Big Idea: Walk in the middle of difficulty in light of the hope that we have in the rule and reign of Jesus.


I have a question for you this afternoon: What is your hope?

No matter how good your life is right now, you’re living off the hope that things will get better. We all are. Nobody wants just more of today. We can’t survive without hope. In a recent article, psychiatrist Aaron Kheriaty observes the startling rise in deaths from suicide and drug overdoses. He points to a number of long-term studies that have analyzed the difference between high-risk patients who survive and those who die by suicide. Here’s his conclusion of this research:

Over a ten-year span, it turns out that the one factor most strongly predictive of suicide is not how sick the person is, nor how many symptoms he exhibits, nor how much physical pain he is suffering, nor whether he is rich or poor. The most dangerous factor is a person’s sense of hopelessness. The man without hope is the likeliest candidate for suicide. … We cannot live without hope.

That’s pretty amazing. Nobody wants to suffer, but you can suffer if you have hope. Nobody wants to be poor, but you can survive being poor if you have hope. “The most dangerous factor is a person’s sense of hopelessness. The man without hope is the likeliest candidate for suicide. … We cannot live without hope.”

So let me ask you again: What is your hope? Is it a certain level of income? The perfect romantic partner? A certain level of career success? Children? We’re all hoping for something. To be human is to hope.

The problem, even if we have hope, is twofold: life is hard, and our hopes don’t deliver as much as we desired. Usually the thing that we hoped for doesn’t turn out to be as good as we’d hoped. But even if it does, it doesn’t last that long. Or even if it does, it still doesn’t satisfy us as we’d hoped. Historian Daniel Boorstin suggests that we suffer from all-too-extravagant expectations. In his much-quoted book, The Image, Boorstin makes this observation:

We expect anything and everything. We expect the contradictory and the impossible. We expect compact cars which are spacious; luxurious cars which are economical. We expect to be rich and charitable, powerful and merciful, active and reflective, kind and competitive …. We expect to eat and stay thin, to be constantly on the move and ever more neighborly, to go to a “church of our choice” and yet feel its guiding power over us, to revere God and to be God. Never have people been more the masters of their environment. Yet never has a people felt more deceived and disappointed. For never has a people expected so much more than the world could offer.

Read that last part again: “Yet never has a people felt more deceived and disappointed. For never has a people expected so much more than the world could offer.”

Advent

Lost Hope

We’re not the first to experience disappointment, of course. This morning we’re looking at a passage from the book of Isaiah. Isaiah was a prophet in Israel who lived 2700 years ago during a time when things weren’t very good. Israel was controlled by Assyria, a major world power. Moses had said that God had promised to “set you in praise and in fame and in honor high above all nations that he has made, and that you shall be a people holy to the LORD your God, as he promised” (Deuteronomy 26:19). But Israel felt like a two-bit backroads state with not much going for it. Israel knew war and destruction. When Isaiah wrote, Assyria was expanding its power while Israel went through a succession of kings. Israel lived under the shadow of a great empire that threatened to swallow it up at any moment. Talk about disappointment! God’s promises didn’t seem to be coming true.

On top of that, Isaiah hardly seemed to be helping things. Isaiah condemned the wickedness of the nation:

Ah, sinful nation,
a people laden with iniquity,
offspring of evildoers,
children who deal corruptly!
They have forsaken the LORD,
they have despised the Holy One of Israel,
they are utterly estranged.
(Isaiah 1:4)

The rest of chapter two, which we’re not going to look at today, is pretty scary if you want to read it. Just don’t read it right before going to bed. Let me summarize what he says. Isaiah warns Israel that they are enamored with greatness, but they will be humiliated and desolated. Things will get so bad that he says in verse 19 that people will flee to caves and rocks and to holes in the ground. Behind all of this is be the mighty hand of God.

It’s like Isaiah is saying, “I have bad news. Things are really bad.” And then the people say, “I know.” And then Isaiah says, “I have even worse news. You’re evil.” And the people say, “That’s rough.” And then Isaiah says, “I have even worse news than that. God is opposed to you, and things are going to get worse.”

As much as this is hard to read, never mind experience, I also appreciate it. Isaiah is a prophet who is willing to tell us hard things and to get to the root of the issue. Life is hard. The situation around us is often challenging. Underlying that is the reality of our sinfulness and the consequences of the decisions we make. We can’t deny reality. We must face the bad news before we’re ready for God’s good news.

If you’re here today and you’re going through a hard time, I hope that you understand that the Bible is a very realistic book. It never asks us to pretend that things are better than they really are. The Bible looks unflinchingly at life and acknowledges that it’s brutally hard. And that should give us hope because what God reveals in his word is realistic enough that it will help us in the worst circumstances we’ll ever encounter. God does us the favor of telling us the truth, even when it’s hard to hear, even when we’re going through the worst circumstances of life.

Hope Recovered

In the middle of this, Isaiah sounds an amazing note of hope in chapter 2, verses 2 to 4:

It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be lifted up above the hills; and all the nations shall flow to it, and many peoples shall come, and say: “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.

What Isaiah says to Israel is just as important for us to hear as it was for Israel’s audience 2700 years ago.

Isaiah tells us three things we need to know.

First: don’t expect to be fully satisfied here and now.

Our hope will never ultimately be satisfied on this earth.

Most of us ground our happiness based on our present circumstances. If things are good, we’re good. If things are bad, then we’re bad.

The problem is that our present circumstances are very uncertain. We have good days and bad days. As good as life gets, it will never stop being hard. Read the book of Ecclesiastes sometimes, because it’s very honest. Everything that we work for lasts for only a short time. Everything that we own will wear out. Not only that, but our lives are short and we’ll have to leave everything behind.

But Ecclesiastes isn’t pessimistic about life. Why? Because we were meant to enjoy this life without depending on it for our ultimate satisfaction. The Bible would tell us: enjoy all of God’s blessings here. Live it up. Drink good wine. Eat great food. Make friends, and really enjoy your times with them. Pursue great work. But never think that if you have all of these things that you’ll be happy. You will never find the satisfaction that you’re looking for in this earth. You weren’t meant to. Enjoy them, but don’t expect them to satisfy your soul.

Isaiah tells us, “Relocate your happiness to the future, and you won’t be devastated when things don’t go your way in the meantime.” Enjoy it. Just don’t expect to be satisfied by it.

Second: don’t look for the solution within yourself.

You’d almost expect Isaiah to tell the people of Israel to get their act together. You hear this in a lot of churches too. Stop sinning. Start doing right. Then God will bless you. It’s all up to you.

If it were that easy, we wouldn’t be experiencing the problems that we are. Make no mistake about it: the best amongst us today is incapable of saving himself or herself. We’re too far gone for self-salvation.

What Isaiah points us to is something beyond ourselves. Isaiah gives us a picture of something only God can do. We gather today not to learn how to be better people, but to look to Jesus who knows that we’re not good people, and who has done everything needed to meet us in our need.

Third: look beyond this world to what God promises to do.

In verses 2 to 4, Isaiah gives us a promise of what God promises to do. The picture that he paints is remarkable.

God promises to raise Mount Zion in Jerusalem, site of the Temple in Israel, as the highest mountain in the world. And then he promises that all the nations will flow to it. They will come supernaturally — God will draw them — but they will come voluntarily, seeking the LORD. No more nationalism. No more division. Everyone will be hungry for what the God of Israel alone can provide. They will universally recognize that he is the only true God, and they will all be drawn to him.

Not only that, but they will desire to obey God. The problem in this world right now is that we don’t desire to obey God. None of us. It’s not just the problem with the “bad people” — whoever they may be. It’s a problem with us too. When Kay Warren, a pastor’s wife, visited Rwanda years ago, she expected to find evil people who participated in the genocide.

Slowly, with a deepening sense of dread, I understood the truth: There were no monsters in Rwanda, just people like you and me. …

Before that trip, I can’t tell you the number of times I reacted to evil I read about or witnessed by saying, “I would never do that!” But thousands of years of bloody human history prove differently. Fifty-four years of my own history prove differently. We are all proficient in our ability to conceive, plan, and execute evil … You and I, put in the right situation, will do absolutely anything. Given the right circumstances, I am capable of any sin.

That’s our reality now. On that day, Isaiah says, the opposite will be true. We will all worship God. We’ll all desire to obey God and his commands.

There’s one more thing that Isaiah mentions. On that day, there will be peace. The weapons of war will be refurbished as agricultural implements, and there will be everlasting peace.

You may be wondering when this promise is going to be fulfilled. When will the nations flock to God and be changed so that they really want to obey him? When will peace break out throughout the earth? The answer is that it was partially fulfilled in the first coming of Jesus. The good news I tell you today is that in Jesus God has come to earth. He called himself the new house of the LORD, the new temple, and all across the world people are streaming to him today. He is teaching us God’s ways and changing our hearts so that we desire to do what God commands. This promise is partially met in the first coming of Jesus.

But it will be completely fulfilled at the second. It’s already but not yet. God’s kingdom is coming in stages. We can experience its power now. All the nations are flocking to Jesus now. But we’re still waiting for the second coming when this promise will be completely fulfilled.

Revelation 21 says:

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Revelation 21:24-26)

I can’t wait for that day!

Our hope can ultimately be satisfied only in the rule and reign of God through Jesus.

In the Meantime

In the meantime, what are we supposed to do? Go back 2700 years. The Assyrians are still threatening. War is still on the horizon. Or think about our challenges today. Life is still hard, and even the best things in life can’t really satisfy. How do we live in the in-between?

Isaiah 2:5 tells us:

O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the LORD.

In other words: live now in the power of that future.

Randy Alcorn writes:

When you think of heaven, think of delighted, infectious laughter with those you love. Get ready to hear the laughter of God, who made us in his image, with the capacity to laugh…

Meanwhile we should live our lives on earth in light of eternity, as our spiritual forefathers did, anticipating the great city that awaits us. (In Light of Eternity)

In 1997, Jeff Bezos wrote a letter outlining the nine ways Amazon would demonstrate their long-term approach, including this statement: “We will continue to make investment decisions in light of long-term market leadership considerations rather than short-term profitability considerations or short-term Wall Street reactions.’”

Isaiah could say, “Good for Amazon and Jeff Bezos, but why not think even further ahead—like into eternity?” We live in the middle of the mess now, but Isaiah says, “Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD.” Walk in the middle of difficulty in light of the hope that we have in the rule and reign of Jesus.

I don’t know what you’re going through now. I do know that nothing on this earth will satisfy our souls. I also know that we simply can’t deny that life is hard. How then shall we live? Enjoy life, but don’t expect it to satisfy you. Live and long for that day. Walk in the middle of difficulty in light of the hope that we have in the rule and reign of Jesus.