“Good News of God’s Plan”

God’s Omniscience disenchants us from the power of False Gods

Christmas is about the Good News of God’s Plan

Our Scripture text this morning is Isaiah 41:21-29.  This is God’s Word.

21 Set forth your case, says the Lord; bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob. 22 Let them bring them, and tell us what is to happen. Tell us the former things, what they are, that we may consider them, that we may know their outcome; or declare to us the things to come. 23 Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods; do good, or do harm, that we may be dismayed and terrified. 24 Behold, you are nothing, and your work is less than nothing; an abomination is he who chooses you.

25 I stirred up one from the north, and he has come, from the rising of the sun, and he shall call upon my name; he shall trample on rulers as on mortar, as the potter treads clay. 26 Who declared it from the beginning, that we might know, and beforehand, that we might say, “He is right”? There was none who declared it, none who proclaimed, none who heard your words. 27 I was the first to say to Zion, “Behold, here they are!” and I give to Jerusalem a herald of good news. 28 But when I look, there is no one; among these there is no counselor who, when I ask, gives an answer. 29 Behold, they are all a delusion; their works are nothing; their metal images are empty wind.

Let’s Pray

Introduction

This group God is talking to are not people, but the false gods that Israel was worshipping. You can see that clear in v23, when God calls them what they allegedly are “gods.” And as we read all throughout the Old Testament, God’s people routinely struggled with idolatry. Worshipping idols, instead of the one true God. In today’s day and age, this seems really backwards. Why in the world would somebody fashion a god, out of wood or stone or whatever it be and worship it, actually thinking that praying to this statue is going to help you. But before we bash this idea outright, the ancient world could just as easily look at our present age and say, how in the world do you think you could get anything accomplished if there is not a spirit animating and causing your endeavors to succeed? Just as their sin of idol worship is so crystal clear to us to be wrong, so also, our dividing of life into somethings being sacred and other things being secular would be clearly wrong to them. For example, in the ancient world, when two armies went to war, they thought that their gods were going to war as well. And whoever’s god won, that army would win on earth as well. You can read a good example of this in 1 Kings 20. And the Bible does not contradict that there is a heavenly reality. For, when we get to Revelation, we read that just as we saints are on earth, there are heavenly realities that correspond to us. There are the seven churches on earth in Revelation 1-3, but each church has an angel in the heavens that somehow represents them or mediates God’s activity to them in some unclear way. In short, I say this in order to humble us. We ought to never read of the struggles of others and think, “Boy, I would never do such a thing,” for if we grew up the way that they did, we very well could have that same struggle. And odds are, that same person could look at our life and think the exact same thing.

So, when we read the Bible with humility like this, we have to ask is there any equivalent correspondence to idol worship that we do today? And the answer is yes. And we see it most clearly when Paul in Ephesians 5 makes a one-to-one correspondence between idolatry and covetousness. Covetousness is seeing something that you don’t have and want, and finding great discontent in your heart because you don’t have it. In other words, you are finding your happiness or your hope in something not of God. And this is exactly the way that theologians have defined idolatry. Idolatry is finding your happiness, your hope, your value, your worth, your purpose, your safety in created things rather than the Creator. So suddenly, with this definition of what idolatry is, it really opens up all of these Old Testament texts that seemed so backwards to us, and we can easily read ourselves right into the narrative. They found their hope in a pagan god that appeared to make life great for the other peoples of the land, when following Yahweh, the God of Israel seemed to leave them in last place. So, they wanted in on the blessing and bought into the anti-God narrative and joined their worship. So too, we could so easily get persuaded with the things of this world that seem to make everybody so happy without any ramification? We can see people following the American Dream and see it work well for them, and placed our hope in it. We may find our hope in retirement, the next vacation, any number of things.

These modern idols can really be anything. They can be hobbies like Sports, in which one’s emotional health is symbiotically attached to the winning streak of a team. They can be really good things like family, in which one’s sense of worth and success is wrapped up in how well their children are doing in school or extra-curricular activities, or how well you preserve your marriage to be doing. It could even be spiritual things like ministry, in which one falls into depression if they don’t feel a sense of effectiveness in the lives of other people. All these things are good, but it is when they are loved too much that they start to govern the way we live. We know we have an idol when we say things like “only if this” or “I could not live without that.” If we are honest with other selves, we are functionally saying, “I have to succeed on being this type of husband, this type of parent, this type of employee. My team has to win. I must have this level of influence on others’ lives. And if I don’t, I cease to be valuable, and unpleasing to God. The cross isn’t enough for me. The blood of Jesus is not enough to make me a good person.”

And to clear up a misconception. God is not wanting us to find all of our joy and hope and peace and self-identity and worth in him, because he is egotistical or vain or constantly needing praise from others. Not in the least. Instead, he wants us to find our joy in him, because he knows that he is the other source of true joy that will never backfire on you, a fountain that will never run dry. We were created to find our rest in him, and we will be restless until we do. God wants himself to be the center of our life, for our sake. We don’t think of God as the first priority among several other priorities, like a ladder of priories, but our only priority and everything else serving our allegiance towards him, like spokes on a wheel. Anything less is idolatry.

So, we’ve established what idolatry is, how it isn’t all that far removed from us, and why God demands our sole alluding. But specifically, what is it in this text that God is saying about these idols. You see idols promise us all sorts of things, which they are never able to truly meet. And the promise God is zeroing in on in this passage is their promise to guarantee our future. He is looking at the sense of security we find in our idols concerning the future. This text is divided into two parts. First, God’s Challenge against the False Gods in v21-24, and then How God answers his own Challenge in v25-29. God is challenging the idols if they really can do what they promise to us that they can: can they really guarantee our future? Listen to the way Isaiah says it.

21 Set forth your case, says the Lord; bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob. God is challenging the idols to bring their strongest reasons that prove they are a good source of stability.

“22 Let them bring them, and tell us what is to happen. Tell us the former things, what they are, that we may consider them, that we may know their outcome;” That is tell us the things in the past that you predicted, so that you can be examined as truly providing for us in the past.

“or declare to us the things to come. 23 Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods;” That is if you can’t find any track record of successful prediction of the future, successful safety provided in the past. Then tell us something about the future. Make a prediction. Tell us the things that hoping in you will accomplish, so that we can see if they truly come to pass.

“do good, or do harm, that we may be dismayed and terrified.” Even if the future is a bleak one, tell us what you are going to do to prove that you are a good source of stability.

” 24 Behold, you are nothing, and your work is less than nothing; an abomination is he who chooses you.” And then God tells us the result of this examination that he does of our idols, that they cannot pass this test. That no created thing can rightly tell us the future for us to have an unshakable hope of the future. And afterwards, God not only condemns the idols themselves, but also those who trust in them, calling them an abomination. The challenge God gives to our idols is this: can they accurately give us assurance of our future?

Now, let’s get really practical and look at some of the modern idols that we have in our society and how they will fail us. Remember these idols are good things that are made into a god thing. So many vices are virtues gone too far. So, it’s not that any of these are bad in and of themselves, but the excessive love of them is bad.

Let’s look at one like control. The idol of Control says this: “You can have assurance that your future will be good if you can control your present. If you have control over your schedule and your time, can command how things are done in your home or work, then you can have as absolute of an assurance as possible that you won’t get hurt again in the future.” The fact of the matter is that we cannot have complete control of our present, and definitely not of the future. Your little success in trying to have control will make you thing that you can in bigger areas. But the bottom line is that life is far too complex for anyone to have this sense of control. As Paul Tripp puts it, “Instead of hope-based rest in God’ sovereignty, we believe success is grounded upon our endeavors alone, which only-induces fear.” The very thing that promised life to us ironically ends up taking away the joy we could have had. Placing our trust in our work-ethic, our religiosity, our connections, our finances, our anything for our future will have the same effect. They promise us a stable future, at the cost of a turbulent present, which never goes away.

Each week I focus on a different prayer for all of our church members here, and this week is from a resolution of Jonathon Edwards:  “Give us true, deep repentance so that when we do any conspicuous evil we may trace it back, till we come to the original cause; and then both carefully endeavor to do so no more, and to fight and pray with all our might against the original of it.” You see, we would never discover we have an idol problem, if we don’t trace back our extreme emotional responses back to what we were hoping in. Someone who is looking to their sense of control over their life to guarantee their future will have extreme reactions when their schedule is disturbed, will have anxiety when things do not go as they expected, or will constantly worry about uncertainties of the future. If all you focus on is the fruit sins, and not the root idolatry, you’ll find yourself playing whack-a-mole, sure addressing a particular unkind response one day, but your need for control will manifest itself in inner anxiety the next. So just focusing on trying harder to be nice with words, doesn’t solve the anxiety that leads one to have outburst of anger, or floods of sorrow.

Something like grumbling or complaining is an obvious violation of Scripture. James 4. But what’s behind it? Perhaps a love of comfort. Finding excessive pleasure in things going smoothly.

All this to say, to see real success in our fight against our own corruption, we must do the work on taking our sins back to the root causes, and make war in that deeper front. Exposing how they can never satisfy the way they promise they can, but ironically rob us of the very thing they promise us.

I got worked up, worrying if the sale of our house in Minnesota would ever happen. And as I was talking to my real-estate agent on the day of the closing, he said “It is so easy to put trust in a bottom life or in an expectation.” And isn’t that so true? Trusting in things of this world to guarantee our future, and not the Lord. So, I sat down this week and tried to assess why did I get so worked up over it? God’s in control, and he’s good. Whatever happens must work out good for me, he promised. So why did I get so worked up? Well, at one level, I don’t like owing anything to anyone; I don’t like being in debt. Well, that’s a good thing to want. But why do I not like being in debt. Well, because I feel vulnerable if I am in someone’s debt. I fear it can be held against me. Why do I fear it? I feel safe when I am independent. In other words, I am serving the idol of self-sufficiency in those moments. And the irony is that I pursue total independence in order to have safety, when being totally independent is the most dangerous place in the world. We, as creatures and not the Creator, need each other. We do. No way around it. And so, to be real with the way God created us, owning our neediness, and going to God and God’s people in our needs is the only way to find true safety. It’s a safety built on trust and love, not fear and self-strength. And that’s the number one difference between God and the idols. The idols motivate you with fear. God motivates you with love. Jesus Christ, the only one who is totally independent took on the greatest debt in the world, our sin, in order that we may live in complete safety! How much more then ought we to be comfortable with our neediness? A pastor friend of mine likes to say, “I feel like a creature today,” by which he means, I am feeling my need to continually depend on God and others, and that’s good. And also, how then could we not but take on the needs of others for the sake of their safety?

So, we are to look to God in hope-filled rest for our future, not to any idol. But now, let’s look at how God responds to us in our idolatry. I love how gracious God is. Let’s read it together.

2. God Challenges Himself (25-29)

25 I stirred up one from the north, and he has come, from the rising of the sun, and he shall call upon my name; he shall trample on rulers as on mortar, as the potter treads clay. 26 Who declared it from the beginning, that we might know, and beforehand, that we might say, “He is right”? There was none who declared it, none who proclaimed, none who heard your words. 27 I was the first to say to Zion, “Behold, here they are!” and I give to Jerusalem a herald of good news. 28 But when I look, there is no one; among these there is no counselor who, when I ask, gives an answer. 29 Behold, they are all a delusion; their works are nothing; their metal images are empty wind.

The Book of Isaiah is famous for his predictions of the future. Most famous of all is Isaiah 53 when he vividly pictured what the death of Jesus would be like and why he would die, which was prophesized 600 years or so before Christ was born. But second most famous is his foretelling of Cyrus by name the King of the Medes and Persians. That he would conqueror the superpower of their day: Babylon, and then command and fund the Jews to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. This would be completely unheard of in the ancient world. And this is why Isaiah makes such a to do about it in this passage. In their worldview, as we mentioned, when one army was conquered, they believed their god was defeated as well. And so, you worshipped the god of whichever nation was the strongest. So, for King Cyrus, to pray in the name of a defeated god, and then to want to rebuild his temple would be completely unthinkable. And that is what God predicted would happen. That in this context is the good news that God gave to Zion in this passage. That God has chosen a servant, Cyrus, and that he will rebuild the temple of Jerusalem, which in Isaiah’s day was not even destroyed yet! So that’s what’s happening in this passage.

But there are two things that I would to draw from out of this. First, is that I find it so gracious the way that God deals with us in our idolatry. You see, God lowers himself to be subjected to the same standards that we have of our idols. He could so have easily said, “I am God. I am your authority. Abandon these idols because I said so.” But he doesn’t. God is a good Father. He knows that in our fallenness we need to be persuaded to do the right thing. And he is so patient to us as he does this. He is like a good father that gets down on the child’s level and reasons with him. “I know you don’t understand why you can’t wear your slippers outside, and that you have to put shoes on. I’ll explain it to you again.” God could have just said that he alone knows the future, case closed. But instead he allows himself to be tested by his people. He gives us evidence that helps us in our unbelief. Sometimes, people say that faith is a leap in the dark; I say, no way. Faith is the most logical choice you could ever make. In the Old Testament, the prophets routinely point the people back to the Exodus in order to prove that God was true. You can’t debate that; it’s history. The story could not have been made up; it would never have been believed. To have seen the Exodus take place and not believe in God would be insanity. And so also, in the New Testament, God has given us a historical fact that cannot be contested: the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The story would not have been believed if it didn’t really happen. The Apostles would not have given their lives for him, if it was just a joke. Later generations could not have accidentally or intentionally exaggerated it, because the facts are just so outlandish that it could not be made up. God meets us in our weakness and gives us reasons that we can test in order to see if it is really true.

The fact that God gives us this prediction is just so gracious of him and reminds us of how tender he is to gently lead us out of our sin, never doing it with a club, but with a shepherd’s crook, leading us back into the sheep fold.

But there is one other facet about God’s prediction that I would to point out. And it is the way in which God knows the future. You see, sometimes, we think of God’s knowledge of the future something as a telescope. He can see it coming from a far way off and calls it before it comes. Like he is just observing things he sees coming. But did you notice the way in which this passage views the future? Back in verse 23, he taunts the gods saying, “Do good or do harm.” It is not saying if there will be good or if there will be harm but instead, say that you will do good or you will do harm. You see the god is the cause of the future, not just the observer of the future.

This is the doctrine of the omniscience of God. God knows all things, past, present, future, not in the sense of being a master encyclopedia, which he is, but in the sense that he is the author of the story. He is an encyclopedia, not like how an avid reader of the Lord of the Rings knows all the details of Middle Earth, but in the way J.R.R. Tolkien knows all about Middle Earth, because he determines the facts.

Now, we need to pause to think about this. We are all quick to agree that God writes the good in our stories, that he alone gets the credit for it, but what about the harm. Are we certain that we want to attribute that to God? I was talking to a family friend over Thanksgiving about this. His name is Jack, he is a great guy. Loves talking about politics, the economy, and religion. He has some great ideas. And he loves discussing his ideas with others precisely when there is disagreement, which is a skill our society so desperately needs to recover. But he asked me how could God have created the world knowing it was going to turn out so bad and do along with it? Why didn’t he intervene? Normally, I need time to think of my answers to say them carefully, but I felt like God gave me words of wisdom in that moment. I told him. Well that is only something someone asks in the middle of a story. Imagine your favorite movie. Perhaps in this time of the year, you may think of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Elf, or It’s a Wonderful Life. If the story ended with the Grinch getting away with stealing Christmas, one could very well ask, why in the world did Dr. Sues write such a depressing story. Or if Elf ended with the dad losing his job. Or It’s a Worldly Life ended with George Baily contemplating suicide. We would all be in an uproar and call these horrible stories. But once you get to the end, only then do all the misfortunes and hardships and trials and tragedies start to make sense. And in fact, we look back in those movies and find ourselves to be grateful for the pain, because it serves to showcase something beautiful.

Do you see why God writes harm into your story? Yes, it feels painful. Yes, it feels like it will never end. Oh, how many tears each one of us has shed for the pain that is in this fallen world. But God is not done with the grand story. The end of your success is not the end of the story. The end of your marriage is not the end of the story. The end of your career, your very life, is not the end of the story. God is a good storyteller, the best ever, and he is writing the pain into it in order to bring something beautiful on the other side.

This is the good news that this passage is saying. For Israel, when they are to live in these days of exile and pain and harm and seemingly endless separation from God’s favor, God says it loud and clear, I am the one who is charge of the future. I alone am your guarantee of your future. I have a plan for your life, and this is not a cheap nor trite advice. This is not a cold slap on the shoulder saying, don’t be bothered so much, God has a plan. This is God looking at our pain and saying I know the hurt, and I allowed it into my plan in order for something beautiful that you just have to wait for. Oh, if Israel knew what beauty they had in store for them under Roman oppression! That the Savior of the world, that God himself would take on flesh and dwell among them! How that would make all the pain worth it! To see our master, to look upon our God! The good news of Christmas is that God indeed has a plan and that he did it. He fulfilled it. The heart of God’s rescue plan that started not just at the garden of Eden, when God said that the head of the snake would be crushed, but even beforehand when we read that Jesus was the lamb slain before the fountain of the world. It was all according to his plan.

And friend, God’s plan for his son, is the same as God’s plan for you. Just as the hour of Christ’s sufferings was called the hour of his glory. So also, the hour of our sufferings is the time that God’s glory shines through us all the brighter. Jesus tested as it were the plan of God in order to comfort our hearts that his plan will work for us as well. And so, we can trust that his plan is safe. We don’t need to check the bank account or the retirement account or our mortgage’s amortization in order to find peace for our financial future. We only need to look at the cross.

Look at your nativity set at home, if you have one, and see that babe as the fulfillment of all of God’s plans. That he came to give peace. Peace amidst this crazy fallen world, plagued with anxieties of all kind and know that your future is safe in his hands. In Christmas, we see a comfort beyond what this world can offer. In Christmas, we see a plan begun that could not be thwarted. This Christmas, let us remember God’s omniscience and celebrate his plan. Let’s expose our idols and see how they will leave us unsatisfied. Let us share the good news with our family and friends that we can find peace for our souls solely in Jesus Christ. Let’s pray.

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