With an eye on the future of our nation, I did not find this past week an encouraging one. In his inauguration address our president spoke of a resolve “that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune”–but government policies make clear that yet to be born babies and some at the other end of the age spectrum are excluded from that care and protection. Biblical, and even messianic language is nothing new in politics, but I was struck by a carefully crafted sentence: “We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths –- that all of us are created equal –- is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.” As one of the geographic references implies, and the following paragraph makes explicit, this is endorsement at the highest level of conduct that the Scriptures call sin. Examples could be multiplied. I’m sorry–I can’t see this as a star guiding us, but rather a further descent into darkness. Why the darkness? It’s not because of the outcome of an election–the ideas that are molding our society have plenty of support in both political parties. At heart the problem is a matter of faith.
As God commissioned Isaiah, recorded in Isaiah 6, the prophet was told that his prophetic ministry would result in darkness, in judicial blindness. In John 12:37-50 the apostle picks up that prophecy to describe the rejection of the words of Jesus by his covenant people, Israel. Do not identify America with Old Testament Israel, but there are parallels. Both were blessed with the Word of God, and both have to a large degree ignored it.
Do we have a problem with political leaders of both parties disregarding the Constitution of the United States? That has been preceded by years of leaders in the church who have taken ordination vows to submit to the Bible and to the creeds of their churches, but have taken those vows with crossed fingers. What we see in our political leadership is as much a symptom of the problems with the darkness of our land as it is a cause of it. Pray for our nation, but pray especially for the churches of our nation, for repentance.
Isaiah 6 gives the call by God to the prophet to begin his work. It starts with something that is too often missing from worship, even in evangelical circles–a wonderful vision of the holiness of God. The vision of God’s majestic holiness–notice that John tells you that Isaiah saw the glory of Christ and wrote of him–ought to result in every preacher and also of every believe having a profound sense of his unworthiness. That guilt can be cleansed only by the work of the Messiah.
The work of the prophet was to speak forth the Word of God. As Isaiah prepared to carry out his life’s work, he was warned by God that his ministry would be remarkably unsuccessful by human standards. His listeners would have dull ears, blind eyes, and hardened hearts, lest they repent and turn and be healed. This is not an arbitrary judgment. It is not a capricious God forming men for destruction. Rather, the negative aspect of Isaiah’s call in chapter 6 is a reflection of what the prophet expands upon in Isaiah 44:9-20. The makers and worshipers of blind, mute, senseless idols become like what they worship. Picture a person who is blind, deaf, and confused trying to cross Hwy. 99 W at Springbrook! As happened with Pharaoh, a judicial hardening takes place.
Those who heard Jesus were confronted with the powerful signs he worked. They had heard his words. But they were not believing (John focuses on faith as an ongoing activity, not just a single act.) This crowd that had shouted “Hosanna!” would change to “Crucify him!” Because they were not believing God would judge them so that they could not believe.
Jesus cries out emphasizing the judicial significance of rejecting his Word, verses 44-50. The purpose of his coming was not first of all for judgment, but for salvation. But for those who hear his Word and do not listen, who hear but do not repent, there is a judge–the words that Jesus spoke, v. 48. You, of course, never heard Jesus speaking during his earthly ministry. The principle, however, remains for those who hear the word of Christ as it is proclaimed today. J. C. Ryle puts it clearly: “We see here that the words of those who speak for God are not thrown away, because they seem not believed at the time. Christ’s words, though despised and rejected by the Jews, did not fall to the ground. Those whom they did not save they will condemn. There will be a resurrection of all faithful sermons at the last day.–Great is the responsibility of preachers! Their words are always doing good, or adding to the condemnation of the lost. They are a savour of life to some, and of death to others. Great is the responsibility of hearers! They may ridicule and despise sermons. But they will find to their cost at last, that they must give account of all they hear. The very sermons they now despise may be witnesses against them to their eternal ruin.” (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, at John 12:48)
But the primary purpose Jesus had in coming into this world, his purpose in working signs, the purpose of his words, was not to condemn but to save. That same word, which when rejected leads to hardening and condemnation, when followed, leads to life eternal.
The person who does believe in him believes in the Father as well. How do you know God? In the person of his Son. When you see the Son you see the glory light of the triune God! When you believe, when you keep on believing, the words of Jesus as he comes to you in Scripture, as he comes to you in the preaching of that Word, as he comes to you in the Lord’s Supper, then you have life eternal.
Both Isaiah’s discouraging ministry and the stern words of Jesus are not intended to make you despair, but to turn from the darkness to the one who is the Light, to open your ears, to really listen to the Word, and to believe in the One whom the Father has sent. Are you listening?