Looking up from the bottom
Lamentations 5: Give us a fresh start.
The prayer I find near the conclusion of this book of laments is one that has been prayed many times through the centuries. Jeremiah describes for us the devastating loss his people have suffered remarking, “Our dances have turned into dirges.” In their miserable state they exclaim, “Would that we’d never sinned!” That’s another statement that has been said many times. As some unknown preacher said, “Sin will take you farther than you want to go.” How many people have found themselves at the bottom, crushed by the consequences of their own sin? For some reason we always think we’ll be the ones to get away with it, that we’ll beat the odds. It never happens and sooner or later we add our voice to the chorus lamenting, “Would that we’d never sinned!” It’s in that place, when everything seems hopeless that we can lift our faces to the God we’ve failed and pray, “Give us a fresh start.” Our God is the God of Second Chances. Even when I’ve messed my life up to the point that all is lost he can give me a fresh start. That isn’t to say that he’ll press the rewind button on my life. What’s done is done. However, he’ll do something just as meaningful: he’ll make me into a new person. When I’m weary of my sin and crushed by my failure, I can look to the God of Second Chances and ask him to give me a fresh start. The Lord delights in answering that prayer.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
Jeremiah 23: This is the name they’ll give him: “God-Who-Puts-Everything-Right.”
The religious leaders are a disappointment to God. They could have done a better job; treated people the way good and dedicated shepherds treat the sheep under their care. They haven’t done that and the Lord’s not only angry with them but he has another approach in mind. This plan will provide quality leadership to his people. David is considered the prototype king for Israel and the coming Leader will be cut from the same cloth as was David. He’ll be a descendant of David. He’ll also be strong, wise, and dedicated to God. That kind of man will take care of God’s people. In Jeremiah’s future and in my past that Leader makes his appearance. He does everything Jeremiah says he will. He’s a righteous man of justice and he goes to work fixing all that sin has broken. He’s worthy of the name Jeremiah gives him: “God-Who-Puts-Everything-Right.” The process started by this Leader isn’t yet complete, but we already see that everything he touches is changed for the better. Well, better put, “everyone he touches.” In fact, I can say that I not only believe in this Leader’s ability to transform lives — my own life is an example of his work. I’m not all I’m going to be, but by his grace, I’m not what I would have been.
Take Away: In Christ we find restoration and transformation.
Heading for the hills
Jeremiah 9: At times I wish I had a…backwoods cabin.
One thing that draws me to Jeremiah is his transparency. He tells us, not only what God’s saying, but also how Jeremiah feels about things. Those feelings range from compassion to anger and from hope to despair. At one point he says he’s “heartsick” over the sins of his people and wonders if there’s a “balm in Gilead” that can be used to heal their brokenness. He wishes he had the physical ability to weep the rivers of tears because of his sadness over their sin and the coming judgment. Then, he switches to anger. They’re worthless people, not worth his effort. He wishes he could just get away from them and let happen what’s going to happen. As I say, Jeremiah is a study in transparency and his feelings run the full range of human emotion. I’m not wired the same as Jeremiah. I don’t dip so low and I don’t soar as high. Still, I can identify with him to some extent. The truth is that, like Jeremiah, I can be filled with loving compassion for someone and be frustrated to death with them at the same time. His desire to step away from these people for a while and head for the hills isn’t off the mark at all. Even the best of people can only carry burdens for so long before a break is needed; a chance to reevaluate and get a fresh grip on things. That “backwoods cabin” experience might actually be the “balm in Gilead” that will not only help Jeremiah bring healing to these broken people, but will also bring healing to his spirit as well.
Take Away: We must guard against getting so people-focused that we fail to be God-focused.
Everyone a missionary
Isaiah 66: I’ll send them out as missionaries to preach my glory among the nations.
The final section of Isaiah’s prophecy has to do with restoration. The Lord’s going to gather his people from the exile and restore them to their beloved homeland. Then, he’ll send them out again. This time, though, it won’t be as slaves being relocated by a conquering king. Instead, it’ll be as missionaries spreading throughout the world proclaiming God’s goodness. Isaiah pictures them returning with those who’ve responded to the message, presenting these newly found followers of the Lord to the Lord as an offering gladly received by God. In this I see the heart of God. His desire is that all his Creation be gathered in love; that we experience unity with one another and with him. Jesus says the same thing when he talks about us being “one.” As a believer I’m called to participate in that missionary task; to understand the culture of my society and to go out and engage it for the cause of Christ. The day will come when, as it is in Isaiah’s prophecy, I’ll stand before God. I don’t want to do so empty handed.
Take Away: The Lord uses his people to reach out to all peoples; engaging them, inviting them, and then bringing them to himself.
Surprise, surprise, surprise!
Isaiah 64: Since before time began no one has ever imagined…a God like you.
I know there’s much (and that’s too mild a word) about God that’s beyond my imagination. However, it isn’t the vastness of God that’s on Isaiah’s mind here. Isaiah’s talking about what he does know. The Almighty has revealed his intentions concerning his broken people and their enemies. Isaiah isn’t saying “no one knows what God’s going to do.” Instead, he’s saying “here’s what God’s about to do and it’s something no one has ever before imagined.” The Lord is about to move in their lives bringing restoration to them. Everything’s going to change as the Lord works in a never-seen-before way on their behalf. His plans aren’t a secret; they’re being announced ahead of time. This verse reminds me of the passage from the New Testament that’s based on Isaiah’s words here. In 1 Corinthians 2:9 Paul says: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him.” A lot of folks stop right there, thinking Paul’s talking about the future and unknowable plans of God. However, they need to go right on reading. Paul continues with: “but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit.” Paul’s saying the very same thing as Isaiah. No one could ever guess ahead of time how God is going to redeem his people, and now that we know it we stand amazed. From our point of view, who could ever imagine that a baby born in a barn can save the world? But God, through his angelic messenger right up front announces that that’s exactly what’s going to happen.
Take Away: The Lord’s wonderful plan of salvation is both known by us and amazing to us.
Isaiah 62: You’ll be called Hephzibah and your land Beulah.
The best known song of singer and songwriter Squire Parsons is “Beulah Land.” That song is inspired by this passage, in fact those words are found nowhere else in the Bible. Isaiah is describing God’s love for the people he created, picturing it as being like the love a groom has for his bride. Things haven’t gone well for Israel up to this point. Their sin separated them from God and brought destruction to their land. As a people they’ve earned the nickname “Rejected” and their land can be rightly called “Ruined.” Because of God’s love and forgiveness everything’s going to change. The “Rejected” people will be restored and the “Ruined” land will be brought back under the protection of the Lord. The new name for God’s people will be “Hephzibah” or “My Delight” and the land will be called “Beulah” or “Married” meaning that the land will reflect its unique connection to the Lord. Squire Parsons took the idea of a land uniquely the Lord’s to refer to heaven and his song is that of God’s people who long to go to that place that’s God’s very own.
Take Away: The love and forgiveness of the Lord for us changes everything about us.
Hope of restoration
Isaiah 57: I live in the high and holy places, but also with the low-spirited, the spirit crushed.
God is the Almighty and I’d better never forget it. His ways are higher than mine and he’s right at home in Eternity. This awesome God is a demanding God. He calls me to live in fellowship with himself and his standard for me is nothing short of holiness. If I rebel it’s not his purpose that is broken, but me. However, this God is not untouched by that brokenness. He not only sits on his throne way up in Heaven, but he also inhabits the world he created. When my sins have divorced me from the Lord and I begin to realize the awfulness of those sins I find that he’s been there, reaching out to me all the time. The same God, this high and towering Being, cares for me even in my ruined state. He longs to transform my “spirit-crushed” life into something wonderful and new. His language to me is filled with powerful and welcome words: healing, leading, comforting. As I reach up from the bottom, I realize that God has been there all the time, reaching down from the top.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances.
I’ll take door number two
Isaiah 54: I’ll see to it that everything works out for the best.
The Lord is stepping into their ruined lives and because of that things are going to change for the better. Through him, salvation is coming, restoration is on the way. Their current situation doesn’t reflect that. If their lives were on the stock exchange their value would be plummeting. However, God has, in his mercy, taken on their case and he’s going to personally see to it that things work out. I can’t ask for a finer promise. I look at the uncertainty of my life and wonder how things will come out. Not only are there the things I know about, there are likely things headed my way that, if I knew about them I’d be scared to death. That is, if that’s where I want to focus my attention. Instead, though, I have the promise of God before me. I can choose to worry myself to an early grave or I can choose to take God at his word that he’ll “see to it that everything works out for the best.” As might be heard in the old TV game show, I think I’ll take door number two.
Take Away: We have the promises of the Lord and it’s there that we take our stand.
Two prophecies for the price of one
Isaiah 52: He didn’t even look human.
I think this is another of those “dual prophecies” in which the prophet speaks of something close at hand, but, maybe without realizing it, speaks words that resonate into the future. On one hand, he’s talking about the restoration of his people. They’re broken, almost to the point of extinction. If their condition is described as though they are one person, we would say that individual has been beaten to the point that he or she is unrecognizable. God’s salvation is coming but at this point things don’t look very good. It makes perfect sense to us that the writers of the New Testament are reminded of this passage as they see what happens to Jesus. The Jews are God’s people and Jesus is God’s Man. Its sin that nearly destroys the Jews and it’s the burden of our sins that takes Jesus to Calvary. Physically, God’s people are practically destroyed and the same can be said of Jesus. Yes, it’s easy enough for us to see the connection. However, we don’t have to walk away from this passage with a vision of “a ruined face, disfigured past recognition” on our minds. We do need to spend time gazing at that face, absorbing the full impact of what happens at the cross. Then, we can move on. Isaiah describes an amazing transformation saying, “Just watch my servant blossom!” That’s exactly what we see at the garden tomb that first Easter morning. Israel is to be restored by the grace of God. Jesus rises from the grave, victor over sin and death. Praise His Name!
Take Away: The story of salvation doesn’t end at the cross.
The journey home begins with this first step
Isaiah 50: It’s your sins that put you here, your wrongs that got you shipped out.
The Lord tells Israel that he didn’t “divorce” them and he didn’t just kick them out. They’re where they are because of their intentional rejection of him. Even when he reached out to them, they ignored him. The disaster didn’t come because he changed the rules or backed out of his promises to them. It’s their doing. Because of that, the road back, as it does for the prodigal son, starts with their coming to their senses and acknowledging their sin. There’s hope here, because there is, indeed, a way back; the possibility of restoration even after sin. It starts with admitting, “I’m a sinner.” If I think I’ll return to God on my terms I’m only fooling myself. In this passage the Lord proclaims, “I’m as powerful as ever.” Things don’t have to stay the same because God has the power to make things right. It’s a long road home for these who’ve been exiled to distant lands and that road starts with their repentance. That’s true for them, it’s true for the prodigal, and it’s true for me when my sins have separated me from God.
Take Away: Things don’t have to stay the same because he Lord has the power to make things right.