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).