And it shall be said, “Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way.”
Immanuel Church is about Jesus, Community, Mission. Why mission? Because Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). The mission started in heaven, it came down in Jesus, and he works through us today.
This passage in Isaiah is about our mission. In fact, God is the one speaking here. God is taking the initiative, God is recruiting us, God is defining for us what he wants us to do. He is on mission. He has given us Jesus and community. What are we going to do with that? God is telling us here what he wants us to do. It’s his mission becoming our mission.
We see the word “revive” in verse 15. God refreshes sinners, God rejuvenates exhausted people, God breathes new life into people who just can’t believe anymore. That’s revival. Immanuel Church was born out of a longing for revival – God doing what only God can do, reviving the spirit of the lowly and reviving the heart of the contrite. It’s what God wants to do.
So, how is that going to happen? In real terms, how do we build a church that God can use with reviving impact? We see the words “build up” and “prepare” in verse 14. Here at Immanuel we’re building a place, a social environment, a culture, marked by three things everybody needs: gospel, safety, time. We all need lots of gospel, lots of safety, and lots of time, to rethink our lives and reconnect with God and get going in a new way. Here at Immanuel we can’t fix the whole world. We can’t be and do everything. But with God’s help we can provide for people an environment of gospel + safety + time. That’s walking in the light together – gentle honesty in God’s presence, with one another, because in this environment we don’t need to fear being shamed. Who doesn’t need a safe place to grow? I do. You do. Everyone in this city needs good news from God plus a non-humiliating place of safety plus time to change without being hassled. And God is giving us this very thing. We feel it. We love it. We want to share it. God is giving us a real taste of Jesus and community. But it’s not for us alone. Our mission is to include others too. God wants to.
We might wonder, as more people come to Immanuel, will we lose our sense of community? And the answer is, in our own strength, yes, we will lose our sense of community. But if we’ll depend on the Lord moment by moment, our sense of community will only get better. Do you know what God did for the early church? In Acts chapter 2, as that Pentecost day began, there were about 120 believers. They had great community. Then the risen Christ poured out the Holy Spirit, and 3000 more people joined in. So this young movement went from 120 to 3120 in one day. And how does Acts chapter 2 conclude? It describes how their experience of community was better than ever. God did that. We all know it isn’t supposed to work that way. But God was with them. And he’s doing that very thing here at Immanuel. We started out with great community. We’ve grown. And our experience of community has gotten even better. The more we grow, the deeper we go. God is doing this. We’re walking in the light together in care groups and community groups and the women’s Bible studies and Tuesday night men’s community. And best of all, right here in our worship services, God is giving us a shared sense of his love, even with people who up to this moment had been total strangers, because in spite our sin and weakness, God is here. Let’s not define our future by human weakness but by divine grace.
Isaiah 57:14-15 is like Mark chapter 6, which we saw last week. Jesus said to his disciples, “You feed them. All these hungry people – you feed them, you care for them.” And he meant it. The disciples did feed them and did care for them, because Jesus was there. Without him, we can’t. Without us, he won’t. But with us, he will. So, we’re all in! What then is God calling us to do here in Isaiah 57:14-15?
And it shall be said
God is declaring himself. These verses are not a human brainstorm. These verses are a divine announcement. God is saying, “Here is what matters to me. Here are your marching orders. Here is how I want you involved in my mission.” And every one of us can jump in at some point. What then is God telling us to do?
“Build up, build up, prepare the way,
remove every obstruction from my people’s way.”
In biblical Hebrew, unlike English, you can tell whether an imperative is singular or plural. These are plural imperatives. God is speaking to all of us. He’s telling us to work together, to build something. He wants us to build up or prepare a way, a road. The Hebrew suggests a raised highway, like a causeway, or like one of our interstates. It’s easy to find and easy to follow. If you want the journey, you can’t miss it.
Why is God saying this? Because his people are not only in here; they are also out there, many whom God has chosen – he calls them “my people” – and their hearts are lonely for him, but they’re not sure where they can find him. So God is saying to us, “You prepare the way, because they’re coming.” God is not saying that mission is easy. He is saying we can make a big difference for a lot of people, by his strength. When the apostle Paul was having a tough time in Corinth, God said to him, “Don’t be afraid, for I have many in this city who are my people” (Acts 18:10). They didn’t see themselves as God’s people, not yet anyway; but God saw them as his people, and he was going to use Paul to draw them in.
I want you to see the love of God here in verse 14. What is he actually telling us to do? He isn’t literally calling us to road construction, of course. He’s talking about a church culture. God is commanding us to build a church culture that is a clear avenue to Christ. God is saying, “Build up, prepare the way for many others to find in you a clear path to Jesus.” Our mission is like a highway project. Jesus is the destination. Our part is to make the gospel clear, with no clutter. That’s the next thing God says.
“Remove every obstruction from my people’s way.” In other words, “Smooth out the bumps and fill in the potholes.” There can be only one obstacle to Christ – Christ himself. The Bible says he is a stumbling block (Romans 9:32-33; 1 Corinthians 1:23; 1 Peter 2:4-8). He himself said, “I am the way. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). That’s a barrier to some people today. We will never clear away that obstruction. We will explain it, but we will not remove it. Jesus will be the only barrier in this church. We will build a church culture that removes every barrier of our own making, because God in his love for people wants the journey into his eternal kingdom to be as easy as it can be. Jesus said, “Come to me. . . . For my yoke is easy” (Matthew 11:28-30). Moses the lawgiver never said that. Jesus did. He lived for us the perfect life we’ve never lived. He died for us the guilty death we don’t want to die. He did the hard things. Our part is to receive him with the empty hands of faith. That faith will take us into mission. That faith and openness will take us into costly obedience. But the same Jesus who lived and died for us will be with us all the way.
Some people perceive “church” as a barrier. Sadly, some churches are a barrier. There are many ways a church can throw up barriers to Jesus. Some churches complicate the gospel. They exude aloofness and rejection. Some churches are so filled with unconfessed sin God can’t use them. Some churches never pray, except in perfunctory ways. Some churches are not safe. Some churches think, “Let’s only talk about acceptance in Christ. Let’s not talk about serving Christ.” There are many ways to obstruct people’s access and progress. But putting Jesus first clears the way. I was stunned by what I read in a book by W. B. Sprague, the nineteenth century Presbyterian pastor, who lived during the Second Great Awakening. He wrote about barriers to revival. And this is what he said to us Christians:
Awake to solemn reflection. Awake to earnest prayer. Awake to faithful and persevering action. Or there may be sinners who will greet you on the final day as the stumbling blocks over which they fell into eternal hell.
We have a decision to make. Will we obey Isaiah 57:14 here at Immanuel? Will we build an uncluttered church culture where God’s elect can make progress toward Jesus? God is saying to us today, “Put Jesus first. Make his greater glory your ruling passion, prepare the way for more people, and I will use you.”
We might still wonder, “But can God really use me? I feel so unqualified for the mission.” Good. If you feel qualified, you’re not. If you feel unqualified, you are. The mission is God’s mission. Everything depends not on who we are but on who God is. Here is the wonderful truth about God:
For thus says the One who is high and lifted up,
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy:
“I dwell in the high and holy place,
and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit,
to revive the spirit of the lowly,
and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
That is one of the most important verses in the Bible. The entire New Testament unpacks this insight into God. Who is he? Two things.
One, God is way out there, beyond us. He is high and lifted up, so he is not limited by space. He inhabits eternity, so he is not limited by time. His name is holy, so he is not limited by sin and weakness and misery. The idols we invent in our minds can at best enhance what is; the God who is actually out there can change what is.
Two, God is way down there, below us. He dwells in the high and holy place, where we can’t go. But he also dwells down with the lowly and contrite, where we can go. But God is not in the middle somewhere. He is not where most of us tend to live – neither up at a high and holy place, nor down in the low and contrite place, but somewhere in the mushy middle of our own okayness. God is not there. Revival is not there. Help is not there. We can’t go up where God naturally dwells. But we can go down, where God surprisingly dwells. Jesus, though he was in the form of God, made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, humbled himself and went lower and lower and lower, all the way to the cross (Philippians 2:6-8). He came not to call the righteous but sinners (Mark 2:17). That is our God. And to this day, by his Spirit, he still comes down to dwell lovingly and powerfully with the lowly and contrite. I looked up this word “contrite.” It literally means broken, crushed. If life has been crushed out of you, if you’ve been ground down to nothing, if you’ve been battered and broken, you are the one with whom he wants to dwell. And this church is for you. Everyone in this church has been broken and crushed. And we don’t mind it as much any more, because in that low place is where we experience the love of Jesus, reviving us. Jesus is a high and holy Savior. He is not limited. And he comes down and gives himself with reviving power to broken people. Our mission is to be a broken church for broken people, where Jesus dwells. He’s really good at it. All we’re saying is, “Lord, this is for you. Fulfill your mission in us. Visit us with your powerful love for the lowly and contrite. That’s all we want. Help us to let nothing get in the way.”
In 2012 we’re going to take three big new steps of missionality. One, we will launch South City Church as an Acts 29 plant, pastured by Sean Brown. He is with us now as our church planter in residence. Two, we will serve an underprivileged part of the world this summer. Bryan Morris and Howard Varnedoe are leading this charge. They’ll roll it out next month. Three, three weeks from today, on February 12th, we will redesign our Sunday morning ministry format, to clear away an obstruction. We will make more room for more people to experience Jesus and community with us. We’re going to two Sunday morning services. Why are we doing this? Because God is entrusting into our care more people than we can serve at one time. He wants us to provide for them, starting with more places to sit. I don’t think we’re going to limit our ministry to one service and close the doors and say to people, “There’s no room here for you.” I can’t see that in Isaiah 57:14-15. Can you? For several months the staff, elders and deacons have been working on this, looking at it from every angle we can think of. And we’ll tweak it along the way, as we see the need to. But what can every one of us do, to make this launch successful? One, keep the focus on Jesus only. Two, pray for God’s continued blessing and power. Three, volunteer to serve during one of the three hours in the new schedule, especially with the children. You can talk to Jani about your interest there. Four, bring a friend who likes Jesus but doesn’t feel safe in church. Five, park in back. God has given us something that might make a difference for them.
On that Sunday in three weeks, I’ll start a new sermon series called “Real Jesus.” It’s the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. We want to peel away the layers of tradition and misunderstanding and complication and get back to who he really is. Please pray for me as I ramp up for that.
As you leave today, you’ll find two things to pick up. One is a list of FAQ’s. They’ll also be on the web site this afternoon. The other is a volunteer form. You can fill that out and leave it right there or give it to Lauren Pedde. And if you have any questions, every leader in this church would love to hear your question and answer it. Thank you for your partnership in the gospel. Above all, we thank the Lord for giving us an environment of Jesus + safety + time, where he dwells. Let’s open it up to more people.