A New Year Message: If the Lord were not on our side
I begin with two texts from the Old Testament which we can see are very similar.
Psalm 124:1 ‘If it had not been the LORD who was on our side’.
Isaiah 1:9 ‘If the LORD of hosts had not left us a few survivors’.
What if the Lord were not on our side? Have you ever given that question any thought? David, who wrote Psalm 124, knew what it would have meant if the Lord had not been on his people’s side. He speaks about a torrential flood which would have carried them all away. Perhaps his mind is turning specifically to the deliverance at the Red Sea, but he could have thought about any number of deliverances that the Lord had brought. What if the Lord were not on our side?
Let’s ask the question today, at the beginning of a new year. Is the Lord on your side, on our side? What makes the Christian safe? What ensures that the church is set apart and preserved? There can only be one answer to these questions, and that is the sovereign goodness and grace of God. Nothing in us as individuals makes any difference. We need to be persuaded of this fact. God does whatever he pleases. As Paul writes in Romans 9:15-16: ‘For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.’ This is the great theme with which we should begin every year
But I want us to focus more specifically on Isaiah 1:9. ‘If the LORD of hosts had not left us a few survivors, we should have been like Sodom, and become like Gomorrah’. Isaiah is addressing the people of Judah, a small and vulnerable people in a time of great danger. If it had not been the Lord who was on our side, if the Lord had not left us a few survivors, a small ‘remnant’ as the Authorised Version puts it, then we would be like Sodom and Gomorrah.
Sodom and Gomorrah represent sin and rebellion against God
What were Sodom and Gomorrah? They were ancient cities in what would one day become the territory of Israel, where Lot, Abraham’s nephew lived, but above all they became bywords for gross sin. We are told in Genesis 13:13 that ‘the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the LORD’. As we look at the climax of the accounts of these cities we can see how this sin showed itself. But we need to do more – we need to see how this sin is so much part of fallen human nature, here and everywhere.
Do we see the appalling sexual depravity of Sodom? Lot had taken two men into his home, two angels in fact, and the men of Sodom, all of them irrespective of age, had surrounded the house, demanding that these angels should be brought out so that they could ‘know them’ – know them in a sexual manner. The appalling word ‘Sodomite’ has come from this account. Notice especially that their sin was shameless; Isaiah 3:9 speaks of those who ‘proclaim their sin like Sodom’. This is the natural course of human behaviour. This is what happens when there are no checks on public or private conduct. People become more daring and outrageous with regard to what they do with their bodies, with their sexual appetites, and how they flaunt it. Modesty, restraint, abstinence – forget it! This is what killed the Roman Empire, and it is what is slowly killing modern Western civilization.
Then do we see the brutality of Sodom? Look at the men of Sodom when Lot does not permit them entry. Genesis 19:9: ‘”Stand back!” And they said, “This fellow came to sojourn, and he has become the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.” Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and drew near to break the door down.’ They decide that they’re going to force their way into the house to seize these angels. Nothing will stop them. They trample upon the laws of hospitality and decency which they should have observed. They have become monsters driven by evil impulse. Is our own society turning in this direction?
But do we see the end of Sodom and of Gomorrah? This seems to be what our text in Isaiah is specifically referring to. These cities are not only a byword for sin but a byword for God’s terrible judgement on sin. When God speaks of the destruction of Babylon, in Jeremiah 50:39-40, he says ‘She shall never again have people, nor be inhabited for all generations. As when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah and their neighbouring cities, declares the LORD, so no man shall dwell there, and no son of man shall sojourn in her.’ And when the Lord Jesus Christ spoke of the judgement that would come on Capernaum for its refusal to repent, he compared that town to Sodom and Gomorrah. It is a picture of burning and destruction, a picture of hell-fire itself, ‘an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire’ (Jude 7).
The world is plunging towards a Sodom-like end. Has Britain reached Sodom-like status yet? Maybe not, but the point is that apart from God’s grace it will.
These words are addressed to the people of God
This was not just the nation of Israel, but the church of God under the old covenant. This passage is not talking about the pagan nations, but God’s chosen people. They were rushing headlong towards being altogether like Sodom. We can see the visible evidences of their ruin in these opening verses of Isaiah. We can see how like Sodom they had become. The people of Judah and Jerusalem were in the most desperate state imaginable. They were like a man whose whole body was infected with a wasting sickness. Their country and their cities had been burned with fire. Shouldn’t this very fact have alerted them to the seriousness of their condition? And they were God’s people!
So here is a warning not primarily to the state, but to churches. It is right that the state should be warned about its godlessness and immoral conduct, but how much more pressing it is that the professing church should be warned! ‘Yes’, we might say. ‘Look at the state of the so-called established denominations. Look at the liberal theology taught in them and the scandals that take place’. But we mustn’t think that our own church is exempted. Once-faithful churches depart from the truth and become synagogues of Satan. Men and even ministers who were once godly in their conduct commit the sin of Sodom. And church members showing apparent signs of spiritual life in early January of one year become confirmed backsliders by late December of the same year. They can be found in the congregations of evangelical churches in the first service of January but by Christmas they’ve fallen away.
And verse 8 is fulfilled in our day. The body of true believers, the survivors, the remnant, becomes like the booth in the vineyard, the lodge in the cucumber field. It is the picture of a small cottage or even a hut, cramped and isolated, surrounded by a wild and hostile land. The church is often a ‘little flock’, and despised by the great majority. Like Israel of old the church is ‘one deeply despised, abhorred by the nation’ (Isa. 49:7) – narrow, fussy, dogmatic evangelicals, failing to move with the times! Whoever wants to join with them?Where will you and I be found by the end of 2010, by the end of our lives? What will keep us from being swept away by the spirit of the age? There is only one answer
The grace of God alone keeps us
The greatest miracle of all is that there is a church, that there are Christians at all. The existence of any believers is the consequence of God’s mercy and grace and nothing else.
Why are you worshipping God today, rather than ignoring him and simply going along with the world? For one reason only – he has had grace upon your soul. God has dealt kindly with you. He has shown you your sin, your need of a Saviour. He has shown you who that Saviour is – Jesus Christ the righteous one, the just dying for the unjust. He has worked a miracle of supernatural grace in your soul, taking away a heart of stone and giving you a heart of flesh. Once you were dead in your trespasses and sins but the Lord has called you from death to life, from being a servant of sin and Satan to being a servant of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Verse 9 is fulfilled in our day. Why is there a church, a faithful body of believers who look to Jesus Christ for salvation? What keeps it going? The only answer is that the Lord spares a remnant. He keeps alive these survivors. He builds and maintains his church. He determines not to leave this entire world to its deserved rack and ruin, but has grace and mercy upon those whom he chooses. He isn’t compelled to do this by anything outside himself. He acts on the basis of his covenant love and mercy, nothing else. He decides to save sinners in order to demonstrate the glory of his grace.
So is the Lord on our side? Not ‘who is on the Lord’s side?’. That is a very important question asked elsewhere, but not the question we’re asking here. And isn’t this the most important question of all – not whether I am committed to God, not whether I am serving God, but is God committed to me, to saving and serving me, indeed all of us? Plead with God never to leave us. Let us have an urgency about this; godly faithfulness is never something humanly ‘natural’ but always the result of God’s grace. We begin the Christian life by grace and by grace we continue it. Let there never be a hint of complacency in us, not this year, not ever, that all will be well apart from God demonstrating his grace.
For this text should not lead to resigned fatalism but to fervent prayer and seeking the Lord. Lord, save us all! Yes, save us, sanctify us, bless us, lead us to deeper holiness, to renewed heart-commitment to our Saviour, to greater love for one another, to the spirit of true prayer. Keep us from back-sliding, keep us from fatally-compromised worldliness. And add to our number those who are being saved.
Paul Yeulett is Pastor of Shrewsbury Evangelical Church. He is one of the speakers at the Banner of Truth Youth Conference in April 2010 in Leicester.
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