2020 has been a troubling, turbulent year – one to which we could apply Her Majesty, the Queen’s apt and pithy comment in 1992: annus horribilis.
While commentators and historians will analyze the events of the year for some time, in many ways it has been God’s wake up call to the reality that, despite what we might like to think, there are significant events in life beyond our control.
Indeed, unexpected events suggest that there’s another dimension to life which we should not ignore – especially as we move into the new year.
In the minds of many, the rise of secular progressivism and its antipathy towards religion has blunted the reality of God’s existence and revelation. How important it is that we keep calm and stay the course of faith – faith that is not a blind leap in the dark, but a faith in the One whose quiet and humble coming into the world opened the door to the glory and joy of life eternal.
Isaiah 60 is one of the great chapters of the Old Testament. It looks to the glory of a future day for God’s people. It begins: Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising… I am the Lord; in its time I will hasten it (Isaiah 60:1-3, 22b).
In the minds of many, cities are synonymous with evil, corruption and the unbridled pursuit of the pleasures of the flesh, so that we can easily overlook the significance of the city in the Bible. The Scriptures consistently speak of the City of Zion or Jerusalem as a picture of God’s dwelling with his people.
Isaiah’s first readers had lost their city, the temple (the symbol of God’s presence) and their king. We can only begin to imagine how they would have received Isaiah’s words in chapter 60. For he was now telling them that darkness would give way to light and gloom would give way to glory, for God would establish his City – the City of Zion.
You may find it helpful to read Isaiah 59:15b – 60:22 that speaks of the coming of God’s kingdom in great glory. But it is a section that exemplifies the tension between the is and the yet to be of God’s kingdom. As we read this, a helpful question to ask is what lessons can we draw for today from this great section of Isaiah?
Isaiah 60 prepares us for the coming of God’s king in all his glory. It speaks of our ultimate destiny as members of a city, the new Jerusalem where, as Revelation 21:1-4 tells us, there will be no more pain or suffering, crying or death. Above all we will know the deep joy of God’s presence with us. Springing from this we will enjoy life to the full with one another as his people. But this new city lies on the other side of a cosmic divide. Isaiah’s words will only be fulfilled through the personal intervention of God himself. Only then will we be delivered from the tragic consequences of our present world.
How then should we now live – as pessimists or optimists about life? The answer lies in our need to be biblically rich in our understanding of God and his purposes. An unqualified optimism that says we should expect all the benefits of God’s kingdom now, is unhelpful. But so too is an unqualified pessimism. For to be pessimistic about life now implies that we should withdraw from society and not get involved with present issues and concerns. Pessimists tend to think of outreach as holding an evangelistic event and then drawing back into the security of the church community. They have little motivation to engage with people in their wider community in the gospel cause. Sadly, it is one of the reasons only 10% of churches in the US are experiencing what is called ‘gospel’ as opposed to ‘transfer’ growth.
Instead, we need to believe that what we do in this world has significance and can change people and things for the better; that what we do in the service of Christ in this world lasts. Paul the Apostle in 1 Corinthians 15:58 writes, Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immoveable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
As we start a new calendar year it’s worth pausing and considering the amazing picture Isaiah paints in chapter 60. He speaks of the return of the exiles to Jerusalem – which occurred in 520BC – and the rebuilding of the city. This was nothing short of a miracle. God had said it would happen. And it did.
Furthermore, Isaiah wants us to see this event as a picture of God’s far greater promise and far greater success. The success of God’s future city points us to the success of God’s rule. Come what may, no human authority, no evil power is greater than God. God and his purposes can be trusted.
Let’s pray for the grace and the wisdom, the commitment and the strength to live every day in this new year in the light of God’s tomorrow.