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It’s the beginning of a New Year. Whenever a year passes, it’s always a good time to take stock of what happened in the previous year and what might come in the next. It’s a time of sadness as you think of the things that went wrong and the people you’ve lost. At the same time the new year brings new plans of things that could go better and a new hope that they will. Whether talking about this past year or the next, we see God’s merciful hand over it all. And my hope today is that you will see how God’s mercy and kindness applies to your life in the past, present, and future.
Our text begins with words from the prophet Isaiah. At the time, the nation of Israel was doing ok. The Assyrian army had recently been turned back by God’s own power. The powerhouse of the world at that time, bent on the destruction of Israel, had been put down. An angel wiped out 185,000 Assyrians in a single night and turned an inescapable defeat into a miraculous victory for the Israelites. Shouldn’t there then be rejoicing and festivals to the Lord? Shouldn’t Israel be doing better than simply ok? Isaiah’s words here actually begin a lament because he knows the people’s hearts are turning hard. He knows they are falling away from God and tough times lie ahead for them. But as he begins his lament, Isaiah throws himself on the one constant in his life. He focuses on the kindness of the LORD.
He begins, “I will tell of the kindnesses of the LORD, the deeds for which he is to be praised, according to all the LORD has done for us—yes, the many good things he has done for Israel, according to his compassion and kindnesses.” Later, in verse 9 he adds, “In his love and mercy he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.”
I know we’ve brought this up before, but it’s always good to review. Sometimes God’s name will appear in different ways in the Bible. These changes will often emphasize a certain characteristic of God. In the original Hebrew and Greek that the Bible was written in, these differences are a little more obvious than in English. But your English translators try to make some changes that still show you those differences. For example, here we have “LORD” in all capital letters. Any time you see it in all capital letters like that, it’s emphasizing that this is the LORD of free and faithful love. It’s the LORD of the covenant, who always keeps his side of the agreement, always keeps his promises.
That’s very impressive. Because if you’ve ever read the Old Testament of the Bible, you will see God’s people are not the same way. They are sometimes faithful, often not. God tells them not to do something and they go do it almost immediately. They are supposed to make God their priority and yet they continue to make idols for themselves that they worship instead of God. They do stupid thing after stupid thing after stupid thing. But through it all God’s love shines through. “He may become angry, but he is love.”[i] 1 John 4:8, 16 demonstrate this. They say: “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” and, “And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.”
And we see this in how God deals with his people. Because as his people abandon him again and again, he continually brings them back to him, continually opens his arms ready to receive them. Isaiah sees this as he looks back in history. He sees how God brought them out of slavery from Egypt. He sees how God led them safely into the promised land. He sees how God built them into a powerful kingdom, how he protected them and loved them day after day, doing good deeds for them worthy of praise. Isaiah sees God was the LORD of free and faithful love showing his kindness in all the days of old.
Whenever I talk about God’s kindness and mercy, I often think of this one off-the-wall story that reminds me very much of God’s grace. I used to work at an after-school program while I was at Seminary. Basically, a friend and I would go to a well-funded private school after our own seminary classes and we would hang out with the kids, help them with their homework, and try our best to teach them life lessons. One particular day, the intruder alarm went off. “Intruder in the school! This is not a drill.” So we locked the doors, we placed kids where they wouldn’t be visible from windows looking into the classroom. In the past, we had practiced for such an event and had been informed that regular updates would come over the loudspeaker. If this didn’t happen, then security guards we knew would stop by at regular intervals. But neither of these things happened. Now remember, at this point in time my buddy and I were two in shape guys fresh out of college. So we puffed up at the challenge, getting ready to knock out anyone that entered through the doors. And after an hour and a half, we were ready to try and get information and check if other kids in other classrooms were ok. We came up with one of the stupidest ideas ever. We decided my buddy would continue to guard the doors, while I would grab the most fearsome weapon in the classroom and go check things out. The weapon, which was the only thing solid in the classroom I could find, was a video game controller. So I went around the curving hallways, armed and ready to chuck a controller into the face of any intruders I met. As I went, I saw a walkie talkie lying on the ground. Heart racing, I listened closely as the security guards told one another where they were in the building and what they were checking out. In the distance, I heard another walkie talkie. This time as I crept along, I saw it lying on a cart. Where were the people these things belonged to? As I listened, I found out what I needed to know. From the voices of multiple security guards I recognized, it was a false alarm. It seemed a switch short-circuited the alarm and they were able to confirm no intruder was in the building.
So why do I tell that story? Because it reminds me of what easily could have happened. Can you imagine what would have happened if a shooter had entered the school that day and came up against me, holding a Gamecube controller in my hand? It was a dumb idea by me at best. And yet God was merciful that day. No shooter, no intruder, everyone was ok.
Think of all the stupid things we do in our lives. We complain about not winning the lottery or get upset over trivial things. Those certainly don’t warrant blessings. Think of all the very sinful things we do in our lives. And there are a lot. The thoughts about the person you can’t stand. The things you do behind closed doors when you think no one’s looking. The lies that so easily roll off your tongue so you stay out of trouble. The selfishness you display on a daily basis in your relationships. The lack of commitment you show to the God who so very much deserves better from you.
And yet despite those things, God has continued blessing us. Just look at some of the blessings that have happened at Salem over the past couple years. We’ve endured covid and the opinions surrounding it. We’ve started and improved live-streaming services. We’ve gained new families and new volunteers. We’ve created a sustainable tuition model for our school. The school has grown. You have grown in both faith and support of one another. Outreach is happening as new ideas share the same doctrine and grace. Youth gatherings have grown. Bible classes have grown. Oak Park Ridge studies have grown. Our church has achievable goals and the stepping-stones to meet those goals. And most importantly, God kept Salem faithful to the true Word. People continue to hear and learn about Jesus. And that’s just a small portion of our blessings! God has certainly blessed us even in the midst of our sin. Now, I’m not saying people are always blessed with success or in all of these ways, but I am saying that we can clearly see God has blessed us!
And I know sometimes people are hesitant to boast about those things, but there is nothing wrong in taking pride in all the wonderful things God has done for us. This is exciting news worth sharing! Because we want others to reap the benefits and know from whom all these blessings flow. The entire time the LORD has put us on his back and carried us safely like a Father carrying his dear children.
But this isn’t the biggest blessing God gives us. There is one that stands out amongst them all. Isaiah points this out through God’s Word as recorded in verses 8 and 9. “He said, ‘Surely they are my people, children who will be true to me’; and so he became their Savior. In all their distress he too was distressed, and the angel of his presence saved them. In his love and mercy he redeemed them;”
God would tell many of his prophets small portions of the future. Here, God was sharing with Isaiah that one day a Messiah would come. One day, God would send someone to be their Savior and to redeem people from their sin. Not because his people deserved anything, but because he felt our pain as his own. He loves so deeply that he not only bears the burden of sin for Israel, but also the sin of the whole world (1 John 2:2).
All his people are saved, everyone who believes and trusts him, everyone who doesn’t toss his gift away. Like an unfaithful spouse who has no right to be taken back by the significant other, we come before God and he takes us back again and again. Sin is forgiven and forgotten. Our sin is replaced by his love. Even if so many other blessings we mentioned earlier fell away, we would still be blessed. Because Jesus’ perfection is beyond the reaches of the world of sin, death, violence, toil, and trouble. None of it can change what he did for us. Even if the days ahead might be a little rough in some ways. Even if there is some uncertainty, the future God paints for us is amazing. And God has revealed your future to you just like the prophets. At least part of it. The part that is important for you to know. Because of what Jesus did we get to be in heaven with him.
It’s a New Year, and I don’t know what is all going to happen. But I do know we still have the same comfort we have always had. We have a Savior who forgives and erases our sins, who blesses us each and every day and will continue to do so. The LORD has remained faithful to us even on days we have not. And he gives his ultimate blessing in the Savior, who died and rose again that we might live with him in heaven. Both in the past, and in the new year to come his mercy and kindness will always be ready for you. Amen.