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Learning to Hear God's Voice #15

Come, Listen, Sing: Finding Our Place in the Creational Symphony of Praise

Reading: Isaiah 55 & 61

[Preached as dialogue between John York and Rubel Shelly]

Rubel Shelly: Our texts this morning are so beautiful and powerful at face value that we invite you first simply to hear them. In the tradition of the early church and its use of Scripture, pay close attention to these words as God’s message to you today (cf. Col. 4:16). And, in the tradition of two men preaching in dialogue, hear us read them in both traditional and modern translations.

John York: We will read Isaiah 55 from the New International Version and from The Message. Because we believe these are holy words from God’s mind to our hearts, hear them as heaven’s call – an invitation.

Rubel:

“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and your soul will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me;
hear me, that your soul may live.
I will make an everlasting covenant with you,
my faithful love promised to David.
See, I have made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander of the peoples.
Surely you will summon nations you know not,
and nations that do not know you will hasten to you,
because of the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel,
for he has endowed you with splendor” (55:1-5 NIV).


John:

“Hey there! All who are thirsty,
come to the water!
Are you penniless?
Come anyway – buy and eat!
Come, buy your drinks, buy wine and milk.
Buy without money – everything’s free!
Why do you spend your money on junk food,
your hard-earned cash on cotton candy?
Listen to me, listen well: Eat only the best,
fill yourself with only the finest.
Pay attention, come close now,
listen carefully to my life-giving, life-nourishing words.
I’m making a lasting covenant commitment with you,
the same that I made with David: sure, solid, enduring love.
I set him up as a witness to the nations,
made him a prince and leader of the nations,
And now I’m doing it to you:
You’ll summon nations you’ve never heard of,
and nations who’ve never heard of you
will come running to you
Because of me, your GOD,
because The Holy of Israel has honored you” (55:1-5 MSG).

Rubel:

Seek the LORD while he may be found;
call on him while he is near.
Let the wicked forsake his way
and the evil man his thoughts.
Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him,
and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD.
“As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
It will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it (55:6-11 NIV).


John:

Seek GOD while he’s here to be found,
pray to him while he’s close at hand.
Let the wicked abandon their way of life
and the evil their way of thinking.
Let them come back to GOD, who is merciful,
come back to our God, who is lavish with forgiveness.
“I don’t think the way you think.
The way you work isn’t the way I work.”
“For as the sky soars high above earth,
so the way I work surpasses the way you work,
and the way I think is beyond the way you think.
Just as rain and snow descend from the skies
and don’t go back until they’ve watered the earth,
Doing their work of making things grow and blossom,
producing seed for farmers and food for the hungry,
So will the words that come out of my mouth
not come back empty-handed.
They’ll do the work I sent them to do,
they’ll complete the assignment I gave them” (55:6-11 MSG).

Rubel:

“You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
Instead of the thornbush will grow the pine tree,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the LORD’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
which will not be destroyed” (55:12-13 NIV).

John:

“So you’ll go out in joy,
you’ll be led into a whole and complete life.
The mountains and hills will lead the parade,
bursting with song.
All the trees of the forest will join the procession,
exuberant with applause.
No more thistles, but giant sequoias,
no more thornbushes, but stately pines –
Monuments to me, to GOD,
living and lasting evidence of GOD” (55:1-13 MSG).

These words are so absolutely majestic, picturesque, and engaging as written that it seems almost profane for us to comment on them! So why don’t we keep our comments to a minimum? Simply invite ourselves and our hearers this morning into them?

The versions from which we’ve read have captions or headings over these texts. But we want to offer ours for your consideration.

Rubel: Here is what we offer as a heading: Don’t miss the point with your life.

All of us sense – at least at certain times – a sense of spiritual thirst and poverty (v.1). We realize we’ve been trying to nourish our souls on the spiritual equivalent of cotton candy; we’re wasting our life-capital on things that don’t satisfy (v.2)

John: At a certain point, Satan tempts us to despair – to think that we are hopeless cases, that God is now too remote to be found, that our lives have already missed the point so badly that mercy and pardon are inaccessible to our longing hearts (vs. 6-7). But, praise his name, our God is not bound to our ways of thinking or methods of action (vs. 8-9).When we are self-critical, self-judging, and self-doubting, the voice of God comes through as a voice of grace to keep us from despair.

Rubel: And despair is the tool of Satan! How often have we seen people in abject despair over some failure or embarrassment flee the presence of God – as Adam and Eve did after theirs in the Garden of Eden – and self-destruct. They hide from God in the “certainty” he has no place for them after what they’ve done. Many of them self-destruct as suicides. But God would be willing to take the same initial feelings of remorse that Satan wishes to turn into despair and accept them as repentance. Thinking and acting as he does, he would be willing to restore and refresh the broken heart – as if with rain or snow coming down from heaven – and making it fruitful again (v.10).

John: Thus the theme under which we have suggested reading Isaiah – “Learning to Hear God’s Voice.” If we listen to Satan’s lies and follow him, we are certainly destined to travel a wide way that leads to destruction. But if we listen to our own limited insight, less-than-divine thinking, we’ll ultimately be no better off – for that is Satanic and destructive as well. And that is why God has continued to break in with a word of rebuke, a word of correction, a word of invitation, a word of mercy, etc. Here is a biblical statement of it: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways . . .” (Heb. 1:1).

Rubel: It’s like a commercial that keeps interrupting the soap operas on TV or the music on radio! And some of us would be well-advised to interrupt the “soap opera” in which our tangled, confused lives are embroiled or to take a break from the discordant, noisy sounds to which we are singing along!

God had better things in mind for Israel when he called Abraham to leave Ur, travel to unknown places, and trust him to bless all nations through his descendants. In fact, this has been the underlying theme of Isaiah. It is the bedrock truth from which its message of hope is affirmed. It goes like this: Israel, you were created at God’s pleasure and for God’s holy purposes. He has a plan for you! But your unbelief is hurting you and distancing you from him and his purposes for you. So his call to you today is that you hear his voice – his invitation for you to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Your joy and God’s praise will both be served, if you will hear his voice. You can yet become part of a glorious chorus of praise to the Lord that all of creation is meant to sing!

John: That’s right here in the text:

“You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.
Instead of the thornbush will grow the pine tree,
and instead of briers the myrtle will grow.
This will be for the LORD’s renown,
for an everlasting sign,
which will not be destroyed” (55:12-13 NIV).

God always intended for Israel to bear witness to his “steadfast, sure love” and to call the pagan nations to know Yahweh (vs.3-5). Israel was supposed to be an attraction to faith in the True God. “I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth . . .” (Isa. 49:6). Israel was to be a “missionary nation.” Every Jew was supposed to be a “missionary” person. Gentiles, pagans, unbelievers – they were supposed to see something in the Hebrew nation and people that would draw them to God.

But I would be quick to point out that this is not only God’s message to foundering Israelites in Isaiah’s time. It was Messiah’s message, the apostles’ message, and the purpose of the early church. They were to be light, salt, leaven. Refreshing alternatives to what you called soap-opera lives or discordant-noise, off-key lives. The message of the New Testament writers runs this way: Church, you were created at God’s pleasure and for God’s holy purposes. He has a plan for you! But your unbelief is hurting you and distancing you from him and his purposes for you. So his call to you today is that you hear his voice – his invitation for you to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Your joy and God’s praise will both be served, if you will hear his voice. You can yet become part of a glorious chorus of praise to the Lord that all of creation is meant to sing!

Rubel: But wasn’t that God’s purpose from the instant of creation? Human beings, you were created at God’s pleasure and for God’s holy purposes. He has a plan for you! But unbelief will hurt you and distance you from him and his purposes for you. So always listen to his voice – his call for you to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Your joy and God’s praise will both be served, if you will hear his voice. You will be a glorious chorus of praise to the Lord that all of creation is meant to sing!

John: For that matter, it was God’s purpose from eternity past, from before the world was created, to declare this intention to angels, rocks and rivers, tree and sky – as well as humans in his own image: All of us are created at God’s pleasure and for God’s holy purposes. He has a plan for us! But unbelief will be the unique peril of angels and humans; it will hurt us; distance us not only from God and his purposes but from one another as well. So God’s call to us will always be that we hear his voice – a loving invitation for us to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. Our joy and heaven’s praise will both be served, if we will hear his voice. We will be part of a glorious chorus of praise that all creation is meant to sing!

Rubel: Oh, absolutely! From our perspective in the twenty-first century, we could use these words from Paul: “For [God] chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will – to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves” (Eph. 1:4-6).

You introduced Hebrews 1 a few minutes ago. Here is the part you read: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways . . .” Now let me pick up at the next verse: “But in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe” (v.2). Everything about the purposes of God ultimately comes to fulfillment in Christ.

John: I find it interesting that the Gospels tell how Jesus was once asked to read Scripture at a synagogue service. Here is the text he chose and read to the people that day:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion –
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair (Isa. 61:1-3).

After reading from Isaiah 61, he told his hearers, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:16ff). Jesus did fulfill that Scripture. His life did radiate beautiful praise to the Father by giving healing and release, comfort and beauty. He offered beauty over ashes, gladness instead of mourning, and a lifestyle of praise to replace the despair that arises from unbelief and failure to hear.

Rubel: It doesn’t reflect the gospel faithfully to offer it as the hope of heaven when you die. The gospel isn’t fire insurance. And “Would you go to hell if you died tonight?” is not the appropriate question to ask of people we want to see saved. The better question is this: “Are you honoring the purpose for which God created you in the way you are living right now?” And the way to ask that question of others is less by confrontation than by faithful modeling of that lifestyle yourself – as a light to the Gentiles, as salt and light, as Christ-presence in the world.

John: What you are talking about is missional presence in the world. And here is what I mean by that term. As I said a few weeks ago, there was always an instrumental side to God’s blessing. They were blessed in order to be a blessing. That is still the call on human lives today that have received the gift of God in Christ Jesus and been empowered with his Spirit. Paul calls such people God’s New Creation (Gal. 6; 2 Cor. 5). Like ancient Israel, only more so, we have been blessed in order to be a blessing. We all have been made the ambassadors of God’s reconciliation – God’s invitation to experience new creation and the restoring of his creation design in our world. That is our shared mission on this planet.

Rubel: On that definition, it isn’t just preachers and elders or missionaries and martyrs who represent God in the world. It is anyone whose life – with the gifts, passions, and relationships you have been given – reflects the purpose for which it was created – to give God the praise and glory he alone deserves.

John: It is a company executive who is honest and really cares about the welfare of the people who work for him – more for them than even the “bottom line.”

Rubel: It is a third-grade teacher who brings out the best in her students.

John: It is the woman who struggles through a messy divorce and retains her sanity and dignity, puts the welfare of her children over the bad feelings she had for a former mate, and moves ahead with her life to pursue God.

Rubel: It is the man who hangs in a difficult marriage when everything tells him it is hopeless.

John: It is the person at the drive-through window who greets every person with a light-hearted voice and a smile even when he or she has been standing at the window for hours.

Rubel: It is the driver who is respectful to that person in the window – who may struggle with her English or who makes a mistake counting the change.

John: It is the person who notices someone in the workplace who is sad or distressed or sick. And does something helpful.

Rubel: Do you mean our job as preachers is not to convince all these people to quit their jobs, move to some remote corner of the world, and plant churches?

John: It means each one of us is called to live out this missional invitation of Isaiah in every walk of life. God doesn’t need more titles, or more segmented and segregated worship assemblies. That was the problem with notions of worship in Isaiah’s time, in the days of Jesus and Paul and John and Peter. It is the temptation always to reduce mission and witness to times and places and rituals and lose touch with the constant abiding presence and activity of God’s purposes in every single human being on this planet.

Rubel: And if each of us hears God’s voice in his or her own place, walks by faith and honors the opportunities he supplies, and learns to read life as her or his challenge to praise God in all things, our collective experience as the church will be that of a great chorus – symphony, if you like – that lifts constant, glorious praise to the God who created us. Predestined us to his glory. And delights in the people of his love.

The call of God to humankind is less that we should be church members than that we enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Realize his original intentions for persons created in his image. Live to the fullest, highest, and holiest possibilities with the gifts and limitations we have. Live to the praise and glory of God by submitting to his benevolent will. Affirm others who choose that same holy path.

I once heard a speaker ask: “What if your life – exactly as it is today – is God’s perfect environment for shaping you into the person he wants you to be?” I’m not sure many of us accept that. We are more inclined perhaps to think we could be the persons God wants us to be if we could swap lives with someone else. But perhaps we are like a great chorus or symphony. Each of us is different and unique. We have different gifts and passions. We serve in a variety of ways. But those voices, instruments, and sounded notes combine to come up before God in a glorious anthem of praise.

John: So we hear the invitation this morning as well as the mission: Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters! For the Spirit of the Lord is now upon us! He sends us forth to bring good news to the poor, food to the hungry, new-creation life to all who have lost touch with God’s creation purposes for our lives. Salvation is so much more than heaven after we die! It is the power of new creation at work in every walk of life. “Walk by the Spirit,” Paul tells his audiences. That is the missional journey we all are invited to take this morning – the music of God’s symphony in our time.

Delivered at Woodmont Hills, December 12, 2004


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