Sun, Dec 10: The Way of the Lord Announced

CONTENTS
Mon Dec 4: Isaiah 40:1-11
Tue Dec 5: Psalm 85:1-13
Wed Dec 6: Mark 1:1-8
Thur Dec 7: 2 Peter 3:8-14
Fri Dec 8: The teaching that emerges: to be holy and godly, but not as we have known it

Mon 4: Isaiah 40:1-11

God announces through the prophet Isaiah Good News of enduring salvation

1 Comfort, comfort [i.e. comfort greatly, emphasised] My people, says your God.

2 Speak tenderly to [lit. speak to the heart of, encourage] Jerusalem [the Lord’s people], and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double [punishment] for all her sins.

  • They had endured the punishment of captivity and exile.
  • This section starts with an announcement of the Good News; it continues.

3-5 A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare [clear] the way for the Lord [remove the obstacles]…

  • This voice, God’s messenger who prepares the way for God’s coming, was identified with John the Baptist in all four of the gospels Matt 3:1-3, Mark 1:1-3, Luke 3:4 and John 1:23.
  • In Isaiah 35 the picture is of a holy highway with the people travelling towards Zion, where the Lord has come. The imagery here is reversed; the Lord is coming out to the people (verses 9-11).

…make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.

  • ‘Desert’ is not smooth sand but a picture of sharp crags and crevasses – terrain that is difficult to negotiate. NLT renders this “Fill in the valleys, and level the mountains and hills, straighten the curves and smooth out the rough places…”
  • The Near East custom was to send representatives to prepare a processional way; a bit like preparing a way down the Mall for the Queen in the royal coach .

And the glory [and majesty and splendour] of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

  • Yahweh – the Lord – could not be seen; every Israelite knew that. But they needed assurance that the Lord was with them. The was the cloud, kabod, which unlike our idea of damp, grey clouds had a radiance as well. In Exodus 24:17 it is called a consuming fire. It is felt and not just seen – when the tabernacle was completed God’s glory so filled it that even Moses was unable to enter Exodus 40:35. The glory of the Lord that was the constant reminder that God was with the Israelites is the glory that Isaiah here will be seen again by everyone. The Transfiguration of Jesus was a cloud of dazzling radiance that surrounded Jesus and revealed others Matt. 17:1-3.

A voice says, “Cry out [prophesy]!” And I said, “What shall I cry?”

[The voice answered] “All people are like[all humanity is as frail as] grass, and all their faithfulness [lit. all that makes it attractive] is [momentary] like the flowers of the field.

7-8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely [all] the people are [like] grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”

9 You who bring good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good news to Jerusalem [God’s people], lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!”

  • ‘Shout’ – this is a message for all to hear.

10 See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and He rules with a mighty arm. See, his reward is with Him, and His recompense accompanies Him.

  • Unlike the unjust, and ultimately powerless, rulers who He will judge, God’s rule will be different: marked by compassion and righteousness – with power to rescue, Isaiah 59:16 and defeat enemies such as the Egyptians, Isaiah 63:11-12.
  • His reward is with Him – God is Himself the Good News.

11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; He gently leads those that have young.

  • The Ezekiel 34 passage (Nov 26 readings) portrayed God as the careful shepherd who would Himself rescue and shepherd His flock, Ezekiel 34:11, 15-16

Application

This is a message of hope and encouragement for God’s people. The immediate hearers were Jews of the 8th century BC. But we can take hold of this as a lesson about God’s character; uncompromising in holiness and angered by our stubbornness and independence, but essentially loving, gracious and having our protection and best interests at heart, like the best kind of shepherd.

We may have done all sorts of things (and held all sorts of attitudes) entirely worthy of God’s anger. That is why we go back to Him often and agree with Him that we are prone to fall into sin, usually through our own independence. He has given us free will, to do what He would have us do, or to do what we want to do. Of course we get it wrong at times. The nation of Israel kept on getting it wrong, ignoring clear warnings and lessons from history, until they were expelled from their holy city and holy land to a life of servility in exile.

Here God is announcing that this ‘hard service’ has been completed and His love and mercy will once again override the need for judgment.Unlike the Jewish nation, we have a ‘fast track’ to God through Jesus. The hard service or worse that should have been ours, from our inherited independence and human pride, has been completed by Jesus in his dying for us. For the Jewish nation there was, quite justifiably, condemnation. The Bible word for us is that for us who have sincerely chosen to give our lives to Jesus, there is no condemnation, Romans 8:1-2 . There is always a way back for us in Jesus. The announcement of Good News is for our hearing. As we respond and turn to meet God, we find Him coming out to meet us. The way for Him to come, needs some levelling and preparation; thanks to Jesus we are equipped to do that.

Discussion starters

  1. What are the obstacles, or obstructions, to God coming to us again and showing His glory?
  2. How do we do our bit to make straight… a highway for our God?

Tue, Dec 5: Psalm 85:1-13

Listening to God’s promise of peace for those that fear Him – and hearing a promise of revival?

1 You, Lord, showed favour to your land; You restored the fortunes of Jacob.

2-3 You forgave the iniquity of Your people and covered all their sins. You set aside all Your wrath and turned from Your fierce anger.

  • This psalm is a communal prayer for those who have come back to Jerusalem from exile, at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah – and were facing significant danger and opposition there.
  • Although most psalms were composed earlier e.g at the time of King David, some are after the exile, or at least show prophetic allusions to the return of God’s people as in _ Psalm 126 and Psalm 14:7 .

4 Restore us again, God our Saviour, and put away Your displeasure toward us.

5-7 Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger through all generations? Will you not revive us again, that Your people may rejoice in You? Show us Your unfailing love, Lord, and grant us Your salvation.

  • “Will you not revive us again…?” A prayer to touch the heart of God, who wants to bring revival more than, generally, we want to ask for it. One of a clutch of key revival verses summarised by 2 Chronicles 7:14; Acts 3:19
  • “Will You not revive us again…” A prayer we can pray with confidence. Who wants revival more, us or God? What holds back revival?

8-9 I will listen to what God the Lord says; He promises peace to His people, His faithful servants – but let them not turn to folly. Surely His salvation is near those who fear Him, that His glory may dwell in our land.

  • God’s gracious salvation being near those who fear Him is a repeated theme in Psalms and Proverbs. It points up the tension between man’s natural self-sufficiency and independence, and the need to submit to God as the One who provides and saves, recognising how the covenant relationship works.

10-11 Love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other. Faithfulness springs forth from the earth, and righteousness looks down from heaven.

  • These are ‘returning’ expressions: God’s love meets our return to faithfulness, God’s peace looks for our return to His righteousness. Righteousness is a heavenly quality which looks for a connection with faithfulness to find its expression in our lives and attitudes.

12-13 The Lord will indeed give what is good, and our land will yield its harvest. Righteousness goes before Him and prepares the way for His steps.

Application

Coming back from exile or from alienation from God may seem to be putting a historic event for the Jewish nation alongside our very different context. But in life, even a faith-centred life, there is the tension between the call of God and our desire for self-determination. There will always be the need for seasons which recognise where we have alienated ourselves, where our independence has inevitably caused God’s righteous anger, and where we need to appeal to His understanding, patient mercy in making our ‘return’.

Discussion starters

3. In what ways do we need God to revive us again?

4. What does He look for, to be able to do this? What does this psalm tell us, that holds back revival?

Wed, Dec 6: Mark 1:1-8

John the Baptist, last of the Old Testament prophets, takes up Isaiah’s and Malachi’s announcement of the Good News in the style of Elijah.

1-3 The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way — a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ ”

  • As Isaiah 40:3-5 (above). It was not unusual for interpreters to treat Scripture as a seamless whole around a common phrase such as “prepare the way” and this quotation also includes Malachi 3:1 .

4-5 And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

  • ‘The wilderness’ and ‘the Jordan River’ might seem to be inconsistent. In this part of the Judean wilderness a narrow fertile area around the river is surrounded by rugged and inhospitable terrain.
  • Jewish people were used to the idea of repentance – and also knew various rituals for baptism including baptism of Gentiles who converted to Judaism, where it signified a turning to a whole new way of life.

The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

  • John’s assignment was to prepare the way for Jesus by clearing obstacles. The main obstacle? Proud, unbelieving sin. So John told his hearers to repent (turn) and recognise that the kingdom of God – God’s righteous rule and order – was at hand, Matt. 3:1-3. Jesus came with exactly the same initial message, Mark 1:15 .
  • Baptism does not achieve repentance, but brings an impartation that seals the change of heart. This impartation is seen clearly in Jesus’ own baptism by John with a visible sign of the Holy Spirit – the dove, Matt. 3:16, Mark 1:9-11.

6-8 John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the One more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

  • The “One more powerful… who will baptize… with the Holy Spirit” is John’s allusion to Jesus, who was John’s cousin. John’s whole purpose was to prepare people through their repentance, and point them to Jesus.
  • Malachi, whose prophecy is implied here, referred to the one who would come like Elijah, Mal. 4:5-6. Readers of the time would have seen the connection in the description. Elijah was not a priest or a court prophet in robes, but quite the opposite – an outsider. John is showing himself to be standing apart from the establishment, a voice from the wilderness proclaiming a way in the wilderness which was like a new exodus, a move of God which was about salvation and restoration for His people, Isaiah 43:16-21, also Isa 11:16, 19:23-25, 51:10-11 etc.
  • This was a season for Jews of faith to reflect on what they needed to put right with God, in preparation for the move of God which John’s preaching was alerting them to. There are seasons for us to reflect and ‘clear our own roads’ for God. The allusion to the Holy Spirit is important. To make room for more of Him, we have to identify the things that need to go!

Application

Before the gospel writer John tells us much about the Good news, he tells us how it works. It is all about Jesus, the ‘anointed One’ or Messiah, who will baptise [drench us] not just with water but with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is God and He is holy; He empowers us to be a bit different in a good way, showing others the character of God – in short, how we as humans can be ‘set apart’ and holy, while engaging with a world which is frequently the opposite. This is how we do it – by turning to Jesus and allowing ourselves to be empowered by the Spirit of Jesus. It doesn’t work any other way.

Discussion starter

5. Is this turning to Jesus one particular, memorable life event? Or are there many turnings, some particularly life changing and significant, others which are more of a regular course correction?

Thur, Dec 7: 2 Peter 3:8-14

Our time frame and God’s eternal time frame work in different ways, as God holds out opportunity for people to get right with Him – but when that encounter comes, what will He find us doing?

8-9 But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.

  • “…a day is like a thousand years” – Peter appealing to Psalm 90:4 _ to make his point._
  • God’s patience might be an allusion to Noah, Genesis 6
  • God sometimes delays judgment to give opportunity for the wicked to come to repentance, as in the time of wicked kings generally and particularly Jereboam II of Israel, 2 Kings 14:23-27.

10 But the Day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.

11-13 Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the Day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with His promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

  • “Holy…”  a pattern of life that sets one apart as a believer  “…and godly lives…”showing reverence before awesome God.
  • The Day of God is probably synonymous with the Day of the Lord, especially as the events described are similar. The language is apocalyptic (like Daniel, or Revelation); more attempting to put into words the indescribable, than a precise forecast.
  • The point being made is not so much the nature of God’s coming, but the priority of living holy and godly lives, expecting the Lord’s return at any time. What are we found doing?
  • “As you speed its coming.” The rabbis of the time debated whether or not repentance would hasten the end. The New Testament in Peter’s words “Repent then and turn to God… that times of refreshing may come…” Acts 3:19-20 , suggests that it does. We don’t argue from opinion or experience, but church history and church experience bears out that prayerful and sincere repentance by a community does attract God’s favour and even visitation.

14-15 So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with Him. Bear in mind that our Lord’s patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him.

  • “Our Lord’s patience” – allowing more time for repentance.
  • “At peace with Him” – “Inwardly calm, with a sense of well-being and confidence…” (Amplified Bible)

Application

Our view of life and our world is temporal, not eternal. There is a time coming when everything of man will receive a fiery purification – the language used is ‘destruction’. While God, in His love, desires our salvation more than anything else, He cannot countenance rebellious or independent attitudes. So the exhortation is to be found “spotless, blameless and at peace with Him”.

So, how do we keep right with God? By careful religious observance? Just over 500 years ago, Martin Luther, a monk and university teacher in Wittenberg, Saxony, who knew a great deal about being correctly religious, was studying the book of Romans and found there, that he had been headed down the wrong road. Righteousness with God did not come by any amount of effort we could make (and he knew all about that) but by faith, especially faith in Jesus. “It is a righteousness that is by faith, from first to last”, Romans 1:16-17 . So to be found right with God, whenever God makes this Day of the Lord judgement and visitation, is by keeping close relationship with Him, steered by the Holy Spirit into what is right and helped to put right, what needs to be put right, when it needs to be put right. The phrase, slightly quaint to our ears, used to be “Keep short accounts with God”. It is hard to put this advice better.

Discussion starters

6. Can it be that simple? Why is it that we feel more comfortable engaged in practices and actions that amount to earning favour with God?

7. Are we, like God, lovingly patient and persistent with those who are not yet in a place to turn to God and confess their need of Him?

Fri, Dec 8: The emerging message

Our call to a holy and godly life – but not as we have known it

What does a holy and godly life look like? Awe, reverence, a pattern of life by which believers are distinctive – many different expressions of this have had their season. Here are some of them:

  • The early Christians faced the risk of death with the joy of being counted worthy to suffer — quite possibly in martyrdom (the word martyr has the root meaning of ‘witness’).
  • The monastic movement was based on communal life around the discipline of 24-7 worship.
  • Religious Christianity grew up as the early community-based Celtic tradition gave way to a more disciplined and church-based Roman practice which emphasised obedience.
  • The Reformation 700 years ago challenged this. Priest became pastor (shepherd) with a return to Scripture as the foundation of faith, and salvation as a Scripture-informed choice to put faith in Jesus.
  • John Wesley, an Anglican cleric who had experienced a profound encounter with God, preached to huge outdoor crowds but relied on discipling new believers in small groups in homes for mutual discipleship and spiritual growth. This ‘high churchman’ actually declericalised the church by equipping ‘lay’ people.
  • Revivals have been born in a discipline of prayer and repentance, from the 100-year-long prayer meeting in 18th-century Moravia onwards, through Georgian and Victorian England to more recent times.
  • The priority of taking the Good News and its lifestyle into the streets and pubs of the poor and needy of the expanding cities took Wesley’s values forward and presented church as a radically alternative mission army for social, as well as spiritual, transformation.
  • The Pentecostal and charismatic renewals of the 20th century brought a new understanding of relating to all three Persons of the Trinity and believers being empowered by the Holy Spirit for lives of intimacy with God and engagement in the mission of God.
  • More recently, traditional streams which grew up from all of the above have given way to highly contemporary forms of church and new expressions of church, with the beginnings of a fusion of formerly separate, competing institutional silos into an organic movement.

How does this answer what does a holy, godly life looks like? None of these ‘flavours’ offers more than a part of the answer. All are needed, complementing each other. The holy, godly life in a (longish) sentence comprises:

Being who the Lord says we are as His children, working this out by engaging with the world, prepared to witness at personal cost, practising worship in all of life, loving the renewing Word and loving the selfish world with Jesus’ love, empowering and direction – and proclaiming the kingdom of God over and above the claims of man’s understanding of church.

God’s announcement of His intentions through Isaiah look far ahead through the coming judgment and exile which Isaiah ‘saw’ but did not experience, to a time of restoration and preparing for the new era of the Messiah’s coming. God wants His glory to rest in the land. Therefore He has promised the peace of ongoing salvation to those of His people who fear Him, Psalm 85:8-9 , and sent John the Baptist as a herald of His Son who is the bringer of peace through salvation. Jesus, having completed His mission on earth, and ascended to His place of authority in heaven, will return, unannounced, to affirm those who are continuing in His way, with inevitable judgment for those who are not.

Our mission is no more or less than to join God in His mission: to announce His Good News for all who will receive Him, prepare the way for His present working and future coming with encouragement for people to turn back to Him. All this, with the forebearing and loving patience of our gracious God who is “not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance”, 2 Peter 3:9.

All the discussion starters

  1. What are the obstacles, or obstructions, to God coming to us again and showing His glory?
  2. How do we do our bit to make straight… a highway for our God?
  3. In what ways do we need God to revive us again?
  4. What does He look for, to be able to do this? What does this psalm tell us, that holds back revival?
  5. Is this turning to Jesus one particular, memorable life event? Or are there many turnings, some particularly life changing and significant, others which are more of a regular course correction?
  6. Can it be that simple? Why is it that we feel more comfortable engaged in practices and actions that amount to earning favour with God?
  7. Are we, like God, lovingly patient and persistent with those who are not yet in a place to turn to God and confess their need of Him?

CONTENTS
Mon Dec 4: Isaiah 40:1-11
Tue Dec 5: Psalm 85:1-13
Wed Dec 6: Mark 1:1-8
Thur Dec 7: 2 Peter 3:8-14
Fri Dec 8: The teaching that emerges: to be holy and godly, but not as we have known itSun