Saturday 4 August 2012

City of Righteousness (Isaiah 1)

City of God

The vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem that Isaiah son of Amoz saw during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
Isaiah 1:1

Isaiah: We begin a new series on the book of Isaiah the prophet. Isaiah served under the reign of four kings, Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah, during which he spoke on behalf of God, through visions that were given to him (the word “vision,” can also mean insight). Hence, at times we will find Isaiah speaking from his perspective as a prophet of God (eg verse 2a, “Hear O heavens... for the LORD has spoken”), but we also find God speaking directly to his people, (verse 2b, “I reared children... I brought them up.”)

The City: Interestingly, while Isaiah serves under the kings of Judah, while he is addressing the people of God, again and again, what we find is Isaiah preaching against the city of Jerusalem. Furthermore, God equates the condition of the city they live in with the condition of their hearts. It is almost as if one is a reflection of the other.

Fifteen years ago, when I was studying here in Cambridge, only one of my Engineering classmates was from mainland China. Back then, we had Cho Mee, the famous Asian provision shop along Mill Road, but it was half its size. There was but one authentic Chinese restaurant along Regent Street - Charlie Chan. Today, mainland Chinese students comprise the largest number of internationals in the university, almost 900 undergraduates and postgraduates, and Regent Street has J, Seven Days and Yim Wah restaurants, not forgetting the two HK Fusions in the city centre. Cho Mee has not only expanded to double its former size, but now faces stiff competition from new Japanese and Chinese provision shops that have sprung up all around town. It is not uncommon to see posters printed in Chinese on some High Street shop windows. Even the banks have begun employing managers speaking fluent Mandarin to serve their new customer base.

The city is a reflection of its people. But Isaiah is saying something more. Here in Chapter 1, God’s judgement upon the city is reflection of his judgement upon his people’s hearts. This was Jerusalem, the city of God. God calls Jerusalem, the Faithful City. He calls it the City of Righteousness (verse 26). This was the city of God’s chosen king. This was the city of God’s chosen place of worship, the temple with its priests and sacrifices. But the reality was, this was a city that had turned its back against God. And as Isaiah speaks to them as God’s chosen people, he says to them, “Look at your city. Look at what it has become. Then look at your own hearts and see how you have rebelled against your God.”

I want us to see that Isaiah says three things in this opening chapter:

1. Remember your past rebellion
2. Repent of your present worship
3. Be redeemed from God’s future judgement

Past rebellion; present worship, and God’s future judgement.

1. Past rebellion

The first thing we see is Israel’s past rebellion where God speaks as a dad who isn’t acknowledged by his own children.

Hear, O heavens! Listen, O earth!
For the LORD has spoken:
“I reared children and brought them up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows his master,
the donkey his owner’s manger,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.”
Isaiah 1:2-3

Now it is very surprising that God should refer to Israel as his children (verse 3), because right from the beginning of the first verse, we already read that this was a prophecy against Judah and Jerusalem. The kingdom of Israel had been split into two - the northern kingdom and the southern kingdom. They were two separate kingdoms. They had two separate kings. Isaiah was a prophet of the southern kingdom of Judah, and the rest of the chapter focus on Jerusalem, the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah. Now, the question is - and it is very important that we get this - Why does God refer to Israel - to both kingdoms?

The reason is: God is reminding his people of their long history of rejecting him. This isn’t a one-off occasion when they did something unintentional that offended him. When Isaiah begins in verse 2 by calling the heavens and the earth - the whole universe - to bear witness on what has happened in Israel, he is echoing the words of the prophet Moses. This was before there was a kingdom, before there was even the Promised Land. Moses said to Israel in the desert, “I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him.” (Deuteronomy 30:19) Moses was calling heaven and earth as witnesses to a wedding ceremony; he was spelling out the vows between God and Israel. Isaiah repeats these words to remind Israel of the very promises they had forgotten; the vows which they had broken.

Isaiah’s point was this: Right from the beginning, ever since the time of Moses, Israel has been rebelling against God. Ever since God saved them from Egypt, they continued to reject him. Ever since God gave them the land, they continued to rebel against him. This is not something new.

And friends this is true of our lives as well. We tend to think of sin as slip-ups. Oops, I did it again. We think of sin as occasions when we did something really bad. But here God looks upon our sin as our continuous attitude of rejection towards him. Sin is present in every single thing that we do. We don’t acknowledge him. We don’t thank him. “The ox knows his master, the donkey knows his owner’s manger.” Even animals understand gratitude.

Ah, sinful nation,
a people loaded with guilt,
a brood of evildoers,
children given to corruption!
They have forsaken the LORD;
they have spurned the Holy One of Israel
and turned their backs on him.
Isaiah 1:4

A pastor once spoke to me with a heavy heart about a family he was counselling. The children had repeatedly rebelled against their mum growing up under her care, and had now abandoned her in her old age. And he kept saying to me, “How could they do this? How could they do this?” He was deeply shocked by their sin. I said to him, “If we know God and his word to us about our hearts, we should never be too surprised by sin. God isn’t.” God looks upon your life and my life and God sees rebellious children. He sees ungrateful sons and daughters. It doesn’t mean that he is indifferent. God laments over Israel as a dad with a broken heart. He continues to call his people back to him. But one thing God isn’t is caught off-guard. Heaven and earth - the whole universe - bears witness to our actions, our thoughts and our rebellion against him as our God. And God says to us, “You know this, too, from your own life experience. You ought to understand how your actions have consequences.”

Why should you be beaten any more?
Why do you persist in rebellion?
Your whole head is injured,
your whole heart afflicted.
From the sole of your foot to the top of your head
there is no soundness -
only wounds and bruises and open sores,
not cleansed or bandaged
or soothed with oil.
Isaiah 1:5-6

If you could imagine someone with wounds and bruises and sores all over his body, you would think that that person was in pain. You would think that such a person would know that he needs help. But the point is, we are blind to our sin. God is saying, “Isn’t it obvious to you by now, that your rebellion is destroying you from the inside out?” Your whole head is injured, your whole heart is afflicted. Both inside and outside, our experience of God’s judgement over our sin ought to be enough of a wake-up call. And yet, we persist. Jesus once said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick,” (Luke 5:31) then adding, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32) We don’t delay treating pain; we reach for some aspirin or we see our GP, yet when it comes to our sin, we ignore that it’s there, we deny it in the face of judgement, even in the light of the revelation of God’s word.

Here, God speaks to us, one-on-one, “Why do you persist in rebellion? Your whole head is injured. Your whole heart afflicted.” But next, God moves on to the nation as a whole.

Your country is desolate,
your cities burned with fire;
your fields are being stripped by foreigners right before you,
laid waste as when overthrown by strangers.
The Daughter of Zion is left
like a shelter in a vineyard,
like a hut in a field of melons,
like a city under seige.
Unless the LORD Almighty (or the LORD of hosts)
had left us some survivors,
we would become like Sodom,
we would have been like Gomorrah.
Isaiah 1:7-9

The experts debate as to which attack on Jerusalem (the Daughter of Zion) Isaiah is actually referring to, as the city was invaded several times in 735BC by Syria, in 701BC by Assyria (under King Sennacherib) and in 586BC by Babylon (under King Nebuchadnezzar, in which case, Isaiah was foretelling this event). Personally, I think that Isaiah wrote this chapter early in his career as a prophet and as a young man, referring to one of the attacks either by Assyria or Syria. Having said that, the description given in these verses is that of Jerusalem’s spiritual, not its physical, state. In the same way that when God says that we are covered with sores and bruises from our head to our feet, we are not to imagine everyone in the city looking like the cast of an apocalyptic zombie movie, so here, the shelter in the vineyard, the hut in the field of melons (or cucumbers, in the ESV, images of temporary shelters that have become permanent homes, akin to living in your parents garage) and the city under seige are all images of the spiritual condition of Jerusalem.

The point is, they were a pale shadow of what they ought to be. God had promised them a land “flowing with milk and honey,” (Exodus 3:8) and it needs to be said, that if you turned up in Jerusalem then as a tourist, they would have proudly showed you the sights - the temple of God, the palace of the King, the olive groves and vineyards, the busy city streets. And yet, God looked at this city and saw a broken down hut. This was a city that had been attacked again and again - by invaders and outsiders, yes - but the fact that God is described in verse 9 as “The LORD of hosts,” means it was God who sent these invaders to destroy Jerusalem. “The LORD of hosts” simply means the God of armies. Again and again, throughout this nation’s history, God had sent wake-up call after wake-up call, to turn them from their rebellion, yet in their blindness, they refused to acknowledge their sin, and in their stubbornness they refused to acknowledge their sin.

To recap, the first thing that Isaiah draws our attention to is Israel’s past history. This was a people chosen by God. This was a people saved by God. Yet like rebellious children, this was a city that had turned their backs on God. Not only were they blind to God’s love, they were stubborn in the face of God’s judgement. “Why should you be beaten anymore?” God says to the individual. “Your cities were burned with fire,” God addresses the nation. Again and again, God sends judgement in response to their sin. But next, we see that again and again, God sends them something else: He sends them his word.

2. Present worship

Hear the word of the LORD,
you rulers of Sodom;
listen to the law of our God,
you people of Gomorrah!
Isaiah 1:10

If you remember the story of Lot in Genesis (and if you don’t, you can look it up in Genesis Chapter 19), Sodom and Gomorrah were cities completely destroyed by fire from heaven for their wickedness. God is saying to his people, “You guys are like Sodom.” He says to Jerusalem, “Your city is no different from Gomorrah,” in terms of their wickedness and rebellion; in terms of the judgement that they were in danger of facing. The only reason Jerusalem was still around is because of the mercy of God. “Unless the LORD Almighty had left us some survivors, we would have become like Sodom, we would have been like Gomorrah.” (Isaiah 1:9)

But Isaiah takes it one step further. He says, “Listen to God’s word. Listen to God’s law.” The word for law that he uses is Torah. This was the special word referring to the Law of Moses. This was the sacred writings of the history of their nation. On top of all that, this was the instruction that God gave Moses for proper worship at the temple. You see, when Isaiah says, “Listen to God’s word,” he didn’t mean, “Make sure you pay attention during the sermon.” No, he was referring to their worship. He is saying to us, “You know the songs you were just singing? You know the Lord’s Supper you just had at the combined service? You know the offering you just took? Well, were you then, listening to God’s word? Were you worshipping according to God’s word?”

“The multitude of your sacrifices -
what are they to me?” says the LORD.
“I have more than enough of burnt offerings,
of rams and the fat of fattened animals;
I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.

When you come to appear before me,
who has asked this of you,
this trampling of my courts?
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations -
I cannot bear your evil assemblies.
Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts
my soul hates.
They have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
Isaiah 1:11-14

Earlier on, God was calling us to repent of our sin. Most of us expect to hear something like that. “Turn away from evil. Turn away from destruction.” That makes sense. That is what we usually understand by repentance. But do you see what is happening here? God is calling us to turn away from - to repent of - our empty worship.

He isn’t talking about idolatry. These “multitude of sacrifices”, “the blood of bulls and lambs and goats”, were all part of instructions given to Moses. Their worship programmes were spot on. Similarly, the instructions for the “New moon festivals” and “appointed feasts” can all be found in the book of the law recorded in Exodus. Not unlike our Mid-Autumn festival, these were big celebrations at harvest time to give thanks to God; to acknowledge him as our provider. God was not talking about idolatry. Their worship services were exactly in accordance with his instructions. Exactly according to his word in the Torah.

And yet, God says, “Stop bringing meaningless offerings!” He says to the guy who puts the money into the offering bag, the priest who slaughters the animal, the lady who is preparing the meal for that big celebration feast, the musician who is accompanying the singing of the Psalms on his guitar - he says to all of these worshippers in his temple in Jerusalem, “You guys are phonies!” Why? Because it is one big cover-up, that’s why.

Be careful of using worship as a cover-up. Be careful of using worship programmes, church programmes and Christian ministry as a cover-up for not dealing with our sinfulness and repentance; because friends, that is what they did in Isaiah’s day; and I wonder, if that isn’t what we tend to do today. We pour all our energies into making sure the Mid-Autumn Festival celebration takes place without a hitch; we pour all attention into our worship programmes; we put all our money into external forms that we can see, that we can touch - the building, the materials, the website; and at the end of the day everything looks good, the accounts are balanced, people have a good time, everyone has had the chance to worship - but God says, “You guys need to stop this rubbish.” Why? Because it’s a cover-up. We don’t want to deal with our sin. Because it is embarrassing to stand up in front of the whole church and call for repentance from our sin. Because it is much easier to have fellowship meetings - with food, fun, activities - than it is to sit down in front of God’s word and hear him say to you, “Your whole head is injured, your whole heart is afflicted” That is offensive. No-one wants to hear that.

And just in case, some of us are going, “What we really need to do is pray about it,” which I know is a very common response amongst us here at the Chinese Church, just have a look at what God says next about our prayer.

When you spread out your hands in prayer,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even if you offer many prayers,
I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood;
Isaiah 1:15

Some people will say the solution is, “Just pray. God will hear you. God hears every one of our prayers.” This verse teaches us that simply isn’t true. Not just here, by the way; Peter reminds husbands to be considerate towards their wives so that their prayers are not hindered (1 Peter 3:7). Paul wants men to lift up “holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing” (1 Timothy 2:8, remembering how Jesus said, “Leave your gift at the altar, and first get things sorted with your brother who has something against you,” Matthew 5:24). And James says God does not answer our prayers which are asked for selfish gain. He even calls us adulterers! (James 4:3-4)

But even compared to all these references, I find this one the most shocking. God says to the guy lifting up his hands in full-on worship and reverence, “I’m not even going to look at you.” Why? God says to this worshipper, “Your hands are full of blood,” by which, God isn’t saying that this guy is a murderer. This man has blood on his hands not simply due to something evil he has done, but from neglecting the good that he ought to have done. God is actually rebuking the worshipper for his inaction.

Wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight!
Stop doing wrong,
learn to do right!
Seek justice,
encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless,
plead the case of the widow.
Isaiah 1:16-17

This was a city that was vibrant in its worship but neglectful of the weak. This was a church obsessed with programmes yet blatantly ignoring the poor.

What about us? In a place like Cambridge, it is all too easy to focus on student ministry, on reaching the top scholars from China, on setting up cafes for the thousands of internationals that pass through the city. Everyone wants to plant a church in Cambridge. Each year, we get pastors, missionaries, church planters, visiting speakers, theology students, all wanting to start something new, something significant right here in Cambridge. But it is always some new ministry amongst Cambridge University students (as opposed to Anglia Ruskin). It always has to be in the city center; never in Arbury or Fulbourn or Chesterton. It is rarely ever amongst the sixth formers (with the excuse that they are so young, there are so many of them, and it would just be too tiring). It is never with the locals; it always has to be with the mainland Chinese. Why not the Germans and the Americans (who outnumber the mainland Chinese students, by the way?) Why not the significantly older population living right here in our city?

God says to worshipper, “Seek justice. Defend the fatherless and the widow.” Why? Because they’re weak? Yes. Because they need our help, the most? Yes, in part. But also because God is their God (Psalm 68:5). God is the God of the weak. God is the God of the marginalised. He is the God of the fatherless. He is the God of the widow, and he defends their cause; he upholds their needs. When Jesus came, he chose to hang out with the weak and despised members of society. The middle-class religious teachers couldn’t understand this, “Why does he eat with ‘sinners’?” they asked his disciples. Jesus responds, quoting the prophet Hosea when he said, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’” (Matthew 9:13) Much more than worship and performance, God wants us to learn to be generous. To be gracious. He wants our mercy, not our sacrifice.

“Come now, let us reason together,”
says the LORD.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall be like wool.
If you are willing and obedient,
you will eat the best from the land;
but if you resist and rebel,
you will be devoured by the sword.”
For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
Isaiah 1:18-20

“Think about what you’re doing,” God says to the worshipper. “Come to your senses.” The reason why the worshipper is so zealous in his prayers and offerings is because he knows there is something amiss in his life; something that needs to be covered-up, namely his sin and rebellion. Yet, God is saying, it is not your worship that makes up for your sin. it is not even the blood of the bulls and goats that take the penalty for your sin. All these sacrifices are but pointers to a greater reality; a greater sacrifice; a greater offering.

“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” There is a solution that will wipe the slate clean; spotlessly clean. And yes, God dares to promise abundant blessing on top of this final solution, “You will eat the best from the land.” What is this solution? He doesn’t tell us! Well, at least not yet. We meet God’s solution only in the final section of this chapter. For now, God is calling for repentance. Turn away from your rebellion. Turn away from God’s impending judgement and submit to the authority of his word. “For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

To recap, God is calling for repentance - repentance not from evil, but repentance from empty, worthless worship. They got all the externals right. They had all their church programmes up and running, but it was all a cover-up, a denial of the true condition of their hearts. Inside, they still rebelled against God. Outwardly, they neglected their responsibility to care for their weaker brothers and sisters. What God was looking for was justice. What God was seeking was righteousness. And as we shall see next, God is looking for righteousness in this city, this city of Jerusalem, a city that God promised he would one day redeem, that would one day be called the City of Righteousness and Faithfulness.

3. Future judgement

See how the faithful city
has become a harlot!
She once was full of justice;
righteousness used to dwell in her -
but now murderers!
Your silver has become dross,
your choice wine is diluted with water.
Your rulers are rebels,
companions of thieves;
they all love bribes
and chase after gifts.
They do not defend the cause of the fatherless;
the widow’s case does not come before them.
Isaiah 1:21-23

Two important words in Hebrew are often translated “righteousness” (tzedeqah) and “justice” (mishpat) and they both occur in verse 21 to describe Jerusalem as a city full of “justice,” (mishpat) where “righteousness” (tzedeqah) dwells. In English, they both mean the same thing. Indeed, in the New Testament, both words are interchangeable (especially in the book of Romans). However, they each take on a different emphasis and flavour in the Old Testament.

Mishpat refers to right action, often in the context of the punishment for crimes, whereas tzedeqah refers to a right relationship, within a society, within the family, or even with God. Hence, mishpat is often translated “justice”, which has the more familiar meaning of doing the right thing, acting in accordance with the rules, being fair when tasked with a heavy responsibility, such as executing just punishment for crimes. The second word, however, tzedeqah, is often overlooked. Translated as “righteousness,” tzedeqah is not be confused with being morally good. No, this is rightness in relating to those around you. Hence, there ought to be a rightness of dealing with the fatherless and the widows, not simply because it is the right thing to do, but because it is the generous thing to do when relating to those who are weaker than you. God is righteous in this sense and he wants the people of this city to act in accordance with the same generosity and grace of their God.

Jerusalem was once the faithful city, characterised by both justice and righteousness. But now, the faithful city has become a home for murderers. Its rulers have become rebels. Instead of defending the weak, instead of seeking justice, its leaders have chased after bribes and gifts. At first glance, this looks very much like what God said to the worshipper back in verse 16, “Stop doing wrong... Seek justice!” only scaled-up to include the entire city of Jerusalem. Except that here, God takes action. God will do something about the injustice in this city.

Therefore the Lord, the LORD Almighty (or the LORD of hosts, ESV),
the Mighty One of Israel, declares:
“Ah, I will get relief from my foes
and avenge myself on my enemies.
I will turn my hand against you;
I will thoroughly purge away your dross
and remove all your impurities.
I will restore your judges as in days of old,
and your counsellors as at the beginning.
Afterwards you will be called
the City of Righteousness,
the Faithful City.”
Isaiah 1:24-26

How will God deal with the injustice in this city? How will God restore Jerusalem as the City of Righteousness? The answer is quite surprising. God will bring judgement upon his enemies, that’s how. Notice that the enemies in question are not the nations who have attacked Jerusalem, but the leaders of Jerusalem herself. “Ah, I will get relief from my foes and avenge myself on my enemies. I will turn my hand against you. (meaning Jerusalem!)” (verses 24,25) But notice as well, that this judgement isn’t simply punishment on those whom God hates, it is an essential part of God’s redemption for the people he loves. As verse 27 goes on to tell us, the city and its people will be redeemed with justice and righteousness.

Zion will be redeemed with justice,
her penitent ones with righteousness.
But rebels and sinners will both be broken,
and those who forsake the LORD will perish.
Isaiah 1:27-28

My ESV study bible goes to great lengths to explain that “redeemed” in verse 27 means “saved” or “rescued,” but not “ransomed”. That is, God is promising a great transformation in the city, as long as the people Jerusalem respond with “justice” and “righteousness.” I think I have to respectfully disagree. If I understand correctly why the experts have gone with the meaning of “rescued” instead of “ransomed,” they are being responsibly cautious about reading too much into the Isaiah’s prophecy. Only later in Isaiah Chapter 40 onwards, does the concept of ransom feature more prominently as a payment for rescue.

I suspect, however, that “justice” (mishpat) and “righteousness” (tzedeqah) in verse 27 is speaking not of Jerusalem’s response, but of God’s, and follows from the long list of actions that God himself will take in verse 24 to 26 (“I will avenge myself; I will restore..”). If so, the redemption that occurs in verse 27 is also an action of God’s by which God will rescue the city through a display of his righteousness; of God’s justice. In this sense, I think that Isaiah is prophesying a ransom - a payment that God makes - in order to secure the salvation of his people. It is a payment that on the one hand, is foreshadowed by the blood sacrifices offered up in worship by the worshippers at the temple, that is, it is costly; but on the other hand, it is a payment that results in the full display of God’s justice and God’s righteousness.

In this sense then, the book of Isaiah is to the Old Testament what the book of Romans is to the New. It unfolds for us the meaning of God's righteousness. In Romans Chapter 3, the apostle Paul spells out the full impact of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, not in terms of sacrifice, not even in terms of love, but more fully in terms of God’s justice and righteousness made known.

But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes by faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished - he did it to demonstrates his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
Romans 3:21-26

God will save his people through one act of redemption that will simultaneously display his righteousness as a holy and just God. That is what he did on the cross; because on the cross, Jesus’ death proved two important qualities about God’s righteousness, that is his mishpat (justice) and his tzedeqah (righteousness). God’s justice (mishpat) was fulfilled when he poured out his anger and punishment on Jesus. And God’s righteousness (tzedeqah) was displayed in forgiving sinners on the basis of their faith in Christ alone.

Yet, Isaiah’s prophecy does not end here, as much as I wish it did. If we reject God’s salvation and continue to rebel against his rule, God soberly warns us: There is nothing left for us except the certainty of his final judgement.

“You will be ashamed because of your sacred oaks
in which you have delighted;
you will be disgraced because of the gardens that you have chosen.
You will be like an oak with fading leaves,
like a garden without water.
The mighty man will become tinder
and his work a spark;
both will burn together,
with no-one to quench the fire.”
Isaiah 1:29-31

The passage ends with idolatry; and honestly, I find this a bit puzzling. The “sacred oaks” and “gardens” in which the people of Zion have delighted themselves, is a reference to pagan worship (The Greek Septuagint “idols” in place of "oaks"). Yet, aren’t these the same worshippers we met earlier, offering sacrifices, celebrating New Moon feasts, lifting up their hands in prayer at God’s holy temple in Jerusalem? Which are they - worshippers of God or worshippers of pagan idols? Or are they both? Some experts suggest that these verses reveal how God’s people have compromised themselves in their worship. On Sunday, the Christian turns up at the Chinese Church to serve on the worship team, to serve tea, to help with Sunday School; but on Mondays to Saturdays, he visits temples, burns joss-sticks and bows down to idols. Hear what God says to you, “You will be ashamed. You will be disgraced.”

Curiouser still is the last description of the mighty man. “The mighty man will become tinder, and his work a spark; both will burn together.” Perhaps you wouldn’t call yourself a Christian. You hear these words condemning the hypocrisy of empty worship and you say to yourself, “Amen, preach it, Isaiah!” Perhaps, you’re saying to yourself, “I’m glad I’m not caught up in this whole business of religion. I don’t believe there’s a God, therefore, I’m safe. Phew!” What these closing verses teach us is: We all worship something. All of us are worshippers of something, of someone. Either we worship God, or we worship idols. Or like this last man - the mighty man - we worship our own achievements. In other words, here is a man trying to save himself. He trusts in his might. His works are the basis of his righteousness. No, God says to you, Your work is the very spark for your condemnation. The man who trusts in nothing else but himself, has no-one else to help him put out the fire.

Isaiah Chapter 1 ends with a choice: between God’s justice and God’s final judgement. Either Zion is redeemed with justice, and those repentant within her are saved through righteousness. Or those who continue to rebel against God are left to face his final punishment. But in the end, when the chips are down, all of us, are trusting in something to save us. Every single one of us have placed our faith in someone or something to justify our worth, to define our identity, to prove our existence. The question is: Do you know what it is you are ultimately trusting in?

Some of us would be quick to answer that our faith is in God; I think the city-dwellers of Jerusalem in Isaiah’s day would have said the same. Yet to them, God says, “Stop your meaningless sacrifices.” Are you trusting in your worship, or in the one you are worshipping? Your hands might be lifted up to heaven, but is your heart hardened against the one who is enthroned in heaven? Jesus once told the Samaritan woman, “You worship what you do not know.” Do you know whom you are worshipping? He said to her, “The hour is coming and has now come when the true worshippers will worship the Father is Spirit and in truth.” (John 4:23) That hour that Jesus spoke of was the hour of his death on the cross (John 12:23) - the hour of his glory. Only through Jesus’ sacrifice are we able to enter into God’s presence. Only through his death are our sins made whiter than snow.

But what of the rest of us; what is your ultimate faith in? Could it be that your confidence is in your strength? Oh, I don’t mean your physical strength, though some of us might think we can swim faster than Michael Phelps and run further than Jessica Ennis. No, what I mean is, are you trusting in your moral record? Are you trusting in your goodness? Are you trusting in your work ethic? Are you trusting in your ministry here at the Chinese Church? “The mighty man will become tinder,” God says, and his work? A spark. Your faith in yourself, in your strength, in your goodness - it will let you down. And the day will come when God will destroy both.

To those who trust in him, and him alone, God promises something better than a world record. He offers us a spotlessly clean record, on which he inscribes all the achievements of his Son. He takes all the medals that Jesus won through his obedience and he places it on us. We become Zion, the City of Righteousness. That is exactly what takes place on the cross - a great exchange. On the cross, Jesus Christ takes our debt and exchanges it with his wealth. On the cross, he takes our sin and exchanges it with his righteousness.

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:21

“Come now, let us reason together,”
says the LORD.
“Though your sins are like scarlet,
they shall be as white as snow;
though they are red like crimson,
they shall be like wool.

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