Pastor Kyle Bitter

Text: Isaiah 51:1-6

Watch Service Video

Over the last couple of weeks, Time Magazine has been publishing their annual series of “Top 10” lists about 2018 – both good things and bad things.  Among the lists are the top 10 movies, the top 10 sports moments, the top 10 technology gadgets, the top 10 crises, the top 10 dictionary word lookups, and many more.  It’s an annual way of trying to capture a snapshot of the most significant moments in American culture over the past year.  What if you were to do the same thing with your life in 2018?  What kinds of things would make the top 10 highlights of 2018?  Maybe you graduated from school or got promoted at work.  Maybe a child was born.  Maybe you celebrated a milestone birthday or anniversary.  Maybe you formed a new friendship, moved to a new place, or maybe 2018 wasn’t necessarily a year of major milestones, but a year of new memories in the same place with many of the same people.  No matter what it was, 2018 is One More Year of celebration and thanksgiving to God, and that’s why we have gathered here tonight. 

But, I’m guessing that for most of us, there are some things that happened in 2018 that we’d rather not remember – and maybe some of them were significant enough that they’d have to be on the list of top 10 significant events.   Maybe 2018 feels like a year of loss – a year marked by health problems and doctor visits, or a year marked by death and mourning, and there are a lot of hard memories to revisit.  Or, maybe 2018 feels like a year of regret over opportunities squandered.  Maybe it was a year of laziness at school or work, or a year of busyness causing relationships and friendships to slowly slip away.  Maybe 2018 feels like the year of regrets: words you wish you could take back, emails you wish you could unsend, decisions you wish you could revisit, and the list can go on and on from there.  Yes, 2018 was One More Year of memories, but sadly some of those are memories we wish we’d not have made, and looking forward, who’s to say 2019 will be any better? 

Depressing thoughts.  I wonder if they might be the kinds of thoughts that were on the minds of the Israelites living in captivity in Babylon and reading the words of Isaiah, written some 100 years earlier and recorded in today’s first lesson.  It was a dark period in the history of God’s Old Testament people.  They had turned away from God to embrace the religious practices of the pagan nations around them, and eventually after many warnings, God had withdrawn his protecting hand.  It wasn’t long before the tiny Israelite nation was quickly overrun by the Babylonians, and most of the people were carried off into captivity as slaves.  How much regret did they feel about their past sins and mistakes?  What did the future hold for them?  Had God’s patience with them completely run out?  Were God’s promises about the coming Messiah and eternal life in heaven still happening, or had their sinfulness flushed that away too?  The comforting words of today’s first lesson offer reassurance to anyone who feels guilt and regret over the past and who wonders what the future might hold, and so they serve as a beautiful section of God’s Word to consider today. 

One More Year of God’s Grace (v. 1-3)

Isaiah begins by directing attention to the past – and not the recent past of the year 2018 or for the Israelites, the sinful, tragic events that had led to their exile in Babylon but much farther back than that, into ancient bible history, all the way back to Abraham and Sarah; distant ancestors of God’s people.  Isaiah wrote, “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the LORD: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were hewn; look to Abraham, your father, and to Sarah, who gave you birth.” (Isaiah 51:1-2a – NIV84).  Likely by the time of Isaiah, Abraham and Sarah of more than a thousand years earlier had come to be revered through rose colored glasses as heroes of old, but reading the accounts of their lives years past as recorded in Genesis gives a more objective account where we see Abraham and Sarah to be people much like any others – much like the Israelites, much like you and me today.  Abraham and Sarah too had regrets.  They had had their moments of doubt.  They made sinful decisions they wished they could have back.  They said things they wished they could unsay. 

Despite all that sinfulness, Isaiah points out how God treated them.  “When I called him [Abraham] he was but one, and I blessed him and made him many.” (Isaiah 51:2b – NIV84).  God had promised Abraham that his descendants would number a great nation, and God had delivered – despite Abraham’s sinfulness!  Even more importantly, this wasn’t just the ordinary blessing of a large family – this was the first of a three-fold promise God had made to his people.  Not only would they be a great nation, but they would live in the Promised Land and be the ancestors of the long-awaited Messiah! 

For the Israelites languishing in captivity, the message was clear.  Just as in the days of Abraham and Sarah, their sinful shortcomings had not canceled God’s promise.  Abraham’s descendants had become a great nation, and God still intended for them to live in the Promised Land and await the Messiah.  It was just a matter of time.  Isaiah continued, “The LORD will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the LORD.  Joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of singing.” (Isaiah 51:3 – NIV84).  Jerusalem and the Promised Land were in ruins from warfare, and the people were in captivity, but God was going to change all of that.  The Messiah was still coming, because the sinfulness of people doesn’t change the faithfulness of God. 

That’s still true today.  It’s certainly true that things happened this past year – probably even this past week – that you feel guilt and shame over and wish you could take back or change.  But the good news is this: none of that changes the promises God makes.  He still looks with compassion on the spiritual ruin that our sinfulness has brought on our world and our own lives.  He still sent the Savior, as we celebrated this past week, and he still promises that we are forgiven for our sins, because no matter what happened in 2018, Jesus still came to live and die for us.  That doesn’t change.  We can put aside guilt and shame we feel over the past, because with Jesus, 2018 doesn’t have to be One More Year of regret.  Instead, 2018 stands finished and completed as One More Year of God’s Grace.  And we can expect the same in 2019, but it’s not always that easy to see! 

One More Year toward God’s Salvation (v. 4-6)

Even after they read Isaiah’s words and were reminded of God’s promises, the Israelites looked around and realized that they were still in captivity, separated from the Promised Land.  They were still living as slaves, serving their enemies, faced with the fallout from their own sinfulness.  You and I could say the same thing.  Even though we just celebrated the joy of Christmas, the reality is that we still live in spiritual captivity, struggling with the chains of our sinful natures and the sad realities of a world damaged by the effects of sin.  Things that were hard in 2018 are probably still going to be hard in 2019.  Health challenges may well continue.  Temptations that you struggled with are probably going to come back again.  The earthly consequences of sinful behavior are still going to be around.  But, that doesn’t mean all hope is lost. 

Isaiah’s words show us something completely different.  From God’s perspective, none of the chaos and turmoil in the lives of his people was unexpected.  In fact, that’s why God had inspired his prophet Isaiah to write these words of comfort, and many others like them, more than a century BEFORE the people languished in captivity, needing to hear them!  Behind the chaos of warfare and captivity, God’s eternal plan for the future of his people was well on track, and Isaiah invites God’s people to listen carefully to what God is planning on doing in the future.  “Listen to me, my people; hear me, my nation: The law will go out from me; my justice will become a light to the nations.  My righteousness draws near speedily, my salvation is on the way, and my arm will bring justice to the nations.” (Isaiah 51:4-5a – NIV84).  The day was coming when God’s righteousness would arrive and justice would be served on the devil and all his allies as God’s people would be freed from the chains of sin forever – a plan that was bigger even than the Israelites returning home to the Promised Land!  Isaiah continued: “The islands (a phrase Isaiah commonly uses to refer to people from every corner of the earth) the islands will look to me and wait in hope for my arm.  Lift up your eyes to the heavens, look at the earth beneath; the heavens will vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment and its inhabitants will die like flies.  But my salvation will last forever, my righteousness will never fail.” (Isaiah 51:5b-6 – NIV84).  Time will pass.  Sin will have its effects on the world.  But the promises God makes to his children and the kingdom of heaven that awaits – that never goes away.  Knowing that gives us a different perspective on the passage of time! 

It’s certainly true that life on earth during 2019 is going to have its ups and downs, just as life during 2018 did.  It’s certainly true that people and things are going to get old, break down, and die, and fade away.  But it’s also true that the day of Jesus’ return in glory is coming, and with each passing year that wonderful day is closer, and the reign of our own sinfulness and the evil all around us is drawing to a close.  It’s only a matter of time.  And so we have reason to celebrate the passage of time.  The conclusion of another year isn’t merely One More Year on the calendar.  This isn’t just One More Year of making memories, One More Year along in your lifespan.  Isaiah reminds us that this is One More Year toward meeting our Savior, One More Year toward an eternity in heaven, One More Year toward God’s Salvation.  Let’s enter the new year, 2019, with joy and anticipation – perhaps this will be the year when Jesus returns!  Amen.