|Preacher||Rev. Vernon Higham, Cardiff|
|Sermon Title||The Mercy of God|
|Text||Isaiah ch.59 v.1 |
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"Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear" (Isaiah 59, 1).
Those words are a comfort to those who are seeking God, whose souls have been awakened and who are on the way of grace - proving the irresistible grace of God drawing them to Himself. The words of the text are also a comfort to those who believe. "Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear" (text). That is true today and we can be encouraged by the very truth of it.
We are presented with the greatness of God in creation - that in itself is a wonderful thing. I have always got to be careful that I don't spend too much time in admiring the wonder of His Person. When we think of God in the unity of the Trinity, in the unity of Himself, He is self-sufficient: He doesn't need us. He is above time and space and these two things alone are very frightening. When I think of time, I can only think of a beginning and an end, and yet we have to think of a work that never starts and never ends. We use the word and yet do not really know its meaning: that is 'eternity'. 'Everlasting' is the nearest we can get to it and it helps us to understand what it means in our ordinary human little way; apply it to a God to Whom there is no beginning nor end. This God is a Spirit and He has a character in all His perfections and attributes; in all His qualifications, He is perfect. We divide Him, don't we? There are many ways we can describe the character of God. The one that I like and perhaps find easier are those characteristics are incommunicable: they belong to God alone; we can never have them; they make Him as God and perfect in all those. Those that are communicable, those like holiness, love and mercy, we can understand and relate to and even in grace we only touch the perimeter because they are only perfect in God Himself.
We think then of this great divine Being, more commonly referred to in Welsh as the Divine Being, the Great Being. In Him dwell the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The perfection of the Godhead is in the Father and in the Son and in the Spirit - not one third each - He is perfectly in all Three. That is a wonderful thing. This great God has everything in His hands and His knowledge is incredible: a knowledge of the vastness that is beyond our description. We can give numbers to galaxies but are we able to number them? We give numbers to stars but are we able to number the stars? Can we understand a space that never ends, whichever direction you go to? You can travel for eternity one way and you do not come to its end. It baffles our imagination and thoughts and yet, God is greater than that. In some remarkable way, there is no part of His creation that He is not aware of. He is God, He is separate from His creation and yet He is aware of every corner of His creation. It is a most wonderful thing. We hear in the Scriptures that He knows the hairs of our head, their number, and He knows the fall of a sparrow. What He is really saying is He knows of my anxieties, worries, joys and fears. God knows everything about everyone that He has created. We are in His control and therefore can say, "How great Thou art" - and He is.
As we come to worship Him tonight, we can worship Him in the greatness, vastness and immensity of His Person. We can worship also in the tenderness and kindness of what He is and the wonder of His Being. When we worship Him, we have this balance of God and the greatness of what He is and the warmth of Him as Father. I think you like us, in my country (Wales), are inclined to lean, and rightly maybe, on the greatness of God and so we can never bring ourselves to be familiar with Him as is so common today. We can call Him Father but we do so with great care and reluctance, always aware when we call Him Father that He is God. Yet, we must have that balance of the greatness of God - that He is our Father - and the warmth of His Person.
I would like you to hear these words written by Oliver Wendell Holmes 1809-94.
Lord of all being, throned afar,Thy glory flames from sun and star;Centre and soul of every sphere,Yet to each loving heart how near!
Our midnight is thy smile withdrawn,Our noontide is thy gracious dawn,Our rainbow arch thy mercy's sign;All, save the clouds of sin, are thine.
Lord of all life, below, above,Whose light is truth, whose warmth is love,Before thy ever-blazing throneWe ask no lustre of our own.
You may say to God, "I understand why You had mercy upon me because, although I was a sinner, I was an acceptable sinner - a nice sinner." No, sin is sin! Whatever we are like, whatever differences there may be between us, it is unnoticeable in the perfection of His holiness - "We ask no lustre of our own." There is no pride or any room for pride at all. We only have to think of ourselves and the pit we have come from for there to be no pride. In the epistle of James, it tells us that - "God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble" (James 4, 6). We are told - "Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear" (text). He uses something here to help us: "God is a Spirit" (John 4, 24). Why do we use terms in Scripture like 'the eyes of God' - "Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil" (Habakkuk 1, 13), or 'the hand of God' or 'the ear of God'? It is because we can only understand in that way but we have to see beyond the human description or we do not get the idea.
Scripture says, "Behold, the Lord's hand is not shortened, that it cannot save" (Isaiah 59, 1); what it is really saying is the ability of God is not limited in any way but can reach the furthest corner. We can use it in that happy and familiar way: a hand not able to reach because we say 'give me a helping hand' or 'a person's hand is against us'. We mean that their favour is against us or their favour is for us. Scripture says that God is not hard of hearing - "Neither His ear heavy, that it cannot hear" (Isaiah 59, 1). We can call Him Ancient of Days, yet He is neither old nor young; He is eternal, everlasting and aware of every flutter of a thought in our little minds. That is our God and He deals with our immortal souls.
Before I begin another message, I would like to say something that you may find helpful, especially if you are not the Lord's here tonight, about what a soul is. It is difficult to describe the soul. You would be able to describe each other, or me, or roughly my age and so on but how can you describe a soul - and yet you can. I am taking Scripture from all over and taking conclusions. I use my hands - a human thing to help with a spiritual explanation. There is the centre (illustrating with the hand) and in the Bible, it is sometimes called the heart - not the emotions - but the heart of the matter, the very essence, centre and being of the soul. If you wish you can call it the spirit, the 'captain's bridge' of your soul. It has expressions; it expresses itself in our minds, memories, affections, conscience and will. We usually use three: mind, affections and will. In people who are not converted, "every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually" (Genesis 6, 5) - dead in sin. This kind of evil, unclean heart or spirit of the soul affects the mind and the mind can fantasize on unclean things: the memory recalls the unworthy, the affections embrace that which they should not, conscience becomes a sliding scale of convenience and the will decides many foolish things; that is the condition of man. God's hand is not shortened that He cannot reach such as those. God's ear is not in any way deaf that He is not able to hear the pathetic cry of such a soul. That then is the picture that we have here to look at.
First of all - the span of His love and His burden for sinners. The hand that created us can recreate us as well. How far from God can we be? I am going to use a verse in the New Testament and dwell a little while on it. "Wherein in time past ye walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air (Satan), the spirit that now worketh in the children of disobedience" (Ephesians 2, 2). Therefore, you get greed, avarice, malice, wars, fighting and hatred between people and nations, not just in our words but also in the totality of our being. "Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh (not only physical desires but an inordinate ambition for popularity or possessions: the tyranny of things that we want as physical beings) fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind (we can live in a world of evil within our minds) and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others" (Ephesians 2,3). What a description of you who were dead: totally incapable of any spiritual move or response, with no inner life. We may have a knowledge of God, a knowledge of right and wrong - God has planted that in us, but no inner life, no spark of spiritual life, spiritually dead. We are aliens to God in that way.
There is a great distance between us - we are so very far from God. What do you think would be the furthest? To me the furthest would be a person who attends a church where the means of grace are available and yet he remains as dead and as unresponsive as can be because his privileges have been great and his spurning has been serious. We know that there are degrees of suffering in hell; no one is happy there. The worst will be for those who had much opportunity and rejected it. What is hell like? What is heaven like? No pain (in heaven) - there is pain there (in hell). No sorrow - there is sorrow there. No hunger - there is hunger that is never satisfied and thirst that is never quenched there. No death in heaven - a continuous death that never ends. That's what it is: a place of no hope, without Christ, alien to the commonwealth of Israel, strangers to the promise. If we are without Christ, we are without God. If a person says to you, "You have no possible hope," it brings total despair if we understand it correctly.
What happens here? What can happen when God hears the cry of the people? He heard their sorrows when they were in Egypt and He hears the cry of a soul now. Whose is the soul that He hears crying out? Why is it that you can talk to a person who knows the Bible and doctrines and yet when you talk to him about salvation there seems to be a wall of unbelief, a veil that you cannot penetrate? Why is that? You try to make it plainer. If you believe in Arminian theology, and I do not, neither do I in any way condone them, you can sympathise with their efforts and concede that if they think that they can get through that veil, they will use every possible aid that they can have. It is logical that they should have all sorts of antics and performances in order to try and get people's attention. It really is another word for unbelief.
When you hear Reformed people saying, "We must present the Gospel in the way that the twenty-first century man will understand," it is unbelief. God is God and He always reaches people in the same way. What is that way? It is a secret visit to the heart of the soul. God bypasses the mind, which seems an appalling thing to say but I will explain myself. He bypasses the affections and the will. Superficial or even Reformed evangelism is satisfied by giving you something for the mind only - bouncing on the surface - and you are still going to hell. Or, just playing on your affections and you have a little weep and still you go on your way to hell. Alternatively, they can play on your mind saying, "Come, come, come and sign on the dotted line," which just bounces on the surface of your soul and you are still going to hell. What does God do? God, first of all, must have a change of your heart before the mind and the affections and the will can think and respond spiritually. That is, "And you hath he quickened, you who were dead in trespasses and sins" (Ephesians 2, 1). Regeneration is not conversion. It leads to conversion but there cannot be true conversion, although many claim so, unless there has been a secret visit of God and He replaces 'life' for 'death' and a principle of holiness for evil, and in embryo He plants the ability to repent and the gift of faith - all that is there, dormant for the time being. You don't feel anything until you come under the preaching of the Word of God. You may feel indifferent and ordinary when you go home and maybe even angry, then suddenly you feel something is happening to you - your heart is changing; His hand wasn't shortened that it could not reach you.
Have you a son, a daughter, a brother or a sister that seem unreachable? All they are is dead! God is quite used to making dead people live, that's the wonderful thing. You might say they show no interest; they break your heart. I will give you one example from our church many years ago. A lady in our church only came once on the Sabbath day and never on a weekday. She dare not because her husband was very, very antagonistic to the truth. However, I knew she was a Christian; she longed to be in all the meetings. She died triumphantly and gloriously after a dreadful illness. A year or two later I had a 'phone call from a hospital at the other end of the city. Her husband who had been very cruel to her, called me, and I went to see him. He said, "I am dying. I have been a terrible man - I beat my wife, I tried to beat her faith out of her. I forbad her to pray for me but she prayed for me anyway. She was a wonderful woman." "Yes," I said, "she was, and you were a disgrace." Then he said, "He called me today." "Who called you?" "Her Saviour." In my heart, I felt he didn't deserve to be called but what is mercy? Mercy is God's favour shown to an undeserving people. Did Saul of Tarsus deserve mercy? Not on your life. He was a cruel murderer and persecutor and yet God had His eye on him and His hand was not shortened that He could not reach him. We should never give up. I know it is the elect that come but we should never give up in our preaching and pleading and praying for our friends, acquaintances or whoever, for this is our God Who can do what seems to us the absolutely impossible. That is our God!
The sin of His people here - you can regard as national or individual - it is allowable. In verse two - "But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear" (Isaiah 59, 2) - a wall, a distance, a terrible thing. Remember the verse that I read, "That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world" (Ephesians 2, 12); without Christ: no promise, no advantage, no hope, no God. That is where you were, He said, and the cloud of sin was like a terrible cloud of smog between us that separated us. In verse three He goes into detail when He says, "For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue hath muttered perverseness" (Isaiah 59, 3). Look at that description of the sinner.
These hands can be kind or cruel; hands that are generally today, so grasping. It seems that the ethos and motive of the age for the last twenty years or so is to grab, grab, grab, get, get, get. Like James says, "To day or to morrow we will go into such a city, and continue there a year, and buy and sell" - to do what - "to get gain" (James 4, 13). The desire to have more can get into our system and that is why I refer to the tyranny of things. Our hands can be occupied with, "This is for me. This is mine." Like children say, "That's mine! You are not having it." It is not long before they learn how to say that and to express what they want. These hands can be so kind and give until it hurts to give; they will be sacrificial in that they will give until the point when they can hardly afford to give any more at all. These hands can be so very different; yet, they are servants, aren't they? They are facilities for the faculties of the soul and of the heart. Your fingers - how they have meddled here and there, and what damage they can do and have done. Your lips and your tongue - James dwelt at length on the damage that a word can do. I will never forget the first church where I was minister, full of high hopes and thinking. It was a nominal, semi-liberal church. I had thought that at the first sermon they would get it straight, that they knew their doctrine and had been indoctrinated as children in all the confession of faith, as good Welsh Presbyterians they knew their Bible. I thought all they need now is for me to go there and it would click. No, no. It didn't happen like that you know. It didn't.
I can remember an elder would have an area and take you round each member introducing you to the family and home. In a glimmer of light there, I met a lady who wanted to talk about the Lord. I was very relieved and thought it was wonderful. We spent some time there. Then the elder took me to another lady. Now she was an elderly, Amazon strong kind of woman. She ruled the church. I don't think the elders would pass anything without her permission and if they did, they had to rescind it. She really was as powerful as that. She made it quite clear that we would be welcome if we remembered our place: that is, she was at the head of things. I didn't know this at the time and so making small talk I said to her, "I have just been to see Mrs. X. She is a lovely person." "Yes," she said, "she is a lovely person. She is generous to a fault. She will do anybody a good turn. She is faithful to the chapel - but I know her." It was terrible, and you know, I held that dear woman in suspicion and she was harmless, she really was. What harm a word can do in the assassination of a character. You can raise a heart and be a comfort with a kind word, or a cutting word that destroys a person, or a brutal word that is not necessary and destroys their character in the eyes of other people. Words and what words can do!
He goes on to say, "None calleth for justice" - people don't want the truth - "nor any pleadeth for truth: they trust in vanity, and speak lies; they conceive mischief, and bring forth iniquity" (verse 4). This is what we are like, he says. He is speaking here, as Ephesians does, as to a soul without grace.
Have you ever noticed that just before you join the motorway there is a petrol station? I don't know how many times I have seen a sign saying this: Take note - the last petrol station before the motorway. The last petrol station before the motorway is useful because you know it may be many miles before you have opportunity to buy more. If you don't heed the warning, you are in trouble. What is the Gospel of Jesus Christ? It is the last and only means of grace before you enter on the motorway of eternity and face God and if you have not called there, you are in trouble! That is the picture. I ask you a question and I ask myself as well: have we lost the urgency of this call? You who are converted, what I am concerned with here tonight is for you. This may be your last call, the last petrol station before the motorway: your last opportunity. It can be like that. Or, you who are converted, if you know the Lord here, is it so urgent to you that we care?
There was a book written by one of the Christian organisations some years ago. I remember reading the book because the title made an impression upon my mind. The title was Our Guilty Silence. As far as we are concerned, we have a responsibility. We know the sovereignty of God and we trust in that. I thank God for that, but are we guilty of being silent. We may say that our lives count, and they do, but there are words as well, and if we have good news, it is our duty to share it. If our children do well, we can't wait to share it; we are delighted and want to tell others. If we have read a book that is very interesting, we want to share the fascinating history which we have enjoyed. How is it then that we can be so silent when men and women are hurtling to hell. A church has to have a burden. Is that biblical? Yes. We are told to go out and preach the Gospel...To a selective few?...Do we decide who the elect are? Indeed no, we must preach to every creature. We have a responsibility and are our hands then guilty or are they innocent of the souls of men and women?
Lastly - the hands of Christ. When I think of Him, I like the Old Testament picture of the rose of Sharon and the lily of the valleys (Song of Solomon 2, 1) and the chiefest among ten thousand to my soul (Song of Solomon 5, 10). Jesus Christ is the second Person of the Trinity, co-eternal with the Father and yet for our sake He made Himself subordinate to the Father for the purpose of redemption, and the Spirit subordinated Himself for that same purpose. Remember they are still co-equal but for the purpose of redemption, the Spirit comes with that secret visit. If we come, we are drawn to the Son; He justifies us and brings us to the Father. So there is the sequence to bring us to God.
How is this done? Well we understand the first part. We see people who cannot hear - A and B. 'A' says, "I think you are quite nice but I don't hear anything." 'B', however, is being perhaps disturbed a little, maybe a little irritated but he is hearing. What is happening there is that that hand is touching him and when God's hand touches him his soul begins to cry ever such a feeble cry, but God's ear hears him. He now is drawn by the irresistible grace of God. Where does He bring him to? He brings him to our Saviour, Jesus Christ. What has He done for us? The whole matter has to do with the law - the Decalogue. We are particularly concerned about the Moral Law. Can it save you? If I fulfilled that law, would it save me? You can't answer that question because we are not able to fulfil that law. Why? Because the power and principle of sin is with us and the ability to do evil and even if we try to keep the Moral Law and love God and love our neighbour as best we can, we will always fall short of what? The glory of God!
Make a comparison. Think for a moment of the perfection that the law demands, of the radiance of His glory; it is beyond imagination. This is what Jesus has done - planned in eternity. He meets the law in our place. There are two parts in the one Gospel: His passive obedience and His active obedience. It is possible to preach half a Gospel. We, however, go to His passive obedience because it means so much to us. We look at Jesus Christ and what is He? He is without sin; He knew no sin. There are things that God cannot do: He cannot lie, He cannot sin, He cannot deny Himself, in Whom there is no variance nor shadow of turning. What are these negatives? They are the positive of the integrity and the purity of God, that He is immutable, unchangeable, the same, and with eyes that cannot look upon sin. Therefore if we are to have any hope something must happen to us as individuals. Firstly, He makes us alive to our situation. "What shall I do? Where can I go?" Then we are drawn to Jesus Christ. The law thunders and it is no use crying to the law, as the law will only condemn you. The only good thing that the law will do for you is to show you your size. In Galatians, we are told that the law is our schoolmaster: this is how tall you are. Little boys will say that they are very big and stretch themselves up but they are still little boys. We are less than an ant, less than the dust, less than anything you can imagine. With the requirements of God, we fall short of the glory of God. God laid on Him the iniquity of us all.
The principle of sin, the power of sin, the detail of sin - past, present, (listen to this risky one) and future. That is not a licence to sin but that is all of it. What is the wages of sin? Death! Eternal damnation! You ask how Jesus Christ pays for that on the cross. Look at the cross with me and see Him there, the all-together lovely One, nailed to the cross and a crown of thorns upon His head. Hear some of the most remarkable words that He said: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27, 46). Have you ever understood that line? You cannot divide the Trinity - it is impossible, they are inseparables. But yet there is a mystery. Is God in hell? Here is your answer. Yes and no. His wrath is in hell but the sweetness and the loveliness of His fellowship and His being are not there, only His wrath. It is a God-forsaken place if His wrath is there. Was God at Calvary when He said, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27, 46). Yes and no. His wrath was there. He poured out all His wrath, that is the reaction of holiness to that which is unholy. Was Jesus Christ sinful? No and He never became sinful but He carried our sin and stood in our place. He is our Federal Head and all the wrath of God fell on Jesus Christ and He bore that weight that would have sunk the very world to hell, He bore that weight for us. He said those words. Are they words of despair? No! If you look at Psalm 22, He is quoting that Psalm and then He goes on, "But thou art holy". The penalty must be paid in full so He suffers there on Calvary - His hell for each one of us.
Allow me to quote a hymn by Isaac Watts 1674-1748.
When I survey the wondrous crossOn which the Prince of Glory died,My richest gain I count but loss,And pour contempt on all my pride.
See! from his head, his hands, his feet,Sorrow and love flow mingled down;Did e'er such love and sorrow meet,Or thorns compose so rich a crown?
Thus, He fulfils the requirements of the law that we have broken. That is His passive obedience. However, we are naked; we come to Jesus as we are. We repent of our sin and exercise the gift of faith. There is also His active obedience. We don't have to prove anything because He is sinless and He took on the form of a servant. He was as us, with one exception - not quite like us - without sin. He put Himself under the law and obeyed it - the negative He gets rid of and the positive He fulfils, and He fulfils that law. It means that Jesus Christ - His life, His words, His actions, His ways, His natural attitude to everything - is counted as if it were mine and as if it were yours. It is a remarkable thing. We call it, 'robed in His righteousness' - 'imputed righteousness'. Think of that. "Here I come O Lord Jesus Christ, weighed down with my sin." My sin is nailed to the cross - all of it! When we think of our sin, we say, "What a relief, Oh God. Will Your life and Your righteousness be attributed to me?" Yes, this sort of righteousness is made to fit a forgiven sinner and has lasting beauty not our own. Have you called into the divine petrol station before the eternal motorway? Have you called at Calvary? Have you been to Him? If you have been to Him, great transactions have taken place; you know where you are going and you know your destination.
There for me the Saviour stands;Shows His wounds, and spreads His hands!God is love! I know, I feel;Jesus weeps, and loves me still.
If I rightly read thy heart,If thou all compassion art,Bow thine ear, in mercy bow,Pardon and accept me now.
Isn't that the wonderful thing - we were dead and now we live? He makes us different and we adore and worship God. In our latest breath we cry, "Behold, behold, the Lamb!"
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