does in our midst. That is the way God works. One man, with God, can make a difference.
Verses 10 and 11, quoted at the beginning of our study, give an example from nature of the way God works. The rain and the snow come down from heaven; man has no control over it. We have learned very little about how to encourage rainfall when we have need of it, or decrease it when we have too much of it. It comes at God's will, it soaks into the ground and seems to disappear, with apparently limited effect. It may even cause some problems. But it will do its work, quietly and silently. God adds, "So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth." Like rain and snow, it falls upon human hearts, takes root and begins to produce fruit.
Here in Northern California, in just a week or so, the hills will be covered with a marvelous, refreshing green. Soon the grain will be standing waist high in the fields. That is the way God's Word works. Next week I will be in Anaheim for the opening of the Congress on Biblical Exposition. We are trying to encourage pastors to catch on afresh to the remarkable power of this Book; what it can do when it touches human hearts, how life springs everywhere here the Word of God is preached. The great tragedy of the church today is the neglect of the Scriptures. People no longer know what the Bible teaches. They no longer think biblically, to think the thoughts of God after him. This is what this passage encourages us to remember. A beautiful description of this harvest follows in the closing verses of this chapter.
"For you shall go out in joy,
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress;
instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle;
and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial,
for an everlasting sign which shall not be cut off." (Isaiah 55:12-13 RSV)
Do you understand the import of those verses? God is saying, "That which has caused pain to you shall be turned into blessing; in its place shall grow up beauty and love." I have seen this happen in many lives. Some people have the thorn of cynicism and sarcasm growing in them, but let them be touched by the Word of God and soon the graceful fir of patience and understanding grows in its place. Some harbor the brier of malice and envy, but let them be touched with the Word, the rain and the snow from heaven, and there will grow up in its place the delicate myrtle of compassion and kindness. Dr. F. B. Meyer has commented on this passage:
There are briers besetting every path that call for earnest care. Many beside Paul have thorns in the flesh. But His grace is sufficient to change our biggest curse into our greatest blessing. Look for this! Ask God to transform the conditions of your life, which has cost you excruciating anguish, into sources of benediction.
Is this not the promise of Jesus to his disciples in the Upper Room? "Your sorrow shall be turned into joy," (John 16:20 KJV) Chapter 56 continues this thought, with a special word to strangers and single people. Verse 3:
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say,
"The Lord will surely separate me from his people" [Do not say, "Because I am new and have never been here before I am not going to be able to participate in all the blessing that these folks have."];
and let not the eunuch [the unmarried] say,
'Behold, I am a dry tree.'
For thus says the Lord:
"To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name which shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:3-5 RSV)
What a marvelous promise! We must understand that the word about "keeping the sabbath" here has no reference to Sunday. Sunday is not the "sabbath," and it never has been. It was a mistake for Christians in past generations to ever call it that. Saturday is the Sabbath, but even that is only a shadow, a picture, not the real thing. Keeping Saturday as a special day is not what God ultimately intended. That was merely a means of teaching the truth that he wants known. The explanation of the sabbath is given most clearly in Hebrews 4. There we are told that sabbath means rest. We read in Genesis that God "rested" on the seventh day. It is rest that is the fundamental idea, a rest from human effort in expectation that God is going to work. That is what it means. Thus, when you expect God to be at work in your life, you are keeping the sabbath as God wants it to be kept. Having done all you can do, you confidently anticipate that he is going to do something more and let it rest with God -- that is keeping the sabbath as God intended it to be kept. Thus Hebrews 4 says, "There remains (is now present) a rest unto the people of God," Hebrews 4:9). That rest is described in Verse 10 of that chapter, "Whoever enters God's rest has ceased from his own labors, as God did from his." He has kept the sabbath, and, as this passage promises, has gained an everlasting name that shall not be cut off."
Chapter 57 returns to the theme of idolatry and to the disobedience of the nation of Israel, to their surrender to the awful culture around them in Isaiah's day, when they even offered their children to the god Molech. We experience this in our own day for this is what pornography does. It is a way of offering our children up to a false and destructive god. The child abuse that we are so horrified at today is a direct result of the flood of pornographic literature, videos and movies throughout our land. In the midst of this debauchery, God asks another searching question.
Whom did you dread and fear,
so that you lied,
and did not remember me,
did not give me a thought?
Have I not held my peace,
even for a long time,
and so you do not fear me? (Isaiah 57:11 RSV)
God's patience with evil is often misunderstood. People begin to think that if there is a God at all, he does not care what they do. They go on their way, responding out of fear, perhaps, out of rejection, or of alienation from society. They surrender to the allurements of the world and forget God. God asks, "What are you afraid of? Why do you do that? Have you misunderstood? Because I held my peace have you lost your fear of me?" Yet there will be terrible consequences of evil. Once again this passage stresses the danger of self-confidence and pride.
For thus says the high and lofty One
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
"I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and humble spirit,
to revive the spirit of the humble,
and to revive the heart of the contrite." (Isaiah 57:15 RSV)
The danger to man is always of pride and self-confidence. "I can do it all my self. I am in charge of my own life. I do not need anyone." But God says that is the heart that is in trouble. He dwells with those who are of a "humble and contrite" heart. Here is a beautiful picture of God himself, living within someone and strengthening him.
The opposite is also true. The closing verses of the chapter describe the price of pride: inner restlessness and lack of peace.
"Peace, peace, to the far and to the near, says the Lord;
and I will heal him.
But the wicked are like the tossing sea;
for it cannot rest,
and its waters toss up mire and dirt.
There is no peace, says my God, for the wicked." (Isaiah 57:19-21 RSV)
Do not think of the "wicked" as gangsters and blatant sinners. A man may rob a bank of a million dollars. That is wicked. But if a child steals a nickel from his mother's purse, that, too, is wicked. To such, there is "no peace." Proverbs says, "Be sure your sin will find you out," (Num 32:23).It does not say, "You sin will be found out." It will find you out. You will not rest. You will be troubled within, feeling guilty, having to hide your sin from people.
Chapter 58 voices a protest from the religious community. Some people say, "We don't fit into this category. We're good, decent people. We go to church. We love the Bible. We give liberally. Yet God does not seem to give us joy and gladness. Why is this?" Thus Verse 3 of Chapter 58 protests,
'Why have we fasted, and thou seest it not?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and thou takest no knowledge of it?' (Issa 58:3 RSV)
The cry comes from those who rely on external religious practices. God answers,
"Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with wicked fist.
Fasting like yours this day
will not make your voice to be heard on high.
Is such the fast that I choose,
a day for a man to humble himself?
Is it to bow down his head like a rush,
and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him?
[This is a sarcastic description of religious worship.]
Will you call this a fast,
and a day acceptable to the Lord?
"Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh [your own family]?" (Isaiah 58:3b-7 RSV)
That is what God is really looking for. All through the Scriptures the emphasis is on the need for reality inside, not mere outward conformity to ritual and custom. According to the Bible, the ultimate test of faith has always been: does it lead you to serve, to help somebody in need? Do you feel motivated to act? If you do, your faith is real. Otherwise, as James says, it is a "dead faith." One Christian has put his experience in these words,
I knelt to pray when work was done and prayed, "O God, bless everyone... Lift from each burdened heart the pain and let the sick be well again." ... And then I woke another day and carelessly went on my way... And all day long I did not try to wipe the tear from any eye... I did not try to bear the load of any brother on the road... I did not even go to see the sick man just next door to me.
And then again when day was done, I prayed, "O God, bless everyone" ... And as I prayed into my ear there came a voice which whispered clear ... "Whom have you tried to bless today? Pause, hypocrite, before you pray ... God's richest blessings always go by hands that serve Him, here below." ... And then I hid my face and cried, "Forgive me, Lord, for I have lied... Let me but see another day, for I would live the way I pray."
Someone else has added, "Think not in prayer to fold thy hands. Forgetful of the Lord's commands, from duty's claims no life is free. Behold! The Lord hath need of thee." God's promise comes immediately to one who takes note of this. Verse 8:
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry, and he will say, Here I am.
"If you take away from the midst of you the yoke,
the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness,
if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light rise in the darkness
and your gloom be as the noonday.
And the Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your desire with good things,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters fail not." (Isaiah 58:8-11 RSV)
Such vivid imagery hardly needs exposition. James says, "Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction," (James 1:27 KJV). Someone has written of this,
Pure religion prompts you
To give Dad a more welcome greeting
when he comes home than the dog.
To know if the postman's wife is sick.
To put the hymnals back in the rack
to save the janitor work.
To speak kindly to your younger brother.
To iron the dress for your sister.
To listen to the troubles of another.
To give away not the unwanted dress
but the one you might wear again.
To remind the Sunday school superintendent
that Mrs. Smith might like to teach.
To help paint your neighbor's basement.
To make benches for the beginners' department.
To call the elevator man by his name.
To be on time for meals.
The acid test is not, "What does my religion do for me?" but, "What does it make me do for others?"
Father, we thank you for these searching words. How well you know who we are and what we are doing. Help our faith to be real, not phony. In Jesus' name. Amen.