Hope in the Midst of Suffering
by Jack Wald | September 16th, 2018

Isaiah 1:21-21

What do you do when someone you love is suffering because of poor choices they made? What do you do when someone you love is trapped in addiction and a string of broken relationships? You lament; you grieve. What do you do when your country is suffering because of the lack of values that protect and prosper the people of your country? What do you do when corruption and exploitation dominate in your country? You lament; you grieve.

This is what Isaiah is doing in the text for this morning. Verses 21 -26 are a lament over the collapse of Jerusalem’s society. This lament followed by two oracles (a word from God delivered through a prophet in response to a request for guidance). The first (27-28) concerns redemption and judgment. The second (29-31) concerns false religion.

Isaiah begins his lament with the painful observation that the values that had once been part of the people living in Jerusalem are part of the past. The moral life of Jerusalem has drifted away from the values God instructed Israel to hold on to. Isaiah does not mince his words.
See how the faithful city has become a prostitute!
She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her—
but now murderers!

It is very painful for parents to see their children move out into the world and discard the values the parents raised them with. I have talked with many parents who weep for their children. It hurts and drives parents to their knees to pray for their children.

It is also painful to see the community you grew up in drift away from the values that had once made the country a good place to live. No community, no country is perfect or ever has been perfect, but there are times when the country or community thrive because they hold on to Biblical values that respect others in society.

Because of the religious awakenings in the history of the US, Biblical truth has filtered into the values of the US, even years after the awakenings have faded away. The American Peace Corps is an example of this. Men and women sacrifice a comfortable salary in the US to go out into the world as Peace Corps volunteers, to help those less fortunate than they are.

Those who go out with the Peace Corps are not predominantly followers of Jesus, but the cultural value of caring for others, using your gifts to help others, is a part of US culture. Men and women go to medical school and then, rather than go into private practice and earn a large salary, they go to work on an Indian reservation or the inner city.

The US gives more per capita to charitable groups than any other nation in the world. Charitable giving by individuals as a percentage of GDP in the US was recorded at 1.44%, in New Zealand at 0.79%, in Canada at .77% and in the UK – which came fourth globally – at 0.54%

There is never just one variable for why something happens, but I would contend that these countries are at the top of the list of giving because of the history of Christian revival that has put the value of giving, the value of thinking more of others than ourselves, into the cultures of these countries. These values still have influence in the US, but they are fading away.

Isaiah grieved at the demise of values in Jerusalem. I grieve at the demise of values in the US. Over the past couple decades I have seen a steady decline in the moral values of the US. Public rhetoric has become increasingly rude and crude. Sexual behavior that used to be hidden is now public and explicit. People in the US have become increasingly self-centered, asking the question, “What’s in it for me?” The ability to step into another person’s shoes and see life from that other person’s perspective is disappearing. This leads one group to fight against another group because they are not like them.

As Isaiah grieved for the diminishing values of Jerusalem, I grieve for the diminishing values of the US. You may be grieving for the diminishing values of your home country.

Isaiah laments:
See how the faithful city has become a prostitute!

This is a reference to idolatry, the worship of other gods. Israel struggled with idolatry from the very beginning. They brought the gods of Egypt with them as they moved through the wilderness to Canaan. When they arrived in Canaan, they picked up the gods of Canaan.

But also in the history of Israel, kings and prophets brought revival after revival, renewing the Biblical values that were given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai.

One example can be seen in the story of King Josiah. Josiah became king of Judah (the Southern kingdom of Israel with Jerusalem as its capital) when he was eight years old. When he was 26 he instructed that the Temple, which had fallen into disrepair, be restored. In the process a long, lost book was discovered, the Bible – or part of the Bible. Perhaps it was the book of Deuteronomy. It is not clear. But the impact of this part of the Bible that was discovered is clear. (2 Kings 22:11–13)
When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes. 12 He gave these orders …: 13 “Go and inquire of the Lord for me and for the people and for all Judah about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the Lord’s anger that burns against us because those who have gone before us have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us.”

The result was a social and religious transformation. An assembly of the elders of Judah and Jerusalem and of all the people was called, and Josiah then encouraged the exclusive worship of Yahweh, forbidding all other forms of worship. The instruments and emblems of the worship of Baal and “the host of heaven” were removed from the Jerusalem Temple. Local sanctuaries, or High Places, were destroyed. Josiah had pagan priests executed and even had the bones of the dead priests of Bethel exhumed from their graves and burned on their altars. Josiah also reinstituted the Passover celebrations. Biblical values returned to Judah.

As Isaiah writes in the text for this morning, idolatry has once again crawled out of the ashes and has caused the values of past revivals to diminish. The faithful city has become a prostitute. Idol worship is thriving.

Jerusalem used to be a place full of justice, a righteous people, but now people did whatever they wanted. When you read the book of Judges, there is a repeated line that sums up the terrible behavior found in the book of Judges: (Judges 17:6)
In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.

In Isaiah’s world, although there was a king, the king was weak and everyone did as they saw fit.

Doesn’t this also describe our world? Each person is determined to find their own truth. There is a resistance to submitting to someone else’s truth. There is a resistance to submitting to an institution or organization. Part of the reason for this is our disillusionment with institutions and organizations. After all, we are seeing the uncovering of sexual abuse that has been hidden by institutions and organizations which has lowered our trust in leaders of institutions, including the church.

Part of the reason for our determination to find our own truth is the spirit of the age. We no longer look for a higher power to lead us; we are determined to be the higher power ourselves. So our solution seems to be to set out on our own and find our own truth. We do as we see fit.

The problem with this is that without a king, without the King, without Jesus, we will wander and become lost. The small “t” truth we discover will not prove to be dependable or reliable. The spiritual and emotional health of our community will decline.

Isaiah laments the loss of the values that made Jerusalem a strong and prosperous city.

In verse 22 he moves to metaphor.
Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water.

This is the same theme as the previous verse, sorrow over what once was. The pure has become impure. The ruling class, society’s silver and good wine, has become so perverted that the ones who are supposed to promote order and obedience are themselves rebels. Those with wealth and power in a society are given the responsibility to use their wealth and power for the good of the people. Isaiah laments, grieves for the self-centeredness of the leaders of Jerusalem.

He continues:
23 Your rulers are rebels, partners with 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.

Those intrusted with responsibility for justice are, through their own greed, actively promoting injustice. We are not unfamiliar with this. Last week I was talking with a taxi driver who told me that justice comes only to the rich who have enough money to pay for it. Those without money will not see justice. Does anyone want to argue with this?

God has a deep concern for those in the world without power and influence. The fatherless, the widows, and others without power suffer injustice. This was true in the time of Isaiah and it is true in our world today.

Isaiah, for the first time in this book, makes the connection between idolatry and social justice. He will come back to this repeatedly in the rest of his book. Other prophets also make this connection repeatedly.

Social justice is the mark of a true work of God. A religious revival or awakening that does not influence and encourage social justice is not a true religious revival or awakening. If people come together and get excited about the feeling they get when they worship, but it does not result in practical change, it is only a religious enthusiasm.

The Toronto Blessing, a religious phenomenon in the late 1990s, attracted people from all over the world. People who were filled with the Holy Spirit manifested this by laughing in the Spirit. This phenomenon influenced the later religious gatherings in Brownsville and Lakeland, Florida. I don’t have problems with people expressing their experience of the presence of God, however weird that may be, but I do question the value of these religious enthusiasms.

One reason is that a religious enthusiasm can be the result of human manipulation and the dynamics of mass behavior. People come wanting an experience and it is not a surprise that many had the experience they wanted. This is the way humans work. They can be manipulated to have an ecstatic experience.

Another reason concerns the motive for going to something like the Toronto Blessing. Did people come to worship God or to seek an experience? If they came to seek an experience, then they made an idol out of experience.

I am hungry for a true work of God in our lives. I have prayed for this for years. But I have no time for religious enthusiasms. I want the real thing. A genuine revival is a work of God and will always result in a decrease in divorce, a decrease in socially destructive behaviors, a strengthening of marriages and families, an increased concern for those in society who are weak and needy. True revivals and awakenings have always transformed societies. Orphanages, laws to protect the rights of women and children, better education, better health care – all these are the historical fruit of true revivals and awakenings.

Further evidence of this is found in the text Jesus quoted to announce the beginning of his public ministry. (Luke 4:16–21)
[Jesus] went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

In declaring the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus did not simply read the text of the day in the synagogue. He unrolled the scroll and looked to find the passage he wanted to read. He deliberately chose Isaiah 61 as his text.

What does this text say about the ministry of Jesus. Does it say, “he has anointed me to help people have good worship experiences,”? Does it say, “he has anointed me to help people feel enthusiastic about worshiping me,”? No. Jesus said the Spirit of the Lord had anointed him to proclaim the good news to the poor, freedom for the prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, set the oppressed free. Jesus came to announce that the kingdom of God was here and that would be seen in practical ways as people were healed and set free from the oppression of the world. This is why social justice, caring for the poor, the powerless, and the oppressed is a mark of every true revival and awakening.

The link between the self-centered idolatry of Jerusalem and the lack of justice was very clear to Isaiah.

Isaiah grieved for the people of Jerusalem. God grieved for the people of Jerusalem. The difference is that God could actually do something to change the situation. And so God spoke through Isaiah, his prophet.
24 Therefore the Lord, the Lord Almighty, the Mighty One of Israel, declares:
“Ah! I will vent my wrath on my foes and avenge myself on my enemies.
25 I will turn my hand against you; I will thoroughly purge away your dross
and remove all your impurities.
26 I will restore your leaders as in days of old, your rulers as at the beginning.
Afterward you will be called the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City.”

“The Lord, the Lord Almighty” is a powerful description of God. He is the Sovereign Lord, the Lord of Hosts. This, along with “the Mighty One of Israel,” speaks of God’s complete mastery, his total dominance. This is not a weak, impotent god. This is the pre-existing, all powerful God who speaks.

This is who declares,
Ah! I will vent my wrath on my foes and avenge myself on my enemies.

Who are God’s foes? Who are God’s enemies? If the people of Jerusalem heard Isaiah and he paused after he said this, they might have thought this was good news. God would strike out against those who wanted to conquer Jerusalem. But then Isaiah continued:
25 I will turn my hand against you; I will thoroughly purge away your dross
and remove all your impurities.

Isaiah called the people of Jerusalem his enemies. “I will turn my hand against you.” This was a dramatic turn in the history of Israel. Israel’s identity was that they were God’s chosen people. The history of Israel was a telling of all the ways God had blessed and protected them. The Psalms celebrated what God had done for them. (Psalm 105:1–45)
Give praise to the Lord, proclaim his name;
make known among the nations what he has done.
2 Sing to him, sing praise to him;
tell of all his wonderful acts.

5 Remember the wonders he has done,
his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced,

26 He sent Moses his servant,
and Aaron, whom he had chosen.
27 They performed his signs among them,
his wonders in the land of Ham.

39 He spread out a cloud as a covering,
and a fire to give light at night.
40 They asked, and he brought them quail;
he fed them well with the bread of heaven.
41 He opened the rock, and water gushed out;
it flowed like a river in the desert.

God had worked for Israel and now, they heard Isaiah prophesy that God had turned his hand against them. This came as a complete shock to the people of Jerusalem who thought that no matter what, God would be on their side. They took his protection and favor for granted – and then did whatever they wanted to do.

This makes me think of Paul’s discussion of those who deserve the wrath of God in the opening chapters of his Romans letter. He begins by saying that those who are wicked deserve the wrath of God. He goes on to say that those who think they are more moral than the wicked, deserve the wrath of God. And then he says that those who think that because they are religious Jews they are better than others, also deserve the wrath of God.

God says through Isaiah,
“Ah! I will vent my wrath on my foes and avenge myself on my enemies.
25 I will turn my hand against you; I will thoroughly purge away your dross
and remove all your impurities.
26 I will restore your leaders as in days of old, your rulers as at the beginning.
Afterward you will be called the City of Righteousness, the Faithful City.”

The destruction of enemies carries no hope for the enemies who are destroyed. But here, the promised destruction comes with hope. God will turn his hand against Jerusalem. Jerusalem will suffer. It will suffer greatly. The purging will be painful. From our historical perspective, we know that the purging involved the Babylonians capturing Jerusalem and taking the people into exile. The pain of that event is seen in the book of Lamentations which consists of five poems written by Jeremiah grieving for the terrible suffering of the people of Jerusalem.

The purging of dross and removal of impurities was going to be painful. But look at the brilliant piece of hope in this. I will remove all your impurities.

How do you remove all impurities? When silver is refined, it is never pure. There is always some percentage of impurities. Here Isaiah says God will remove all impurities. The silver was going to be perfectly pure silver. This is clearly something only God can do.

In his Romans letter Paul talks about how we all deserve the wrath of God. So what are we to do? What can we do? We can do nothing. We are helpless. We can never be perfect enough to enter into the presence of God. But then God did for us what we are unable to do for ourselves. (Romans 3:21–24 The Message)
Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both Jews and Gentiles) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ.

God is the only one who can make us pure, who can make us righteous. This is his miraculous work in our lives: giving us his righteousness and then working in us to actually become righteous.

Isaiah promises us:
26 I will restore your leaders as in days of old,
your rulers as at the beginning.
Afterward you will be called
the City of Righteousness,
the Faithful City.

It is not clear if Isaiah is foreseeing a time when the old values will return to Jerusalem or if he is seeing a far distant time when there will be a new Jerusalem. He may have hoped for the first but the fulfillment of his prophecy is still to come. (Revelation 21:1–4)
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

If you read Isaiah 1:21-31 as a whole, there is accusation, judgment, then a brilliant ray of hope, and then the two oracles at the end that return to judgment. Hope stands in the middle of accusation and judgment.

We will continue to see this as we move further into Isaiah. In the midst of judgment, hope springs up. In Lamentations, the book of poems Jeremiah wrote lamenting the destruction of Jerusalem and the people of Jerusalem taken into exile, there is verse after verse of lament. It begins with (Lamentations 1:1)
How deserted lies the city,
once so full of people!
How like a widow is she,
who once was great among the nations!
She who was queen among the provinces
has now become a slave.

Chapters 1&2 are dominated by weeping and sorrow. Chapter 3 begins:
I am the man who has seen affliction
by the rod of the Lord’s wrath.

4 He has made my skin and my flesh grow old
and has broken my bones.
5 He has besieged me and surrounded me
with bitterness and hardship.

7 He has walled me in so I cannot escape;
he has weighed me down with chains.

10 Like a bear lying in wait,
like a lion in hiding,
11 he dragged me from the path and mangled me
and left me without help.
12 He drew his bow
and made me the target for his arrows.

16 He has broken my teeth with gravel;
he has trampled me in the dust.

19 I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.

This is a picture of extreme grief, sorrow, and despair. Jeremiah is in great pain. He is at the bottom of the emotional pit. And then, amazingly, this is what comes next.
21 Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:
22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”
25 The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
26 it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.

We love this. We sing a hymn taken from these verses. Great Is Your Faithfulness. It is important when we sing this to remember that it comes in the middle of great despair. It comes in the middle of five chapters of lament.

The history of the world is a history of great suffering and injustice. There has never been a year in the recorded history of the world when there were not several wars taking place. Today the world is probably a safer place to live than it has ever been. And yet, our world is full of injustice and suffering. We can only imagine how difficult life was for the ordinary person in centuries past.

The history of the world is a history of great suffering and injustice. It always has been and it always will be. Because God loves us he is not distant from us in our suffering. God placed himself in the midst of suffering when Jesus was born, lived among us, died on the cross in our place, and rose from the dead. The work of Jesus for us and the presence of God in our lives gives us great hope in every circumstance. We are never alone. We are never ignored. We are never without hope.

What do I want you to take away with you this morning?

1. Expect sorrow. That is the norm. Don’t be shocked by suffering when it comes. It will hurt. You will grieve. It is healthy to express to God all the strong emotions you are feeling. That is the healthy way to deal with suffering. Don’t try to pretend that it doesn’t hurt. Be prepared to deal with sorrow.

2. Suffering has a positive effect on us. God works redemptively to bring good out of suffering. Spiritual growth, emotional growth, do not come without pain and suffering. Because of this greater good James tells us: James 1:2)
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds,

3. There is always hope, especially in the midst of suffering. In the midst of his suffering, Job proclaimed: (Job 13:15)
Though he slay me, yet will I hope in him;
Hold on to your faith. Even in the darkest moments, hold on to Jesus.

4. If you are living for what the world has to offer, prepare to be disappointed and disillusioned. The prosperity gospel, the health and wealth gospel, points you to the treasures of this world. It tells you the treasures of the world will bring you peace and contentment. That is a lie. Set your heart on fame and fortune and especially if you are successful, you will end up discontent and disillusioned.

5. Whatever measure of wealth and influence you have, use it for the good of others. The man who had excess wealth and planned to build another barn to store it in was called a rich fool by Jesus. Use what God has blessed you with for the good of others.

6. Live for the world that will be your eternal home. Live life in this world in light of the reality that you are heading to your eternal home. Let this affect your decisions, your relationships, your response to world events.

7. Live with hope.