Summary: God has good cause to be angry with us, but, because of his grace, he is not.
Dr. Richard Cutter was my Greek professor at Baylor. One day, during class, he was lecturing along, and I was having a hard time keeping up. I glanced over at the notes of the student sitting next to me, hoping to get from him something that I had missed. That’s okay, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not okay when your taking a test. That’s cheating. But when you’re just taking notes, it’s okay to look, isn’t it? But here’s the thing. At just that point in the lecture, Dr. Cutter asked a question. I could tell it was a question, but my mind was on my classmate’s notes. And I didn’t exactly get the question. I was busted. I put my pen on my desk, looked at the professor, and said, “Dr. Cutter, I’m so sorry. I was trying to catch up on something I missed in your lecture, and I didn’t hear the question. Would you mind repeating it? Dr. Cutter looked a bit surprised, and then he said to me, “No, Ike. I don’t mind repeating the question. Not at all. But I wasn’t asking you.”
You know what I learned that day? I learned that, sometimes, we think one thing’s the case, when it really isn’t. We’re mistaken about what’s happening. We think it’s one thing, and it’s another. And that’s what I see going on in our text this morning.
I see three mistakes we make when it comes to our understanding of God. One is that we think God is against us. But the truth is: He is not. In fact, he is moving heaven and earth to bring us to himself. That’s what God means here in Isaiah when he says, “Build up, build up, prepare the way, remove every obstruction from my people’s way.” God wants a smooth path between him and us.
It reminds me of Isaiah 40, where God commands that a highway be built for his people who have been in exile, so that they can come home. Remember those words? The choir sings them for us every December: “Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill made low, the crooked straight and the rough places plain” (Isa. 40:3b-4).
That’s what you do when you build a highway, right? That’s what God does for us. He speaks of it with fewer words here in Isaiah 57 – he says simply, “Remove every obstruction from my people’s way” – but he’s telling us the same thing. “Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, ain’t no river wide enough to keep me from you.” My apologies to Marvin Gaye, Tammi Terrell, and Motown! But that’s it, isn’t it? That’s what God is saying to you today. Whatever’s between you and him, it’s coming down. He’s determined to show you his grace. If you think he’s against you, you’re mistaken.
Here’s another mistake we make: We think we’ve got to make things right with God before we can be right with God. But that’s not true. It’s God who makes things right. And, really, that’s the way it has to be. It’s something only he can do. You and I can’t do it. God says right here in verse 16, “I will not continually accuse, nor will I always be angry.” Does he have a right to be angry? Fact is, he does. And he tells us why. We didn’t read past verse 16 a moment ago when we read this passage. But let me show you what God says in verse 17. He says, “Because of their wicked covetousness I was angry.” That’s how the NRSV puts it. Another translation puts it this way. It says, “Because of the iniquity of…unjust gain I was angry” (ESV).
What’s God saying here? He’s saying that what makes him angry is that, in our covetousness – in our passion for gain, that is, in our fever-pitched obsession with getting and having, no matter what – we have been seeking our satisfaction in the creation rather than in the Creator, in things rather than in him. And isn’t that what sin is? Isn’t it anything we think, say, or do that is based in our assumption that God isn’t enough? There’s always something more to be found apart from him, something better. And, truthfully, when we do that, when we turn away from God for comfort or gratification or happiness or whatever, you know what we’re doing? We’re scorning his love.
So he has a right to be angry, doesn’t he? And he exercises that right. He gets angry about sin. But listen! He doesn’t take out his anger on you. He takes it out on his Son. The wrong has been committed, and it must be made right. But you and I can’t make it right. Only he can. And the way he does it is through the cross, where Jesus absorbs all the anger of God for our sin.