Trust and Obey...God’s Path to Peace Back to all sermons

Date: September 2, 2011

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Category: Friday

Scripture: Isaiah 48:17–26:4

Tags: Isaiah, trust, obey, peace

“For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been.’” These words are taken from a poem by John Greenleaf Whittier. They are true, are they not? Regret is one of the most painful of human emotions. To realize at some point in life that we made the wrong decision; we made the wrong choice; we took the wrong path. And then to ponder what we could have had, what we could have accomplished, what we could have been. We often express those feelings with two simple words: “If only…if only…”

We are standing today on the threshold of a new school year and a new ministry year here at ECC. Some of you are new to Abu Dhabi, and this is the start of a whole new chapter in your life. Others are old Abu Dhabi hands, but even so, September seems to bring a sense of new beginnings and new opportunities. What will this year hold for us? When we look back on it, will we look back with a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction? Or will we look back with a sense of regret, of opportunities missed, of wrong choices made? Will we be saying, sadly, “If only…If only…It might have been…”?

There is an Old Testament word that wonderfully captures what, I believe, every one of us would like to experience in this coming year. It is the Hebrew word, “shalom”.  “Shalom” and its related words are among the most important theological words in the Old Testament.  “Shalom” occurs over 250 times in 213 separate verses. It is most commonly translated “peace” in the English translations. But it means much more than the absence of war or conflict. Completeness, wholeness, harmony, fulfillment, are closer to the meaning. Implicit in “shalom” is the idea of unimpaired relationships with others and fulfillment in one’s undertakings.  It describes an intact state of favorable circumstance; a state of being free from danger; the state of having one’s basic needs or more being met and so being content. Would we not all choose to experience “shalom” in this coming year? Of course. But not all will. What will make the difference?

In this message, I am going to offer two Biblical answers to that question, both from the Book of Isaiah. In the first passage, we find the phrase, “peace like a river.” In the second passage we are going to look at, we find the phrase “perfect peace.” These are wonderful expressions; “shalom like a river” and “perfect shalom”. How can we experience them?

The first passage we are going to look at is found in Isaiah 48:18.

18 If only you had paid attention to my commands, your peace would have been like a river,
your righteousness like the waves of the sea.

This passage describes the path to peace, but it does so in a tone of regret. God, through the prophet Isaiah, is speaking to the nation of Israel. He is surveying their history up to their impending captivity in Babylon. He reflects on what could have been and on what is about to be, and with infinite sadness God speaks these words of regret: If only…if only… Their peace could have been as abundant as a flowing river, but now they were about to be swept away in a maelstrom of war and captivity. What was the missed opportunity?

“If only you had paid attention to my commands.” That was where they had missed the path to peace. What does it mean to “pay attention”? This is not rocket science, so I am not going to spend a long time on this. But I would stress a couple things. It means more than hearing. It means more than reading. It means more than studying. It means more than understanding. This particular Hebrew word for “pay attention” means to listen carefully with the intent to respond and act according to what is heard.

We are an evangelical church. In describing our church on the website, we say that we are “Bible-based.” We take the Bible seriously as the revealed Word of God. So we feel it is very important to hear it, to read it, to study it, to understand it. But when we have done all those things, there is still no evidence that we have paid attention to it until we obey what we have heard, read, studied and understood. The president of my seminary used to warn us repeatedly of the dangers of “wallowing in unlived truth.”

Why is it so important to “pay attention” to God’s commandments? To answer this question, let’s look at the preceding verse (17).

This is what the Lord says— your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go.

It is important to pay attention because of God’s character. Look at the variety of ways he is identified in this single verse. First of all, you will notice in some of your translations that the word “LORD” is in all capitals. This means that this is God’s special name “Yahweh” which is being used here. The eternal, timeless “I AM” who made himself and his name known to Moses. This is Yahweh speaking. This is what Yahweh says.

He then identifies himself as their “Redeemer”. This is a rich and complex title in the Old Testament. Its basic meaning is to rescue a relative or loved one from danger or difficulty. God often refers to himself as Israel’s Redeemer, especially in reference to his delivering them from slavery in Egypt.

He then refers to himself as the Holy One of Israel. This is one of the most common titles for God used in the Book of Isaiah, and it takes us back to the vision of God which Isaiah saw in Isaiah 6, in which the seraphim cried out over and over, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the LORD Almighty.” That vision sets the tone for the entire Book of Isaiah. God, as the “Holy One of Israel.”

Finally he identifies himself as “your God.” Elohim. The one and only true and living God.

This is the One who is speaking. When God speaks, we’d better pay attention.

There is another reason we should pay attention. We should pay attention because God’s commands are commands, not suggestions. “If only you had paid attention to my commands.” What is a command? What does a command require of us? We live in an anti-authority age. We chafe under the word “commands.” We want advice, ideas, suggestions. And then we want to be free to make up our own minds. But we are in trouble when we treat God’s words to us in that same manner. When God calls something a command, that is exactly what he means.

But this is not harsh authoritarianism. This is not God simply establishing who is the boss of the universe. Look at the next part of the verse:  “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you. Why does God give us his commands? Because he knows what is best for us. He knows what will lead to our “peace”. The King James Version translates this “to profit.” It is interesting to note that in all other occurrences of this particular Hebrew word, it is used in a negative way, describing things which do not profit; ill-gotten gains do not profit; worshiping idols does not profit; sin does not profit. There are many dead-end, counterproductive courses of action. They are all around us. Life is full of them. This is the only use of this word that tells us what will profit. God is the one who teaches us what will lead to a good result, what is best for us.

This is counter to the way many in the world and even in the church perceive God’s commands. God is thought of as being some kind of “grumpy Gus” who wants to make sure nobody has any fun and doles out lists of commandments to keep us in line. Yet we are told here that God has given us his commands to teach us how to get the best out of life: how to enjoy true joy, true peace, true contentment. How to avoid the path of guilt, despair, broken relationships, shame and regret.

If only you had paid attention to my commandments, your shalom would have been like a river. That is the first road sign on the path to true peace, true “shalom”.

The second is closely related to it. In this case, the promise is “perfect peace.” Turn with me to Isaiah 26:3-4:

You will keep in perfect peace him whose mind is steadfast, because he trusts in you.
4 Trust in the Lord forever, for the Lord, the Lord, is the Rock eternal.

Here is our word “shalom” again. The translation “perfect peace” is a valiant effort to render a Hebrew idiom into English. What the Hebrew has actually done is simply repeat the word “shalom” for special emphasis. You will keep in peace, peace the one whose mind is steadfast because he trusts in you. Peace, peace. Peace squared. Perfect peace. How would you like to experience that throughout this year? And who will give us this peace? Isaiah is addressing God himself. “You, O Lord, will keep him in perfect peace.” The word “keep” means to preserve, maintain, protect, i.e., cause to be safe from danger, implying a relationship with the protector. God himself will protect us and keep us in a state of perfect peace when our mind is steadfast, trusting in him. The word for trust carries the idea of placing confidence in something or leaning on something. One commentator gives the meaning as “hanging confidently.”

The picture that comes to my mind is that of a rock climber working his way up a sheer cliff. Carefully he establishes and tests each handhold or foothold. But to advance up the face of the cliff, there comes the moment when he must let go of his previous handhold and “hang confidently” on the next one. Are you hanging confidently on the Lord this morning?

The next verse takes this promise and turns it into a command. Verse 4 is a short verse, but it packs a real punch. In the NIV it is 14 words long. In Hebrew, it is only 8 words long. And three of those words are devoted to the object of our trust. “The LORD”. Once again, it’s in all capitals, so it is the special name of God: Yahweh. Then there is the metaphor of Yahweh as a Rock; something permanent, secure and unmovable. That is four of our eight words. What else is there? There are two different words with essentially the same meaning: eternal and forever. In addition to the causative word “for” there is only one word left. It is in the imperative or command form. It is the word “trust”, the same word as verse 3: “hang confidently on”. And that is the whole verse. We could roughly translate this: “Hang confidently forever onto Yahweh, Yahweh, Yahweh! For he is an eternal Rock.” If we do that, he promises to protect us and preserve us in a state of “shalom, shalom.” Perfect peace.

Perfect peace. Peace like a river. I don’t know about you, but that is what I want to experience in this coming year. The path to peace is clearly marked out in these two Scriptures: trust and obey. The path to peace, God’s shalom.

We will all face many challenges and many choices this year. In every one of them I suspect one or the other of these factors will be in play and often both: trust and obey, obey and trust. Will we make the right choices and experience the awesome “shalom” of God? Or will we make the wrong choices and come to the end of the year to hear the voice of God echoing in our ears: “If only…if only…”

“For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been.’”

QUESTIONS FOR THOUGHT AND DISCUSSION

  1. “For all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: ‘It might have been.’” Do you agree with this line of poetry? Why or why not?
  2. What would you like to accomplish and/or experience during this coming year? Where does God and his “shalom” fit into your plans?
  3. “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you,” Is this how you feel about God’s commandments? Is this how people in general think of God’s commandments? Why does the word “commandment” cause many people to bristle or react negatively?
  4. What images does the phrase ldquo;peace like a river” create in your mind?
  5. Pastor Cam used the image of a rock climber to capture the meaning of trust (“hang confidently”). As a group, brainstorm other images or metaphors for trust.
  6. What is the link between “trusting” and “obeying”?