Theme: What will be your New Year’s Covenant?
Will it be made in haste and soon forgotten?
Will it be made by God and last forever?
If I asked you what was the worst shipwreck in modern history, what would you say? I’m willing to guess that many of you, if not all, would mention the Titanic. The sinking of the Titanic is a pivotal piece of American history, from a time of industrial innovation and expansion. Pop-culture and media have solidified the Titanic’s story in peoples’ minds; as it was famously dubbed as “the unsinkable ship.” In total, over 1500 passengers lost their lives the night that the Titanic struck the iceberg.
A famous saying posits, “Those who fail to learn from history are bound to repeat it.” We could mention several examples, I’m sure; but that saying came true of the Titanic’s history as well. One of the major issues with the Titanic was that there were only lifeboats available for about 1/3 of the passengers. Simply put the safety measures of the vessel were quite lacking.
Decades later, in 1987, a ferry from the Philippines called the Doña Paz departed for Manila. It sounds like a harmless trek, not even one in the open waters of the ocean. However, the ferry was packed with some 4,000 passengers when it’s capacity was only 1,400. Disaster struck when it collided with an oil tanker, causing a massive explosion that quickly sank both ships. A passing ship pulled a couple dozen survivors out of the water, but as many as 4,375 perished It was the world's worst peacetime maritime disaster and has even been called "Asia's Titanic".
We’ll never know how much the captain of the Dona Paz knew about the Titanic’s history, but regardless, he repeated it; and to a much deadlier result. Today, is New Year’s Day and usually we look ahead to the future today. But, in order to learn for the future, we must also remember the past. It fits for us too, that if we fail to learn from history we will repeat it. That was certainly the case for God’s people as we pick up with our sermon text for today. The prophet Isaiah records:
Isaiah 28:14-18 Therefore hear the word of the LORD, you scornful men, Who rule this people who are in Jerusalem, 15 Because you have said, "We have made a covenant with death, And with Sheol we are in agreement. When the overflowing scourge passes through, It will not come to us, For we have made lies our refuge, And under falsehood we have hidden ourselves." 16 Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: "Behold, I lay in Zion a stone for a foundation, A tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation; Whoever believes will not act hastily. 17 Also I will make justice the measuring line, And righteousness the plummet; The hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, And the waters will overflow the hiding place. 18 Your covenant with death will be annulled, And your agreement with Sheol will not stand; When the overflowing scourge passes through, Then you will be trampled down by it.
The LORD’s warning in these words was spoken in response to a covenant that Judah made with the nation of Egypt. It was a difficult time for Judah. They were threatened by the vicious and powerful Assyrians, dubbed in our text as the “overflowing scourge.” Instead of consulting the LORD and trusting His plan, they did what we do all too often as well, they went their own way. Isaiah described this treaty at length in chapter 30: “Woe to the rebellious children," says the LORD, "Who take counsel, but not of Me, And who devise plans, but not of My Spirit, That they may add sin to sin; 2 Who walk to go down to Egypt, And have not asked My advice, To strengthen themselves in the strength of Pharaoh, And to trust in the shadow of Egypt!”
Hadn’t Judah learned its lesson? It’s true that the Assyrians posed a legitimate threat. They had already conquered the northern tribes and they wanted more. But, going to Egypt, and not the LORD, for help was a mistake. The Egyptian treaty would turn out to be hollow. They were simply using Judah as a buffer for their own protection against Assyria. They never offered any substantive help. This treaty was exactly what God called it in our text, a “covenant with death.” Such are the terms when people ignore the LORD.
We know from the famous Bible story of Sennacherib and Hezekiah how this particular event concluded. Judah survived the onslaught of the Assyrians, with no help from the Egyptians or from themselves. As arrogant Sennacherib surrounded Jerusalem it was the Lord’s angel of death that defeated the foreign army. Even without His peoples’ trust, God protected them.
You have to wonder what Judah was thinking. It’s surely enough to doubt God but of all the nations to make an alliance with, why would they choose Egypt? Had they not remembered their own history? Just about 700 years earlier, it was the Egyptians who were trying to keep the Israelites as slaves. They were practicing controlled genocide, if there ever was such a thing, in order to keep them subjected. The exodus was a monumental point in the history of Israel. Throughout the entire Old Testament, writers go back again and again to the exodus as a reminder of how the LORD rescued His people and brought them back home. Make no mistake, this history was never forgotten. The people of Isaiah’s time surely remembered their ancestor’s suffering in Egypt. And so the saying goes, those who fail to learn from history are sure to repeat it. Once again, God’s people would rather be played as fools by the Egyptians than trust Him in reverence and humility.
This wasn’t the only time it happened either, and it wasn’t only at the hands of the Egyptians. Not long after Isaiah’s text, King Hezekiah sought the favor of another foreign power; this time the Babylonians, who would use that opportunity to eventually invade Jerusalem and sack the Temple. The judgment of that message sounds eerily familiar to the words of our text: 2 Kings 21:12 "therefore thus says the LORD God of Israel: `Behold, I am bringing such calamity upon Jerusalem and Judah, that whoever hears of it, both his ears will shudder. 13 `And I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria and the plummet of the house of Ahab; I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down.
The lesson learned here is simple. Problems arise when you trust others things over God. This is a very basic concept; pointing directly at the first commandment. What makes it difficult to follow is that sin constantly leads us away from the simple power of God. Isaiah speaks of a Messianic prophesy in our text. Peter quoted the words in his first letter as a reference to Christ. Jesus is called the corner-stone. God’s promise of hope was that He would use His righteousness to level out the mis-deeds of His people. With a measuring line and a plummet, or level, God would correct the sins and errors that led Judah astray. It shouldn’t surprise that the word iniquity, a frequently used synonym for sin in the Bible, literally means crooked or perverse. That’s the true nature of unrighteousness. It perverts that which is abundantly simple and true from God. If we would but trust in Him above all else, we would have no troubles. Yet, in a sinful world, that which is easy on the surface becomes absolutely impossible for us.
Judah tried to elude the truth in this covenant that they had made. Isaiah writes, “…you have said, "We have made a covenant with death, And with Sheol we are in agreement. When the overflowing scourge passes through, It will not come to us, For we have made lies our refuge, And under falsehood we have hidden ourselves.” On the outside, Judah tried to act like everything was okay. They said, “We’ll be fine, nothing will hurt us.” God said otherwise, from verse 18: “Your covenant with death will be annulled, And your agreement with Sheol will not stand; When the overflowing scourge passes through, Then you will be trampled down by it.”
See the progression of Judah’s unfaithfulness and lack of trust? It started with an alliance with Egypt, which on the surface didn’t seem so bad. But, in the end, that same lack of trust caused them to doubt the LORD’s own Word. God promised destruction but Judah buried its head in the sand and chose not to listen. The truth is often so incredibly simple; it’s following that is much harder.
Under such crooked and perverse settings, it was Jesus, the cornerstone who would enter the scene and level the building. In the end, as we know, the LORD had all things under control. The Assyrians were defeated in one day. The Babylonians would have their time of victory but only under the LORD’s allowance. Nothing would be able to hinder the eternal plan of Christ’s birth to save all people, both Judah and the rest of the world.
It’s New Year’s Day. People are thinking about the future. I’m sure you have plans and goals for this year. Have you taken time to think about the past? What have you learned? You have something to gain from Judah’s story. The Holy Spirit would have it be an unrepeated lesson for you. “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding, in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct your paths.” That’s the lesson to remember, and it’s a simple one. But, like Judah, you suffer from sin too. You’re going to need help if you are to keep from being yet another statistic of repeated mistakes.
God’s covenant with you is one of life, not death. One of the resurrection, not of Sheol. Jesus has paid the price for your salvation. He has constructed a dwelling within your heart in which the Holy Spirit establishes God’s kingdom. This home of faith is level and true, crookedness has no place there; nor is perversity present. But, this also means that God’s covenant with you is one of faith. It takes patience to be faithful. Trusting in God means following and obeying even when the way seems unclear. Recognize the difficulty there; don’t be overconfident in yourself. But, recognize the great power you have in Christ as well.
We sang in our Advent midweek hymn,
“This is He whom heaven taught singers, Sang of old with one accord;
whom the Scriptures of the prophets, Promised in their faithful word.
Now He shines the Long-expected, Let creation praise its Lord. (98 v.4)
Peter tells us that the power of Christ the Cornerstone is what makes believers living stones. We have the ability to live, but also to build upon the same foundation that our Savior, and all Christians before, built. That is great privilege indeed.
Studies have shown that most people give little effort to New Year’s resolutions because they know ahead of time, even before they make them, that they have no intention of keeping them. Talk about a vain promise. “Resolution” is a word that ought to convey assurance and stability but in our culture it has become a by-gone promise. Judah’s covenant with Egypt was like this kind of New Year’s resolution. It was established but it was doomed from the start. It was not a true alliance, but rather a desperate attempt at self-preservation and semblance of personal power. And so, God called them on it, and called it what it really was, a covenant with death.
God’s promises are unfailing. God does not act hastily. God means what He says. This is the covenant of life in Jesus Christ. You can see the difference clearly. It’s not a complicated thing. Be ready this New Year, though, because the entanglements of sin lie at every corner. You will be tested and overwhelmed at times. You will do things you regret and you will hurt others at times. But God’s promise to you will not change. He will always come to you with the Gospel peace and freely offer it, asking for your trust by faith. Whether or not Jesus is in your life will determine whether or not you repeat past history, or walk a new path by the Spirit. Lord, help to walk in Your ways. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.