Saturday 11 August 2012

The mountain of the LORD (Isaiah 2)

The city on a hill

This month we are thinking about what it means for us to be a church in the city. What impact does God want us to have on our community? What distinguishes us as Christians within our Chinese culture? Last week, we saw that God wanted his people to so reflect his righteousness that their city would be called the City of Righteousness; to so reflect his faithfulness that their city would be called the Faithful City (Isaiah 1:26). The opening verses of Chapter 2 remind us that God is addressing a specific city at a particular time in history - the city of Jerusalem during the reign of the kings of Judah.

This is what Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem:
In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as chief among the mountains;
it will be raised above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.
Isaiah 2:1-2

Jerusalem was a city built on a hill, which meant that it was strategically strong and easily defensible from any attack from its enemies. (Think Minas Tirith if you are a Tolkien fan; or if you are into Star Wars, think Obi-wan Kenobi defeating Anakin simply because he is standing in an elevated position!) King David established his kingdom in Jerusalem as his headquarters and the capital city very early on in his career (2 Samuel 5), and Solomon, his son, went on to build God’s temple in Jerusalem. Hence, when Isaiah describes his vision of the “mountain of the LORD’s temple,” it was obvious to everyone around him that he was talking about Jerusalem, the city built on Mount Zion (verse 3).

Having said that, Isaiah’s vision is not of the present but the future, and the focus of his vision is not the city, but the mountain on which the city was built. This mountain, says Isaiah, will be established as chief among all other mountains; it will be raised above all other hills. What Isaiah was doing - in describing God’s mountain as the highest of all mountains - was speaking evangelistically to non-Christians. You see, in Isaiah’s day, the surrounding nations worshipped their gods by going up mountains and hiking up the hills because these were seen as the closest points of contact between heaven and earth. Isaiah was saying to the pagan worshippers, “One day, God’s mountain will be the highest of mountains.” There is only one God and there is only one way to God; one day, all nations will come and worship God on this holy mountain.

1. God’s mountain filled with all nations

Many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD
to the house of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways,
so that we may walk in his paths.”
The law will go out from Zion,
the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
Isaiah 2:3

“Hey!” they were saying to one another, “That’s God’s mountain. That’s where we need to be!” Amazingly, they even dragged their friends along with them, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD.” Do you hear their eagerness? Their excitement? For the past couple of weeks, everyone I know has been trying to get tickets to the Olympics. Even those of us who did get a chance to attend a football match or a badminton final, were trying to find more opportunities to be part of the action. Why? It was a chance to be a part of history. This was the experience of a lifetime! That’s what the guys in this passage were doing. They weren’t complaining about having to miss yet another tennis final in order to be in church on a Sunday afternoon. These guys were eager and excited about going up the mountain of the LORD. More than that, they wanted all their friends to come along, “Come on, let’s go together!”

Now notice who these guys were - these people in Isaiah’s vision who were saying to one another, “You gotta check this out!” They were the outsiders. They didn’t live in Jerusalem. They weren’t part of Israel, that is, they weren’t a part of God’s people. Isaiah calls them the nations, outsiders, who were so eager to meet with God, so excited to have heard about this God. But more than anything else, they were looking forward to hearing God’s word. That’s the reason why they made the trip in the first place. “He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.”

I want you to notice how the words that Isaiah uses have motion.There is movement. The nations stream up a mountain - they are like a river that’s flowing backwards. “Come on, let’s go, go, go!” And even when they hear God’s word, it is in order that they might “walk in his paths,” meaning, they want to know how to live the way God wants them to live. All the nations are coming to God. All the nations are living for God. That’s motion. That’s a movement. And friends, I dare say that that’s the bible’s definition of a Christian - someone who is actively turning to God, listening to God, constantly living for God. Christianity is a movement! I wonder: Does that describe your life and my life as believers in Christ. Are we actively seeking after God? Are we calling our friends and family to turn to him?

Some of us are hesitant to do this. I know that it can be a scary thing to tell someone to trust in Jesus; to entrust their lives to Jesus. We ought to do this patiently, lovingly, clearly. But perhaps what might help is the confidence in knowing that when we do speak the gospel, God is using us to speak his word to the nations. At the end of verse 4, it is God’s law which goes out from Zion; his word, which goes out from Jerusalem. When the nations respond, when you or I respond, it is to God himself as our God and our King. That is the picture in verse 5 onwards, of God ruling the nations as king and judge.

He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into ploughshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
Isaiah 2:4

God’s kingdom is marked by peace. No more wars. No more weapons, even. God judges (or rules) the nations and he settles all disputes between the nations. I had to look up what ploughshares and pruning hooks were - these are farming tools, the first is used to dig into the ground, the other is a tool used for trimming small trees. What Isaiah is saying is all the guns will be melted down for iPods. All the tanks will be retrofitted as school buses (which would be awesome!) The entire nation’s defence budget, some billions and billions of pounds, reinvested into producing jobs, planting crops and winning more gold medals at the next Olympics. Why? Because it will be end of all wars. God will be in charge.

This sounds... well, unreal. It’s OK to talk about world peace as a concept. It’s OK for a Miss Universe contestant to talk about world peace as her ultimate desire for all mankind. It is even admirable for the United Nations to have Isaiah Chapter 2, verse 4, inscribed on display in a courtyard in its headquarters. But today, in our world, in real life? Come on! Get real!

Well, it is worth reminding ourselves that Isaiah is describing a vision of the future - “In the latter days,” he says in verse 2. Jesus did tell his disciples, “Nation will rise up against nation. and kingdom against kingdom.” “Don’t be alarmed,” Jesus said, “Such things must happen,” he told his friends. Jesus didn’t want them to be surprised. He wanted them to be prepared.

What Isaiah was describing in his vision for the future was a radically new kingdom filled with radically new people. The nations would submit themselves to God as their ruler and judge. This reminds us that the description of world peace under God’s rule in verse 4 is not independent of the nations’ submission to God’s word in verse 3, but rather is a result of that same submission. Submission to God’s word is the turning point of the vision in verse 5, because here, Isaiah turns from speaking about the outsiders to directly addressing the insiders; from speaking about the nations to addressing his own nation, the descendants of Jacob. He says to them, “Therefore, how much more should we walk in submission to God’s word.”

Come, O house of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the LORD.
Isaiah 2:5

Sadly, when we look at the people of God in Isaiah’s day, they had rejected God’s word for their lives. It is ironic that all the outsiders - these former pagan worshippers of other mountains - are so hungry and so keen to know the God of Mount Zion, whereas the insiders, the descendants of house (or family) of Jacob, have to be reminded to do the same. “Come, O house of Jacob, let us walk in the light of the LORD.” Jesus once told the religious leaders of his day, “I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.” (Matthew 21:31)

The rest of Isaiah focuses on God’s people, the people of Jerusalem, and I want us to come to this passage asking, “Why?” Why did they turn away from God? Was it because of disappointment? Where they doubting his goodness? Where they skeptical about his power? Was there something missing in their lives? Why did God’s people turn away from their own God?

The answer that Isaiah gives us is: They were full, not empty. Isaiah looks at his city and sees a city that is full of superstition, full of wealth, full of privilege. This was was a city full of pride.

2. God’s people filled with idolatry

You have abandoned your people,
the house of Jacob.
They are full of superstitions from the East;
they practice divination like the Philistines
and clasp hands with the pagans.
Their land is full of silver and gold;
there is no end to their treasures.
Their land is full of horses;
there is no end to their chariots.
Their land is full of idols;
they bow down to the work of their hands,
to what their fingers have made.
So man will be brought low
and mankind humbled -
do not forgive them.
Isaiah 2:6-9

Silver, gold, horses and chariots. Everywhere he looked, Isaiah so no end to this city’s wealth and accomplishment. And I probably need to clarify that it is not wealth itself that is the problem. Isaiah isn’t pointing at the rich saying, “Those are the bad guys.” No, these were more than symbols of wealth, they were trophy cases of human pride. For some of us, it is our collection of degrees which we frame up in our offices - PhD.... Permanent Head Damage. For some of us, it is our CV, our list of contacts on LinkedIn, our Facebook page and the number of likes on our profile page. And yes, for some of us, it is our money. We look at our paycheck at the end of each month and go, “I earned this. This is how much I am worth.” Dare I say it... some of us look at our churches, the number of people in our congregation, the number of sermons we have preached, and go, “Look at me. Aren’t I doing well for myself?” Again, none of these things are bad in and of themselves - money, wealth, a good education, ministry, Facebook - but they get to heads.

Isaiah looks at our pride and sees a one-to-one correlation with idolatry. See how he brackets their wealth. He begins by saying that they are full of superstitions from the East and divination like the Philistines; that is, Israel is chasing after foreign gods. Just a moment ago, we see the foreigners coming to know God and to worship God, but Israel? They are chasing after other gods. This city, which had the temple of God, which produced so many men of God, were chasing after other gods. In a city like Cambridge, with its rich history of missionaries, pastors; of bible preaching; it is the birthplace of student ministry; it is even the place where the New Testament was first compiled and translated - isn’t this a city which is also chasing after other gods? Yet at the same time, Isaiah tells us that these foreign gods are no gods at all. Idolatry is self-worship. Idolatry is worship of human pride. Verse 8: “Their land is full of idols; they bow down to the work of their hands, to what their fingers have made.”

Interestingly, the mention of horses in verse 7 - “Their land is full of horses” - is the bible’s way of saying, “I told you so.” In Deuteronomy Chapter 17, Moses gave instructions about the king, saying that this king needs to know his bible, he needs to memorise it and read it every day. The king needs to mindful not to compare himself with his brothers and go, “Hey, look at me. I’m the king.” But Moses also says about this king, “(He) must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself,” and “He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.” (Deuteronomy 17:16, 17) Moses knew long before there even was a king, that wealth would lead him astray. Jesus told his disciples, “It is hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:23) The more treasure we have on earth, the harder it is for us to conceive of greater treasure in heaven. Moses warned Israel; Jesus warns us. Don’t let your wealth get between you and God. Don’t let your ego stand between you and your need for Jesus. When we come to him, we come with empty hands asking him to fill us with his righteousness. When we come to God, we humble ourselves before him and our King. While that might not be the picture of our lives today, of our world today, God has set aside a day when all will bow the knee before Jesus. A day when you and I will call him Lord.

3. God’s judgement filled with his splendour

Go into the rocks,
hide in the ground
from the dread of the LORD
and the splendour of his majesty!
The eyes of the arrogant man will be humbled
and the pride of men brought low;
the LORD alone will be exalted in that day.
Isaiah 2:10-11

Remember that Isaiah’s vision is of the future. He began by talking about the last days (verse 2). Now he talks about a final day called the Day of the LORD. Many look at this day, rightly, as a day of judgement. Men and women are running away from God for fear of his anger and judgement. But I want you to notice that here, when Isaiah talks about the Day of the LORD, nowhere does he describe God pouring down fire on earth. Nowhere does it say that God will round up his enemies and throw them into hell. That’s not because God doesn’t punish those who rebel against him. No, it’s because Isaiah doesn’t even have to paint that image of God. All God needs to do on that final day, on the Day of the LORD, is to show up. Everyone will the picture - “This is God!”; and verse 11 tells us, “The LORD alone will be exalted on that day.” What follows is an expansion of this verse, verse 11, where “the LORD alone is exalted”.

The LORD Almighty has day in store
for all the proud and lofty,
for all that is exalted
(and they will be humbled)
for all the cedars of Lebanon, tall and lofty,
and all the oaks of Bashan,
for all the towering mountains
and all the high hills,
for every lofty tower
and every fortified wall,
for every trading ship
and every stately vessel.
The arrogance of man will be brought low
and the pride of men humbled;
the LORD alone will be exalted in that day,
and the idols will totally disappear.
Isaiah 2:12-18

All God needs to do is turn up and the greatest symbols of power, of pride, of self-sufficiency, of security and self-worth... crumbles before him. That’s all God needs to do. God shows up on the last day; he alone is lifted up, all of creation either bows down before him; either they bow down in submission before God, or they run away from his presence - “from dread of the LORD and the splendour of his majesty.” (Isaiah 2:19,21)

Men will flee to caves in the rocks
and to holes in the ground
from dread of the LORD
and the splendour of his majesty,
when he rises to shake the earth.
In that day men will throw away
to the rodents and bats
their idols of silver and idols of gold,
which they made to worship.
They will flee to caverns in the rocks
and to the overhanging crags
from dread of the LORD
and the splendour of his majesty,
when he rises to shake the earth.
Isaiah 2:19-21

Compare this picture with the one we began with. Here men are running away from God, there the nations are running to God. Here they run to the rocks, to caves and holes in the ground; there the nations are streaming up to the mountain of the temple of the LORD. Here, Isaiah is speaking to Jerusalem, the house of Jacob who have turned away from God to idols; there, Isaiah speaks of the nations, the pagan worshippers of foreign gods, now repenting and turning to the only true God to seek after his presence and to listen to his word. God has set aside a day, a Day of the LORD, when he will show up. And the question is, Will you run to him on that Day? Or will you run from him on that Day?

Notice that something else happens on the Day of the LORD, something that happens to the idols. These symbols of superstitions from the East. These symbols of human pride. These symbols of wealth and luxury which so filled their city, “Their land is filled with silver and gold; there is no end to their treasures.” (verse 7) What happens to these idols? They get thrown away. Verse 20: “In that day men will throw away to the rodents and bats their idols of silver and idols of gold, which they made to worship.” They get chucked in the bin.

A way of telling what the idols that exist in our lives are - because idols really are hard to discern; for some of us it might be “silver and gold”, but for some others it’s something else other than money that has a hold on our hearts. A way to telling what these idols are, is to ask ourselves, what would we immediately get rid of if God showed up one day? When the health inspector shows up in a restaurant, suddenly the kitchen staff are chucking out the expired meat. When your dad pops into your room unannounced, you close that browser window on your computer. Or even when the pastor pays you a visit, you hide your XBOX and DVD collection in the closet. What if Jesus showed up today in our church? Are there things we would quickly hide away, things which we would otherwise be so proud to put up on display?

You see, God doesn’t need to get rid of the idols on that final day. They will “totally disappear,” verse 18 tells us. Why? Because we will chuck them. Because when we compare our false worship with the only God who deserves all our worship, all idols look like junk, even the ones made of silver and gold. Which means the main reason why we bow down and worship our idols - whether it is they be the idols of career, wealth, security, family, companionship, achievement, health, good-looks, intellect - is because we don’t see God as he truly is. One day, we will. Notice how the same description of God is repeated in verses 19 and 21, “Men will flee... from dread of the LORD and the splendour of his majesty.” These men dread God’s presence, meaning they fear him and perhaps even loathe him deep in their hearts, but the reason for this isn’t before God is so terrifying and awesome, it’s not just that. No, what they loathe is “the splendour of his majesty.” Splendour. It is talking about something that adorns God, that makes him beautiful, awesome, compelling - and Isaiah says that these men see the beauty of God’s majesty and when they do... they run from it. They loathe it, that is, they fear God’s awesomeness. But also, I think that it is also an indication that their appetites for greatness and beauty has been so spoiled by the worship of their cheap idols, that when true greatness stands before them, they can’t take it. Their own idols become worthless and they chuck them to the rats and rodents, but even the real thing becomes unpalatable to their senses. They have no taste for it and that’s a real shame.

Stop trusting in man,
who has but a breath in his nostrils.
Of what account is he?
Isaiah 2:22

The word for man in the Old Testament is Adam and the last verse of Isaiah Chapter 2 reminds us of the first man in creation, Adam. Isaiah is thinking back to Genesis 2:7, which reads, “Then the LORD God formed a man/Adam from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” That is, God is the one who created Adam, and God is the one who sustains Adam by giving him breath and life. The Apostle Paul says to the Athenians,

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.”
Acts 17:24-25

Take a long, deep breath. Take another. That’s a reminder that we live because of him. Each breath is a reminder that we depend on God for every single moment of our existence. God is the one who gives us breath and life and everything else. What is man, says Isaiah, but a living, breathing testimony of God’s goodness; a reflection of his image? And yet, when we bow down to idols, we forget that. “Stop trusting in man,” says Isaiah, literally, Stop looking at him. The problem is not money. It’s not the Internet. It’s not pressure to perform at the Olympics and to score as many gold medals as possible. The problem is worship. Instead of giving our worship that is due to God who made us and sustains us, we are worshipping... ourselves. We create idols that reflect our ideals, our hopes and dreams, all the while ignoring the only one who can fulfil our deepest longings and desires. God.

The last days

Isaiah Chapter 2 is a vision of the last days, that is, it is a vision for the future. The last days. But friends, when the New Testament speaks of the last days, it is describing a future that has already begun. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ was the beginning of the last days. When the apostle Peter preached his first sermon at Pentecost, it was a sermon about the last days. “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people... The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.” (Acts 2:17,20) Did you hear that? Peter speaks about the last days as well as the great last day of the Lord. And what does he talk about next? Jesus. “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified both Lord and Christ.” What is he saying? The last days began at the cross of Jesus Christ.

And one clear indicator that the last days have already begun, if you are looking for proof, is right here in the Chinese Church. What do I mean? You are the fulfilment of Isaiah’s vision, did you know that? “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,” that is what the nations say to one another. Not the Jews, not the house of Jacob, but the outsiders and pagans. And friends, that’s what we are - outsiders who have been brought into God’s presence, brought into God’s kingdom, brought in as God’s children through the word of the LORD, the gospel. The only reason why you and I are able to respond to this word is because of Jesus. He fulfilled the vision of Isaiah by establishing the one and only way to God through his death on the cross. We approach God through the death and sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross on our behalf.

Listen to what the author to the Hebrews says, when he tells Christians, “You have come...” Not, “You will come,” that is, in the future. No, he says to us, “You guys have come,” present tense. “You have come to Mount Zion.”

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Hebrews 12:22-24

You don’t have to get on a plane. You don’t need to clean up your act first. No, the author to the Hebrews says, You have come to Mount Zion. You have come to a great assembly of angels. He even says, You have come to God, the judge of all men. Finally says, you have come to Jesus. His blood cleanses us, his sacrifice makes us acceptable, and his death alone brings us to God.

When we invite our friends over on a Sunday to join us for worship, we’re not inviting them to sign up for a programme or to attend an event. We are calling them to come to Jesus. That is what it means to a church in a city like Cambridge. Like the nations in Isaiah’s vision, we are saying to the people of the city, “Put away your idols. Stop trusting in man. Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD. He will teach us his ways, so that we may walk in his paths.” We do this by preaching the gospel of Jesus’ death and resurrection on the cross, because it is only there at the cross that we see God’s true awesomeness. There at the cross we see most clearly the splendour of his majesty, and when that happens, our idols melt away. Some will be tempted to flee. Others may despair. But I hope you will come and adore him for who he is; for his majesty and splendour, and to worship Jesus alone as our Lord, God and Saviour. For every knee will bow, every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ, is indeed, Lord.

The eyes of the arrogant man will be humbled
and the pride of men brought low;
the LORD alone will be exalted in that day.
Isaiah 2:11

We belong to the day
To the day that is to come
When the night falls away
And our Saviour will return
For the glory of the King is in our hearts
On that day we will be seen for what we are

Strong as a mighty rock
Our refuge in the coming wrath
The heart of the bride belongs to Jesus, Jesus
The earth in its turning stops
To marvel at the Son of God
And all of that day belongs to Jesus, Jesus
(“We belong to the day,” Michael Morrow)

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